I’ve been tardy in many things for this project lately — but let me get on to recounting which pieces were most liked and listened to during the past quarter.
It may be a bit strange to revisit a winter we are glad to be emerging from, but poetry is about remembrance of all kinds of emotions and experiences. Which ones did the Parlando Project readers and listeners most connect with?
As we usually do, this is a countdown, so we start with the 10th most listened to and liked piece, and then over the next few posts we’ll move on to the most popular this winter. The bold-faced titles are links to the original post that introduced the piece in case you want to read what I wrote then.
10 Trifles – I Know What Stillness Is by Susan Glaspell. I wanted to do something special for this project’s 500th audio piece, and I decided to try to use some words from my distant relative who was herself a figure in the Modernist revolution of the early 20th Century that I mine for many of the pieces used here. Glaspell is not a poet like most writers I present, but this short scene is from what remains her most famous work: a still effective short play about two women who have accompanied their husbands who are charged with investigating a murder* in a remote 1900 Iowa farmhouse. At this point in the play, we know that a farmer has been strangled there and that his wife, Minnie, has been taken into custody as a suspect, even though there is some doubt that a small, quiet woman could have had the motivation and strength to commit such an act.
While the men continue their very official investigation, the two women discover a dead canary entombed in a fancy box and connect it with the lonely life of the farmwife. Should they tell their husbands what they found?
I solved a difficult problem by treating this scene as “poetic” enough to work with the music and then locating a dialog performance that let me avoid trying to do the voices of the two women myself. I’m also quite proud of the music I composed for this one. You can hear it one of two ways: this highlighted hyperlink, or for some of you, a player gadget below.
Susan Glaspell getting her work done. Per the radio-play practical audio-effects tradition: in the wintertime it’s nice to sit next to the crinkling cellophane and work on your manuscript.
9 The world is a beautiful place by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I bent the rules to publish this older performance that Dave Moore and the LYL Band did with my off-the-cuff reading of a piece from Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind collection that so many treasured decades ago. These words are not in the public domain, and I had never received a reply when I sent in inquiry about presenting them here a few years back, but on the occasion of Ferlinghetti’s death I felt I had to share this with you, some of whom are among those that treasured those words.
But maybe some of you hadn’t “met” Ferlinghetti’s words before. Buy or read his book and meet more. Perhaps a few of you have an idea that the label “Beat Poetry” requires a dour and slack protest, a litany of muttered and solipsistic defeat. Maybe that’s not so.
.8 Escape by Georgia Douglas Johnson. I still know little about this “Harlem Renaissance” writer who wasn’t actually located in 1920s New York City. As time for this project gets harder to locate, I still hope to remedy that. Despite my deteriorating ability to complete new pieces, I made an extra effort this year to do work celebrating Black History Month this February, using work found in the landmark The New Negro anthology published in 1925. “Escape” was the one that found the most favor with this Project’s current audience.
Musically, I used the magic of MIDI “virtual instruments” to pay tribute to the Afro-American fiddler tradition, playing the featured violin part on my MIDI pickup guitar. At the end of the recorded performance, I tacked on a verse by the altogether unrelated Moondog, a musician who ironically was connected to New York City. Here’s the link to hear my performance, or if you see it, you can use the player gadget below.
*Glaspell was able to use her earlier reporting on an actual Iowa murder case as matter in her ground-breaking play.
Sunday is World Poetry Day and I should do a piece about poetry and poets to mark it. The specific idea of World Poetry Day is to celebrate every nations’ poetry, something I try to do here with fresh translations sometimes, but for today I’ve decided to use works by two American poets. The United States is still a young nation, still used to using the cruder tools of youth to impress itself upon the world, but our poets have had their innings, so today I’ll sing them to the rest of the world. First up: Wallace Stevens.
It’s not uncommon for poets to write poems about art or the art of poetry itself, but Stevens did this often. So it’s no surprise that “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” starts off with an assertion about poetry, even though the rest of the poem seems to progress into an argument about religion and religious propriety. Here’s a link to the full text of Stevens’ poem in case you want to follow along.
Stevens’ poem slows down our understanding of what it means using two tactics. First, it gives us at best one-half of a conversation: a little like hearing a person talking on a phone in public where the other party is inaudible. It takes considerable effort in comprehension to settle on what issues and points are being addressed in the poem’s speaker’s argument. I’m not totally certain I grasp them myself despite several readings and going on to perform the piece. Our high-toned old Christian woman may be expressing outrage at some more pagan and unfettered artistic expression on Stevens’ part. Stevens’ response is to point out that art has its own religion of a sort, its own myths and beliefs. That unheard party, the HTOCW, seems to make an objection regarding Stevens’ or art’s outrageousness derived from its beliefs and theoretical constructions, and Stevens’ then parries with a short aria on the extremes of Christian asceticism bellowed over a tink-tank Vachel-Lindsay-ish Salvation Army band. In summary he’s claiming they are alike: that the HTOCW and her co-religious cohort and he the poet both have their own guiding constructions (supreme fictions), their own expectation of meaningful belief and actions that promise — well, what do they promise, or rather assuredly deliver?
