Today’s audio piece is another simple arrangement, just acoustic guitar and voice, but the simplicity allowed me to move quickly from composition, to arrangement, and finally to recording an acceptable performance.
I only decided to record this text, by the English mystic, poet, and artist William Blake early this morning. This week was already scheduled for two important life transitions in my family by those older and younger, and this poem seemed to say something from that universal point in all lives when everything, when all, is change before us.
So, Blake cast this story as a lullaby, which is by design a calming song meant to accompany change from wakefulness and worry to sleep and the hallucinations, visions, or amorphous brain activity of dreams. The infant in his poem may not understand, may even dread this nightly change. It’s only a daily moment, but mysterious for one so new to experience, and so the poet-singer as parent is there to soothe the infant — and themselves. Here’s a link to the text of Blake’s poem that I used.
Is this only a story of an infant, or does the mystic Blake mean to say more about us? I believe he intends more. Infancy is only a starting point, an illustrative state before change. If we’ve been parents, we could recall our experiences in helping the infant journey from this beginning point. Blake wants to take us there to show us something.
And so it is this week. A grandmother is moving farther from memory and autonomy, graceful and befuddled, to a new care setting; and a teenager is moving too, earlier in life with more paths before them, yet more sure, and we don’t know how much to guide or understand. Yes, in-between are us middle-people who need to help both, and yet we’ve never been on exactly either’s path ourselves.
The lullaby is for the child and the parent. The parent and the child.
Typical “sandwich generation” work for women as illustrated by William Blake.
When I composed the music and performed “A Cradle Song” I thought it was from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. And it has been included in the Songs of Experience portion in some editions, but not by Blake himself. Blake even seems to have toyed with an additional stanza I didn’t sing or know, and the supposition is that today’s text may have been meant to be the Songs of Experience compliment to the other Blake Cradle Song that was engraved in Blake’s Songs of Innocence* — but that Blake changed his mind or was unable to complete the engraving for Songs of Experience. Both Blake cradle songs have been set to music: the Songs of Innocence one by Allen Ginsberg, the one I sing today by Benjamin Britten, but I have taken my own path and done my own music for today’s version of Blake’s “A Cradle Song.” You can hear it with a player gadget that some will see below, or with this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab window to play it.
*There are other contrasting, paired poems in the two books.
This project’s subtitle Where Music and Words Meet portrays its interest in the ways words, mostly poetry, might interact with music. How that works varies. I use different kinds of poetry, and different ways to combine those words with the music written for this project.
Song lyric writers, who intend their words to be sung from the git-go usually rhyme their lines, and most song lyrics are at least roughly metrical. That practice has continued even as free-verse without regular rhyme and strict rhythm became a substantial portion of literary poetry written for the page.
None-the-less, I find it’s often easier than you might think to sing free-verse. Here’s the text of today’s piece for our celebration of #NationalPoetryMonth: “Branches,” by one of this project’s favorites, Carl Sandburg:
The long beautiful night of the wind and rain in April,
The long night hanging down from the drooping branches of the top of a birch tree,
Swinging, swaying, to the wind for a partner, to the rain for a partner.
What is the humming, swishing thing they sing in the morning now?
The rain, the wind, the swishing whispers of the long slim curve so little and so dark on the western morning sky … these dancing girls here on an April early morning …
They have had a long cool beautiful night of it with their partners learning this year’s song of April.
One thing I notice right away that lets this take to singing: it’s ecstatic. Some of the sections of what has been our April National Poetry Month staple for the past few years, Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” are hard to cast into singing — even though that poem as a whole is very musical with its repetition and its outright references to musical pieces. Parts of “The Waste Land” use mundane dialog purposefully, and it’s difficult to sing that sort of thing without transforming its nature. “Branches” too uses repetition, along with sound-tricks like words that sound like what they are describing (swishing sounds like the word “swishing” for example). Repetition can stand-in for rhyme to some degree. Free-verse irregularity of lines is less of a problem than it might seem. Music is fully capable of filling in spaces where syllables aren’t, and it can be made comfortable too with melodic lines of various lengths.
Carl Sandburg himself is an interesting combination of words and music. Besides his early and vital contributions to American Modernist poetry, he was also an important collector and popularizer of American folk song both by playing and singing those songs himself, and by the 1927 publication of his significant early anthology of them The American Songbag. I haven’t quite nailed down just how important he was in those matters, but I think it’s possible that without Carl Sandburg there’d be no Woody Guthrie as he was, and going forward from that, no Bob Dylan as he was and is.
