Irish poets, we complete our Fall 2021 countdown, and Ethna McKiernan

I fear this is going to be one of those bad elegies, one where the writer goes on too much about themselves and not about the person who has died. I’ve already mentioned that I find myself unacceptable and self-absorbed when I talk about myself, and saying that again only digs the self-dug hole I’m going to speak from today deeper.

In the mid-1970s when I moved to Minnesota from New York I connected back up with Dave Moore who I knew from a year in my aborted attempt at college. Through Dave I fell in with a literary group that varied in size and was herd-of-cats led by Kevin FitzPatrick. The group had just started  a little magazine they called the Lake Street Review,  Lake Street being a long commercial and industrial street that ran east/west through the center of Minneapolis: bars, gendered barber and beauty shops, warehouses, grocery stores, used car lots, a high-towered Sears linked to a rail-freight line and distribution center behind it, neighborhood movie theaters and former such theaters now grinding porn, the recording studio where “Surfin’ Bird”  was recorded, a small attempt at a non-suburban shopping mall built on the tract where tractors and tanks were once factory-built, a “hardly a foot we can’t fit” shoe store whose upstairs apartments housed Robert Pirsig when he wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Literary magazines generally preferred foreign words, or landscape landmarks like rivers, lakes, or mountains for their names. Yes, there were lakes at the west end of Lake Street, a self-improvement plan for nature dredged out from what had been swampy wetlands as part of a series of landscaped urban parks that circled Minneapolis — but let me be clear to those who aren’t from around here: calling an artistic enterprise The Lake Street Review was something of a provocation. This was a group of working-class writers with a non-academic outlook toward poetry.

The groups earliest meetings were held at a bar, and Dave noted to me that a large portion of the informal membership was made up of bartenders. Let me also set one other demographic fact: this was a group of men moving from their 20s to their 30s. Eventually the membership thinned out, and the remainder continued meeting in rotation in the members homes and apartments.

As the clan leader, Kevin was generally gentle and accepting. A high-school graduate, working in an urban ER, the again’er in me was attracted to the outsider stance, but Kevin also wanted the magazine’s public work to be acceptable to the parents and grandparents of us young men. The 1970s had still extended the “generation gap” of the 60s, so the “Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television” you also couldn’t say on the pages of the Lake Street Review.  Feminism was mysterious, like women generally were to these young men, but those women were talking about it  which made the mystery unsettling. Anything gender-queer was probably beyond the pale.

I liked those folks, but some of this rankled me. Kevin’s desire to speak across the generation gap as a poet was more noble than I appreciated at the time, but I wanted to go much more radically into discussions of sexuality and sexual roles than Kevin did, and what work I shared with the group privately I thought was underappreciated and misunderstood. I skipped off to two other groups sometime in the 80s, only to return to the Lake Street Writers Group after more than a decade away.

By this time the group had become smaller and more fixed in membership and was no longer concerned with the discontinued magazine. Four or five others, interesting writers and persons in their own right, were regulars, and then not; until by the last few years it became a quartet that would meet every month to share and discuss work in progress.

So when that group ended, it was Kevin FitzPatrick, Dave Moore, Ethna McKiernan, and myself. I’m not sure exactly when Ethna became one of the group as it was likely during my sojourn away from it. At one point she was one of two women generally attending, but as we contracted into the quartet, she was the only woman. As we aged it’s possible that this was less of a filter or division, even if it didn’t disappear. Another thing that happened as we condensed: the group had become predominantly Irish-American. Ethna’s father had been a force in the Irish cultural renaissance, something I was almost entirely ignorant of,*  and Ethna’s speaking voice retained a distinct Irish pronunciation undertone. Kevin and Ethna took it upon themselves to establish an annual Twin Cities St. Patrick’s Day poetry reading, a reminder that non-descript leprechauns, green plastic hats, sham-shamrocks, and ever-filled and spilled red cups and flushed faces were not the sum total of Irishness.

Will I ever get to Ethna in this post? To my shame, I will speak more in silhouette, about myself. In many ways I felt the junior member of this group. Kevin and Ethna has several collections published. Ethna got arts grants, had an MFA. Kevin and Dave had degrees from fine private colleges, I was a High School graduate. I gave up trying to publish shortly after my temporary leaving of the group, and it would have been understandable if it irked Kevin and Ethna sometimes that here was this opinionated yet apparently non-professionally serious person taking up their time. I retained a close friendship and collaboration with Dave outside of the group throughout the decades, and grew to understand and appreciate Kevin’s artistic goals, but no such closening happened with Ethna. I knew much less about the details of her life, and what bits I picked up second hand, sometimes from the poetry itself and not from her own conversation, indicated a life with more than it’s share of staggering life events. I also got a not-unexpected sense that men had been part of some of those staggerings, something that she didn’t express much directly in our group of three men and herself. Here’s a statement: I know more about the life-details of Emily Dickinson than I know about the life of a poet, my own contemporary, who I shared a few hours with every month.**

Kevin’s mature poetry never seemed to aim at beauty as such. It is a beautiful thing to find beauty were it isn’t. Ethna indeed aimed for beauty, sometimes comforting and sometimes fierce, and as the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there. Ethna got there some of the time, which is all we artists can do. Looking through her recently published Light Rolling Slowly Backwards, New and Selected Poems  it is easy to find that she was the most skilled poet in our little group, which sounds like fish-in-small-pond praise — but if you (who don’t know us) were to read her, I think you might find similar achievement to whatever other poets you read. When I read Kevin and Ethna’s last books during my yurt retreat early this fall I observed that while I had heard almost every one of Kevin’s published pieces in Still Living in Town in early draft form, I hadn’t heard many of Ethna’s. I know she attended more than one group sharing works in progress, but the amount of work new to me was surprising. I do plan to share one of her striking poems with you soon, but let’s wrap this long introduction up and get to the final part of my countdown of the most listened to and liked Parlando pieces from this past fall.