He’s not sure. A poet’s masque (a play) performed on earth may aspire to cosmic importance, but we can be sure the planets will not be all that moved. And the most fervent displays of religious piety can’t move the heavenly spheres who would at most judge them as unserious “hullabaloo.”
The second way Stevens intentionally slows down our comprehension is with language, the stuff and lexicographic music of his poetry. Most any stanza of a Stevens’ poem is equal to a “Word-A-Day Calendar,” and this poem doesn’t disappoint: nave, citherns, peristyle, masque, epitaph, flagellants, muzzy, and hullabaloo are not common modern English language words, and I’ll wager that most readers, even the most educated among us, would be hard pressed on getting 100% on a definition test with that list.* I’ve always “read” Stevens as having fun with his use of these obscure words, and in many cases here he’s punning on their sound, so we think we understand something we hear in a performance from the sound, while on the silent page they remain stumpers. Making someone a nave/knave is to fool them. A peristyle projecting upwards sounds like a periscope from a WWI U-boat or trench. A masque might as well be a mask. Flagellants with muzzy bellies sounds like flatulence from fuzzy bellies.
And while not an obscure word, “palm” is repeated several times in the poem with different meanings pressed onto it by context. It first seems to be Christian praise, as in the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, a moment of triumph to be followed by Good Friday (and then, yes, for believers, Easter). In its second mention, the poet might earn laurels, palms of honor for their work, but like the praise of the crowd it may be fleeting, pace what I call Donald Hall’s Law. And lastly, the palm plants become hands I think, the two seemingly opposed, the two sides — the prim believer and the pagan poet that the poem has satirized — I believe, palm to palm, a pair making a prayer.**
Let’s look at the poem’s end at last: Stevens seems to be saying that salvation by faith in art or religion is unclear. Widows wince when doubt says they may not meet their husband in heavenly reward or when that doubt (or belief) is sung impiously by some poet who calls his art, his mythology, the “Supreme Fiction.” God and the muses are both winking at us, telling us that we only half have an understanding, flirting with us on that unknown stage of our best fictions.
Stevens was a famous late-starter, publishing his first poetry collection Harmonium where AHTOCW first appeared at age 44. Millay was already on to her second collection featuring First Fig at age 28.
What then to make of the poem I combine with it, a short poem with plain words that many feel they understand at first sight: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “First Fig,” the one that begins, as so many have memorized, “My candle burns at both ends.”*** Is this not also a poem of faith in poetry? Yes, with the same limits and lack of assuredness. Is it also one half a debate with another point of view? Yes too, though it be a short epitaph “unpurged from bawdiness.”
In effect, “First Fig,” the opening poem in Millay’s A Few Figs from Thistles, is the title poem, the dedication of that short collection that set out the Millay outlook on youth, freedom, and autonomy sexual and otherwise. It made her famous for a while, and unlike Stevens’ knotty poems, hers (and herself) seemed understandable. Here’s its full text.
We understand this poem quickly to say: that one may, from our passions artistically — or otherwise in that mere and yet larger life — expend or risk so much that we allow it to be foreshortened, but that we believe that intensity is illuminating, possibly worth the sacrifice. Note, there’s no explicit conclusion. Millay’s poem doesn’t say outright it’ll be worth it, and other poems in A Few Figs from Thistles are not sure either. Its illumination is brief, a night in length it says. Yet a poem we think we understand, that we might memorize and carry in our muzzy brains may change as we project its light on different walls.****
Given Stevens’ satiric and philosophic wordiness, I came to think pairing it with Millay’s short heart-song would be a worthwhile contrast, each stronger with their lights against the ground of the other. You can listen to the performance and see if that’s valid — but before I go, is there one thing we don’t understand about Millay’s short poem?
Well, there’s the title. It’s such a short poem, yet we forget that there’s this added pair of words. I’d guess that many that know or have even memorized the poem forget the title. One thought was that it might be referencing an idiomatic English expression: “I don’t give a fig about…” which could easily be given an intensifying modifier “I don’t give a single (or the first) fig about…” I had assumed that fig, like the euphemistic interjections sugar or darn, was just a word used to replace a ruder word that started with the same letter-sound. I even wondered: was that idiom around when Millay wrote her poem in 1920? Well, just as I wouldn’t know muzzy or cithern fully when I read Stevens, it turns out I was off a bit. The idiom seems to date back to Shakespeare’s time or even more, which is odd in that the fig isn’t even a native fruit in England. It comes from Spanish and Italian; and it’s not only a word but it has a Mediterranean hand gesture to illustrate the thought, involving the thumb placed between two raised fingers. The intent in gesture or word in this idiom is to refer to low pink-toned lady parts, and in the patriarchal context then it’s an expression of contempt.
Did Millay know the derivation of the idiom? I don’t know — but she likely knew the non-etymological meaning of the phrase. In the context of the one-side of the debate that “First Fig” is presenting, that indicates that the speaker doesn’t give a single fig for the off-screen speaker who disapproves of the possible costs of passion.
*Ones I’d miss or get half-credit for? I knew citherns were an instrument from my interest in unusual instruments, but I wouldn’t be able to describe one definitively. I probably once knew peristyle from an early interest in classical theater, but had forgotten its meaning. Muzzy was dark to me and would have been a clear miss. A good dictionary then or the Internet now allows us to decode the original denotative meanings, but these still keep us from understanding Stevens too soon. And they can just be fun to come upon in a poem!
