From Us She Wandered now a Year

How much did Emily Dickinson want her poetry to be understood? I can’t be sure, but I suspect she wanted it to be both puzzling and  understood.*  While she didn’t publish to any extent in her lifetime, she did send by mail or otherwise share poems with friends. The conventions of Dickinson’s 19th century America may be different, but it’s possible that not everyone understood each poem, or even welcomed the arrival of those poems’ enclosure, but these acts indicate that she had elements in her poetry that asked for a public place for her work.

The posthumous publication of a large selection of her poems in a series of books at the end of the 1800’s did find ample volunteer readers though. Selected from her handwritten manuscripts by outside editors and somewhat regularized, they were also presented with tacked-on titles and within subject sections like“Time and Eternity,”  which however criticized by current scholars helped frame her work for her first posthumous readers.

There’s a certain kind of Dickinson poem, often with a touch of gothic whimsy, that most easily attracts a general readership. Others feature proto-Imagist observations that continue to delight readers. While there were other American poets of Dickinson’s time who had a substantial non-academic readership, now more than a century-and-a-half later, few read any other than Dickinson and Whitman.**

Having a general readership should discount no one’s literary merit, but snobbery may ask to have its say. If Dickinson is a poet admired and even read by those who are otherwise unattracted to poetry, this can be introduced as evidence against her worth as a true poet.

Given that, I have been noticing someone on behalf of the Emily Dickinson Museum has been regularly posting short Dickinson poems on Twitter asking for those who come upon them what their interpretation of these poems are. Few of the Dickinson poems this Twitter docent shares are the well-known “Greatest Hits” of Dickinson. Many are eight short lines, and those lines are often full of Dickinson’s oddest syntax and metaphysical musings. Being asked for an on-the-spot interpretation freezes many a reader as much as an armed robbery would — but at least in such a street encounter one likely knows where one’s wallet and valuables are. While I’m old enough to have grown accustomed to my own misreading of subtle poems that my fears of embarrassment are diminished, even I am hesitant to offer a Twitter reply. And this is true even though I’ve already performed some of Dickinson’s poems of that sort. What this series of Twitter posts demonstrates most vividly I think is that a great deal of Dickinson, though a time-tested popular poet, verges on incomprehensibility. So why did Dickinson write such poems?

My theory is that Dickinson was seeking to record in these cryptic short pieces certain moments of personal insight. Why take the time to versify them then? There’s evidence that Dickinson had a musical mind, and containing them such may have been a combination of the matrix of natural “music of thought” and the practical mnemonic virtues of verse. Dickinson was known to write short poems down on household scrap paper, indicating that thought was going on during domestic workdays. Perhaps I’ve come up with this mentally-drafted commonplace-book theory in that I spent some of my ordinary working life composing poetic stanzas in my head that were informed by things I was seeing and thinking while my hands were occupied. Such work is not necessarily “public poetry,” though in Dickinson’s case it now can be viewed by us strangers far removed by Dickinson’s time and place. Here’s her poem. You can be one of those strangers.

From Us She wandered

In memory of my feelings. Dickinson’s austere compression here.

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So what was Dickinson on about with her poem known by its first line: “From Us She wandered now a Year?”   I’m not sure, and I’m sort of comfortable with that. What is clear? It doesn’t have the attraction of imagery. “Wilderness” is totally undescribed, not rising to the level of an image, and “feet’ and “eye” are the only other concrete nouns in the entire poem. There’s no clear sense of where or when this poem occurs. While there’s some sense of separation or change as of the first phrase, the poem evokes no clear-cut emotional tone. “She” and “Us/We” are vague characters, though I read the latter as a general evocation of humanity. Dickinson’s eccentric capitalization invites us to consider many words as philosophic entities, not a “wish you were here” note about a traveling friend.***  Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, her posthumous editors, put this poem in that “Time and Eternity”  section, and invented a title “Invisible”  for it, which indicated they didn’t know what she was on about either.

Do I have an impression? I think the poem’s “She” is Transcendentalist Nature, which as I understand Transcendentalism is essentially the revered manifestation of the true universe and any Creator. “Wandered now a year” is the unstoppable progression of seasonal time which goes forward over any barren obstacle that might stop a corporal creature (Wilderness) or without any memorial break for death or state of nothingness (Ethereal Zone). The second stanza says we cannot not fully understand this, though we may have some autumnal intimation at some part of this cycle, where we “took” (in) this “Mystery.”****

I could be wrong, but a worthy enough meaning. Still, the overall effect remains its stark unsensual expression. Few of the normal pleasures of poetry are found in these eight lines. No imagery, no statement of the senses meant to invoke feelings in the reader (other than mystification perhaps). Word-music alone is there in Dickinson’s hardwood-seat pew hymn-meter, the thing she used to write her own hymn book. This is a highly intellectualized and discorporate poetry, but as I said at the beginning, I don’t know if Dickinson intended us to read it. If not, then Dickinson’s feelings and experiences being left-out are beside the author’s point. After all, she herself may have sufficiently felt them, and this artifact is meant only to evoke that memory for herself.  I, this other human today, have this overall emotion evoked: awe at the dexterity of her mind.

Today’s performance has music I composed and played in my “punk orchestral” style along with 12-string guitar. I’m using simple musical structures for the orchestral instruments, but I tell myself I can do so in the same way that guitar combo bands using a few root-V chords can none-the-less communicate something. It’s a brief poem that I represent in a short musical piece you can hear below with the graphical player, or in its absence this alternative highlighted link.

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*This is a common, if not always acknowledged goal of poets: to be worthy not just of a reading, not just of some understanding, but to be worthy of a deeper and more careful and caring reading. That’s a lot to ask for words, even beautiful sounding words.