When performing them, Sandburg accompanied those folk songs himself with guitar
I’m not alone in liking to set Sandburg to music, though I’m not aware that Sandburg himself ever did, oddly enough. I perform his “Branches” today with just acoustic guitar, nothing fancy, just as Sandburg himself could have. The player gadget to hear me perform it is below, or if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlink will play it too.
This little poem by Emily Dickinson seems at first so slight, little more than a tiny winter nature lyric using the risky literary trope of the pathetic fallacy* deftly enough that it doesn’t cloy. The language is almost entirely simple and plain-spoken, but in such a short poem the words that aren’t entirely clear may reward further attention.
Dickinson’s handwritten manuscript for today’s poem from the collection of Amherst College.
The Imagists that came decades after Dickinson’s work weren’t much for the pathetic fallacy, but if one ignores that element— something possible to do because it’s so swift and unpretentious about it — this poem does work like an Imagist poem or like one of the models Imagism sought to emulate, the classical Chinese short poem.
Let’s start right at the first line, and the first word that requires some figuring out. “The sky is low, the clouds are mean” sets our stage. A “low sky” and “clouds” would indicate that this poem’s day-moment is overcast, but what does “mean” mean? It would be easy to think it’s saying, pathetic-fallacy-wise, that the clouds seem angry and spiteful. I think many modern readers will hear this sense primarily, and I cannot eliminate that Dickinson intended that at least as an undercurrent, as it seems a pair with the complaining wind we meet in the second stanza. Yet, in the context of the sentence that makes up the first stanza, my best thought is that she is presenting the clouds as a secondary definition of “mean” (now somewhat obsolete) as shabby or stingy. The image she’s setting up is that it’s overcast, but it’s not a snowstorm, there’s only a modicum of that mentioned: a specifically singular “flake of snow,” so that may be all these clouds are producing.
Our snowflake does have feelings. From its actions, aflutter in the wind and singular enough for the eye to want to follow it as an individual, it seems indecisive about what route to take over the landscape. It might fly high (“across a barn”) or low “through a rut.” It’s frozen (sorry, can’t help myself) in a moment in the poem and we never find out. In its concise way, Dickinson’s snowflake is like Robert Frost’s chiding portrait of his friend Edward Thomas: two possible roads, and the snowflake thinks it’s important to choose one.
The pathetic fallacy gets stronger as the second stanza begins. A cool or cold gusty wind is presented as if it’s complaining for hours on end. For an old/weak bicyclist like myself who tires of headwinds that seem to always be in my face no matter that one has changed direction, this is an ascribing of malice and forethought that I can appreciate. If you look at Dickinson’s own manuscript, you can see that she considered using a legalistic term** “some parties,” but “some one” seems the broader and better choice. Here, in a different aspect from the snowflake who thinks it has at least a binary choice, it appears the wind is saying it’s been diverted or prevented from something.
In this small poem’s presentation, these two things are joined. The snowflake thinks it can decide, but we know the wind will send it where it directs, but the wind thinks it has been in someway enjoined. Pathetic fallacy aside, it cannot choose, meteorological forces and barometric lines will send it where they will.
In the last two lines, Dickinson doesn’t tell us how it comes out — she refuses to leave her poem’s lyric moment. Her final line brings one more uncommon word choice. It has it that “Nature, like us, is sometimes caught/Without her diadem.” A diadem is a ruler’s crown, worn to signify that the wearer, well, rules, decides. Once more, the pathetic fallacy is invoked: nature is the decider, but for the poem’s moment they have momentarily forgotten to put on the device that lets them take on that power — but in a tiny aside (“like us”) Emily Dickinson says we actual humans, who can actually think, feel, decide are sometimes also in this situation, we may blithely follow what seems like a free will choice or complain that we are forced into our directions. Which is it, really? Did you forget your diadem?
Read this poem, or many an early Imagist poem or classical Chinese poem, and it may seem a miniature painting of a mundane scene. We may be charmed briefly, or we may think, “Oh, that’s too slight to be a thoughtful poem.” Did Dickinson consciously or unconsciously intend what I see here? The number of times she was able to pull off effects like this poem can produce, and the subsidiary writings demonstrating how she thought*** indicate that even if she didn’t consciously work out the complexities underneath her simplicities in some grand and lengthy inner symposium, she put herself in the place where she could receive and express these charged moments.
*The pathetic fallacy is the tactic of ascribing human emotions and thought to inanimate objects or forces. Despite the literal words of this poem, it’s not debatable that snow does that, and the wind doesn’t really have some angry dispute.
**I’m not sure how many scholars have considered that Dickinson grew up in a family of lawyers, and even though as a woman that field was not open to her, it’s likely that some of that was picked up by her avid mind.