Two grey guys and a colorful woman

Three Irish poets: Yeats, McKiernan, and Campbell.

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2. The Folly of Being Comforted by William Butler Yeats.  Ethna never simply said something like “Read Yeats!” but before I encountered her I didn’t think much about him one way or the other. Now over the five plus years of this project you’ll have heard the fruits of that influence from her in my many well-liked presentations of Yeats. As I said when I presented it, Yeats was making a very specific point in his poem relating to his own life. I chose in my performance to stubbornly ignore what Yeats intended his poem to be about, and to instead sing it remotely to her on her hospice bed with my own intent. If I snub Ethna in this eulogy, I’ll ignore Yeats too. No respect.

It’s a challenge for me to work out my approximations of Jazz when I’m playing all the parts one pass at a time while being far from a master of any instrument. When it succeeds, as some thought here, I try to combine my simplicities (unimpressive I’m sure to a skilled musician) into something that still pleases when heard together. The highlighted title above will link to my original post on this where I discuss Yeats’ intended meaning, but you can hear my performance dedicated to Ethna with a graphical player (if you see that) or this highlighted hyperlink.

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1. Reynardine by Joseph Campbell.  Before the depths of their illnesses, I asked Kevin and Ethna if they’d heard of this early 20th century Irish poet, and they both drew a blank, which I’ve now found is generally true about this overlooked and worthy of more study poet. If Ireland is thought known for exuberant and willing to risk excessiveness expression, Campbell is never more masterful than when he’s compressing things to a handful of words.

Reynardine is a supernatural story in three short verses. From what I’ve been able to determine (see the original post on this) the supernatural element may have been introduced by Campbell, who took an existing long-winded run-of-the-outlaw ballad, and boiled it down with a shapeshifter element. After he’d done that, the resulting folk revival song, one sung by many of the best revival singers of the British Isles, always includes at least hints of that element. My presentation uses Campbell’s original lyrics, which I think are superior to those usually sung.

As far as it’s popularity here this fall, this is an odd one. The blog post presenting it wasn’t read much at all, and the likes for my explanation there of how Campbell transformed the Reynardine story were low in number. But the listens to the song (as with all the audio pieces here, available via Apple Podcasts or most other podcast directories) were easily higher than any other recent piece. To hear it now you can use the player gadget if your blog reader shows it, or this highlighted hyperlink.

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*I once joked, confessing my cultural ignorance there, that my idea of an Irish writer was Frank O’Hara. Joke or not, someone somewhere must have addressed what connections O’Hara’s poetry had with Irishness, but I haven’t found it.

** It was only a year or two ago, after my interest in Dickinson intensified that I found out that Ethna too had a deep appreciation for that genius. Of course, I have my portion of blame for this, just as with this inappropriate eulogy, but suspect she believed that I wouldn’t understand or have any sense of her experience or sensibility. I’d estimate she was wrong, but saying that only adds to my inappropriateness here today.

Fall 2021 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 4-3

Today we continue to move up the countdown to the most popular and liked piece from this autumn. I mentioned earlier in the countdown and elsewhere that during this year two poets that Dave Moore and I had grouped ourselves with over the years fell seriously ill, and this autumn they both died. Dave himself has been through a health swerve since 2020, but given that he’s alive and could tell his own story, I’ll leave that to him. I’ll just summarize that these three people were a large part of my direct and living connection to poetry, and my circumferential part of the ripples from two of them dying has been to sharply feel that human poetic-creation connection become past-tense.

Two of the pieces left in this countdown are remainder connections to those two poets.

4. Timepiece by Kevin FitzPatrick.  This is one of my favorite pieces that I heard Kevin read even before it reached its final draft for publication. I believe Dave liked it too, and shortly after we heard it, the LYL Band performed it and that’s the recording you can hear below.

Kevin, like our other departed poet, Ethna McKiernan, was a consistent reviser of his work. Poets in groups like ours sometimes present work soon after it reaches a completed draft, but Kevin’s early drafts nearly always seemed close to “ready to publish.” Despite his reliance until far into this century on a typewriter and carbon paper, his drafts’ punctuation and spelling was always correct and the suggested and taken revision ideas often revolved around clarifying narrative elements that would be in the forefront of his poems.*  Kevin also paid attention to meter, and when we’d see later revisions that would be another area he’d have changed.**  As a group we could sometimes be brutal with each other’s work, but it was rare that Kevin would present a stick-out sore-thumb.

“Time Piece”  (the title may have been a single word in the draft I performed it from) had one issue that I recall: there was discussion of the “incorrigibles” that the poem concluded hadn’t stolen the dead father’s wristwatch. At least one of us didn’t like it, perhaps thinking it an archaic, obscure or somehow too formal a word. Kevin nodded and said little as was his usual response to suggested revisions. I think I may have argued for incorrigibles, and since it was there in the draft we performed from long before the poem’s publication in Kevin’s 2017 collection Still Living In Town,  that was still the word in my performance.

Well, damn it, Kevin’s dead, and it’s his poem, and he was good at writing poetry, but “incorrigibles” is the right word, and his revision for publication: “those slick boys” doesn’t have enough flavor. That Dick Tracy word-aroma is just what’s called for! “Greatest Generation” father, and a wristwatch after all! He also made one other revision on the published version: from “That he wasn’t scheduled for a boxing match at six” to “That he wasn’t scheduled to box at six.” I suspect Kevin’s ear thought the later better meter-wise. However as boxing has become a more obscure sport the shorter “box” may miss some readers.***   “Did he work in an Amazon warehouse?” some moderns may think.

“Timepiece”  or “Time Piece”  is a poem well worth reading or listening to. The LYL performance of the earlier draft is what the graphical player below will play, and if you don’t see the player, slug this highlighted hyperlink.

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Still Living In Town and North of Boston

FitzPatrick’s publisher, Midwest Villages & Voices, doesn’t distribute online, but this link contains an ISBN and other info that may help you obtain a copy from your local book store or library. Then this other guy, Frost, has books available  too.