**I considered adding Poe to this exceptions list. Despite my own efforts, I doubt I could make a case for Longfellow retaining 21st century readership.

***Possible that there’s a specific lower-case “she” and this poem is more simply a “missing you” poem? I’ll offer this aside my theory, that if Dickinson felt that toward specific shes then it could occur to her to personify a manifestation of at least a conceptual Godhead as “She.” It’s possible to be thirsty and thoughtful.

****Sandy Denny’s song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”  would be an example of a more elaborate and sensuous expression of the same sort of thought. It’s also a feeling I tend to get each fall, which may help spur my Septober Energy, where I set out to harvest what creative energy I have.

Parlando Project audio listen count set to reach 100,000

100,000. Compared to some things on the Internet, a small number. Yet it would have seemed impossibly large to me when I started this Project. Today I checked stats and I see that it now looks like we’ll reach 100,000 listens for the Parlando Project audio pieces this week.

I won’t have time to write more tonight about this, but if you have just happened upon The Parlando Project, this is what we do: we take various words (mostly poetry) and combine them with original music we perform. This blog allows me to write about the experiences I have with those words (usually written by others) and what I felt as I performed them.

Arthur Hoehn: A Radio Romance

I hear that today is something called National Radio Day. I read that on social media, which I suspect in turn will be a strange artifact to be explained to unformed young people of some yet undisclosed future. After all, as I write tonight I have doubts I’ll be able to convince any current young people of the romance of radio.

I grew up midcentury in what was supposed to be the TV age, but TV was a very constrained and arid thing then. TV was usually one set in the living room with maybe 3 or so channels receivable. It signed off in the evening, came back on with the dawn, and presented one thing at a time under the control of a schedule that could be memorized by its viewers. Radio may have been the old tech, but it was richer, stranger, more able to surprise with chance. Kids had their own radios, cars had radios, and the talking/singing boxes continued all night — and radio was never stranger than at night. Small local stations were required to dim their watts and disappear at sundown, and then certain stations would appear like the night stars, receivable across the countryside with varying reception. In my tiny Iowa town I ran an antenna wire out my window to an apple tree branch outside. The radio’s tubes glowed and Chicago and WLS were certain. KOMA in Oklahoma too. Detroit and Tennessee sometimes.

To be honest, I don’t recall hearing the famous super high-powered mid-century Mexican X stations. Maybe I did for moments — listening to the radio at night meant that stations would sometimes drift in and out, so I might not have heard every call sign. One of those stations, XERB, had a DJ and program director who was too unremarkable as his given name Bob Smith, and so became Wolfman Jack. At XERB he had an on-air compatriot named Fat Daddy Washington.*  But today’s piece isn’t about the Wolfman. It’s about Fat Daddy Washington.

You see it’s not just those night-time radio signals that jumped around and changed with the stars. Just as Wolfman Jack had been Bob Smith, and “Daddy Jules,” and “Roger Gordon and the Music of good Taste” as he bounced around formats and jobs; Fat Daddy Washington was not some longtime hepcat, but a kid just a few years out of St. John’s University, a Roman Catholic affiliated college tautologically located in Collegeville Minnesota. “Washington” had worked at the college’s radio station under his real name Arthur Hoehn.

Now let’s zoom in on the “Summer of Love” in 1967. For some reason Hoehn headed back to his old school in north central America from its southwest corner, driving in a sharp new Thunderbird. There’s a story there I’m not privy too. Was he going to impress old schoolmates with his newfound flash — a not uncommon move? That doesn’t sound like the unassuming Arthur I later knew a bit. Was he possibly out of a job at the X? Plausible. When he arrived back in Collegeville, he ran into one of those schoolmates, a guy named Bill Kling who wanted to expand and professionalize the college radio station.** Kling later told the story that Hoehn unilaterally offered to help out. Kling joked years later that he wasn’t even sure he paid him at first. However, Hoehn was also recalled as what became Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media’s “first professional DJ hire.” Since the Collegeville station played classical music with news breaks, I’m not sure that Hoehn’s Fat Daddy Washington mic-time at the heavily R&B oriented X was much featured in their early pitches for funds.

unknown-barone-hoehn-unk-eichten-unk

Earlier in this century, MPR/APM employees tried to ID all the people in this early staff picture posted at our headquarters. The only ones I knew from my time were Michael Barone (2nd from left), Arthur Hoehn (3rd from l) and Gary Eichten (5th from l)

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By the time I worked alongside Hoehn his regular gig under his given name was working the overnight shift as the host of a classical music program “Music through the Night.”***  If nighttime is the right time to maximize that romance, I’ll still tell you that when I’d actually run into Hoehn it wasn’t romantic. Radio in the flesh rarely is, and nighttime shifts are no place to dress for success or to put on a show of supercilious professionalism. Hoehn would likely be wearing comfy wild-print Zubaz lounging pants and a nondescript open collar shirt. We’d likely nod at each other knowing we each had a job to do.

When broadcasting live (as Hoehn did) the radio host is near alone even in larger stations and networks, and they can expect that most of their listeners are also sameways singular. There might be someone in the next room asleep or another driver in some light-pool car transiting the passing lane, but the listeners are each alone with the host and his record’s vinyl voices, like-black pianos, and sleep-breathing strings. They may be listening to you to try to fall asleep, they may be listening to you because they just don’t want to go to sleep right now, they could be in love full of bright energy, or just out of love and wanting company, they may be working a night shift like you, they could even be — as I watched my father-in-law one night — in a hospital bed awaiting death with the radio murmuring the needle-dancing angels of this side of life.****

Though some old folks reading this will remember this with me on Radio Day — young people, you likely didn’t/don’t live this. Yet I’m writing this more for you. I’ll allow that this is likely as imaginary as any fantasy world for you. But this went on once upon a time. The feeling of the romance of radio, intensified by nighttime, was as real as any current or future fantasy is, and so this has the value of any fantasy tale, as an exercise for imagination, and as a demonstration that shared fantasies can dissolve into air like dew after dawn.