***If HTOCW may be Wallace Stevens’ mother, one of those that had memorized Millay’s “First Fig” was my father, who once or twice recited it to me. What caused him to memorize it, or to read Millay? I never knew. He never lived a bohemian life, and as far as I know he lived a modest, constant, and long life. I can guess however why he recited it to me, who did have my bohemian modes and times: to say that he knew something of that, or that I could have faith that something worthwhile could come from that.
****I’m increasingly seeing readings that see coded (intentionally or unconsciously) in this poem an expression of Millay’s bisexual/polyamorous autonomy.
I’m thinking lately of the magic of consciousness, of how we exist as distinct limited illuminations of this world for a certain time, and how strange and inexplicable that is.* Is that funny? Tragic? Is that choice just a matter of emotional weather and sensibility?
Today’s poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay is several things. First, I’ve made it the song it pretends to be, but it’s also something of a fairytale, and in sensibility it aims for humor. And since tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, we might see it as commentary on Irish culture from a woman’s perspective, even if American-born Millay is not generally thought of as an Irish culture poet to my knowledge.** Of course all poets have, on one level, a single citizenship issued by our international muses, and our work may cross borders at will — even the well-guarded and maintained borders of time. But still, today’s piece “The Singing Woman from the Wood’s Edge,” is going to use some Irish stuff that might need translation for anyone not versed in Irish culture.
“The Singing Woman…” was included in Millay’s 1920 poetry collection A Few Figs from Thistles which largely created the popular persona that launched her to the height of her fame during the last century. Back then they sometimes called Millay an exemplar of “The New Woman,”*** a label which doesn’t tell you itself anything of the novelty implied. Among those traits that might be contained within the term were unhidden intelligence, independence, openness to Modernist changes, and unabashed agency in love and sex. Was this a problem or an advance? The culture of the previous Twenties wasn’t sure, but they talked about it and had opinions. That currency and conversation, that framing, helped Millay to fame, and yet probably constrained her too. A Few Figs from Thistles was read as part of this to a large degree.
A Few Figs from Thistles often used humor within its poems tweaking of conventions, and “The Singing Woman…” is an example of that. Fairytales can be scary or thinly disguised warnings against stepping into the unknown, but this one takes what could be a rather distressing situation and plays it for knowing winks. Since I know this Project has an international audience of varying ages, let me make sure we unpack the cultural particulars of this poem’s tale.
Another spring task to get underway? Millay, her husband Eugen Boissevain, and Edmund Wilson make a point of planting a “poetry garden.” Not shown: plentiful organic fertilizer.
The poem is the first-person story told by a child of the union of a leprechaun and a friar. A leprechaun**** is an Irish fairy creature. Leprechauns are solitary (unlike many other fairy types) and are often thought of as being in conflict with humanity, tricking or being tricked by humans. Friars are monks, and in the context of Ireland, we can suspect that they are monks of a Roman Catholic religious order. They too have elements of solitariness, as some monks live in deliberately separated contemplative communities seeking to avoid the corruptions of the material, human world. Oh, and one of those defined corruptions that all Catholic monks are pledged to avoid: sex and marriage.
So right from the second line we can see that the parents of our singer are both impure creatures in violation of their cultural rules, the powers and expectations of which they also apparently retain as the song further portrays them. Though I shortened the poem for performance length by one decorative stanza, a lot gets laid out in the poem, and a great deal of ambiguity and complexity is hinted at in the incidents recounted, even if they are played as a humorous tale. Our poem/song’s narrator, the fantastic mixed race (species even) woman of the title, seems to have chosen to “identify as leprechaun” in effect, but buried in the poem which gives equal time to the cultures she’s experienced from both parents is a sense that it’s more complex than a binary choice. And let’s not miss an important and primary point: both her parents are in violation of their cultures and vows. Regarding the roles often laid out as cultural “or” binaries she “ands’ them: “harlot and a nun” — we can further suspect she’ll choose to not abide either’s rules.
*Which is another way of saying that I’m momentarily unashamed about talking about the inner-directed and odd things that go on in my head as I wish my wife a happy birthday. I’m so grateful that her consciousness and its light has been held near to mine and our child’s.
**I was unaware of Millay’s Irish ancestral roots until I researched that before presenting today’s poem. Similarly, I’m unaware of how often another prominent American poet Frank O’Hara is discussed as having been influenced by Irish culture, despite that echt Irish name.
***See also last month’s celebration of “The New Negro,” the 1920’s other “New.” New is often getting old. On the other hand, a hundred years later, to this old person anyway, it seems like the last Twenties’ assumptions of independence and value haven’t become fully old-and-settled yet. Maybe this, still young and new, Twenties?
****One oddity in Millay’s mythological choices: even though fairies in general have a rainbow of genders, leprechauns are almost invariably presented as unmistakably male. There’s a riddle/joke using the old-style name “Indian” for indigenous Americans: A big Indian and a smaller Indian are walking by a river. One Indian is the son of the other Indian, but the other Indian is not the father of the other. Who is the other Indian?