***Long footnote ahead! What can we gather from how Dickinson used this poem that might indicate how she considered it? This poem was “published” in a personal letter to the wife of a couple that were long-time friends of Emily. The husband in the couple was Josiah Holland, a medical doctor and lay preacher. By the time this poem was written in 1866, Josiah had become a well-known journalist, lecturer, poet, and author. He was a principal in the Springfield Republican newspaper which famously published seven of Dickinson’s poems during her lifetime. He had just published one of the first full-length biographies of Abe Lincoln, and would a few years later found and become the first editor of Scribner’s Monthly. His wife, to whom the letter with the poem was addressed, Elizabeth Holland, has no known literary work — but read the letter by following this link. Here one may get the sense of how another important literary personage who Emily Dickinson interacted with, the formidable Thomas Higginson, remarked about how Dickinson wore him out. The amount of philosophical legerdemain, reference, and zen parable in this short letter is striking to me. Did Dickinson expect Elizabeth Holland to understand that letter?
Emily Dickinson’s correspondence and friendship with the Holland couple seems to have been one of the most stable and ongoing in her life, equal to those who were Dickinson’s blood relatives. Whatever bonds were between them, this letter shows the expectation of considerable intellectual understanding, and for “The Sky is Low” to be enclosed indicates that Dickinson had goals beyond the simplistic for it.
Continuing on with our count-down of the most listened to and liked pieces here this past autumn. A reminder, each of these selections starts with a bold-faced hyperlink to the post where I first presented the author’s piece. There you may find a bit more about the writer and a link to the full text of the poem I used.
Musically this one combines electric guitar and electric piano, two instruments that don’t sound exactly like their acoustic siblings, but they mesh together just as well. There’s a player gadget below to hear Housman’s “Her Strong Enchantments Failing,” or you can use this highlighted hyperlink if you’re reading this in a reader that doesn’t show the player.
6. Truth Never Dies by Anonymous. After encountering this poem extolling the endurance of truth despite human disbelief and ridicule on Kenne Turner’s blog, I just had to try and find out where it came from. In the end I wasn’t able to come up with any likely author despite a day or two of searches, but it now looks likely that “Truth Never Dies” was written in the early part of the 20th century, and the author likely was connected to the Seventh Day Adventists, though a version of the poem appeared in early trade union and temperance publications as well as church bulletins of various denominations.
Now of course most Protestant churches, labor halls, or temperance meetings wouldn’t have a string ensemble at their disposal, but I set “Truth Never Dies” to one anyway. Once again, here’s a highlighted hyperlink to hear it, or you can use the player gadget below.
5. The Dream by Lola Ridge. I may be attracted to lesser-known authors here from time to time, but then in some cases their personal biographies are often as rich in detail and adventures as any better-known poet. Ridge is one example of this. Ridge, like Mina Loy touched scenes on more than one country and continent early in the 20th Century, but like Loy she ended up connected to New York City bohemian circles around the time of WWI. After decades of obscurity, 21st century scholarship is starting to show more interest in Ridge. This poem of hers is as resolutely Modernist as Loy, William Carlos Williams, or Marianne Moore—but in our year 2020 of wildfires, pandemic, political illusions, street demonstrations and disorder, Ridge, and her more than a hundred-year-old poem, seemed to fit our zeitgeist.
Music for this? More strings, though a smaller group of them. Maybe it’s somewhat incongruous to hear my bellowing yap chanting along with bowed instruments, but those are just conventional expectations, and I don’t go to conventions. This is the hyperlink to hear my performance of “The Dream” or you can use the player below.
Literature is the time-travel tourists’ Baedeker, an excellent way to visit the experience and outlooks of those no longer alive. Setting the Wayback Machine now…
The 4th century B.C.E. was a pretty busy time for philosophy. Over in Greece Aristotle was homeschooling some teenager who’d become Alexander the Great. For some reason I had teachers back in my teenaged years who were Thomists—so I myself got a limited dose of Aristotle back in those only slightly less-ancient years.
Not enough to conquer the world apparently.
In some other reality, perhaps I’d have been exposed to the Chinese classics. And from what I understand another 4th century worthy, Zhuang Zhou,* is a pretty big deal there, not only in philosophy but in Chinese literature and arts.** His collected teachings, the Zhuangzi, is a core Taoist text alongside Taoism’s founder Lao Tzu’s.
Anyway, I’ve just started searching for an available English translation of Zhuangzi, and I may have found one a couple of days ago, but just as I am no scholar of Thomas Aquinas or Aristotle, I at this point know little about Zhuang’s writing. One thing that the overviews of it let me know is that he used humor extensively.