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3. After Apple Picking by Robert Frost.  Unlike our other Frost poem in this autumn’s Top Ten, the metaphysical “Bond and Free,”  you can feel this one. Particularly as Kevin began to spend his weekends working at his life-partner’s rural farm, I could see kinship between FitzPatrick and Frost. Both were drier than a Minnesota winter’s static humidity, both liked to observe human outlooks critically, and both of them could give you some of the tang of work tied to nature. I’m not sure if lifetime farmers are likely to write a poem like this, but someone coming to that work from something else, as Frost and FitzPatrick did, has the outsiders’ advantage of fresh observation.

When I presented this poem last month I thought about dedicating it straight out to Paul Deaton, who’s blog I’ve read for the past few years, in part to catch up on his accounts of small-format food farming, sometimes mentioning apple trees and orchards. But I wasn’t certain how well it fits anything Paul experiences. The apple trees of my youth were tall enough that ladders would be required, but the orchards I saw biking around Bayfield this fall have quite short trees, the kind where an adult would stand flat-footed to pick the fruit.

But maybe I should have gone ahead. Even though this poem has specifics, even to what aches after work, it’s about finishing a task. When another blogger I read: professor, editor, and author Lesley Wheeler wrote of getting to the final stage of a book-length manuscript, I thought of how I felt after finishing a manuscript decades ago. That same “Well, I probably missed a few, but I’m done  with apple picking now.”

Player gadget below for some, this highlighted hyperlink for the rest of you to hear my performance of Robert Frost’s “After Apple Picking.”

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This post has gone long, though with things I wanted to say. Our next post will break from our usual Top Ten countdown, as it will deal with both the most popular piece, and the runner up, and I’ll talk more about poet Ethna McKiernan.

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*More than once I’d say to Kevin “If I had had the idea to write something from this same material that you used, I’d have written a short story.”  I remember once Ethna took me sharply to task for saying that, admonishing me that Kevin was writing a narrative poem. She misunderstood me, for I knew and admired that. Mixing into a short poem, with its almost unavoidable lyric immediacy and compression, with narrative elements sometimes even including a Joycean epiphany, is not easy. Once or twice, so taken with the story in one of Kevin’s poems I attempted to craft a short story from the same material, to demonstrate my point — and yet I could never complete one of those attempts. Kevin’s poetry may look unshowy, but it’s not easy to duplicate.

**Several years ago, Kevin and Minneapolis folk/blues revival pioneer Dave Ray of Koerner Ray and Glover engaged in a little side-bar about meter in Blues lyrics, with Kevin scanning their iambics. Kevin played a little blues harp, and Ray and Kevin’s dad were both in the insurance business.

***Kevin also boxed, and not in a warehouse way. He once wrote a poem which had as significant line “The boxer slugs!” Dave Moore’s punishing wit, after dealing with a lengthy group discussion about if that line would be misunderstood, was spurred to write an entire song about a garden beset by invasive…wait for it…”boxer slugs.”

Fall 2021 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 7-5

Let’s continue our Top Ten countdown of those pieces that you liked and listened to the most this autumn. Regular readers here may not be surprised that death features in some way in each of today’s three poems, as illnesses, infirmities — and yes, folks I’ve known a long time dying — have been part of the year for me.

Everyone that dies or is limited by infirmities is a lesson, one you listen to more richly and intently as you get older. It’s a lesson that makes me press immediately against what limits age has put on me, gives me a sense to use what I have presently before it’s gone. Oh, I am sad that I’ll not hear Kevin or Ethna’s voices again, except in memory or recordings — thin mirrors those. Dave reminds me that it reminds him when I post older LYL Band recordings where he was able to pound and roll the keys. Our family continues to deal with my wife’s mother descending, as politely as she can carry it, into dementia. But those that go before us are meant to teach us. Don’t skip the lessons.

Why Now, Vocalissimus  by Frank Hudson. When I posted this audio piece, shortly after I wrote it, I said right out I wasn’t sure what I meant by it. That state may be unnerving for a writer. After all, aren’t you supposed to know? If you don’t know, how can you present anything vividly to the reader or listener?

Well, there’s a theoretical structure, a mythological structure, that seeks to explain that. It says that we are conduits for muses, external things. We don’t have to be outstandingly worthy, exceptionally preceptive, or precisely eloquent, since we are in this scheme conduits of something outside us. Frankly, this can lead to a lot of bad poetry: inchoate self-expression bearing the costume of inspiration. But then everything leads to bad poetry — all artists fail as I remind readers here often. But what of us readers, us listeners? We fail too, grasping partially what much art conveys.

My understanding of what I wrote back in September has grown as I live with this set of words. Part of our job as living, breathing artists is to carry forward the work of those who’ve left off working. We are not just creators, but also carriers. So, if you write poetry, bring words down onto the page or speak your own words, know that I’m charging you to also preserve and enliven those others who have no voices left to carry the spark. And that’s what I try to do here with the Parlando Project.

My performance of “Why Now, Vocalissimus”  is available below with a graphical player. Don’t see it? Then his highlighted hyperlink.

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Heidi Randen’s picture of a milkweed husk spoke to me this autumn.

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6. The Shadow on the Stone by Thomas Hardy.  A complicated ghost story, a complicated haunting. As I wrote when posting this, English poet Thomas Hardy had a dysfunctional marriage — and yet, like many folks forced by fact into the separation of death and mourning, he still felt the returning presence of the intimate dead.

I rather liked the music I composed and played for this one. It has a weird loping groove that I find attractive. To hear the performance, some will see the player, and the others can use this highlighted hyperlink.

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5. God Made Mud by Kurt Vonnegut.  I decided to present several short excerpts from Vonnegut novels that work as poetry this fall on the occasion of the 99th anniversary of his birth. The LYL Band had recorded them well over a decade ago, on the week Vonnegut died. Why didn’t I wait for the nice, round 100-year birthday? See the start of this post for why.

In Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle  the text I used here is the last rights of an imagined religion. Like the theoretical/mythological structure of muses directing us to write poetry, Vonnegut proposes a useful if compressed Genesis story that asks us to recognize that the nagging mystery of death is no harder to explain than the overlooked mystery of living at all.

Yes, player gadget below for some, and this highlighted hyperlink for others to hear it too.

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Halfway through this fall’s Top Ten. The rest will be posted here soon.

Fall 2021 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 10-8

It’s that time again when I present our quarterly countdown of the pieces most liked and listened to here at the Parlando Project during the past season. We’ll proceed from the 10th most popular and move up to number 1 in the next few posts. The bold-faced heading for each piece are links back to the original post that introduced the pieces here, in case you didn’t see them earlier this autumn.

10. Cobwebs, Steel, and Moonshine by Carl Sandburg.  Longtime readers here will know of my admiration for American poet Carl Sandburg, and so it may be no surprise that this is actually the second time I used parts of a single Carl Sandburg poem for a Parlando Project audio piece. The Sandburg poem is “Smoke and Steel,”  a poetic celebration of labor and laborers from a collection of the same name published in 1920. I used that whole poem’s title for the piece I created out of the beginning of it for May Day in 2019, but for this past American Labor Day I used the conclusion of “Smoke and Steel”  and gave the result this title. I dedicated it to another American poet, Kevin FitzPatrick, who was suffering from a serious and unexpected illness that killed him later this fall. This is the first of three poems in this fall’s Top Ten dedicated to poets Dave and I knew and exchanged work with who were suffering mortal illnesses.

I’m thankful that long-time reader of the blog rmichaelroman submitted a good guess as to what the steel might be in Sandburg’s short ode to workers and work: rebar.

Player gadget below for some of you, or this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

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9. Bond and Free by Robert Frost.  It’s been a while since I mentioned it, but Robert Frost bugged me when I was young. He was still alive, and omnipresent in anthologies one might find in school, which caused me to treat him like other 20th century poets and critics treated Longfellow: as a square preaching platitudes who stood in the way of younger and fresher voices who’d question all that with a more unruly poetry. I was misreading Frost of course, but through that error I did find others I thought in opposition to him that I found rewarding back then. Eventually I came around to love the word-music in his shorter lyric poems, and from that attraction found a starker and more divided meaning was there.

“Bond and Free”  is Frost in his more metaphysical and frankly philosophic mode, which isn’t my favorite Frost, setting out here a cosmic stage where Love and Free Thought conflict. He sounds more like Shelley or Keats in “Bond and Free”  than the more modern diction he was able to make sing in other poems, but sing the words do.

Player gadget below for some of you, or this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

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Frost-Moore-Sandburg

Three young poets at work. One played in the LYL Band.

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8. They’re All Dead Now by Dave Moore. One of the most popular of my Halloween series this year, even though it’s a longer ballad form story that put my singing strength to the test. Longtime listeners here will know Dave as the most common alternate voice here at the Parlando Project as well as the keyboard player you’ve heard in the LYL Band.

He’s also a fine writer of poetry and songs. For reasons too complicated to deal with now, I fairly often sing Dave’s songs here rather than having him sing them himself. There’s a factor when someone sings another writers’ song. While they may bring a different kind of talent and musical craft, they may also somewhat misunderstand the song — or misunderstand (maybe more at “re-understand”) it in a valuable mutational way. Though I’m not a great singer, I do try to bring something to Dave’s songs when I present them here.

Every song stands to gain much more than one more life when sung by someone else. From time to time I’ve encouraged others to sing some of the Parlando Project songs. Anyone have their own cover of one of our Parlando Project pieces you’d like me to hear?

Yup, player gadget below for some of you, or this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

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I died for Beauty — but was scarce

I’m nearly over the bout of upper-respiratory crud that has laid me low this month, so I felt it time to see if I could test the dulcet tones of my voice again with a new audio piece. Today’s is one by Emily Dickinson: “I died for Beauty — but was scarce.”

This poem is characteristically short, and “I died for Beauty”  has long been one of Dickinson’s “better known” poems. Let’s do what I often like to do with one of Poetry’s Greatest Hits here and see what we may have missed, and why I might archly put that “better known” in quotes. Here’s a link to a blog post that starts with the full text of the poem in case you’d like to refer to that as I discuss it.

Let me get this out first: to certain sensibilities this is a poem that’s easy to find infused with a kind of corny gothic pretension. It’s got all the counters, common already in Dickinson’s mid-19th century, only more so now: graves, decomposing tragic corpses, sad death, and the world’s disinterest in earnest souls. And on top of this: it’s got capital letter Truth and Beauty. Even a school child who’s read and adored some Keats* will see Dickinson as dropping a shout-out to the doomed garageman’s son.

What can we infer about what Dickinson intended here? I’m no Dickinson scholar, but what I’ve gleaned from reading some of her letters as well as her poems is that while she had those gothic urges, she fiercely wielded a skeptical eye and a satirist’s pen. My guess is that she believed in capital letter Truth and Beauty, and Poetry for that matter, but she also knew the comic limits of humans dealing with them. I could be wrong, or projecting, but that’s the Dickinson I “read.”

The poem’s opening line, with its concluding start of a broken phrase “I died for Beauty — but was scarce” lets one suspect that the tomb is not exactly overflowing with heavenly beauty. So, our dead-in-the-tomb “died for beauty” narrator here finds death (like life) is asking for our narrator to become “adjusted.”

But wait there’s another voice! One equally devoted to capital letters! One who died for Truth! In case one thinks those capital letters are shouty, his voice is soft, somewhat defeated, and is asking about failure. Note that the died for Truth voice is male —we’ll have more to say regarding gendering in the poem soon.

I died for Beauty ms

Here’s how Dickinson wrote down this poem of hers in one of her sewn-up fascicles.

