We’ve come to the winter solstice, the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere, much more night than day where we live. But it’s also the season of lights: extra holiday lights decorate homes, Christmas markets, and some streets. Some are the lure of commerce, some the lure of religious worship. Some lights say that the desecrated temple can shine again. Some are an abstract decoration set against the dark and grey.
Dave sings below: “Seen from space the earth is glowing…luminescent as a cinder…”
This has probably gone on at some level since we discovered fire. It could be illusion or illumination, but the lights are our human communication with the dark. We know the dark is larger, we know the dark will return—but we still want to speak our piece.
A few years back Dave Moore and I recorded a performance of a song he wrote: “Lights (There Is No Darkness).” I improvised two longer guitar solos in the performance, neither of which are in any hurry, but I’ve come to rather like them along with Dave’s loping, chiming keyboard part. There’s a longer night to decorate, so why not share it here today I think.
The player gadget for “Lights (There Is No Darkness)” is below.
I’ve not engaged much in re-blogging, but two pieces I’ve read this week really struck me: one for an idea and examples of how it might be executed, and the other for a sharply-written essay on a novel from the same early 20th century era that much of the poetry we use comes from.
The idea? A professor and poet Lesley Wheeler, who teaches a course in American poetry from 1900-1950, gave this assignment in lieu of the conventional essay: “create 8 pages of a little magazine from the period, including a cover, masthead, mission statement, table of contents, and a few ‘solicited’ submissions (mostly real poems from the period, but they were allowed to make up one or two plausible imaginary modernists, too, and write poems in those personas). They also had to write reflective essays explaining their literary and design choices and providing a bibliography of models and other sources they consulted.”
That’s a powerful idea. She shows examples of some of the responses to the assignment, and I’d love to see more of what the respondents chose to do. No one lives in history, even those old dead people were immediate. Here’s a link to her post.
The essay came from an unexpected source. I follow a blog Yip Abides that features unusually framed urban-midwestern street photography, a genre that follows the photographic aesthetic of my late wife. He also likes to feature videos that have impressed him, often animation. Visual art and musically oriented blogs are a large portion of my follow list as my own portion of reading on literature is taken up almost entirely with things that directly apply to material for this project.
But this week, there was a post there about The Virginian, a novel I’ve never read, but one of that helped formulate a genre, “The Western,” that dominated popular entertainment in the mid-20th century much like a certain kind of SF/Fantasy dominated the last part of it and the beginning of our current century.
The blogger, Bob Roman, writing about The Virginian ranges perceptively over the areas I’d want a writer to cover. What’s the connection between the cowboy “necktie party” and KKK style lynchings and murders?* How much does the American frontier underlie some particulars in contemporary libertarianism? And there’s more. Well worth reading, and here’s a link to it.
And before I leave to write another post on a new audio piece, a few miscellaneous follow-ups on things discussed earlier in the year.
I’ve now seen the first episode, and so far it seems to be what I’d hoped it was: a tongue in cheek re-contextualizing of Emily Dickinson’s life which both comments on her actual mid-19th century issues and our own times. Last year’s theatrical film Wild Nights with Emily tried to do something like this and had its moments, but I thought the overall execution flawed. Wild Nights with Emily and Dickinson are both comedies, but it was as comedy that Wild Nights failed, its portrayals of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Mable Loomis Todd were all too broad. True, they are peripheral characters in Wild Nights, but that too was a choice. As best as I can tell from one episode Dickinson doesn’t make those choices and is the better for it as a comedy. The characters of Dickinson’s world are more rounded portrayals.
The first episode was full of little footnote-quality accurate factoids about the Dickinson family—the creators apparently wanted to show they had done their research. Two choices Dickinson appears to make could work or fail as the series continues: It may have trouble showing why Dickinson matters and it makes the choice to play Emily Dickinson as younger than she was.
At least in the first episode, Dickinson is represented as being recognized by some in her peer group as “a genius” and a few lines of one of her best known poems are repeated almost as often as the hook in a current pop song, but we so far get no sense of why her poems are crucial. This may change over more episodes of course, but it’s always hard to show what a writer does visually. If you do a biopic about a great performer you show an actor portraying them performing, if the simulation is good you’ve made your case. Watching someone write, or how that writing works inside the minds of readers, is not so easy to act.