Here’s a piece celebrating our Spring springing forward that’s also appropriate for America’s celebration of Irish heritage on St. Patrick’s Day. It consists of three short poems by the Irish poet Joseph Campbell.* I put them together as I think they somehow increase their individual power presented that way. I call the combination “Sail-Moon-Sheep.”
Campbell was also an artist. Here are his own illustrations for the three poems I used today: “Sail Answers Sail,” “The Moon,” and “Sheep.”
Campbell is one of the more fascinating discoveries I’ve made while doing this project. As far as I can tell he’s largely unknown in the United States, even though he spent some time here between the World Wars. And while it’s harder for me to assay his position in Irish arts and culture, he doesn’t seem to be highly esteemed and remembered there either.
What draws me to present him then? First, he seems to be an early Modernist poet, who writes in a mode those pioneers used — one that I think bares reconsidering today: short poems that present charged emotional states by physical description while eschewing both tired conventional metaphors or overly elaborate original imagery. A hundred years ago there was a name for this kind of writing. It was called Imagism. It rose as a force in opposition to established literary styles, flourished briefly attracting both writers we still celebrate and even some not-inconsiderable popular interest, and then was largely discarded for further evolutions of Modernism.
Campbell didn’t always write in this style, but he did so often enough for me to have work to present here. I’m not sure exactly where or when he picked up this mode of poetic expression. Today’s pieces are from a 1917 poetry collection of his called Earth of Cualann, a year when Imagism would have been in more common currency as a poetic style, but he seems to have used it occasionally before 1910 when he might well have been independently inventing it — or he could have had some as yet undiscovered connection to the small pre-WWI Anglo-American group in London that would give the Imagist style a name.
Chinese ideograms for sail (or rather, boat), moon, and sheep (though more at goat I gather). Some of Campbell’s poems seem to me to work very much like classical Chinese poetry too.
Secondly, he is like Yeats, intimately involved in the Irish cultural renaissance** that was an engine driving to Irish political independence. Indeed, in that second event he seems even more involved, perhaps to the detriment of his poetic career.*** My 20th century brought forward many anti-colonialist artists, but America has it’s own colonialism (both internal and external) and English language eloquence on these matters may be useful to us. Often when reading Campbell I think that aside from some simple translations of particulars I could be reading a poem by someone of American-Indigenous heritage and culture. Campbell’s connection to nature and his native landscape is deep and inescapable.
If one reads a book of Campbell’s poems, this repeated connection to the landscape and its history is so deep that it’s impossible to not think of it as an Imagist expression of a spiritual or religious feeling**** in the poems, even where that is not overtly mentioned. I know next-to-nothing of Campbell’s religious beliefs. Catholic Christianity is sometimes invoked, and at other times a Neo-Pagan-like stance seems to be displayed.
Well, it’s so like this project to say a whole lot about three very short poems from Campbell’s Earth of Cualann that I present in the expectation that they hang together as a portrait of Spring, and then a Spring in a nation in need of renewal. It’s an Irish man’s depiction, and let us celebrate that too, but perhaps I’ve opened you to some further ways to consider that.
*As I must always say when mentioning his name — no, not that Joseph Campbell — this is another man who also used a Gaelic name Seosamh MacCathmhaoil.
**It would not surprise me if the instigators of the Afro-American Harlem Renaissance featured here last month were not aware of the power of Irish elevation of Irish art, history, artists, and culture as a pre-requisite to self-determination as well as a significant argument for their value as citizens. And in other anti-colonialist cross-pollination: consider the mutual admiration of Rabindranath Tagore and William Butler Yeats, or Gandhi’s example to Martin Luther King.
***Imprisonment and exile, for two examples, were involved. Knowing a little now of some of the impassioned factions even among and between the Irish Nationalists, I fear finding out more of Campbell’s actual political beliefs, alliances, and possible revolutionary actions. It’s also plausible that it may have reduced his stature in Irish literature, as political opponents divided by violence often are unconcerned with merely literary merits.
****Remember, Imagism expects there to be few, if any, overt use of words naming emotions or reactions to what it is depicting. It expects — and when it works, it may even compel — the reader or listener to supply their own internal emotional reaction and impact from the poem’s description of a charged moment.
Here’s a song about springtime and wonderous music. The author of the words is William Shakespeare, and it was written to be sung* as part of a play, an art that invites instant appreciation of itself simultaneously by a crowd and a group of people who present it. To merely read a play is like looking over the score of an orchestral work. If you are musically literate you may appreciate the ingenuity of the notes and musical parts, but it’s only a map or tool guiding musicians to the creation of the actual, momentary, and simultaneous thing.**
Stuck in the melting ice/snow, a tiny stick hosts some March fungi trumpeting spring! photo by Heidi Randen
So, as we await the onset of spring and its ancient and age-tested paradox of everything fresh and new, let us return to another warm day that was once fresh and new. It’s 1613, and we’re in London where there’s a new Shakespeare play opening at the Globe Theater, that wooden O that has made his career, the entertainment center that the Bard himself is part owner and begetter of.
Yes, Shakespeare at this time was an established force in English entertainment — but this play has a tough balancing act to perform. The new piece is entitled Henry VIII, or All is True” and unlike Shakespeare’s older history plays, this one deals with events within the childhood memory of the oldest inhabitants of London. The time Henry VIII, or All is True is set in is no more past than the first season of The Crown on TV is today. The theater and his company, The Kings Men, exist partly on the support and permission of the royal family.
