Dunbar’s October

We’ve had Edward Thomas and Henry Vaughn waxing medicinal about autumn and affliction, and now it’s time to head back across the Atlantic to see what metaphor American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar brings to the season.

By coming to prominence in the 19th century, decades before James Weldon Johnson’s 1922 Book of American Negro Poetry  signaled the tip-off of what became known as the Harlem Renaissance, Dunbar proved to Afro-American poets of the 20th century that it was possible to get over to the culture at large.

Paul_Laurence_Dunbar by Norman Wood

Paul Laurence Dunbar “Let the world dream otherwise…”

 

Like many cross-over artists, he did this by doing the established forms as well or better than the incumbents. One way he did this was by writing in regional black dialect, in poetry that is frankly hard for me to decode from my 21st century location. On one hand, regional dialect was all the rage in 19th century America across various regions and ethnic heritages, and there’s no reason that Afro-American dialect couldn’t be part of this—Oh, wait, there is a reason: white supremacy.*

Dunbar was born near the end of Reconstruction, right as the reaction to the possibility of full Afro-American humanity and citizenship was snapping much of his country back to a feudal system based on presumed, and if not presumed, enforced, inferiority. One can’t avoid the problematic nature of trying to portray a range of comic to simple-wisdom-dispensing Afro-American characters speaking a non-standard version of English in a context of a society that was fairly sure that was the extent of their intellect.**

Dunbar Live!

Fitzgerald’s Auditorium later became Atlantic City’s “Club Harlem” and hosted jazz and R&B acts.

 

But that was only part of what Dunbar wrote. He also wrote supple 19th century lyric poetry in standard English, as good or better than the “Fireside School” of  East-Coast poets that were the standard for American poetry at the time. And it’s that side of Dunbar’s work that I present today with his poem “October.”

“October”  is an extended metaphor nicely developed over 24 lines of rhymed and metrical verse. Dunbar alternates his rhyme scheme of ABAB to AABB to add some delightful variety. The autumn notes of harvest bounty and oncoming winter are struck and sounded cleanly.

It was only after enjoying it as a good poem in this style that I began to notice another context, an undertone. This had happened to me earlier this year when presenting a Dunbar love poem, “Kidnapped.”   After performing that one, I moved on to ask: did the child of two formerly enslaved people write a poem about being captured like a butterfly and being taken far away from some home landscape? Yes, he did. Was he consciously encoding that undertone into a popular poetry form that could have been printed on a genteel valentine? I don’t know. It seemed a stretch as a conscious choice, if only because the undertone/metaphor wasn’t developed as fully as it might have been.

This time, with “October,”  Dunbar does develop his metaphor, and I know of no document where he comments on his thoughts on this poem. Autumn’s harvest is presented as if it were an economic system, and dare I say it: as a feudal/sharecropper system. October is wealthy and in charge, and harvest makes her wealthier. She is presented as foolish with this collected wealth. The poet observer’s persona is not outraged by this however—indeed he portrays her as happy, carefree, joyous, beautiful. And the poem is also unambiguously beautiful. Is this personified red-headed October, collector of the treasure and bounty, deserving of unstated disgust or even envy? Is this an idealized Daisy Buchanan-like character?

Your eye (like mine) as you first encounter this poem may be on the signified season. We can’t be expected to see the fall of the year as a real person, with an actual role and privilege in a system, can we? Is it only unconscious sub-text?

Ambiguous as this is, this is part of the wealth of poetry. It can be enjoyed as word-music. Its metaphors can be admired for cleverness and their own silent music of thought. But it’s also the way for the moving minds and experience of others to be shared. It is the concise literature of the oversoul.

I performed my solemn version of Dunbar with acoustic guitar, piano and electric bass. If you’d like to check out the text of Dunbar’s poem, or follow along as I perform it, it can be found here. The player for my musical performance is below.

 

 

 

*I expect a percentage of this blog’s treasured audience just clicked off when I typed that phrase. If you, indignant, at least followed to this footnote, thank you, I appreciate it. I know that some of you come to poetry and music to escape the turmoil of politics and social problems.

**It’s hard to do, but some Afro-Americans managed to do it. I can trace the musical line of it anyway, from Charlie Patton to George Clinton to the hip-hop movement.