Picture of two butterflies dreaming of Zhuang Zhou, or…
A picture taken today at the shore edge of Lake Superior. Zhuang also wrote: “They cling to their position…sure that they are holding onto victory. They fade like fall and winter—such is the way they dwindle…they drown in what they do.”
Musically, I had a couple of itches to scratch with today’s piece. One? I’ve been listening again recently to some modern disciples of a school of acoustic guitar playing that is sometimes called “American Primitive Guitar.” I don’t care much for that label, even if it was coined by John Fahey, it’s chief progenitor. It traditionally uses flat-top, steel-strung, acoustic guitars (a design variation perfected in the United States before WWII) and it’s informed by some of the tunings and techniques of early 20th century Afro-American Blues musicians, mixed with an appreciation for a variety of Asian musics and some Modernist “classical” composers. The other personal desire? I’ve been missing playing bass in the mode that makes it a lyrical equal to the rest of an ensemble. As a composer, I know the value of the simple bass line too, but sometimes I want it to sing away.
The player gadget to hear my recounting of Zhuang Zhou’s “The Butterfly Dream” should be below. If you don’t see it (some blog readers and reader view options don’t show it) you can use this highlighted link to play it. I apologize to any Chinese speakers for my attempt at pronunciation of Zhuang’s name. I did my best on that, though I’m likely wrong.
*OK, you probably know the drill if you’ve followed along with this project’s presentation of other classical Chinese authors. Zhuang’s name is also rendered as Chuang Tzu, Chuang Tse, and Chuang Chou. And he also was referred to as Zhuangzi, which seems to be the more settled name for the book of his parables and teachings. The shorter part of his name is an honorific, meaning “master,” but given the difficulties with spelling out Chinese names in the western alphabet, I’ve decided not to call him Jam Master Zhuang.
**The later master poet Li Bai would be one example of a writer highly influenced by the Zhuangzi. How far can Zhuang and Taoism’s influence be found? Martin Buber referenced him, and Wikipedia says that Taoist thought has been claimed by anarchists as foundational to their political philosophy.
Not every record had those lyric sheets. Some artists opposed them on principle—Bob Dylan was one—though to a large degree the reason we got them was due to that hold-out, Mr. Dylan. Dylan revolutionized song lyrics. Before Bob Dylan, no one wrote songs with lyrics like he did.* After Dylan, a lot of everyones tried their hand at it. In the 21st century when we hear or see lyrics that use an accretion of rapidly changing metaphors and a kaleidoscope of dark-cylinder mental outlooks, we no longer notice that they are Dylanesque. It’s just a mode that songwriters can draw from the common.
Would that have happened if Dylan hadn’t happened? Possibly. And plausibly, only similarly, but distinctly different. Would Richard Farina (sans motorcycle accident) or Leonard Cohen have won a Nobel prize for reshaping a word form?
One argument that it would have still happened was the psychedelic phase of pop music that followed Dylan’s revolution. There, later in The Sixties, opaque and strange lyrics got another push, one that was largely ascribed to intoxicating chemicals which produced visual sequalae and baroque mental turns. Now of course the intoxicated or drug altered poet was already a thing in literary poetry, and the sober cold-water-army songwriter was likely a minority long before “The Sixties.” But Dylan had punctured the membrane that separated those two crowds, and so we got the Canyons of Your Mind school of songwriting too.
19th century straight-edge punks on dihydrogen monoxide, usually also anti-slavery and pro-women’s rights too. Comes with a lyric sheet!
Some of it was good, some of it bad—but then we might see lyric sheets to the wind like these:
Oh where are you now
Pussy willow that smiled on this leaf?
When I was alone
You promised the stone
From your heart….
Brandish her wand
With a feathery tongue
A mien to move a queen
Half child—half heroine
An Orleans in the eye
That puts its manner by
For humbler company
When none are near
Even a tear
Its frequent visitor
If you were a bird and lived very high
You leaned on the wind as the breeze came by
Say to the wind as it took you away
“That’s where I wanted to go today”
Bedouin tribes ascending
From the egg into the flower
Alpha information sending
States within the heaven shower
From disciples, the unending
Subtleties of river power
The chorus sings: “OK Boomer,” and you can ascribe all of these to chemical traces, wonder about their authors consequent mental damage, or coldly appreciate them as word music, but I’ll come at you from a minority report: the trip’s in your head, not in the drug. I gave up stuff you can smoke (mostly nicotine) around the time I passed the trustworthy border age of 30. I never spun the pill roulette wheel. Needles are for records or loose buttons.