The Globe is an entertainment business. Of course, Shakespeare uses his prodigious artistic talents as a draw for this enterprise, and much has been made about how Shakespeare used words uttered by actors alone to do what modern movies and TV shows spend a small nation’s budget worth of money to make with computers and craftspeople now—but the Globe company is not beneath practical special effects to boost the spectacle.
Near the end of Act 1 of the play, there’s a scene where Henry VIII enters with a celebratory cannonade to announce his arrival. If we were there, in that simultaneous artistic moment in 1613, beneath the bang and above us, some sparks from the cannonade equipment (located off-stage near the thatched roof attic of the theater) set the roof afire. For a short time, the play continues until the fire lapped around that wooden O*** and interrupted that moment before the play would come to its third act where today’s song would have been performed.
So, let us leave the simultaneousness of 1613, and ask about what context today’s piece would have been presented in if they had gotten to the third act. At the end of Act 2, Queen Catherine of Aragon has just begged Henry VIII and the play’s chief villain Cardinal Wolsey to not divorce and cast her out. As the thirdAct would have begun (if that theater fire hadn’t broken out) she asks a servant — who in what seems to be musical theater logic, is also a skilled lutenist who has her instrument at hand — “Take thy lute, wench. My soul grows sad with troubles. Sing, and disperse ’em if thou canst.”
In the course of the play, the song doesn’t work. At the end of the song, Wolsey appears to further seal Catherine’s fate.
Simplified map, not the thing itself: the Esus4 riff is repeated twice, and I think I played a CMajor7 over the final “die”
Taken out of this context today’s lyric may seem like a simple song in praise of music — one that references the mythological character of Orpheus, who the Greeks held as the first and finest lyre player, and one whose music was so powerful that it was said to cause trees to travel to be nearer to his music.**** The poem includes more examples of this most well-known power of the marvelous musician Orpheus, but even as the first section ends there’s a subtle undercurrent introduced. Orpheus’ song can control nature the poem says, double-stating a claim that he has “sprung…spring” — but there’s some fine print, or rather a promise is made that we know nothing can fully deliver: it’s a “lasting spring.”
We who sit today in the North on the verge of spring know spring will come. We also know it will go. There’s no such thing as a lasting spring, or a never-ending song. Shakespeare’s new play can start, we can all watch as it occurs before us, but in an instant we might be hot-pantsing it out of the moment and dowsing it with ale. We can be a faithful lover and be denied.
I may be misreading, but the end of the poem seems to add further ambiguity. The servant singing Shakespeare’s song to the soon to be deposed queen says music can kill care and grief, but the sentence continues into the next and final line of the poem: “Fall asleep, or hearing, die.” Is care and grief killed, or is it just beguiled and sleeping for the length of the song? Is the listener to the song — the other hearer besides care and grief — distracted only for a time, for a moment of spring, as one asleep? And then the song ends on that most falling of notes, the word “die.”
Shakespeare’s play can have cannons. And then it can have little 12-line songs.
Today’s song performance has bass and acoustic guitar, organic instruments that have known trees, and then one of my favorite fakeries: the Mellotron. Long time readers here will know my fondness for the Mellotron, a primitive yet overly complicated approximation of orchestral instruments that was used around 50 years or so ago to suggest a bigger recording budget for certain vinyl records. It’s a failed approximation of the things it suggests, but there’s a tragic richness to that failure for some. To hear my performance of “Orpheus with his lute made trees” you can use either this highlighted hyperlink to play it, or if your blog reader favors us with the appearance of the player gadget below, you can fire it off with that.
*Alas, the music to which the songs in the plays were sung during Shakespeare’s time is lost, though today’s lyric has been set to music by a number of composers.
**As we approach a year into our current pandemic, doesn’t this art, the art of live performance in one crowded place, seem even more strange and marvelous?
***Art and time passed aside; you may wonder: three thousand people in a packed wooden theater with at most two exits. How many died? Apparently, no one. Eyewitness accounts include this detail of one notable casualty, “One man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broyled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit, put it out with a bottle of ale.”
****I wonder if Willy Shakes wasn’t engaging in some wordplay with the songs opening line. As a player of the guitar, an instrument that is something of a successor to the lyre and lute, we know the reverse of his opening: our “lutes” are largely made of trees. And rather than having musical power to enchant trees we sometimes think as that wood shifts and changes the playing action of our instruments, or it boggles tuning stability, that our wooden guitars have not quite gotten over being wild trees, ones not totally enthralled to our powers.
This project has gone on so long and produced so many pieces, so before February ends I thought I’d highlight five of the most popular pieces we’ve presented in past years that deal with Afro-American experience or history. The bold-faced start of each listing is a link to take you to the original Parlando Project post that presented this poem if you want to read my first reactions to it back then.
Lines to a Nasturtium by Anne Spencer. Another Afro-American poet who published before 1925’s The New Negro anthology, but who was not published much during the later half of her life. This poem may be her extant masterpiece. It still defeats me from extracting a simple prose “meaning” from it, but it’s just breath-takingly gorgeous in sound and a diffuse emotional impact remains even in its mystery.