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Dickinson either makes an odd choice or is just awkward in the Truth guy’s opening question.**  She writes it as he’s asking “Why I failed?” in quotes. In ordinary writing this would indicate that the voice is asking: “Why did I, the Truth Guy, fail.”***  However in the context of the poem the Beauty voice, our narrator, answers back as if they  were asked why they died. It’s hard to convey in a single-voice performance, but if Dickinson intended this awkwardness, it’d be a demonstration of Beauty being consumed by their own state and so thinking the question was to them.

The conclusion of the 2nd stanza, Truth Guy’s reply to our Beauty narrator is stilted, even by mid-19th century formal speech standards. I don’t know if this is intended or simply a failure in Dickinson’s prosody. If intended, Truth Guy’s speech is demonstrably meaningful (truthful) while not  being beautiful. I think of my thought about Dickinson growing up in a household consumed with lawyering and contracts and being genetically related to lawyers.

I’m indebted to Oliver Tearle in pointing out something else in Truth’s little speech: he calls our narrator “Brethren” which is continued in the summary of the next and final stanza as “Kinsmen.” Now if we are to assume that our narrator is Emily Dickinson, a woman, then she’s just changed gender or has been miss-gendered by Truth Guy. Now of course even though the poem begins with “I” we can’t be sure that Dickinson — even if consumed by the beauty of poetry and multiple times in her poems apt to cast herself as writing of herself after death — intends that I who died for Beauty to be herself.

This may be leading to the final two lines, where truthfully and beautifully the omnivorous (even consuming mineral!) moss consumes their bodies and eventually their grave’s marker stones, leaving nothing gendered, nothing specific, only their essences returning to our shared essence: the truth and beauty available to us all if we seek it, to borrow and use it, to find comfort with, and to comfort by.

I’ll pause here to note that poet Ethna McKiernan died this past Sunday. I worked on this Sunday and Monday before I heard the news.

A Player gadget is below for many of you to hear my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “I died for Beauty — but was scarce.”  And if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

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*No shame in that. I was one. The long-running Prowling Bee blog project points out that the Truth and Beauty paring is also present in known Dickinson influence Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s epic poem “A Vision of Poets.”   It’s also worth considering that Keats’ Truth and Beauty urn is not simply a joyful object for contemplation, or even a clear model for the supremacy of art like Rilke’s white-scrubbed statue.

I’ll offer my own tentative and inconclusive possible inspiration: It’s thought this poem was composed in 1862, and while we don’t know the particulars of Dickinson’s intent, there’d be this possible even more contemporary influence: the folk hymn adaption “John Brown’s body (lies a moldering in his grave/but his soul is marching on)” which was transmuted into a more grand literary composition with the chorus of “His truth is marching on.” As “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”  Julia Ward Howe’s poem was published in the February 1862 number of the Atlantic Monthly where Dickinson surely would have seen it. Literally, the antecedent to “His” in Howe’s poem is the godhead, but folk-music-process wise, the antecedent is John Brown.

Posthumous editor and sought-out living “preceptor” (in her words) of Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, was a backer of John Brown’s raid.

**Original Dickinson editors Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson removed the quotes Dickinson put around Truth Guy’s question, making it clearly a question to our died for Beauty narrator in their version. So “He questioned softly ‘Why I failed’?” in Dickinson’s hand then became “He questioned softly why I failed?” on first printing.

***”Failed” here is meant also to have a double meaning as in dying, but the fail in failed is too prominent. As this voice was first introduced, “One who died for Truth” is more noble sounding, as in martyrdom, than failed in truth.

A Winter’s Tale, Revisited

Here’s one of my favorite pieces from the five-plus years of the Parlando Project, and given that winter has fully started off in Minnesota, it’s an apt one for what I see out my window. As I post this, I remind you that the archives here going back to 2016 have nearly 600 audio pieces, covering a considerable variety of words (mostly poetry) and music.

I’d planned several new pieces to start off December here, and I even had a few recorded tracks and sketched out compositions as the month began. Then stuff happens.

First off, the teenager got sick, which meant recording in my studio space was out for a week. Then just as they were getting better, I got sick — sick enough that sitting up in a chair was a goal and thinking, reading, and writing —much less playing instruments and singing — was a stretch. I’m still operating at less than 50%.

So instead of a new piece today, this piece created from a poem by D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence was perhaps better known as a novelist and literary critic, but his poetry took interesting approaches in the Modernist era of the early 20th century.

His “A Winter’s Tale”  is as mysterious as any exotic Surrealist poem, and though metrical and all rhymed up, largely observant of the Imagist rules that broke English language poetry from off-the-shelf metaphors and the lot of tell-not-show imagery. Here’s a link to the text of Lawrence’s poem. It’s a lovely text, the words are a pleasure to put in one’s mouth or ear; and I’m also fond of the musical setting I created for this one. I’m often telling myself when arranging my music to give the compositions more patience and space — and then I go on and add one more thing and another, defeating that thought. Here I listened to myself.

When I first presented Lawrence’s “A Winter’s Tale,”   I said I wasn’t quite sure what it means. More than two years later, I don’t know much more. Many readers sense some kind of “end of a romantic relationship” situation here, and taken that way the poem works. Strangely works, but works. Other possibilities occur to me as I’ve revisited “A Winter’s Tale”  since I performed it. Some sort of animal hunting* seems implied here as much as human romance. Is that hunting subject, or the metaphor? Sometimes poems refuse to choose on that question.

Battle of the poets. Smokey Robinson brings it with this opening “Everyday brings change, and the world puts on a new face. Sudden things rearrange, and this whole world seems like a new place. Secretly I’ve been tailing you like a fox that prays on a rabbit.” Now, go to the bottom of this post to see what I can do to try to meet Motown’s popmusic-craft with my own thing.

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Is it possible that what the poem speaks of and searches for is winter itself? At first this may seem a strained reading, after all the poem spends a good deal of its brief text describing winter scenery, so how can it be something the poet is seeking when it’s in front of them? Some of that description though is of winter’s haunting and elusive qualities: obscuring mists melding with snow, far off winds that sound like sobs or sighs. The winter in this poem does seem to be winter’s arrival, perhaps even earlier than normal arrivals, with grass blades at first not even covered by the early snow. In such a reading is what the poet has to tell this promptly arriving winter is that spring will follow it?