When my coworker Arthur Hoehn died in 2011, I thought: there are a number of songs about DJs, but the music these song-celebrated DJs play is inevitably jazz, r&b, or rock. What about the man alone playing orchestral instrument music, likely in recall/remembrance of those classical “dead guys” compositions, while most of the world sleeps for a few hours in the little analog of death. Is that goth or what?

A performance of the song “Arthur Hoehn”  I wrote is below, recorded soon after Arthur’s death. You can play it with the graphical player if you see that, or with this alternative highlighted link.

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*Wolfman Jack the nighttime DJ was featured as a romantic mentor to the kids in the movie American Graffiti, and parlayed that role into a larger TV and radio broadcasting career in the 1970s. It’s a point too large to deal with in a footnote, but some white DJs in this time-frame took on portions of Afro-American argot and signifying. Given that American popular music in general has done likewise before and after Wolfman Jack and Fat Daddy Washington, I’ll leave this as a footnote.

Here’s a link to blog post about XERB, with a contemporary flyer saying of Hoehn show  “’Fat Daddy; Washington, one of the heaviest swingers in the world, presents 9 tons of soul and is a real “mama’s’ man.”

**Several other Collegeville student-station alums were part of the early MPR/APM core. Longtime news program host Gary Eichten was another. Pipe organ enthusiast Michael Barone too. And another who cut his teeth hosting classical music only to break from that into a unique combination of oral story-telling mixed with musical variety: Garrison Keillor.

Coincidentally, I’ve just realized that I believe my High School English teacher Terry Brennan who introduced me to Keats, Frost, Donne et al in my tiny Iowa town was just out of St. John’s too. If so, it’s highly likely that he was an overlapping classmate of some of those folks. Odd to put that together decades later!

***Eventually this program with Hoehn hosting was syndicated live around the country via satellite (yes, they used satellites, not the still nascent Internet, to do that then). One of the national listeners who sent a fan letter: Joan Baez. Baez also worked in the Sixties with Peter Schickele, who I met in my first month at the network headquarters.

****Other famous overnight DJs? Alison Steele “The Nightbird” was the overnight FM rock DJ in the late 60s-early 70s on NYC’s WNEW-FM and had no-less than Jimi Hendrix as her recorded praise-singer. A British guy in the American southwest conned his way onto the air as an experienced DJ (he wasn’t) during the early days of the British invasion in the early 60s. He broadcast on “KOMA in Oklahoma” one of those “clear channel” stations that I could reliably get in Iowa at night, though he had the early morning shift there. His air name was John Peel, and he went back to the UK and worked for pirate Radio London with the “London After Midnight”  show which in 1967 became “The Perfumed Garden”  launching many an underground rock group in England with his eclectic playlists before a subsequent long and influential broadcasting career. I’ve never even heard air-checks, but musician/writer Tony Glover had an overnight “underground” rock show on KDWB in Minneapolis during the Sixties that some recall with fondness.

Stratocaster, a story

Here’s a little story, about a one-eyed man named Leonidas, who you might think at first is not worthy of telling here at a place that talks about poetry and music. Was Leonidas an artist? Well, he started off an accountant. That’s important. Alas, the Great Depression happened, and even accountants were made redundant. Next, he opened a radio repair shop, since he’d been handy with electric circuits since he was a teenager. Better to repair a radio in those days, so he was able to make a go of that.

So, when does the art come in? Patience. Perhaps you know how revisions, pentimento, second drafts work in art? Then too, do you know the old saying about the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.? That’ll apply too. There’s musical elements coming up, and we’ll end up in the Museum of Modern Art.

Gris-Picasso

“No painters stroke…” Juan Gris’ fractured guitars. Picasso’s uncomfortable angled arms.

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It wasn’t just families’ home entertainment radios that came into Leonidas’ shop. Musicians would come in and ask him to repair or construct public address systems. Leonidas’ region was bustling. First with agriculture, and soon with manufacturing. Workers wanted music at dancehalls, bars, and roadhouses, and the small affordable music combos with growing and sometimes rowdy audiences needed to be heard. Leonidas could make things loud.

Some of these musicians played electric guitars, a newish invention. The big hollow reverberant wooden boxes that had formerly needed only to be loud enough to provide a discreet chop of propulsion to large brass and saxophone led bands were now equipped with magnetic pickups which drove amplifiers so that one or two guitarists could replace that horn section. Simple accounting — the venues wouldn’t necessarily increase pay for larger, more elaborate groups. Slim down, but get louder.

One catch. The louder noise these big hollow guitars now made with pickups mounted on their surfaces reacted with a hellish howl from their resonate bodies’ underground cavities when the volume got loud enough. Leonidas’ amplifiers could make them loud, but the guitars couldn’t operate well in that loud environment.

Leonidas was the one-eyed man who knew nothing about guitars, but he’d been wiring electric pickups for a particular kind of electric guitar that was going through a bit of a fad: the “steel guitar.” A steel guitar wasn’t a guitar made out of steel, it was a simple flat piece of wood, like a small, narrow end table, with some strings and an electric guitar pickup that was played with a steel bar slid by one hand up and down the strings while the musician’s other hand plucks the notes the bar’s position has stopped on the length of the strings.