The Witnesses by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. What, a poem by a white guy? Well, white supremacy is — what, how does that term start? — a white problem. Here’s a 1841 poem about the notorious Middle Passage of African captives taken across the Atlantic written within the lifetime of those that would have chartered, manned, and benefited from that trade.
The Banjo Player by Fenton Johnson. Like Anne Spencer, Johnson published before 1925 and sometimes gets linked with the Harlem Renaissance — which is spiritually correct, but geographically misleading. He’s from, and spent a good deal of his life, in Chicago. He predates Langston Hughes in wanting to present ordinary Afro-Americans in the whole of their expression and experience without so much emphasis on the Talented Tenth. He’s also sometimes presented as an Afro-American radical-poet predating McKay and Hughes, though I still don’t know much about his actual political beliefs. This poem brings some humor to Black History Month, while coincidentally linking us to an historical reminder: the banjo is an Afro-American instrument first constructed by people that remembered African home fires and instruments.
Zalka Peetruza by Roy G. Dandridge. Another Midwesterner, this time from Cleveland Ohio, but as far as I’ve seen he’s not linked often to the Harlem Renaissance. If fact this piece is one of the Parlando Project pieces that has garnered outsized listenership without being a well-known poem or being written by a well-known poet. Perhaps folks liked the music I wrote for it, or maybe they just recognized it as a fine short poem that implies some good questions within its short character study. In my original write-up I thought it might stand being as well-known and discussed as Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s“We Wear the Mask.”
Portrait of Jean Toomer included in the 1925 “The New Negro” anthology that launched the Harlem Renaissance.
Her Lips Are Copper Wire by Jean Toomer. I’ll maintain this is one of the best short poems of love and desire ever written in English, and it would stand well with anything written in any other language too. Yes, I love me some Paul Eluard. Folks have rushed to read my pair of translations and accompanying thoughts on the young Pablo Neruda’sTwenty Love Poems. Kenneth Patchen can paint love in an unseeing world and break my heart. Yet. Yet. Toomer’s poem is as effective a surrealist work as any of that. It’s beautiful, mysterious, and charged — everything poetry should be.
Some people live so long as to make time and its boundaried eras seem a foggy measure. Such a man was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the American poet, painter, and bookstore owner who predates and post-dates the Beat poetry scene — or for that matter the Hippie scene, and our century’s activist eras and its search for peace and justice. If you are a fan of generational short-hand (I’m not) you will notice that every one of those eras was widely denounceable as impractical, delusional, and in most ways inferior to those that came before that.
“Thank you for your service” is the reflex response nowadays. Surely due, but I think also of his post-war service, helping promote a new more vernacular American poetry via his work, encouragement, bookstore and small press. His own 1958 poetry collection A Coney Island of the Mind was immensely popular,* and seeing it or Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (which Ferlinghetti published**) in their paperback black and white form was once a common marker in smoky apartments during my youth.
Around the time this Project was beginning I performed a couple of Lawrence Ferlinghetti poems live with The LYL Band. I’d actually hoped to get permission to post those performances someday, but emails to City Lights garnered no replies. Hearing today of his death, and thinking of his life that well-lived, I thought inescapably of this poem of his from A Coney Island of the Mind entitled “The world is a beautiful place.” I’ve decided to post our performance here in the spirit of gratitude and in memoriam. If any rights owner objects, let me know, and I will remove. The player gadget for our performance is often below, but this highlighted hyperlink will also work if you don’t have the gadget on your screen. If you want to read silently, or read along, here’s a link to the text of Ferlinghetti’s poem.
Want to hear another version of “The world is a beautiful place?”
*Some accounts say Coney Island is the most popular poetry collection ever published in English. I’m not sure of that.
**Was Howl a big “get” that he was lucky to land for City Lights? Not exactly. He was put on trial for publishing it, and Ferlinghetti figured he’d go to jail. The Fifties judge, to some surprise, ruled it not obscene.
A hundred years ago, a teenager is riding on a train to Mexico. He’s just left his high school in Ohio. He’s Black. Most of the school was white. When he was in Junior High, the class was asked to elect a class poet. The teacher suggested it should be someone who understood rhythm, and so they elected him. Ah huh…but then he’s also done well at school and now his teachers are suggesting college. That poetry that he had been elected to is sticking with him, literature too. The first successful Black American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar had been from Ohio. He thinks “This is possible.”
The teenager is traveling alone on the train. He’s already accustomed to that. If his poppa was a rolling stone, then his mom was moss. They’d split up before he entered school. His father moved far about, following his business interests, and he was the one in Mexico the young man was traveling to. His mother had left him when he was a young child in the care of his grandmother, and then the grandmother died just as he became a teenager. After that, he and his mother tried to reconnect. Mother. Son. Perhaps the deepest tie there is. It didn’t quite work.
The train crosses the Mississippi, the indispensable dividing river of America. He watches out the train window. A train line is a story someone wrote. A river is history — it’s there even if you don’t know it is. But the young man knows more history than many young men knew then, or that many know now.* In particular, he knew that Abe Lincoln, scuffling for work as a young man, had manned a freight-loaded flatboat down that river to New Orleans in 1828. His freight was goods in crates, and New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi was a commercial center for goods. While there young Lincoln sees another market, another type of goods: Black people being bought and sold as livestock.