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Ollendorf’s Wife

I’m going to do something this time that I’ve done before but is rarely done.

I’m going to revise someone else’s poem without their permission—which I would feel bound to obtain, but the author Orrick Johns is long dead. The last time I did this, it was Rupert Brooke’s work I used, and my excuse was that his fragment that I presented here as On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli”  was likely an early draft left unpolished due to Brooke’s death.

Orrick Johns published “Ollendorf’s Wife”  in his first book-length 1917 collection Asphalt and Other Poems.  There’s little online to help me make sense of Johns’ life, but it’s probable that Asphalt and Other Poems  collected early work Johns had written in his twenties. While most of the poems are short lyrics, Johns works there in several styles. The poems are rhymed, not the free verse of “Blue Undershirts”  that made such an impression on William Carlos Williams. The opening section, “Asphalt” is an odd set of doggerel poems in dialect. I have trouble reading dialect poems, and from my vantage point as a mid-20th century man I can’t make out what ethnicity Johns is representing in these poems. There’s a lot of dropped consonants and dere’s, dem’s and de’s. I assume these poems are intended to be proletarian poetry and demonstrate John’s solidarity.

Another section “The City”  has other poems dealing with social issues of the day, but without the distraction of dialect. It includes one of the book’s longer poems, “Second Avenue,”  infamous in its moment of possible fame for being the poem that beat out Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Renascence”  in The Lyric Year’s  poetry contest.

Almost nothing in Asphalt and Other Poems  grabbed me. Nothing passed the Emily Dickinson test, there was no spectral cold and the top of my head remained attached throughout. While it was trying to depict its modern world, the music was awkward for me, with some forced poetic diction and conventional sentiments that made it more similar to Margaret Widdemer than Millay or Sara Teasdale, contemporaries that were writing prize-winning short rhymed lyrics at the same time as Johns. Like Widdemer, and unlike Millay or Teasdale, the poetry in this book of Orrick John’s is understandably forgotten.

There was one poem in a section titled “Country Rhymes”  that did seem to have a germ of something though.

Ollendorfs Wife 1 Page final

Johns’ poem as it appeared in “Asphalt and Other Poems”

 

Like T. S. Eliot, Johns grew up in St. Louis, but unlike Eliot he stayed in the Midwest for college. The “Country Rhymes”  section reflects that longer experience, and nowhere better than in “Ollendorf’s Wife.”  First off, the poem is generally free verse, with uneven line lengths and sparse rhymes. And it has some vivid images. Ollendorf’s wife significantly has no name of her own in the poem. She works her farm plot assiduously, with no love showing in her face, but also as if it’s her last child. How many children, like her name, go significantly unmentioned? The fields she works, and the farm wife are “drawn together” by a “knowledge…greater” than “each other’s best.”

At its core, this poem works by the things it leaves out, fulfilling Hemmingway’s Modernist theory that you can remove the most important things in a story correctly, and by doing so depict them all the more intensely.

So out of care for “Ollendorf’s Wife,”  I revised it, intensifying that paring away of the unneeded, leaving only the cutout cameo around the farm-wife’s charged day in a life. I added nothing really, but took away words that restated something otherwise established, and rewrote lines aiming to make connections stronger. I made one additional repeat of the “day after day” phrase, because there the repetition is  the image. Though I intended to perform my revision, I generally wasn’t thinking of making the poem more “sing-able” as I changed things, but I suspect that factor worked its way in as well.

Ollendorfs Wife revised

Here’s my revised version of Orrick John’s poem

 

As I said at the beginning, this is not something that is commonly done. There are poems that use the subscript of “after a poem by…” but those poems that are revised and re-voiced are usually much older or in a different language than the new version. Obviously, such an act could fail as well as succeed. You are the judge in this case. The gadget to hear my performance of my revised version of Orrick John’s “Ollendorf’s Wife” is below.

 

I’m Nobody Who Are You?