Next stop for the psychedelic bus is some credit for those lyrics above. The first is from Syd Barrett’s post-Pink Floyd song “Dark Globe.” The second is the beginning of an arresting if mysterious poem by Emily Dickinson. The third is by children’s writer, humorist, and WWI vet A. A. Milne quoted by songwriter Paul Kantner to begin the Jefferson Airplane’s “Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil.” And the fourth is the start of “Slip Inside this House” from the 13th Floor Elevators’ Tommy Hall and Roky Erickson.
A little day glo paint or patchouli and Emily Dickinson fits right in when she writes in this mode I think, even if she’s a century too soon, “The Eighteen-The-Sixties.” When I ran into that first stanza of her 1861 poem known by it’s first line “A Mien to Move a Queen” earlier this month, I was immediately captured by its strange mystery, so much so that I worked out the music you hear today without even knowing that the poem was longer than that one stanza, and I was so entranced by it that the piece you hear today uses only the first and last parts of her poem because I think the middle parts break the mood that first stanza gave me. Want to see the entire poem? The link is here.
The omitted middle section seems playful to me—even as the British would say, twee, but I am of course editing a genius here. I still like my selection as I hope it adds some weight to the whimsey. What was Dickinson on about in this poem? Even living with it for a few days, I’m not entirely sure. The opening stanza is often read as connecting to Joan of Arc. Some read the poem as Emily reflecting on herself and constructing her own persona, and the middle section I omitted gives some evidence of that. Beside it’s general mysteriousness, there are to my mind two pieces of particular heightened sensitivity or even hallucinogenic imagery: the “Orleans in the Eye” line and the sensuous and heard quiet of the “Like Let of Snow” image.
So, we started with musty cardboard squares and moved through two steps of an era of wilder and wilder metaphors sung to music, and finished with Emily Dickinson, sewing 1861 fascicles by whale oil light while listening to Syd Barrett or A. A. Milne feedback on her record player long into the night. In between songs, the needle stops shimmying and she can hear the sound of snow moving across snow outside, filling, and not, summer’s empty room.
The player to hear my musical performance of a selection from Emily Dickinson’s “A Mien to Move a Queen” is below. Thanks for reading and listening!
*Yes there are examples that made it into popular or semi-popular music pre-Dylan. Modernist poetry had already done all of these things earlier in the century, and in addition, a big part of what Dylan used in creating his work were the un-acknowledged Modernists who created the Afro-American blues. None of that disproves the point that Bob Dylan showed that you could do that sort of thing in a proximate way that led to a revolution in the possibilities of song lyrics.
Long-time readers here will know that the Parlando Project has been performing a section of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” each year to celebrate National Poetry Month.* It’s been a major task, and if one were to listen to all those past sections, you’d get a fair sample of the variety of original music we create for these performances. Similarly, the amount of work that goes into all of the Parlando Project has been huge (we’re rapidly approaching our 450th piece), but this year’s section of “The Waste Land” is small—the smallest section of Eliot’s Modernist landmark.
I recall when I first encountered “The Waste Land” as a teenager how puzzling the whole thing was. Right from the start it was confusing, with allusions and foreign language phrases that I had no way of decoding. It was said to be important, and it certainly seemed to be quite the accumulation of something, but its hard to grasp nature didn’t make it easy to like. I could understand only a little about what Keats was saying in a poem like “Ode on a Grecian Urn” back then too, but the essence of that poem’s longing and attractive mystery was there from my first reading. Eliot’s poem? It just seemed complex, even in an off-putting way.
But when my past-times teenager got to his year’s section, “Death by Water,” I found poetry I could take in immediately had slipped into the much larger corpus of this poem. “Death by Water” is a small elegy, and what allusions it had (like Keats’) were alluring. “Phoenician,” even at that age, had the right kind of mystery, what with the seafaring and alphabet. That feint echo of Shakespeare’s “Full fathom five” sea-change coral-bones. The straightforward sense of mourning.
For all its shortness, I doubt I was alone in finding it one of the most impactful parts of “The Waste Land.” If you’d like to read this short, 10-line section by itself here’s a link to it.
The teenaged T. S. Eliot before he adopted the Harry Potter eyewear.
In 1952, decades after “The Waste Land” was written, this section took an important part in a literary controversy. A Canadian critic, John Peter, published an article that year claiming that the key to understanding “The Waste Land” was that it was almost entirely a disguised elegy to a French medical student who Eliot knew in Paris before the war: Jean Verdenal. The strong inference in this theory was that Verdenal and Eliot were gay lovers. In 1952 this was not only sensational to the degree it might still be today, it was outright dangerous. To be homosexual was more than a notional criminal offence—and furthermore by this point T. S. Eliot was the living model of a religiously conservative Modernist and a Tory in his politics.