The player to hear my performance of “A Winter’s Tale”  is below for some of you. Don’t see it? This highlighted hyperlink will also play the piece.

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*One of my favorite early English sonnets, Thomas Wyatt’s “They Flee from Me”  makes use of deer hunting as symbol for love’s vulnerability, long before Smokey Robinson’s song first presented by The Marvelettes “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game”  did likewise.

Ethna’s Dream

Long time readers here will know that one of this Project’s ideas is “Other People’s Stories.” I’ve chosen to make that one of its principles for a couple of reasons. First, the Internet is full of folks telling their own stories, and this is fine (after all, to me those would all be “Other People’s Stories”). I wanted to do something different, to focus on how you and I experience a variety of words from a variety of writers with a variety of outlooks. The second is that I’m rather uncomfortable with promoting myself. That one’s complex.*  Like most writers or composers or artists I think my own work has value at some percentage over half the time. Which then, mathematically, allows that I doubt its value, or my handling of its value, or the costs of declaiming its value to the universe a bunch of the time too.

No one creates without the first thought. It would be impossible. And no one who cares about what they create, about their audiences, or about how much craft and care can be devoted to any art; without seeing the faults, the missed communication, the needs for just one more revision or tomorrow for any work.

Many of us create instinctively, because we have to — but sharing that work is a choice. I’m nearing 600 Parlando Project audio pieces presented here. I could have presented at least half or two-thirds of that easily with things Dave or I wrote, but I made a different choice. It’s less conflicted for me to publicly look at, to be honestly surprised and delighted at Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, Sara Teasdale, or Du Fu; and then to share that with you.

But there’s a problem with “Other People’s Stories.” I’m likely not understanding everything those authors intended.** And they’re their  stories, their  visions. I’ve talked recently here about how when I translate a poet who wrote in another language how I want to honor their work and transfer accurately their particular powers, and yet then become tempted to break off into something their work makes me see through my own eyes.

A long prolog to presenting today’s piece, one I wrote and titled “Ethna’s Dream.”  Ethna is Ethna McKiernan, a poet who I used to meet and talk about work with once a month or so, along with two to four others. Ethna cared and crafted her work over decades, and in her life did other useful work: running an Irish heritage book and art shop, working with the homeless. She’s currently in hospice, comforted by family, and the reports are that she’s now mostly in an out of what appears as sleep.

I couldn’t call Ethna a close friend. I always sensed a distance there. I think often of her none the less these days, and of every rudeness, awkwardness, or self-dealing on my part around her; and those or any number of things could have caused that. The very fact of writing a poem about her death, her dying, that mostest personal thing, seems problematic.

So, when you listen to my piece “Ethna’s Dream”  you now know all that. This is not a poem about those things I’ve discussed in prolog, or at least I hope so. Instead, my intent is that it’s a poem about what we should treasure of that sharing of the unconscious that we have with artists (including those whose main art is just living). What I present in “Ethna’s Dream”  is not a romantic, imaginary, sentimental metaphor in my own mind — though it may attract or repel you if you see it as such — it’s more at the essences of what we do, share, and take with art.

Ethna's Dream

There’s references to Bottom’s speech in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Am I prettifying  myself up with pretentiousness, or comparing myself to the foolish play character? I wrote it, and yet I can’t tell.

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There’s a player gadget to hear it below for many of you, but some ways of reading this blog won’t show it, so there’s this highlighted hyperlink to play it as well.

Thanks for reading and listening.

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*One problem, leading to one fear, is that when offered the chance to promote myself I see myself as overdoing it, and coming off as a self-absorbed narcissist that runs on too long about the arts I work in, prattling about the obvious and the obscure in equally embarrassing ways. If you’re still reading at the footnote stage, you may have forgiven me for that.

**Beside just plain embarrassment of ignorance, we now more often talk about cultural appropriation in regards to this. The travesties of cultural appropriation are real, but my belief is that they should, must, be risked.

Fragmentary Blues

Life events are conspiring again to keep me out of my studio space to record new pieces — but it just so happens that I have this rocking Blues recorded back in 2007 with the LYL Band that’ll contrast with our pensive Frost meditation on work from last time. Today’s audio piece was made from Frost’s short poem titled “Fragmentary Blue,”  now recast as “Fragmentary Blues.”

Unlike Carl Sandburg or Langston Hughes, I have no idea if the 1914 vintage Robert Frost had any experience or appreciation of this Afro-American musical form. A quick search found nothing, even though Frost’s lifetime overrode The Jazz Age, The Swing Era, and even early rock’n’roll.

But as poet Langston Hughes soon discovered, the lyrical expression of the Blues was a vital format worth picking up. A first draft of this post included a long aside about the importance of this Afro-American Modernist form, but on second thought I’m going to take less of our time today so that we can focus on how Frost’s poem can be expressed through that form.

JFK and Frost

JFK: When you wrote “Come on mama, to the edge of town/I know where there’s a bird nest, built down on the ground” were you talking about what I think you were talking about? (wink wink).
Frost: No, you’ve got me confused with another bucolic poet, that’s Charlie Patton — but I believe that’s a philosophic statement about how erotic desire is both natural and elusive. Patton was tuned in open Spanish for that one.”

Blues lyrics often used a stanza format of three lines: one a statement, the second a restatement that may be the same, nearly the same, or subtly varied while still gathering intensity via repetition; and then a third line which can go in any direction the writer/poet/singer wants to take it, though it usually rhymes with the ending of the first two lines. It’s a variation of that ancient and simple poetic scheme the rhyming couplet, but with that repetition allowing for something extra in the balance. And there’s often an element of call and response in the lines: that choral rock, and roll back that Sophocles, Skip James, and Pops Staples could share.

So, let’s go back to our 1914 Robert Frost poem “Fragmentary Blue.”