Last time I talked about how hard it is to be sure how Emily Dickinson meant her poems to be read. Some poems seem gentle, some fierce. She sent some to her more conventional friends enclosed in letters or gifts—but some she never shared, and puzzle even hard-core literary critics to this day. When is she applying a clarifying simplicity to complex or profound subjects and when is she undermining simple statements or homey images with subtle side-glances? She’s a small-town 19th Century person, a stalwart reader of the book of nature—and yet she sometimes reminds me of later 20th century urban wits, like Frank O’Hara or even Dorothy Parker as much as she reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Am I reading this into Dickinson, or is it already there?

Emily D the T Shirt

Been there, done that, got the T-Shirt.

 

Well, I take today’s Dickinson piece pretty much as it seems, a humorous conspiracy with someone, perhaps the reader, wherein lack of credentials or claims to the podium/lily pad are brushed aside. This is a good place to begin observation and then art, or the circle back from art to observation of it, perhaps the best place.

So here’s Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody Who Are You?”  as I performed it, available through the player below. And not to shout from the lily pad, but the only reward I get for the time and effort of doing this is you, the audience who listens to these various words from past nobodies who want to talk to us. Thanks for doing so, and if you find something here you like, please let others know about it.

 

Crepuscule (I Will Wade Out)

Another short break in the Dave Moore series to present an unabashedly ecstatic poem by E. E. Cummings.

The kind of Modernist poetry we often use here rarely presents itself like this, as the early 20th Century pioneers tended to be a downbeat and skeptical lot, even before the great tribulation of the First World War. Cummings isn’t the only exception, but a poem like this is so extraordinary in its exuberance that it will always stand out.

E E Cummings self-portrait

Lipping flowers…the ecstatic poet’s self-portrait in pencil

 

As a page poem, “Crepuscule”  is laid out on the page in staggered lines sans punctuation, something Cummings may have picked up from Apollinaire, but the syntax isn’t as jumbled as some E. E. Cummings poems. It actually reads fairly easily once I lined-out the dismembered sentences. The images are surreal, though written before official Surrealism, and paradoxical sensations and states come one after another. Can one gather what is happening in the poem beyond the welcoming of sensation and exploration?

Crepuscule as a page poem

Cummings’ “Crepuscule” as a page-poem.

 

The title is “Crepuscule,”  an antique word for twilight, and so the poem is set in that proverbial border time. The poem goes on to either explore sleeplessly and fearlessly in the unknown darkness, or launch itself into the imagination of dreams, which surreally complete and supersede the “mystery of my flesh”—at night exploration, or dreams, at once, indistinguishable.

I didn’t see this until after I finished performing it, but I suspect the poem may have bookended images near the start and at the end, the twilight beginning with the swallowing of the sun, the ending with the moon setting the teeth (on edge) with the metallic bite-taste of the moon.

As sometimes happens when I compose the music for these pieces I find out or remember that others have done this before me. As soon as I saw the title I thought immediately of Thelonious Monk’s instrumental compositionCrepuscule with Nellie  and the idea was planted to use piano in my music for this. I did end up with some piano, but I reverted to guitar, my home instrument, to express the unrelenting long line of this poem that leaps into the bothness moment of twilight.

Embarrassingly, I had forgotten that Björk had performed all but the last part of Cummings’ poem as Sun in my Mouth  on her album Vespertine.  Björk brings big time sensuality to Cummings’ words, bringing out the eroticism that was always there, not just by her commitment to the performance, but by ending on and repeating the “Will I complete the mystery of my flesh” line, bringing fleshiness to the mystery. But this is a poem of the borderline, and the flesh is also hymned to complete a change to something else.

My fearless borderline tonight is presenting this music which would have difficulty reaching the level of originality of Monk or Björk. To hear my performance of E. E. Cummings’ “Crepuscule,”  leap into the ripe air by clicking on the player below.

 

Justice Denied in Massachusetts

Partly for the reason of sadness and disappointment with my country, and partly for disappointment with myself, it’s been difficult to focus on combining words and music recently. This is a value of one of the Parlando Project’s principles: Other Peoples’ Stories. When I cannot put the words together, I can listen and absorb someone else’s.

Yesterday, feeling particularly sad and angry, and holding it in so as to not harm with it, I went looking for someone else expressing what I could not express myself.