The first episode seems to be set in 1852, when Dickinson was the age that actor Hailee Steinfeld who plays her is in real life, 22 years old. But this is before Dickinson wrote most of her poems. Chronology seems to be a difficult issue for filmmakers trying to portray Dickinson’s life, but if the show works, I’m willing to grant them license for being loose with that. More problematic is that they appear to be portraying Dickinson as a teenager rather than as a 20-something, much less the 30-something that apparently wrote much of the poetry. I’m aware that different times had different norms for childhood and youth, but were 22-year-olds acting more like 16-year-olds in 1852? I couldn’t help but think the history they were unintentionally demonstrating was the TV and Hollywood practice of having high-school age characters played by 20-something actors.
I’ve had to live through an era when Dickinson was thought of as an arid eccentric, frustrated spinster, and even as a corrective I’m not sure I want her now to be portrayed as only the hormone-saturated brain of our adolescences either. We’ll see how they deal with that as the show goes on.
The knowing comic anachronisms and indie soundtrack? Bring’em on! The Parlando Project obviously isn’t opposed to purposely doing that kind of thing.
In closing then another thing relating to a recent presentation of a Dickinson poem here. What might be behind that striking image of windblown snow starting to fill a field as “summer’s empty room” in Dickinson’s Snow poem? Well, it was one of those poems she enclosed in letters (one of Dickinson’s contemporary uses for her writing). This one went to Susan Gilbert, the woman some modern scholars posit was her lover, and who was certainly one of the intelligent intimates that helped sustain Emily. I think that was an image of longing in the otherwise “winter wonderland” mise en scène of Dickinson’s poem.
An audio piece? As we approach winter solstice, here’s one of my favorite Dickinson presentations from this project, “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.” The player gadget is below.
*White-on-white lynchings and extra-judicial killings were a common trope in Western movies and TV shows of mid-century, while terrorism directed at Afro-Americans was almost never the subject of popular entertainment. Consciously or subconsciously, this could have been American culture trying to address that which it was loath to address.
We’ve reached the top of our seasonal top 10 covering the pieces you most liked and listened to over the past three months, but before I reveal the top piece, let me cover one other area.
I know from growth in the audience that some of you are new to the Parlando Project. Because of that, every so often I should explain what this project does. We take words, mostly poetry, mostly other peoples’ words, not our own, and combine them with music we write and perform ourselves. Sometimes we sing the words, sometimes we don’t, sometimes we split the difference somehow.
By intent the poetry we use and the music we create for it varies. Most texts are used under public domain rules.* What kind of music do we use? I try to make it a whole lot of different. I’ve never been able to answer the simple-sounding question “What kind of music do you like?” because the idea of liking one kind of music is just not in me. So be aware that you may run into music here that you don’t care for, either because of our limitations as musicians or your own tastes and expectations—and that may happen right after a piece you liked. The same applies to the words we use. There are over 400 examples of what we do here in our archives, so you can move on and look at another one anytime. If you wonder if we’ve presented a poem or author, search here and see.
OK, so who sits atop our Autumn 2019 hit parade? William Shakespeare that’s who. That’s no surprise considering that it’s his Sonnet 73 which begins “That time of year thou mayest in me behold” (but which I’ve always thought of as “Bare Ruined Choirs” for its most famous image)—one of the longest-famed “autumn of one’s years” poems in English.
Let England Shake-Speares. The title page of the first printing.
I wrote at some length about my experience of the poem in my original post here, but I’ll reiterate only one point: even though this poem resonates with many older people and older lovers in particular, it was written by a man in his early 30s. Consider all the exegesis of Shakespeare’s sonnets that seek to tweeze out his sexuality, incidents to fill out his biography, or the identity of the fair youth, the dark lady, or “who really wrote Shakespeare,” and consider that they were written after all by an actor and a famously prolific creator of opposite and varied characters. I too want to invest those sonnets with his experience, to believe that this great artist is letting me see his heart. How much is intentionally or unintentionally “real,” and how much is a good illusion? We may never know, but we have the art none-the-less.
Here’s the player to hear my performance of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 “Bare Ruined Choirs.” And a sincere thank you for listening and reading this fall. I hope that some of the pieces we’ve presented have pleased you and illuminated some matter or another.
*This means that the poetry is usually from before 1924. I happen to like (and have grown to like even more via this project) a good deal of early 20th century Modernist poetry, but we’ll jump around to older stuff than that too. While we’ve done many of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits” over the years, I’ll use lesser-known poets and poems when they strike me as interesting.