Why make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,
When heaven presents in sheets the solid hue?

Since earth is earth, perhaps, not heaven (as yet) —
Though some savants make earth include the sky;
And blue so far above us comes so high,
It only gives our wish for blue a whet.

Not in Blues stanza form. Instead, ABBA, and I don’t mean the Swedish pop group.*  But Frost has made the center two lines in each stanza a sort of parenthetical, so that lines one and four are natural couplets and the middle two lines are already couplets that can stand by themselves. This means it was easy to turn “Fragmentary Blue”  into “Fragmentary Blues.”

Why make so much of those fragmentary blues?
Why make so much of those fragmentary blues —
When heaven presents us sheets of a solid hue.

Here and there a bird, or a butterfly.
Here and there’s a bird, or a butterfly,
Or a flower, or a wearing stone, or an open eye.

There’s some savants say the earth includes the sky.
Some say, some say, that the earth includes the sky —
And the blues so far above us, it comes on so high.

Since earth is earth, it isn’t heaven yet.
Earth is earth. It ain’t heaven yet.
It only gives a wish for blues a whet.

So there you go, via show not tell, we rock up Robert Frost in the Blues form. If you read the two sets of words closely, you’ll see something has changed. Frost’s “blue” on first reading seems a stand-in for beauty, while the Blues treats its namesake emotional dissatisfaction as something less than beauty. But, consider again. Frost’s poem says we miss the immensity of natural beauty in our all too earthward human act of trying to possess its emulations. That difference, that dissatisfaction — that’s the Blues. My adaptation only brings out that subtext more overtly. You can hear the LYL Band express Frost most blues-wailingly with the player gadget below, or with this highlighted hyperlink that will play the performance. Most of the better guitar notes here were played by Andy Schultz who played with the LYL Band for a few times, and Dave Moore will once more hear himself back when he could pound and roll on the (plastic) ivories.

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*Is it too late in their career to suggest that they produce a trans-Atlantic Carl Sandburg tribute record? I’m available, and you need my audience of dozens to hundreds of listeners.

After Apple Picking

Around America people are getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, a sort of remembered harvest festival, now a family get-together mostly celebrated by eating as most Americans are separated from farm work by some distance and decades. However, back in 1914, American poet Robert Frost was close enough to that work to write a masterful and closely observed poem about harvest time that I’m going to present for today: “After Apple Picking.”  While I hope you’ll listen to my audio performance with my original music below, here’s a link to the poem in case you’d like to follow along with the text.

This poem is full of sensuous detail. Encountering it — even if you don’t do farm work — you should feel the completion and weariness of the poem’s speaker who is falling asleep at the end of his harvest season. The poem’s farmer has been working in an orchard, and that place is full of the scent of apples. In a fall orchard such as this, much of this scent may be from fallen apples which, even as they start to rot, give off a sweet musk. And it’s frost time, not just the poet’s name on the poem, but the livestock water-trough has a frozen sheet on top, so the picker has been racing against a loss of the crop. In a piece of rural surrealism, the farmer has, that morning, picked up a plate of this surface ice —which would be thin, wavy, and fragile — and looks through it as if they are magic spectacles at the morning frost on the grass. This lasts but a moment, the magic glass will disintegrate in his hands, but that’s of no matter, there’s work to complete.

While falling asleep his body is still weary, his feet are sore from standing on the round ladder rungs, but as dreams approach his mind once more magnifies and intensifies reality like the view through the wavy ice sheet, and he’s haunted by apples, by his job of picking and inspecting, his rush against the end of season frost.

As the poem moves to its conclusion the farmer seems to imply that his work to gather the crop before it’s lost is like unto the work of salvation. We might remember and notice that the poem started with a ladder pointing “toward heaven.” And those apples that touch the earth are held by it and not offered heavenly worth.

Frost ends his poem whimsically, not with an angel or a prayer, but with a small rodent, the woodchuck, which hibernates (“his long sleep”) in the winter. As the farmer falls off to sleep, he wonders how long a rest he has earned.

How big a slice of apple pie do you want? Stand back, I’ll cut you a piece.

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When Frost wrote this poem about a third of Americans were farmers and farm workers. Now, most of us have other labors. Our harvests may not be food, we may not be tied to the cycle of seasons as exactly. My wife will be getting time off from working in a medical clinic, where she works to gather as many as she can, and Thursday she’ll be making a meal for us and her mother with dementia. I’m working past midnight to bring you a presentation of this poem. Our labors are many, they may make us weary, but perhaps, yet, we can be thankful for them.

My audio performance of Robert Frost’s harvest poem “After Apple Picking”  can be heard with the player gadget below, or with this highlighted hyperlink. My music today is percussion, piano, cello, two violins, horn, and harp.

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Last Thoughts on Robert Bly

The poet and writer Robert Bly was unavoidable here in Minnesota, and to some degree that may be true elsewhere. Today would be the day this week I would have to record something new, but I’m going to write this instead on the week of his death.

I moved to Minnesota from New York in the mid-1970s, and Robert Bly was unavoidable even then, at least within poetry circles. Minnesota is used to single degrees, and it soon became clear to me that one didn’t need to reach a balmy high of 6 degrees of separation to connect a lot of the poets here to Bly.

Now as a younger man I was a big again’er, and so I was often moved to do by what I was in opposition to. Bly was this too, and he retained this spirit well into his middle age. I recall the first time I saw him read and then speak on more general cultural topics at a writers event. The reading was intriguing. I recall he spoke his poems in a Yeatsian* sing-song chant and I believe he may have strummed a mountain dulcimer haphazardly while intoning his poems. That sort of thing is not universally attractive, then or now, but I admired the attempt. The poetry held my attention while not bowling me over. I’m not entirely sure (memories of other Bly readings blur into my memory of my first) but he may have spent time in his reading speaking about the matters the following poem would be a distillation of. In effect a Bly reading sometimes seemed to be roughly in haibun form, prose talk containing associations and context, to be followed by a shorter lyric poem. In the mid-20th century this reading style was an again’er move, for the predominate public literary reading was flatter, trusting the words alone, or the persistence of memory from studying them on the page before or after, to bring forth the impact. The Beat poetry** with jazz thing still existed then, but this wasn’t quite that, and the Beats were still assayed plausibly as a faded popularizing fad with inferior poetry by many. Over the years my fondness/acceptance of Bly’s reading style continued, though I never wanted to sound like Bly reading.