I looked first at Carl Sandburg, who after all was a committed political radical as well as a too-often overlooked Modernist. But with Sandburg’s expression love was almost always present—a good thing, but not in tune with my feelings. Sandburg may have been the right medicine, and I took some of him in on Friday for my health, but I didn’t want only medicine.

And then I found my howl, and strangely at that. I knew Edna St. Vincent Millay had written political poems, that in fact they had harmed her artistic reputation. The witty line I recall was that Millay’s anti-fascist poems did more to harm her artistic standing than Pound’s pro-fascist ones. Today’s words are from one of her early political poems: “Justice Denied in Massachusetts.”

I can see where the Olympian “New Critics” docked Millay on the basis of this one. It’s chock-full of that awkward backwards and inside out “poetic” syntax that reads like a stiff translation from another language. The early Modernists, even as they translated, were dead set against this—and they have a good point. Millay’s words here were hard to read with emotion, so stilted and undirect as they are as sentences. However, that could well be part of Millay’s point here (consciously or unconsciously), as the poem’s speaker is not speaking clearly; and for my benefit—however difficult it is to perform—she is speaking precisely in a confused mixture of disgust and disappointment. All the reverse/”poetic” syntax just makes it more twisted in at itself. A poet today might make this matter even more obscure with modern poetic syntax that also abjures plain speaking in the service of art, but in our current context we’d be expected to accept this as the way art talks.

One problem with political poems is that to the extent they speak to an issue they can become museum pieces tied to forgotten events. If they were to be effective, they could even be seeking that fate. Millay is writing here in the immediate aftermath of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti—a particular cause—but for my purposes, this has little bearing on the matter. She is speaking to women and domestic and domesticated people such as myself. Only the title is tied to then current events—the feeling and her point, ties to our own.

“Let us go home, and sit  in the sitting  room.” New Critic Cleanth Brooks placed his entry in the contest for most bone-head review of all time by reading this refrain line and Millay’s poem as a straightforward resignation at the course of events, rather than the ironic statement of disgust that it is. I can only hope that the savvy observers of our country are similarly wrong, similarly misreading.

Millay stands for something

Mr. Brooks, you may notice that I’m not sitting, but standing for something.

 

My music for this is based around a G suspended chord, where the third of the chord, which would dictate if it’s minor or major, is omitted. This gives the chord a feeling of awaiting change, awaiting formation. At times the replaced note to the defining third is a tangy second, other times a more consonant fourth. Risking grandiloquence, but I feel our country is similarly suspended now, and the cadence is to be ours.

Here’s my performance of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Justice Denied in Massachusetts.”

To Autumn

October 4th is National Poetry Day in the U.K. this year, an event similar, though more condensed, to the National Poetry Month in April promoted out of the U.S.

No one’s revealed why April for the Poetry Month, though Chaucer and T. S. Eliot may have put in their votes, and the reasons for the fall date for Poetry Day could be arbitrary too. But autumn would have an emotional claim. Fall is changeable in weather, an underrated Spring of warm days and cold shuffling themselves. It has its long-established events: school years underway, harvests and harvest festivals, the closing of summer venues, Halloween, Veterans Day/Remembrance Day. Fall can also be an easy metaphor for approaching death, but poetry is one buffer we use to handle that subject anyway.

John Keats wrote one of his last and finest poems to the season almost 200 years ago in the autumn of 1819. It’s full of the strengths of Keats’ writing. Even in his time Keats was both praised and dismissed for the sensuousness of his poetry, and not a line goes by without some sensation of taste, touch, color and sound, and all that is contained in beautiful word music and an off-balance rhyme scheme that may couplet-rhyme two lines together, or tantalizingly wait two or four lines for the rhyme.

John Keats listening to the Nightingale on Hampstead Heath c1845 by Joseph Severn.

Look at that great single-track behind you John. In only 160 years someone will invent the mountain bike

 

Even if some of his words are 200-years-old antique, or for us Americans, peculiarly English, he crams all these sensations in his poem without them seeming forced, as if they were special or unnatural “poetic” things. Many of the sense words in this poem are of ordinary manual labor: load, bend, fill, set, reap’d, laden, press, and borne.