Leonidas got the notion to make a guitar that could be played in the regular way, with fingers fretting the notes, but still with a solid wooden body. He made a very practical instrument out of this idea. It was cheap to make, using inexpensive wood with an ingenious neck that could be removed in a minute with a screwdriver. Some musicians loved it, while guitar makers thought it crude. The simple plank of wood that made up a steel guitar wasn’t all that visible, being played flat like a table. This unadorned plank guitar was hardly more sophisticated, yet it would be hung around the musician’s neck for all to see. A musical end table is one thing, but hanging one around your neck while you sang or performed on stage? That’s just not right thought the existing guitar makers.*

Turns out musicians cared less about that incongruity, because Leonidas’ guitar was so practical, affordable, and it sounded great.

Soon other guitar makers responded to this success — but with fancier, less spartan iterations. The competitor’s responses might have golden paint or hardware and the same graceful arched tops the hollow guitars had, though now on top of solid bodies. Others had metalflake sparkle or fancy sunburst two-tone paint.

Leonidas may have been a non-guitar-playing accountant turned radio repairman, but he and his associates figured out how to fancy up his next design. The guitar he came up with next was curved and wrapped like a flowing scarf, shaped like an abstract painter’s asymmetric amoeba in the moment of forming itself into or away from the classical shape of a guitar. It would come in a variety of new-car-show colors. It had not just one, not just two, but three whole electric pickups. And it had a whammy bar, a spring-loaded vibrato device that let one easily swoop whole chords up and down in pitch. It was named like a Strategic Air Command bomber or the upper atmosphere verging on outer space: the Stratocaster.

Tele Strats Super 400

Telecaster: like hanging an end-table around your neck and calling it a guitar vs. the colors and curves of the Stratocaster. A big Super 400 guitar forcing an arm akimbo.

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Leonidas “Leo” Fender was born on this date in 1909. He never learned how to play the guitar — but he helped a whole lot of other people make music with one, by making his guitars affordable and durable like an accountant watching the logistical details. And as a repairman and tinkerer, he made his guitars easy to repair and modify. By choosing a modular design with interchangeable parts he made it possible for infinite variations of his original design to flourish. One could fill a store’s walls with a hundred variations of his Stratocaster — and eventually that is what happened. It’s the most popular electric guitar ever.

In 2015 while visiting New York I got to see them introduce a Stratocaster guitar into the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Thinking of the radio repairman’s art-shaped art-tool in the midst of MOMA’s paintings and sculptures I wrote this short ode to Leo’s Stratocaster in that context, and then I performed it with the LYL Band the same year. You can hear it below with the player gadget (where that’s seen) — or if you don’t see the gadget, with is highlighted link.

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*Leonidas named this guitar that superseded his radio repairman line of work after the entertainment device that was obsoleting his radios, the Telecaster. I make the Telecaster sound crude because just like an Imagist poem that Modernists suggested could replace more elaborate and sufficiently “poetic” poetry, it did seem incomplete to many then. As an instrument however it’s surprisingly versatile to those who know their way around it. Despite the greater and continued popularity of the Stratocaster, there’s a solid cadre of players who give the secret handshake and declare “Leo got it right the first time.”

Let Us Be Midwives!

Here’s a second part of my short series marking August 6th, Hiroshima Day, the day the first atomic bomb was dropped on that city, killing tens of thousands.*

Did the previous post’s intentionally odd linkage of personal grief with the deaths of thousands seem thoughtlessly, even offensively, narcissistic? Or did that consideration never occur to you? Not to make a show of putting on the hair shirt, but that sort of question does occur to me.

I’ve come to an acceptance that with poetry that charge is hard to avoid. A poem — one performed to an Internet audience like this project has, or to one spread over time on a silent page — works as a connection between one voice and the audience of one, as one. We may talk usefully of inspirations or conceptually of muses, we may choose to represent causes of multiple voices, but in the end a poet, or any writer, is asking for your attention with a claim from their attention. It’s that simple.

So, must what we put in our poems’ attention field be important, generally important? That’s a heavy burden to put on a few singing words, perhaps making also a claim to be novel, beautiful, even a source of pleasure. The bombing of Hiroshima passes any test of consideration surely, but today’s piece by Sadako Kurihara (translated by Richard Minear) makes choices in portraying this epochal event.

hiroshima-shadows

Imagery beyond poetry. The intense flaming light from the Hiroshima blast burnt shadows onto walls.

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Although short, it’s a narrative poem, and its story has power as story, so I’m not going to summarize it here today, asking instead that you take the 2 ½ minutes to listen to the performance of it. Let me instead tell you a little bit I’ve learned about its author.

Kurihara was an anarchist poet who grew up in an increasingly militarized and authoritarian Japan before the war. Living away from her country’s cultural centers and holding unpopular ideas, she and her family lived a life of poverty and obscurity, marked only by occassional run-ins with the authorities. Throughout the war, she continued writing poetry, though publication was out of the question. On August 6th she was at home in Hiroshima when another country’s military dropped an A-bomb on it. The poem I perform today was completed by September and was published early in 1946 after the defeat and occupation of Japan. It predates by a few months John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”  article that helped form widespread attention to the particulars of today’s event. It therefore is likely one of the first poems written or published about the bombing.

Sadoko Kurihara

Sadoko Kurihara

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The poem reads like an eyewitness account, though from what I’ve read in the past few days about it and its author, it’s based on events she heard about from those who had sought shelter in the basement of her city’s central post office.** So, there’s a choice here. Kurihara used someone else’s story, a vary particular one, to portray one aspect of this large event, one small enough to fit into this short narrative poem.

In the last post, I talked about how near grief can seem larger than massive suffering. This poem uses that effect to do its work. My performance of Kurihara’s “Let Us Be Midwives!”***  has a player gadget below so that you can hear it. Some ways this post can be read will not show that gadget, so I provide this highlighted link to also play it. I’d originally thought I do a more complex musical setting for this poem, one that would somehow (that I’d have to figure out) express the massive horror and scale of destruction. But I lacked anything like the time, focus, and opportunities to do that. Instead, the music has a simple and entirely major chord guitar part that I performed live in one-take, and I spent most of the compositional time making the drum part. In the end I decided to add nothing else, as I think Kurihara’s poem is powerful enough to earn your attention without further elaboration. If you’d like to read the poem yourself, here’s a link to four of  Sadako Kurihara’s poems including this one.