Part of what might seem too much at a Bly reading, perhaps part of why he chose to explain the human connections not always overt in the poetry which followed, was that he really seemed to want us to treasure the words. That could seem vain or self-important — but of course he, or any of us poets, are only borrowing the words.

The video looks like it may be Bly reading around the same time I first heard him.

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Later in the event series where I had heard him read, I heard him talk about culture. I recall the core of his talk that day was about how young people (he may have been restricting his subject to young men, even though this was years before Iron John)  had this narcissistic irresponsibility and lack of order. He called those suffering from this syndrome “Boy Gods” and he said these two words so close together that I wondered if this was a new word I hadn’t heard before: “buoygaadz.” Anyway, I wasn’t having this. Yes, nearly all writers, and more nearly all poets, have a sliver of un-endorsed self-regard for their thoughts and work.*** And we don’t generally know what to do with what skills we have, but at a young age drawing on our own lives isn’t just narcissistic, it’s also largely what we have any grasp on so far in our short years.

So, my again’er back was up. Maybe it wasn’t me he was talking about? Didn’t occur to me. I’d been working full time since I was 20 first in nursing homes taking care of folks Bly’s parents’ age, then in urban Emergency Rooms where people had no where else or no choice but to come. I didn’t need some writer with writing prizes giving me tough love, it was my day job to provide some pretty tough love to some needy people.

That’s often what happens when two again’ers meet. How much did I misunderstand? How much was Bly wrong? As an old man I’m not sure. That again’er part of me still arises, even in old age; but now I’m prone to doubt that there’s one way and one understanding — which was always part of my being against stuff that claims there was. Similarly, I was never attracted to Bly’s denomination of a men’s movement, though some others who seem a decent sort of person in my estimate were. I have no understanding of that part of Bly’s lifework, and so look elsewhere if that’s what you’re looking for. Also missing in my accounting today will be that there was, even more so in the older Bly, a sense of general good humor about our less than murderous follies.

Skip forward some decades and into a new century. Partly from examining closely the early Modernists (who wrote differently than most Modernism that followed) and partly from a renewed interest in how the classical Chinese poets expressed poetry, my poetry became more like Bly’s without any direct intent on my part to write like him (remember, my first impressions of Bly’s poetry were: nice enough, but not impressive or something I needed to copy.) If you’ve listened to some of the hundreds of examples of various performance styles I’ve used here combining poetry and music, I don’t think you’ll find me sounding much like Bly reading — but he is one of several whose courage in trying different ways to make verse work aloud inspired me.

And then, as readers here will know, I started to do more translations. I did this to expand what I presented here, and also because I think it’s a great way to get inside other ways poetry can express itself for my own writerly benefit. In the course of doing that, I would run across works that Bly had translated. My first thoughts? “He put stuff in there that wasn’t in the poem. And he makes them all sound like Bly poems.” Well, there’s my again’er again! I told myself that I want to honor the poet I’m translating — and sure, I can’t move the exact word-music over, but it should remain their poem, not mine. Oh, I still think I’m trying to do that, but I’m failing into doing what I see in Bly’s translations more and more. I’m not sure how I’ll eventually feel about this failure on my part. I’ll say only this (in example) if you think you’re reading Rumi by reading Bly, you’re not. You’re looking over the shoulder or between the ears of Robert Bly reading Rumi. That may be a fine location, just don’t hang the wrong sign on it. Ah, but as with the poetry we write, we’re only borrowing the words.

Have I been too dismissive or hard on the man who has just died, and who earned his honors and esteem and perhaps deserved even more? And who am I to cast this as if Bly and I are peers in any estimation! I worry that I might give some readers those impressions, but no, my intent is to say this in gratitude to Bly; and then to say this to you: if you, even partially, progress by opposition know that opposition may be like a pair of powerful magnets with poles repelling — they may snap around in your intending hands, together.

For an audio piece today, here’s an autumn poem by Rilke that Bly and I both translated. Here is a link to a page with Rilke’s own German beside Bly’s English version, and here’s mine.

Since this version from 2019, I’ve changed the 8th line to a less awkward one: “If you don’t have a house, you won’t build one now.”

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You can hear me perform my translation combined with my own music either with the following player gadget (where shown) or with this highlighted hyperlink.

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*I didn’t know back then, but William Butler Yeats had designs to do just such a thing early in the 20th century, perhaps more pitched than what Bly did, but by Yeats own instruction also not “art song” with elaborate melodic singing.

**While in New York I’d heard Ginsberg sing poetry; and though his pitch sense had issues, he was singing in full voice. Though I left New York before the hip-hop explosion, Gil Scott-Heron was a thing, and again, the cool, sly Beat infused (in both senses of the word) Scott-Heron thing wasn’t what Bly was doing. Bly then was always slowing the flow down, sometimes elongating the words almost like a stage hypnotist.  The Last Poets sounded more like drill sergeant chants compared to Bly. Ken Nordine’s “Word Jazz” had moments of that slow, hypno-suggestion groove, but it also had rhythmic variety. Later Bly chopped with a raised hand while reading, chopping also the words off at their feet with more variety in tempo.

***Often fighting with a stubborn bit of self-destruction or outright self-hate. Many artists think they know what they’re doing maybe 51% of the time, and then “I don’t have any idea about how to do it” fills the remainder 49%. The former pride lets us work, maybe even impress the results on others, the later portion calls us self-deluded. Some self-medicate trying to dampen down one portion or the other, but the drugs, drink, etc are not accurate enough.