Eliot was furious at this article. Lean solicitors were called in. Retractions were demanded. In the end, Peters not only apologized, the magazine that had published the article tried to round up all extant copies and destroy them.
A couple of decades later, after Eliot had died, this reading was raised again, and this concept of the poem is still being explored in our century.
On one hand, Eliot made no secret that he admired the young Verdenal. They shared a love for the poetry of LaForgue and Mallarmé and acknowledged times together as college students in Paris. Eliot opened his first published poetry collection Prufrock and Other Observations with a fond dedication to Verdenal.
“Death by Water” was a key exhibit in this reading of “The Waste Land.” In late April of 1915, Verdenal was serving as a medical officer in the doomed WWI Gallipoli** campaign with the French army fighting along with British and ANZAC forces. Accounts written afterward said Verdenal was heroic in trying to deal with the mass carnage on the Allied side as they tried to gain a beachhead at the edges of the Middle East. He was killed, and there was little ability to bury the dead on the beaches as the invasion failed. They were left to the tides or thrown in the water. A cruel month indeed.
Now to press levity next to death: I used to mispronounce Phlebas as if it had three syllables. Apparently it’s pronounced with two, phoenicianally/phonetically, close to “Flea Bass”—though I think with a short, not long A sound. The next time you see RHCP, you’ll enter the whirlpool and think of T. S. Eliot.
Knowing this, it’s easy to see Phlebas as Verdenal. But I knew nothing of this when I first read “Death by Water.” And you don’t have to know it either to have the words work for you in some way. Eliot had a theory for that, a well-respected theory back in mid-century: “Objective Correlative.” Eliot, by his own theory then, would hold that it makes no difference what the relationship was for him to this other young man in pre-WWI Paris. Subconscious? Sublimation? Closeted? Self-protection? Platonic, or Dionysius denied? No matter. You consider Phlebas or you don’t. Their bones are picked in whispers now anyway.
So, here’s my new addition to the Parlando Project’s ongoing serial performance of “The Waste Land” available with the player gadget below. Perhaps another one where a legitimate singer might better serve my composition, but I like the current of the acoustic guitar music enough to submerge you in it.
*You know: “April is the cruelest month….” That one. No one has said as much, but between the opening line to “The Waste Land,” the prologue to Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,”and Shakespeare’s birthday, April seems like a logical choice for National Poetry Month.
A few months back I presented a series of poems about old age that turned out to be written by young poets. Here’s another one written by the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats when he was in his 20s.
“When You Are Old” is generally considered to be written about Yeats’ love for Maud Gonne, who like Yeats was active in Irish cultural nationalism and their country’s struggle for political independence. Yeats’ largely unrequited love for Gonne has a long and complicated story, the kind I’d often delve into here—but not today. This widely assumed context for “When You Are Old” makes plain the poem’s historical, denotative meaning. One could paraphrase it like this: “You think I’m just another lovelorn suitor asking for your hand, and possibly other leading bodily parts, now—but someday you’re going to be old, and you’ll realize that the others around you were just after you ‘cause you’re a major hottie who seems to have it going on cultural-politically. I’m not like that. I’m your soul mate, who respects that you’re busy with this, and loves you even though you’re out searching for other things. That’s OK. Just know that someday, like when you’re old, you’re going to miss me. You’ll probably want to google William Butler Yeats some night and see if I’m still alive and what I’m up to….”
Did I just loose a bunch of readers* with this base summary of a beautiful poem that is sincerely loved by so many people? Don’t understand me too quickly, I’ll get back to what I think when I encounter this poem before I finish.
Indeed, this poem is especially well loved by older people and by a great many women.** If there’s a greatest hits of love poems in English, this poem is there. And I don’t think they’re wrong or missing some unavoidable explication of the poem’s context. I can’t say Yeats’ intent when he wrote it as a young man, or when he published it still being both of those things; but I doubt it was simply to dis an ex that wasn’t exactly an ex. And those that love the poem Yeats made are experiencing it in other contexts close to their own hearts and lives.
I’m close to Yeats’ age when he died, though still younger than Gonne who lived to be 86. The future mood predicted in this poem written by a twenty-something doesn’t ring false to me. I don’t dwell in the past, but it comes to visit me from time to time, and I’ll think of old lovers and not-to-be lovers absent and missing in time and place. For older people, some of those people remembered are dead, and so their present times and places are further obscured by the crowded stars. We often expect our poets today to write of their experience, but it turns out that we aren’t necessarily going to trade Yeats’ skill with a beautiful line for an authentic memoir-poem by an age-group peer.