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*There will be no ethical discussion today about the decision to drop the bomb, nor any attempt to adjudge and weigh the evils of any side in World War II. Not that that isn’t important, but it’s nothing I want to try to summarize in a few hundred words. Any reflexive “How many American lives were saved, so spare us the stories of Hiroshima” take should pause and consider that Kurihara opposed that war and her country’s militarism. That would be like accusing Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five  as cozying up to Nazis.

**This may bring to mind stories of others sheltering in the largest ruins of their cities today.

***The poem was further subtitled, in the translation I used, “An untold story of the atomic bombing” but it is also referred to under another English translation of the title as “Bringing Forth New Life.”

Palingenesis — three anniversaries noted

Today’s post is part of observing three anniversaries this week: this blog’s launch six years ago, Atomic Bomb Day (noting the anniversaries of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and my late wife’s death in 2001. An odd combination? Well, yes, but they coincide.

Odd? Personal loss has an odd size. If one holds one’s hand in front of one’s eyes it can block out the entire sun. How close grief is to one, has a similar effect. When the 9/11 plane crash attacks occurred a month after my wife’s death, it was objectively a sad, horrible, thing. To some small and nearby degree it impacted the place I worked. There were employees traveling, in the air as the attacks became known. We had at that time a floor of offices in a tall local building in St. Paul, over a thousand miles away from the attacks, but a tower named at that moment ominously “The World Trade Center.” And the radio network I worked for had a large news component. Everyone and I did what we needed to do in the wake of the attacks. It was not that I did not care or have consideration then — but the sharp pain of that public grief could not be felt to the same degree in my self still encased in loss.

So too the atomic bomb attacks on the two Japanese cities must have been in 1945 to many Americans. Some had lost loved ones in that war, some feared for losses to come. Some were waiting for what, how many, conventional deaths before the war’s end, and wondering if one of them would be their own.

Those nearby close things can blot out an atomic bomb. Ethical philosophers try to make true weights and perspectives, poets on the other hand talk instead of how it feels to think of these things.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, an American poet whose importance is now obscured by judgements of excessive conventionality against the bright lights of Dickinson and Whitman’s new approaches, wrote the poem which I’ll perform in part today. Written and published in 1864 during the American Civil War, it’s author certainly knew of the generalized grief and loss of that war and the human slavery it was fought over* — but he also had closer griefs. His wife had not only died in 1861, she died in his arms, her body on fire from a household accident as he himself was burn-scarred trying to extinguish the blaze. And then his teenaged son was serving in the Civil War and was grievously wounded in 1863.

Longfellow-bomb-Renee

Three anniversaries remembered. There’s no way to picture this blog in a single picture, so we’ll show Longfellow.

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The opening section** of “Palingenesis”  considers memories and grief, considers the imperfection of the rebirth that the obscure word used as the poem’s title offers. If the eternal noises of the sea and ghostly apparitions in the mist may strike us as all-too-tired poetic tropes to our 21st century judgement, the image at the end of the segment I perform, the ashes from which some fabled alchemist might be able to reconstruct a burnt rose still has power for me. This “rebirth” without scent, and without the ability to change and bloom, is not a true rebirth, it does not repair the loss.

My life path after my wife’s death is a complicated story including joy and gratitude. Are those considerable things big enough to obscure the loss — in reverse, a planet bigger than a hand? I cannot honestly weigh that, other than to live in the scent of life and to bloom. Starting this project, even if over a decade after my wife’s death, was one way to return to poetry what my young poet-wife would have given.

I have at least one other planned part to this anniversary post, one other musical performance that doesn’t yet exist. I don’t know if I’ll be able to find time to do that, but this part that I did complete is available below. You can play the performance with the graphical gadget below where you see it — and where you don’t, you can use this highlighted link.

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*A close friend, a U. S. Senator, was beaten unconscious and seriously injured on the floor of the Capitol over an anti-slavery speech which was deemed insulting for inferring the same crimes of sexual slavery Longfellow wrote about in a poem.

**The rest of Longfellow’s “Palingenesis”  concludes with the realization that a forward-looking new birth, not an attempt at exact repair and reincarnation, is the better answer. Not only would the entire poem produce a piece longer than I prefer to present here, I think the poem’s older poetic language might wear down many current listener’s interest. Here’s a link to the complete version.

From Cocoon forth a Butterfly – Emily Dickinson’s summer consideration

I shared with my wife, who has many concerns bearing down on her this summer, recent video clips of Freya, a celebrity lady walrus who’s lately been hanging out in Oslo Norway’s harbor. Freya is a young 1300-pound mermaid who spends around 20 hours a day sleeping while carelessly lounging on marina boats, sinking a few with her what-the-hell-I’m-wiggling-aboard anyways. During the other four hours Freya chases ducks and swans. The marina also has kayakers and paddleboard riders which she also likes chasing. Recent videos have caught her eating one of the swans,*  but perhaps thinking of her beach-body figure, she’s skipped eating the humans so far.

“Twenty hours of sleep…” my wife responded. “goals!”

Freya

Hot Girl Summer: Freya, in her liminal state between 20 hours of rest, bird and clam eating, boat wrecking, and being adored by her Norwegian fans.

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Now as far as I know the great American poet Emily Dickinson never got to observe a walrus. On one hand, Emily did have a privileged life as the child of a successful lawyer, but then it was the 19th century and they had fewer smartphones, washing machines, lawn tractors, induction stovetops, and air conditioners. At least in her youth her parents believed strongly in self-reliance and careful household finances, and so distained servants, since after all they had a pair of daughters who could do that work. If we think of the later-life Emily Dickinson as the housebound hermit, you may not know that the younger Emily Dickinson divvied up the household work so that she had more outdoor chores compared to her sister.