Where he is outrageously poetic is that this poem is an apostrophe. The entire poem is addressed, just as the title says, as if the season was a person: “To Autumn.”  A poet doing that today would, intentionally or otherwise, produce a humorous effect. Still, if we allow it, the second stanza gives us a leisurely fall, a farmer taking a break on a warm autumn day from rural labor, hiding in a barn, or taking a nap in a half-harvested field, but yet also returning to pressing cider from apples down to the last drop, and bearing away hand-gathered food on his head “like a gleaner.”

Gleaner is one of those antique words. It was a practice in some places to allow the poor and those without land to gather what leftover grain might be left in the fields after harvest. Just this week I was reading on the always Interesting Literature blog that Keats may have had this practice on his mind as gleaning had just been outlawed in England, and that other images in the poem may have had social resonances with Keats at the time.

The Gleaners by Francios Millet

Painters whose names suggest a subject for their painting: “The Gleaners” by François Millet

 

The poem’s final stanza retreats with distant banners flying, a symphony of extreme audio dynamic range. The infinitesimal sound of gnats flying is a choir. The wind crescendos and decrescendos. Lambs bleat loudly and then there is silence. Crickets arpeggiate for time. Birds whistle, twitter and leave in the sky, migrating away, and the poem ends.

Keats himself ends as a poet, this being one of his last works. He leaves for Italy in hopes it will help his tuberculosis, which it won’t. He’s dead in about a year.

My music for this today is acoustic guitar with bass and some orchestral parts: winds, a couple of cellos, a pair of violins. The player to hear it is just below.

 

 

Here’s a #nationalpoetryday bonus, featuring a very different British poetry from about a century later, T. E. Hulme’s “Autumn.”  Hulme was a too-little-known instigator of Modernist poetry in English, and like a lot of instigators he moved by opposition to previous schools. In particular, he disliked the English Romantic tradition of Keats, viewing it as too flowery, to full of images that were no longer real and which had become only conventional symbols.

Interestingly, in his “Autumn,”  Hulme’s central image is similar to Keats: instead of a farmer taking a break in his granary or napping in a field, he has a harvest moon looking over a hedge like “a red-faced farmer.”

Here’s my performance of Hulme’s “Autumn,”  which you can also listen to with the player gadget below. If you like this sort of thing, be sure to spread the word about what we do here at the Parlando Project.

 

 

Summer For

Here is a short piece about an intense memory experience, where you believe you are fully re-experiencing something from earlier in your life. This is not déjà vu, and I don’t even know if there is any similar widely used term with plentiful accent marks over top the letters for this. And since this is a subjective experience, I can’t say for sure how common it is; but for me it happens fairly often. In these moments I’m not merely remembering something, I feel I’m re-living it, with access to the entire sensory experience—but the experience is felt by a mixture of the past me mixed with the present me.

This can be pleasant or not, but it always feels spooky to me. Subjectively (there’s that word again) it feels like the nature of time itself is being exposed, that the concept that time passes could be an illusion, that all time is happening now. Or that time may move in a boustrophedon manner wrapping back and forth next to itself.

as the oxen turns

Boustrophedon writing runs left to right, then wraps back right to left and so on “as the oxen turns” when plowing. Conceptually, what if time doesn’t run forward, but wraps back next to itself, or even over itself? Cue the hippy-trippy background music now. Also, be careful about stepping in the bovine exhaust.

 

I suspect some of you are going “Oh wow, that’s heavy.” Some “That’s some mystical B.S. there!” Others may wonder if chemical intoxicants are involved (short answer: nope). Some of you may even be puzzled about what I’m talking about, not having had the experience, or having had it and not stopping to fully encounter it.

Still, this is a subject that poetry allows, because, like all arts, poetry is about sharing the subjective human experience. Now-a-days this sometimes goes by the rubric “sharing one’s own truth.” I’m not fond of that phrase, though I believe compassionate people use it with good motives. Somewhere I’ve picked up the first principle of objective truth, even though that cannot be knowable out to all its edges, even if it must be handled with approximations.

So, I will make no Blakean claims of mystical revelation with “Summer For,”  but you may still find this an interesting experience to share for three minutes, along with some skittering acoustic guitar accompaniment. The player to hear it is right below.