One could trash this poem on gender role/sexual politics counts. Fine if you do—art is argument to a large part—but I doubt the women who love this poem do so all because they have self-worth issues. And after all, the poem doesn’t predict crushing regret at not bedding W. B. Yeats, or a reader’s personal equivalent. It only asks for a quantity of “a little sadly,” which doesn’t hurt anybody. Patriarchy aside, I suspect every letter in every acronym can accumulate such thoughts over a life-time. And throw out love, sex, and success, and we still cherish memories of any connection where someone saw and bowed to the pilgrim soul inside us. The youth in us seeks it, the old in us remembers it. Even 20-somethings.
So where does this pilgrim soul stand on “When You Are Old?” That want for connection it speaks of and the word music it’s sung in captures me entirely. It’s good not to trust poetry and poets entirely, but to give oneself over to this song is worthwhile.
I’m sure this poem has been set to music often, but that didn’t stop me. I used an interesting acoustic guitar tuning that someone said had been used by Mary Chapin Carpenter: C G D G B C for this, and then added another of my simple-is-all-I-can-do piano parts. That’s one of the joys of music: sometimes it doesn’t have to be complicated to please us. The player gadget is below to hear my performance. Here’s the text of Yeats’ poem if you’d like to read along. We’ll be back soon with more of our April celebration of National Poetry Month. Spread the word if you can.
*I’m hopeful I didn’t, if only because listener/readers here should already know that I’m going to mix things up. If you think today’s music is what I’ll do next time, you should hear the #NPM2020 piece I’ve been working on—and you probably will be able to in the next few days.
**Here’s a 10 minute video where someone old and someone woman both declare their love for this poem.
The cosmos says we need to get a leap year, and extra day, and yet we put it in February. It was a dozen degrees Fahrenheit this morning, and my bike ride back from breakfast was into an insistent north wind that explains to me that we’re in Minnesota and we’ll probably have a snowstorm or two yet before we can see spring—a spring that sometimes seems too short to form memories.
So, before we leave this month and season, I thought it a good time for a short poem referencing a short month from American poet Sara Teasdale. Teasdale is like Edna St. Vincent Millay, a poet that 100 years ago was thought a leading voice in this country’s verse, after which we spent the rest of the century more or less forgetting or down-grading their place.
When such re-evaluations happen, it’s common to assign them to the refined judgement of posterity, the further assay that separates momentarily sparkly stuff from the for-all-time classics. How does that happen?
One could assign this downward path to Teasdale (like Millay) writing metrical and rhyming verse in their prize-winning years early in the 20th century. The evil Modernist free-verse hordes in this view laid waste to all who dare to rhyme or march to a one-shoe-off beat.
There’s a factor there, sure, but this story doesn’t account for two giants whose statues were not toppled: Frost and Yeats. Nor the monuments on many campuses to canon sitters like Auden and Wilbur et al who were not primarily free-verse poets.
No, I think there are more important factors in this determination, one that is currently under revision in our new century. First, both were essentially lyric poets. “Lyric” in this sense doesn’t mean that they wrote song lyrics. Though of course this project finds them sing-able and otherwise suited to presentation with music, “Lyric” in the literary sense means that their poems tend to be set in the impressions and immediacy of a moment, and their final and considered judgement of that moment is not necessarily explicit. Lyric poems don’t usually have great themes developed with long arguments in verse. Nor do they have narratives the way a novel or story does, were we turn the page to find out what happens next. What happens in a lyric poem—happens! Right then. Right now.
The pioneering Modernists in the years before the end of WWI, those that were or wrote like Imagists, were fine with that. Indeed, this was the point of Imagism. Teasdale wasn’t called an Imagist, but she could write like one, albeit with rhyme and meter. The Imagists didn’t call for the end of rhyme and meter, they called for an end of poems that existed to fill out those forms without the vividness of the lyric.
But post Eliot and the Pound of the Cantos, post the sheltering of poetry inside the academic monasteries which could too easily fall into a rout of poems to be taught rather than poems to be experienced, these poems could seem slight. The Imagists were a fine exercise to break from the past, but they were not, in this outlook, the way to write great poetry.
And here’s the other reason. Gender. The academics were overwhelmingly men and were steeped in the things men were thinking about. And the world of the middle of the 20th century had a lot of concerns that made the concerns of Teasdale and other women poets of the early part of the 20th century seem like the line in Casablanca uttered by Humphrey Bogart “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
For the first part of our double feature: 90 seconds of cinema that was an emotional touchstone to many. Also, mansplaining.