One of the things I learned when I visited the Emily Dickinson house a few years back was that across the main road in front of the Dickinson house the family also had a field they farmed. And then on the house’s main lot there was an orchard and food garden which were largely the creature of Emily and her mother. Harvesting hay from the field was probably men’s work, but I was told that Emily would be tasked with bringing the harvesters water and food during their work. All that came back to me as I read this charming poem of Dickinson’s that is generally known by it’s first line: “From Cocoon forth a Butterfly.”  Here’s the full text of the poem if you’d like to follow along.

There are three or four characters in this little poetic drama. There’s our Butterfly (joined by others of her kind later), a “notwithstanding bee” who is proverbially occupied pollinating and presumably making honey, and the harvesting men. The fourth character is animated by the poet herself, a flower which despite being a plant is described as “zealous,” waving in a summer breeze for an afternoon.

Our main character, the Butterfly is described as if she’s an idle lady. She seems to have no task, something she flaunts in the poem. The field workers, the men, have obvious tasks. That hay won’t harvest itself. The bee, a cliché of purpose. The flower is a bit more ambiguous. If we assume Dickinson chose zealous carefully, the flower may be ardently worshiping the summer day or perhaps it’s divine author, shuckling in vegetative prayer.

Which character does Dickinson identify with? Maybe a little with all of them, if not entirely with one. If one has farm tasks (or for that matter the artistic tasks of a poet) the idle lady making a show of her leisure isn’t your model, even if you may feel a bit of envy — and yet poetry can be charged as like a butterfly, a piece of beauty that seems to do nothing. The men are doing useful work (see Robert Frost on mowing in this poem) but though Dickinson tends a garden this haying is not her work. Same for the bee. Dickinson no doubt knows the bee’s work, appreciates it too, but it’s not her work. We know Dickinson is highly knowledgeable about flowers, and often makes them the subject of her poems, but this zealot flower? If she’s serious about that characterization, she stands outside that level of belief.

The closing stanza, like her more famous “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose”  poem resolves this separation from her, the observer of it all — Vanity of Vanities, all is Vanity — and so the purposeful actors and the purposeless Butterfly will all be gone by end of day. Emily the poet remains, as does her poem if we take the time to observe with her again, many days and decades later.

Before I leave you with an opportunity to hear my performance of Dickinson’s “From Cocoon forth a Butterfly” I want to put in a note here about the lack of activity here this summer. I share some of the concerns of my spouse, and I am also trying to reevaluate this Project to see if I can make what I do here more useful, or beautiful, or something. Traffic and listenership always drops off in the summer, so a good time to reevaluate, and you may see fewer new pieces until autumn.

To hear my performance with original music you can use a player gadget many will see below. Don’t see any gadget?  This highlighted link is here as a backup for you.

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*Showing a connoisseur’s appreciation for the swan greater than William Butler Yeats’ I’d say. Yeats only looks at his swans, and yet the great poet distains at putting his tusks into one like Freya. Walruses also eat clams, which as far as I know have never moved Yeats to poetic transport. Apparently, Norway has a problem with lots of invasive clams, which may be why Freya has been hanging out in Oslo.

Yellow Air (Heat)

Are you new here? If so, this is what the Parlando Project does: we take words (other people’s, mostly poetry) and combine them with a variety of music we compose, create, and perform. I find this fun, and I also find that even more than reading another person’s poem — even reading it aloud — performing it illuminates corners inside the text that I might otherwise overlook, so I write here about that experience. Then when you listen to the pieces you get to hear the poem in this new context to freshen your appreciation of poems you know, or to allow you an entry into a poem previously unknown to you.

Most of the time I’m faithful to the texts I use to create these pieces. Oh, I might take a part of a poem and make it a refrain/chorus, or I may select some tasty phrases from a prose paragraph so that expresses something more sharply, as if it was a poem — but my usual idea here is to honor some poet or their poem no matter how famous or little-known it is.

John Gould Fletcher is shelved in that little-known section these days, even though he was associated with writers and movements that are still studied, still read (at least by those interested in early 20th century American Modernist poetry.) I wanted to look at some of his work because I read that one of those associations was with those pioneering Modernists who took to calling themselves Imagists. Imagism was often that 2:40 punk-rock single of a hundred years ago. Instead of spendthrift merely decorative language, rhyme, and imagery, the Imagist poem wanted to get right down to it: direct treatment of something observable, not some ideal distilled from abstract thoughts imagined or philosophically proposed. No extra points would be scored for extra words. Rhyme, while not forbidden, was also not the main point. If rhyme led to extra words, those unneeded ones, it was worth discarding.

The musicality of poetry wasn’t thrown out, but like Modernist music, Modernist verse wasn’t interested in the old formal beats so much.

Best as I can tell from my early readings, Fletcher’s personal interpretation of Modernism and Imagism was not the same as others. He didn’t write much in hyper-short forms, while many of his fellow Modernists published whole collections, or sections in collections, made of sub-20-line poems. At least at first glance, Fletcher cared more for sound and less for freshness and concreteness in his imagery than others.

This Project likes shorter pieces, even more so now because my time and opportunities to compose and record are less than in the Project’s early years. In reading through a couple of Fletcher’s collections from a hundred years ago, I did come upon this short poem that was part of one of those roman-numeral separated sequences like other Modernists used. “Heat”  seemed an attempt at the short Imagist poem to me. Here’s how “Heat”  goes:

As if the sun had trodden down the sky,
Until no more it holds living air, but only humid vapour.
Heat pressing upon earth with irresistible langour.
Turns all the solid forest into half-liquid smudge.