How ignorant was the young Lincoln of slavery? There were a small number of slaves in the Illinois County Lincoln was traveling from.** The slave market in New Orleans was Americas largest. Perhaps slavery was mostly a story someone told Lincoln before that.
Back in 1920, our Black teenager on the train pulls out the handiest scrap of paper he can find, a letter from his father. On the bare places of that paper, outside his father’s words, he composes today’s poem. He’s going to Mexico City to spend some time with his father and to ask him if he’ll help pay for college so he can study literature.
They spend a summer together in Mexico. Father and son. So often there’s a deep tie between such, but in this case it didn’t quite work. In the end this was the deal they negotiated: yes, he’d help his son with college — but no, he had to study something useful: engineering.***
The young man tries to hold up this agreement. He enters Columbia University in New York City to, yes, study engineering. It doesn’t work. The young man drops out of college and begins working as a bus-boy, but he’s writing poems, and in June of 1921 W.E.B. DuBois’ The Crisis magazine publishes today’s poem, the one he wrote on the back of his father’s letter on the train: “A Negro Speaks of Rivers.” In 1925 it also appears in The New Negro anthology which I’m using as a theme here this month. Here’s a link to the full text of the poem.
Our young man was Langston Hughes. Today’s post is a story based on the little I know about how he came to become a writer. Stories are something we have to write, we engineer them, we build them, lay them out. But, history? History is a river. It’s there whether you know it or not. Surely it goes on, whether you know it or not. Shouldn’t you know it? Shouldn’t I know it? Shouldn’t we know it?
Full circle. After Hughes died in 1967 his ashes were interred in the the middle of this mosaic depicting “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” on the floor the lobby of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.
*Indeed, somehow our teenager knew more about Black history than many would have in his time, and the chance that he learned much if any of this in school was low. Forty some years later when I was a teenager, I asked my Freshman Western Civ. teacher an innocent question: “Were the ancient Egyptians Black?” He seemed startled at the question. Hughes was hip to that question in 1920.
However interrupted and strained Langston Hughes’ relationship with his family was, he must have been pointed in some directions by them. A chief source was likely that grandmother who took care of him until she died when Langston was 13. Did she know stories or history? Well, Hughes’ grandmother’s first husband was Lewis Sheridan Leary, who died during the 1859 Harpers Ferry raid just before the Civil War.
Returning now to the poets presented in Alain Locke’s 1925 The New Negro anthology, we’ve come to the poet I most associate with the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes. Though he was born in the Midwest and traveled some, Hughes actually lived for much of his life in New York City, unlike some others associated with that artistic flowering. And though Locke’s book concentrated on young, up and coming writers for the most part (Hughes was 23 when The New Negro was published) Hughes’ literary career continued on a more or less continuous path until his death in 1967.
So, if I was asked “Name a Harlem Renaissance poet.” My first answer would have always been “Langston Hughes.” And if Locke’s book is the launch point for that, Hughes was as prominent as any other young writer featured there and then, even if in 1925 he had yet to publish a single book.
Young Langston Hughes. Hey Pharrell, pretty sharp work on those fedora creases don’t you think.
This makes it strange then when I went to do a little research on how Hughes was judged during his 40 plus years as a literary artist. The summaries I read often point out that he was down-rated during his career, and to some degree up to the present day. Why? Well, he did have to go through the dangerous 1930s when political engagement was expected of writers, and like some others he had to handle the double-bind of associations and sympathy for the Russian Revolution and Communism and then later criticism of its faults. Many of the promotors of The New Negro era were so focused on up-lifting the race and demonstrating high-culture acceptance that they were uneasy about Hughes’ embrace of a wider range of Afro-American experience. And finally, there seems to be an element of purely literary judgement he shares with Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman (two of Hughes’ influences) that what he wrote was judged as too simpleminded and unironic. Sure, the high-culture critics would essay: that kind of poetry might have readership broader than many, but it doesn’t fit the literary criteria ascendant as the 20th century unrolled.
Today’s piece, “Dream Variation,” one of Hughes’ poems printed in The New Negro, is a short nature poem. Here’s a link to the full text of it.* Like a lot of lyric poetry, you can read it quickly and superficially with some pleasure. It has rhyme and its rhythms. It counts off some pleasant if not overly spectacular word-music. The first time through you may think it’s just pointing out a commonplace, something one could summarize as: “Hey, it’s nice when it sunny and you’ve got a day outside. And then a summer night when you finally go to bed — that’s nice too.”
Wait a minute. What’s with Hughes’ title: “Dream Variation?” First off, that seems to say that kind of summer carefree pleasure isn’t something the poem is experiencing right now. Like Wordsworth’s daffodils, the poem’s speaker is experiencing this mentally, as if in a dream. That’s a different thing isn’t it. In the same way that a love poem about lost love is not the same as a poem about present love, this is a poem containing longing. Many of us are reading this during this February in North America. Likely you may relate to that state the poem is actually portraying.