We’re now nearing the top of our look back at the most liked and listened to audio pieces this past fall. Yesterday we used words from a trio of women writers, and today starts off the same way. If you missed the original posts on my encounter with these texts and creating the music for them, I’m including a link to them in each of their notices in this Top Ten series, and those linked posts also will show or link to the full texts. The player gadget to hear the audio performances with original music is after each listing below.
4. Autumn by Emily Dickinson. We start off again with Emily Dickinson. I can’t help it, every time I go looking for some additional texts I run into a short Dickinson poem that fascinates, and that’s just the sort of thing I like to use here.
Of course, her times weren’t placidly occasional as this poem seems to be—they were less so than even ours are. She grew up in a time that the U.S. political system was falling apart, unable to solve the social and economic addiction to chattel slavery based along racial lines. Her own father was a local principal in one political faction trying to grapple with this.* The years of her greatest poetic output paralleled the bloody 4-year civil war that followed.
I can’t say for sure why Bob Dylan issued his Nashville Skyline album in 1969—another war-torn time. In that LP Dylan dared to write the simplest, even corny, statements; and the singer who had snarled and howled his words at the height of his fame sung them in a tenor croon. Is there some truth—or at least momentary respite—in those sentiments? Opinions differ. Dickinson’s “happy autumn” poem reads like that to me. My suspicions are that it was a part of her capacious mind (no one can be fierce all the time), that she wanted to show (in this early poem) that she could do those expected kinds of verse, and that maybe it was a resting place for her (as it could be for us) from the changeable world that refuses to change.
Brancusi’s Golden Bird by Mina Loy. It was a blockbuster trade. The United States sent Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, both powerhouse Modernists with a reverence for old school classicism to the European side in return for a scrappy English up-and-comer Mina Loy and a future draft pick which turned into W. H. Auden.
And as I noted in my original post, this poem of Loy’s was published in the same issue of The Dial that included a modest little contribution from Eliot: “The Waste Land.” You might have heard of that one.
It’s only lately that some have come to re-assess Loy. And talk about fierce, committed, and assertive writing by a woman—Loy could bring it.“Brancusi’s Golden Bird” is a high-energy hymn to Modernist art.
Separated at birth? Mina Loy and Patti Smith. Alas, Loy was more than a generation ahead of the electric guitar, a fault we’ve now remedied.
In the 21st century, Patti Smith, one of my heroes for demonstrating the uses of heroes, and a model for the value of guitars with poetry, has issued some below the radar explorations of various Modernist artists. Let her heart and mind go where it wants to go, but I do sometimes wonder if she’ll get around to Mina Loy, whose soul might resonate with hers.
Do Not Frighten the Garden by Frank Hudson. Yes, the Parlando Project continues to be about “Other People’s Stories.” That means it’s about how I react to others’ writing. There’s no lack of selfish pleasure in that. The thrill I get when I compose the right music for a text, or when I complete a translation of something from another language, or just perform a piece with some degree of satisfaction is more than enough.
And really, honoring other people’s work is important! If our poetry scene is only voices, however vivid and individual, speaking only their own words, then it risks being the silent forest for the trees.
In my defense, I offer that “Do Not Frighten the Garden,” is inspired by a phrase in one of poet Robert Okaji’s poems as I discussed in my original post on this. In all probability I wouldn’t have written my poem if I hadn’t read his poem. Writers in general are instructed to “Write what you know,” but like “Look before you leap” and “He who hesitates is lost,” opposites can be true. Particularly with the immediate lyric poem, there is another possible instruction: “Write what you didn’t even start to know until just now.”
And here’s my holiday wish to you, adventuresome reader and listener: that something we present here inspires you to see something differently or possible. Tomorrow we’ll be back with the reveal of the most popular piece this fall.
Continuing our review of the Top Ten most liked and listened to pieces this past season here at the Parlando Project, here are the next three.
My son likes to needle me by asking what old dead white men I’m presenting today on the blog. What could be my defense? I could respond that many of the poets whose texts I end up using were young when they wrote their poems—but he’s a teenager, and frankly the idea that Rilke wrote his poem “Autumn Day” that seems to be about the restlessness at the onset of old age when Rilke was still in his 20s wouldn’t impress him. Someone in their 20s may not be ancient to him, but they aren’t exactly young in the way he is either.