The heavy clouds like cargo-boats strain slowly against its current;
And the flickering of the haze is like the thunder of ten thousand paddles
Against the heavy wall of the horizon, pale-blue and utterly windless.
Whereon the sun hangs motionless, a brassy disc of flame.

Short as it is, it’s a little wordy and formal in its manner of speech compared to other Imagists, but a palpable feeling is evoked in the description. I could have performed “Heat”  as it is above — but then a week ago tonight, I was sitting on my front porch after a summer thunderstorm when the entire outdoors started to take on an intense yellow cast.*

Yellow Sky the Picture 2

It was hard to get a modern digital picture of last Tuesday evening’s sky with a phone. The smartphone kept correcting the heavy yellow and darkening cast to that sky, and as I looked at the photo preview on the phone I wondered why my phone wouldn’t believe me as it showed things brighter and blue. I resorted to using a much less smart device with a lesser digital camera to get this.

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I decided then and there to use Fletcher’s poem to remark on that experience. This recasting went through a few drafts and produced this reuse of some of Fletcher’s words in a different poem:

Yellow Air song PRINT VERSION

Here’s “Yellow Air” with chords in case you want to sing it yourself.

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What did I change? I wanted my own yellow air in a hot, humid summer experience to be portrayed. Though I retained many of Fletcher’s original words and phrases, my variation is present tense and uses a much less literary/formal sentence structure. Mine’s 61 words — Fletchers, 80. The clouds as ships image is borderline cliché and Fletcher’s “cargo-boats” wasn’t specific enough to fight that, so I substituted my own upper-Midwest image: the 18th century indigenous cargo-boats of our region, the voyageur canoe — still reflected even today by those who use their modern canoes to carry themselves and gear into the Boundary Waters for camping. I wanted a more definitive ending too, and so ended my “After…” poem with the sun portrayed as a ruling strong-man who doesn’t care that the sky is yellow and the heat and humidity oppressive.

What I kept, or even tried to bring out was Fletcher’s word-music. Rhymes near and perfect were increased in number and paused on, and I tried to make this variation more easily singable than Fletcher’s more prolix lines.

You can hear the resulting song with the player gadget below, or if that won’t show up in your way of viewing this blog, with this backup highlighted link.

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*The Twin Cities Weather Service explained last week’s yellow sky cast this way: “Behind thunderstorms in the evening, high clouds remain. The setting sun emits light that is bent with longer wavelengths. While the blue (shorter) wavelengths are scattered out, the yellow-orange-red part of the spectrum remain, thus producing the sky we’re seeing tonight.”

John Gould Fletcher’s weird “America”

It appears that no one reads or is concerned with American Modernist poet John Gould Fletcher these days. I came upon him in a passing mention that he was associated with Imagism, a pioneering English-language Modernist style that I find worthy of sustaining. Turns out this was only the half of it: in Fletcher’s “associated with” resume, later in the first part of the 20th century Fletcher was associated with a southern American ruralism movement known as The Agrarians which then morphed into The Fugitives who furthermore helped birth — not sheep or lambs — but the monastic New Criticism that reigned supreme when I was in school as a young man. I’ve learned only a little about Fletcher, so don’t make me out to be an expert on him, but this linked short bio is much better than his sparse Wikipedia entry for flavor and detail, and it makes it sound like sometimes Fletcher’s “associated with” was a brief prelude to a falling out.*

John Gould Fletcher by Edward McKnight Kauffer 1024
“Tell you ma, tell your pa, gonna send you back to Arkansas!” Fletcher traveled and lived overseas early in the Modernist era, but spent the last part of his life back in his home state of Arkansas. Here in 1924 he could pass for “Remain in Light” era Brian Eno don’t you think.

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Thanks to the wonderful collection of scanned books at the Internet Archive I’ve spent this month looking through two of the nine books that Fletcher published in the era surrounding WWI. My impressions are early and will be subject to change, but he seems to be writing in a different mode than other early American Modernists that I admire and have presented here.

Like early Pound you can see elements of Victorian era poetry remaining in his verse. He’s generally less interested in short poems of specifically observed moments than many Imagists. His free-verse often has a definite beat and attention to sound — using, a century ago, word-music techniques that a skilled modern slam poet might select today. Reading poems like today’s selection, I could imagine a live in-you-face-off between Vachel Lindsay and Fletcher in their primes in front of a raucous audience.

He’s a more genteel poet than Lindsay, and among the 19th century influences I see in what I’ve read so far are Whitman, Rimbaud, and William Blake, and today’s selection will help illustrate that I think.

Fletcher’s “America, 1916”  comes in near the end of his 1921 Breaker and Granite  poetry collection. This “America”  is a six-page prose poem that, like the poems that precede it in the collection, attempts to sum up the state of America in 1916, but ends, in the final section that I performed, rhetorically like one of Blake’s prophetic books sung to the word-music of Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat.**   There are no good online sources for the full text of this poem, but I’ll link here to a Google Books result that may allow you to read the whole thing.

Is there a prosaic political point to this poem? In the context of the rest of the poem it could be reduced to a call for America to enter World War I — which though the war had been raging for two years in 1916, was something that wouldn’t happen until a year after the poem’s date. But like Blake’s America, a Prophecy  (which after all includes specific contemporary references of the American Revolution) Fletcher’s poem is doing so by making a more esoteric call for an elusive greater spiritual body of America to be born.