I have no way of knowing what the weather was like when Hughes wrote his poem, but Hughes estranged father lived in Mexico where Hughes visited him before embarking for New York City and the beginnings of his literary career. So that titular variation may be a dream not only of passing seasons but of lost places too.
But there’s another way that variation means. In music it’s when a composer modifies elements of an established motif and we see it morph into a new related shape. Do you see what Hughes does here in his short poem? There’s a statement about dancing, arms wide and accepting, in the sun — and then resting in the evening “beneath a tall tree.” An interlude, when inside the body of the poem they express that this is “my dream” — not what they’re doing as they speak the poem. Next we learn that the “bright” day is now described as “quick” and the following “cool” evening is now “pale” evening. And finally, the real metamorphosis: the poem’s speaker is now not “Beneath a tall tree” — there is just a tall tree that remains as night comes.
This variation is subtle and somewhat undefined, mysterious, once you notice it. Is this a statement of the poem’s speaker’s absence from the warm place, that in the variation he’s no longer present? Has the speaker’s life, the proverbial “quick day” ended? Or, is it something even stranger: in the dream he’s no longer the external dancer beneath the tree, external to the day, external to the night, but now he’s become them?** In dream logic it can be all those separate things at once. That’s part of why a dream experience can be so striking!
In this poem, like in some of the poems of Sandburg that I’ve presented here, I maintain that the simple language and seemingly straightforward scene of the poem has misled some readers and some critics. If I was encountering this poem as if I was translating from some Tang Dynasty Chinese classical poet, I would be aware that the poem may not be whamming me on the head about “Look it’s clever metaphor after metaphor! My, how complex a plot I can stuff into my poem! I bet no one ever said anything as complex as this ever before!” Perhaps the assumption is that a working-class Afro-American or the son of a Swedish immigrant can’t be thinking anything more complex than class-struggle position papers.
In my performance of Hughes’ “Dream Variation” I consciously sought to bring out the mysterious element here. Stubbornly the harmonic progression I composed sticks closely to a core around the D note of the scale. Chords move between major and minor however and there’s a rub up and down with a D# Major7. The player to hear my musical performance may appear below, but if you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to hear it.
*I used the text as printed in Locke’s anthology for my performance as it’s in the public domain. The version I link to is later and includes some, well, variations. In the newer version taken from Hughes’ Collected Poems, the title has become plural, “Variations,” “the bright day” has become “the white day,” and a couple of other smaller changes were made. One could speculate that the “bright day” vs “white day” could have been suggested by an editor as less confrontational.
**And I haven’t even entered into the significant racial aspect that is there as well. The dark night in the poem’s first experience as being first external to the poem’s speaker and being one with it in the second “Black like me.” As an Afro-American poet, Langston Hughes almost certainly intends this, and it may be the most consciously intended message he wished the reader to receive: that poem’s journey via its variation is from experiencing one’s Blackness as externally to an internalized appreciation of it, and that later revision from “bright” to “white” for the first instance of the day underlines that reading. I featured the above reading not to obscure that, but because our particulars as persons bleed into our commonalities as people. When William Butler Yeats or Joseph Campbell speak of being colonialized Irish, it’s not just about their particulars. When Du Fu speaks of being overcome by great events, it’s not just 8th century China that has felt that. When Emily Dickinson’s mind grasps onto a flower or abstract thought and sees its edges always curling, she’s not reduceable to a bourgeois New Englander. And so to when Langston Hughes speaks about being Afro-American in 1920s America. And frankly, I’m hesitant to assume an Afro-American identity as a performer of Hughes’ poem, even as I want to bring it forward to your attention.
Update: An alternate primary reading that the first dream variation is an unachieved dream and that the second is a reflection of the reality of Afro-American life colored by racism seems widespread. Widespread enough that I wonder if Hughes wrote of his intent or understanding of his poem’s meaning at some point. For example many of the alternate readings say the poem’s second dance and whirl is work-a-day and likely menial work inside a Capitalist and Racist system that wouldn’t value Hughes. Hughes experience and political thoughts could be consistent with writing a poem that expressed that. As much as I should doubt my reaction to the text of the poem as printed in 1925, I’m still not seeing that as being the inevitable and singular reading of the second variation, but I offer this update as a self-confessed non-expert on Hughes’ work and because I suspect not a few students come here via web searches to seek insight into poems, and so they should be aware of this other reading.
Since I’ve been unable to supply new pieces for the past few days, it has occurred to me that I could point out some other pieces this project has already done that fit into the Black History Month theme. Here’s one that has been found by a number of visitors during their own searches here this month: Fenton Johnson’s “A Dream.”
Johnson is another Afro-American writer who sometimes gets linked with the Harlem Renaissance even though he doesn’t seem to have spent significant time in New York. Instead, Johnson worked in Chicago. He was active and publishing before Locke’s 1925 The New Negro anthology, yet while James Weldon Johnson’s earlier The Book of American Negro Verse included a selection of fine poetry from Fenton Johnson, The New Negro only mentions him in passing. As we’ve seen earlier, some of what Locke aimed to do was to bring forward quite young poets and writers, and even if Johnson was only 38 when The New Negro was issued, it may be that he was considered “the older generation.”
Fenton Johnson. Dressed conservatively here, but he wrote Modernist and socially engaged poetry.