And dead? That state is somewhat masked by literature. The writer, especially the poet, is always whispering in your ear. Perhaps we can tell by clues of language if they are ghosts or more present confidants, but they both whisper just the same. Will they lie pretty or tell the truth? Ghosts and the living do both. Are the living wiser, do they know all that the ghosts know and more besides? Only if they have listened to the ghosts.
Are they white today? Yes, plenty pale. I talked to my son this month about the arbitrariness of “Western Culture.” I asked him “Just how white was Socrates? Just how white was Homer?” This week the news announced some finds from a Mycenean grave dating from Homeric times, and the featured picture was a pendant engraved with an African goddess. Well, we don’t have Homer in the Top 10 today, though we do know—however misunderstood and thus transformed—that ancient Greek and Chinese poetry influenced our founding English language Modernists.
And none of today’s trio are men today, which shouldn’t surprise long-time readers here.
7. Besides the autumn poets sing by Emily Dickinson. It’s remarkable how much Emily Dickinson, a woman born nearing 200 years ago can seem modern, maybe even more modern today than she seemed to her first readers at the turn of the 20th century. Back then she seemed the quaint and curious poetess, a little rough around the edges technique-wise, but bringing some charming homespun metaphors with just a bit of a gothic edge. Now we may read her as if she had time-traveled to read late 20th century European aestheticians and philosophers instead of Emerson.
I believe we’re more correct now. This old man has listened to the ghosts and they are often dunderheads regarding Dickinson. And besides, as I wrote in my original post about this piece, I think this poem is having some wicked fun with the old white male poets of her time.
As to the missing people of color, let me supply the answer to a clue in that original post. Though disguised by the acoustic music arrangement, I based the changes in my music for this around a cadence from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”
6. Song by Louise Bogan. Unlike Dickinson, I had nothing to reassess about Bogan when I first encountered her poetry while working on this project. Bogan’s song is as straightforward in its complexities and contradictions as Dickinson is sly. The stark emotional directness of Bogan’s poem challenged me as a singer. I decided to modify the text by using the classic Afro-American Blues line stanza form, repeating a line to add an opportunity for emphasis and shading.
I partially apologized for my voice needing to be the singer to get this song out as part of the Parlando Project in my original post. I try to not apologize for my musical limitations (doing so helps no one) but this is one of those pieces that I’ve composed for this project that I hope someone who is a better singer will take up.
5. November by Amy Lowell. Speaking of the blues, this piece by the born rich and died much too young promoter of concise Imagist poetry Amy Lowell uses bottleneck* slide guitar, a playing method associated with blues musicians.
Which brings me to another side point: American music is American music substantially because it has had Afro-American music to anneal its soul. Strange that: the colonizers’ sin driven by not having enough healthy indigenous people to exploit brought forth upon this continent a new music which is its leading artistic glory. I can’t write a poem much less a sentence to properly express that.
As I wrote in my original post on this piece, I’m still coming to grips with Amy Lowell. I suspect those bohemians who disrespected her were right and wrong, but I have no idea of the proportions. This poem of hers is quite good I think.
*I’d read about blues slide guitar, but I can still recall the first time I saw it played (in “The Sixties”) when a teenaged kid from the Twin Cities area named Don Williams removed from his authentic folk-scare Levi’s denim jacket pocket an actual severed bottle’s neck, tuned his guitar I think to open D, and played a John Fahey-ish rendition of “Poor Boy (a long way from home).” Reconstructing that moment, Don (like Amy Lowell) probably had access to material and cultural resources that I a poorer kid from a tiny town didn’t have—what a strange way for the blues to work!—but I remain grateful to this day for the introduction.
It’s time to look back on the past season and to look once more at the most listened to and liked pieces over that time. We do this in the classic count-down method, moving from the 10th most popular to the most popular piece.
This time I’m going to link to the original post each time so that you can read the longer discussion of my encounter with the text, but if you’d just like to hear the recordings of the performance of the poems, the player gadget following each listing will do that.
10. October by Paul Laurence Dunbar. When something makes these count-down lists it’s often hard to know if it’s the inherent interest in the author, the things I wrote in the post introducing the poem, or the qualities of the musical piece and its performance that account for that. In this case I think it could be a bit of all three. I wrote in my post about what I thought was an undertone in this seemingly happy autumn poem. Was that a misreading? I’m not sure, but it informed my solemn musical performance which may work even if you don’t share my sense of this supple poem.