It took the culture until nearly the end of the 20th century to see that part of the world’s craziness was because men were still explaining how it worked to women.*
All that may be too much of a burden to bear for this short poem by Teasdale. But if “February Twilight” was signed Frost or Yeats, I suspect more attention might be paid to her poem. It doesn’t read much like Yeats, but it could pass for the shorter, lyric Frost.
The lyric impulse in poetry survived the mid-20th century when colored with Dada and Surrealism. “See, it’s not me! I’m a serious poet, but I just chanced into this charged moment.”
What does Teasdale experience in the charged moment of her lyric? That it seems like she’s the only one that views this star, a manifest untruth we could explain to her, but which I think she knows as the final line presents. She doesn’t explain this to us, but we can stand in the cold, snowy February and experience it with her.
I’m choosing tambura and acoustic guitar again for my performance today, this time with an organ keyboard part. Click on that player gadget below to hear it. “If you don’t, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.”
*Which I’m doing here. Ha Ha! Here’s where one of the principles of the Parlando Project comes in: “Other People’s Stories.” I’m not claiming the exclusive right to mansplain mansplaining, but men speaking up about it has its place and value.
Oh, and explaining has value too. And I happen to like Casablanca as a movie. And defeating fascism might have a value greater than the optimum choice for a snuggle-bunny. And I had huevos rancheros for breakfast. A hill of beans would be meaningful and sustaining to me!
Today I present the other widely anthologized Paul Laurence Dunbar poem: “We Wear the Mask.” I was going to put a “now” qualifier in front of “widely” above, but that made for an awkward sentence. I think it’s worth burning at least another sentence to note that.
In looking for some more Dunbar information, I found this story told by Professor Joanne Braxton. Braxton recounts that as recently as the 1980s when she was looking to teach Dunbar poems at her university, that Dunbar’s work was out of print and difficult to find. That’s not unusual. As Donald Hall fatalistically stated in one of his late essays: the majority of poets who receive prizes and ample publication in their time will be unread 20 years after their death. Braxton, who knew Dunbar’s poems from family and Afro-American tradition, eventually saw to publishing of the first collection of all of Dunbar’s verse.
I’m sure I have readers here for whom the 1980s is “a long time ago.” It’s all relative I suppose, but this change in availability speaks to the dynamism of “The Canon,” and which poets we’re exposed to in school or the culture at large. Braxton teaches by her example that we, each of us, shape The Canon,* particularly with poetry, which is in suspended animation on the page and lives only when we read aloud, chant, and sing it. It’s up to all of us to find those poets who split our skulls, open our caged chest bones, and let us animate the slumbering dreams.
No date is known for this poster, but Dunbar looks quite young here
Braxton** and others have written eloquently on the meaning of this Dunbar poem and about Dunbar’s pioneering code-switching project to write in dialect as well as mainstream 19th century poetic forms, so once more I’ll defer to others today in those matters.
On the poem itself, let me praise its word-music. There were occasional words that were hard for me to sing or set to music, but that’s likely my fault as a composer and certainly my fault as a singer. “We Wear the Mask” is almost too pretty for its subject, but then there’s a tradition (I associate it with Celtic folk musics) of setting the saddest stories to the most beautiful tunes. Last time, for Dunbar’s “Sympathy,” I followed that idea for my music and the fiddle melody. Now, for my explicit music today, I decided to go in a more martial cadence and ambience. Art song (that traditional method of setting poetry to music) usually avoids that mood; but one of my influences, the English language 20th century Folk Music Revival is perfectly fine with that.
Here’s the guitar chords. The piano and bass mostly just play the roots of the chords in today’s performance. That’s a nice thing about music: sometimes simple works just fine.
In the Broadside tradition, I’ve included my guitar chords with Dunbar’s lyrics for this one. I played it with a capo on the second fret, so the chords sound a full step higher than the chord forms indicated above. My performance can be heard with the player gadget that should appear below.
*This leads to complaints that change in The Canon is “watering down,” or subject to special pleading which somehow is self-evidently inferior to one or another objective aesthetic criterion. If there are indeed multiple criteria (objectively, that must be agreed to be so) how else must we decide among ourselves what has worth, but by a dynamic of discussion, debate, disagreement? And will such actions by human minds and hearts ever lead to a static situation? How can it, if for no other reason that we continue to create poetry, music and art. Hall says, correctly on the face of it, that most will be forgotten. But like those that charge, armed or not, against the redoubts, we must move forward even if only a few will reach and cross the wall.
**One fascinating bit in the link has Braxton sharing an account from Dunbar’s widow about a possible specific inspiration for Dunbar’s famous “Sympathy (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings)” poem.