Is America still in an extended, excruciating, labor toward that birth? I’m no prophet, I won’t tell you, but I’ll do my best to give voice to Fletcher’s 100-year-old-words. The final sentence of the poem is one place where I made a slight change in Fletcher’s text. Weirdly, in a way I can’t quite pick out the intended significance, Fletcher ends his piece with “thou shalt arise, perhaps in vain shalt seek, to rule the earth!” As a prophecy of the subsequent “American Century” this could be counted as a palpable hit. Here in 2022, I sought to echo the internal subtlety of Bob Dylan’s opening line to his “License to Kill:”***  “Man thinks ‘cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he pleases — and if things don’t change soon, he will.” With Fletcher’s last line I did it mostly by repeating the “in vain” twice more to add weight to the dangers of vanity.

I performed only the closing section of Fletcher’s “America, 1916”  today because composition and recording time are hard to come by right now. Lots of drums and I was able to play my own horn section this time thanks to getting short-term access to a better set of virtual instruments than I previously had at my disposal. You can hear my performance below either with a graphical player many will see, or with this backup highlighted link provided for those who won’t see a player.

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*The bio mentions bipolar disorder, which might help to explain the bursts of output and the periods of disengagement.

**Stop the presses, ah, blog post — whatever. I’ve just discovered that the prose-poem style used in this and some other pieces in Fletcher’s collection are “Polyphonic Prose,” a term most associated with Amy Lowell, who Fletcher was specifically aligned with at the time. This short notice of Lowell’s use of the form in Poetry Magazine,  November 1918 shows Fletcher highly praising that poetic form two years after the date of “America, 1916,”  but before the publication of the collection in which I found Fletcher’s poem. Lowell (and to a lesser degree, Fletcher) credit a contemporary French poet Paul Fort as the inspiration of this form. At least in the Wikipedia article on Fort, Rimbaud is not mentioned as a direct influence on Fort, even though I heard Rimbaud word-music in Fletcher’s expression of the form.

***While there are few live-take liberties with the lyrics, this version of that song by Richie Havens is definitive to me.

The most popular Parlando Project piece for spring 2022

One unusual thing I did this spring to celebrate National Poetry Month was to re-release 31 pieces from the early years of this project. This was a way, despite reduced time and opportunities to create new pieces, to still celebrate and demonstrate the various poems and music combinations of the Parlando Project.

That April batch does show something of the range of words I’ve used. Famous poets? Shakespeare, Dickinson, Yeats, H.D., William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Frost, Pound, Millay, Cummings, Eliot, Sandburg. Foreign poets less known in America than in their native countries? Edward Thomas, Tristan Tzara, Du Fu. Afro-Americans less-known to their fellow Americans: Fenton Johnson, Raymond Dandridge, Jean Toomer, Anne Spencer.

As part of this April celebration, I spent more time that I thought I would creating “lyric videos.” I figured I would just put in a couple of pictures in a video file and place the words to the poems on the screen in time with their appearance in the music, but they got a little more elaborate.

How popular were they? It doesn’t look like YouTube counts as views any plays of those videos from the inside-the-blog-posts thumbnail images, but it does count those who found them on YouTube itself. Given that sub-set it does count, the most popular of the April Poetry Month videos was our Parlando version of Yeats’ “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.”   No surprise there: William Butler Yeats’ poetry is welcome to so many ears around the English-speaking world. If I was to look at most viewed posts (a metric I don’t use in these Top Ten lists) four out of the top ten most viewed posts so far this year are concerning Yeats’ poems. Yeats is a Poetry’s Greatest Hits poet.

The most listened to and liked piece this past spring was an Irish poem, but it wasn’t by Yeats. It was one of the April Poetry Month re-releases though, “Night, and I Traveling”  by too-little-known Belfast-born poet Joseph Campbell (who also published under the name Seosamh MacCathmhaoil).

I’m partway through a biography of Campbell that was an Anniversary gift from my wife. From it I’m getting more of a sense of the young man who wrote this poem — a poem which is remarkable not just for its tightly compressed and effecting scene, but for being published in 1909 so that it might be counted not just as the work of the first Irish poet to use free verse, but also as one of the earliest published examples of Imagism. It wasn’t until 1913 that F. S. Flint and Ezra Pound published their A few Don’ts by an Imagiste”  and laid out the three famous Imagist suggestions/rules, but before that in London Flint, Pound, and T. E. Hulme had been working out how to radically strip back poetry to a fresh, precise, and direct essence in the months before Campbell published “Night, and I Traveling.”

Night and I Traveling

The chord voicings I used for the 12-string guitar part here are bit unusual.

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I now know that Campbell was in London and meeting with those incipit Imagists in that first decade of the 20th century. Alas I don’t know how junior a partner he was in their meetings, but “Night, And I Traveling”  is to my judgement as fine an early Imagist poem as the more famous and anthologized ones, arguably a more worthy example because of its empathetic attention to the isolated rural woman in a still-colonialized Irish hut in place of Pound’s  damp impressionistic leaf-faced Paris Metro riders published four years later.*   The biography, Joseph Cambell Poet & Nationalist   by Norah Saunders and A. A. Kelly, reminds us that Campbell liked country walks at night. Campbell wrote: “Night walking — all my best thoughts, I find, come to me that way. Poetry, like devilry, loves darkness.” Devilry? Campbell did write some of the supernatural, and would mix Christian and pagan mythologies —but in this one, this night, he stays in our earthly plane. Am I reading too much into the poem to note the poem’s only simile has the lone woman crooning “as if to child” when there is no child depicted? Is that child dead? Or perhaps emigrated to America?


Not as popular as Yeats on YouTube, but here’s the “lyric video” I did for this piece

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You can hear my performance three ways. The “lyric video” is above, an audio player gadget should be below, and this highlighted link is a backup for those ways of viewing this blog that won’t show the player. Thanks again for reading about these encounters and listening to our combinations of music and words.

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*Make of this connection what you will: Pound and Campbell would both eventually be imprisoned by their own countrymen for acts during wartime.