I highly recommend translation as an exercise for poets. Not only do you need to achieve a Vulcan “mind meld” with another artist when translating them, but the mental muscles activated to find the best English word in sense and sound are great ones to develop for one’s own writing.
Three poets awaiting the invention of the MacBook and the modern coffee shop with WiFi: Rilke, Mallarmé., and Dunbar.
8. Autumn Day by Rainer Maria Rilke. Another translation that received good response this fall. Here I ascribe a substantial portion of that response to those looking for and appreciating Rilke poems, and finding some here. Of course, there may be many reasons for that desire to seek out Rilke, but I’m under the casual impression that he’s treasured for what seem to be life lessons to his readers. I noted in my post on this poem that it’s been a particularly popular target for translators, but you still may want to look at mine, or hear the way I performed it.
This poem of his is also an example of a theme: gardens and small agriculture, that I returned to again and again this fall. Perhaps it’s my own position in life’s passage that caused that, but there are a good number of autumn poems that are both about the experience of “cultivating one’s garden” and the valence of the ending of a growing season. Such is Rilke’s.
Here’s a poem by 20th Century American poet and artist Kenneth Patchen performed with music which manually realizes some ideas often produced by machinery.
Patchen is one of the original poetry accompanied by jazz guys, an idea that is one of the tributaries to the Parlando Project, but the poem of his I use today isn’t one that sings off the page when you first look at it. The speech in it seems casual, as if one is overhearing someone talking.
“Do the Dead Know What Time It Is?” has a very unusual structure. It’s one part a Robert-Browning-like dramatic monolog and another part seeming snippets of a bar-room conversation. But Patchen doesn’t separate these out into differentiated sections of a multipart poem, rather the two modes seem to be occurring at once, the louder monolog spoken by “the old guy” to the younger man and then the often whispered and interrupted conversation between the younger man and a woman who is trying to pick him up.
Here’s Patchen reading this poem with a jazz combo. I also just discovered that The Blue Aeroplanes did a version of it with a rock band decades ago.
I first thought: oh, what a great thing for a recording! I’ll put one in one stereo channel and the other on the other side—but then I thought better. The claustrophobic nature of these two conversations is part of the effect Patchen has designed.
As barroom stories go, the old guy’s story is a good one, even if the younger man is only half-listening—but the second, whispered one, is all about what isn’t exactly said. I could go on at length about how the two stories connect, what they say to each other in the structure of the poem Patchen made, even though the two conversations in the bar never actually join each other. I found the poem quite moving, but I’ll leave it to you to connect them.
Instead, let me dance about the architecture of the music today. I’ve been on a loud electric guitar kick lately, which may frustrate those of you that prefer the acoustic music, which will return in good time. Music structured like this piece is often constructed by loops stored and manipulated by computer software or by small solid-state devices that can capture a phrase and repeat it. Similarly, the original rappers’ DJs used turntable manipulation to repeat a section of a grooved record, a task that can now also be emulated digitally at the press of a button. There’s nothing wrong with these methods or machines.
Still, I most often try to play the repetitive parts you hear here. It’s not something I’m naturally good at, and I allow some imperfections to occur. Perhaps I do this because I became enamored of the hand-played repetitions that made up the composed music emerging in New York near the time I left for the Midwest—but it’s not Steve Reich or Phillip Glass* that today’s piece sounds most like. The proximal influence is a record album that came out in the early 1970’s called “No Pussyfooting” by Eno and Robert Fripp. That record’s guitar textures were produced by mechanical means too, two tape recorders set several feet apart from each other so that the “looping” was really a long loop of tape between them that allowed measures played by the guitar to repeat and get gradually added to in approximately real time. This seemed magical then, but a tidy little box that sits on the floor and costs about $100 can do all that these days.
It was hard to find a barber shop with a fresh tarot deck in the ‘70s
There are two guitars in my music here, but the one that sounds throughout most of the piece I’m playing with loud sustaining notes that I (unconsciously) made sound as if they are a repeating loop with variations even though it’s real-time, straight through playing emulating Robert Fripp’s sound on that record which made such an impression on me at the time. One never knows what ghosts will visit when I plug in a guitar.
*Reich did use tape loops as well as live through-played instruments. Seeing the small ensemble Phillip Glass toured with in the ‘70s: electric combo organs that sounded like “96 Tears” and “Light My Fire” along with a handful of wind instruments was amazing in a small space.