Here’s a short piece I wrote about the intimacy of sound. Part of the idea I used for this came from a remark Bobby McFerrin made about music: that we hear it because waves of sound touch a sensitive membrane inside our ear. How intimate is that!
Talking. Drum. Musician Bobby McFerrin and that tiny ear drum membrane that sound touches
Anatomically speaking, there is an accuracy there, but some would clarify, speaking strictly, that the brain is what gives us the sound we perceive, just as it does the seeing and so forth. Philosophers would also tell us that this distinction is important. They have made their case elsewhere, and I will not reiterate that here now.
There is a view that poetry too is about mental images. No doubt this is so. Language is full of strange ways of meaning to be understood. But all these exact pieces of information shouldn’t lead us to forget McFarrin’s point: when spoken, it’s still a sensual act. We hear poetry as information to some degree, but we hear it also as a musical sensation.
Our world is filled with information. We can sort it forever for meaning. But the feeling of our beloved’s voice on our ear is more than information or imagery. So is music. So is poetry.
Posts may be somewhat farther apart this month, but I remind you that we have well over 200 audio pieces available in our archives over on the right, where they are waiting for further listening.
It’s been awhile since a new post, what with holidays and family occasions, but here’s another piece, “Rosemary,” using the words by Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Millay was one of the most popular, most often read, poets of the first part of the 20th Century, but the later part of the century gave her less consideration. A contemporary of the Imagists and other poetic Modernists that we’ve featured a lot this year here, and while connected to their world, she didn’t sustain favor with the rise of the “New Criticism” that became the dominant academy in the English-speaking world after WWII.
Reasons? Well, there’s gender. One must assume that played a role. And popularity of the general-readership sort would not have been an asset either, as perhaps only Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson survived being read by a general readership in the mid-century without losing their high-art cred. Why couldn’t Millay have joined Frost and Dickinson in these critics’ esteem?
Millay at work. Other than the lack of guitars, just about the perfect décor.
I think it’s largely a case of her poetry not seeming to have the subject of their criticism: fresh, complex, allusive and illusive, imagery. Frost and Dickinson may have used homey sounding language, but in the end those funerals in the brain and snow, roads and woods added up to something to talk about in critical prose.
The New Critics were an inflection point. Before them, poetry was largely considered musical speech, a container that could hold a variety of subjects, after the New Critics, poetry was about the imagery, how you portrayed things with it. And unless one aimed for satire, such complex rhetorical structures must be in service to serious matters.
And so, there’s subject matter too. Millay’s great subject was love and affection, it’s presence, absence and all the shades in-between. In doing so, she addresses much of life and its condition, but did she receive enough credit for that? Is a heartbroken man a tragic philosopher of fate, and a woman merely a spurned lover? Narrow-mindedness can’t be ruled out.
“Rosemary” allows us to examine these issues. This looks to be a poem about the death of a passionate love or the death of a dear one. I’m not sure which of those two possibilities is standing for the other, but for an audience, it does not matter as both events are common to our hearts.
I think there is an intent here to conjure a complex world of timeless folk magic. Though written in the 20th Century, it could have been written anywhere up to five centuries earlier. In the title we have rosemary, an herb associated with remembrance even in Shakespeare’s time (Ophelia’s mad speech in Hamlet for example), and in the first stanza we have rushes being scattered on a room’s floor, a custom from medieval times to hide the stink and mess of a less hygienic age, a strewing of reeds that may have included rosemary because it was thought to be something of an insecticide. Bergamot is another fragrant plant. Stink, rot and pestilence are all inferred subtly in this verse that on the face of it seems only a short catalog of flowers.
The second verse adds a rain barrel to catch rain, or is it tears? And what’s with that iron pot. Is it a cauldron? The poems last two lines are in quotes on the page. I was suspicious that the “An it please you, gentle sirs,” line was a quote, and finding out what it was from might be important, but I can’t place that line—if any reader knows, please clue me in.
And at the end of this timeless lament: “well-a-day,” which might sound to you or me like “have a nice day,” but is instead a word that harkens back to Old English, meaning woe-is-me.
What I think we have here is a poem, that read quickly, seems to be a trivial verse about some flowers with a bit of a kitchen scene, but it’s stated with deliberately archaic specifics so that the attentive modern reader might notice that time cannot heal this loss. And each thing in it is an image, though they don’t loudly announce themselves as such.
I’m reminded of my distant relative Susan Glaspell’s famous play “Trifles,” where the domestic clues hide all the information the dense men seeking important information miss.
The Pentangle. It’s not fair to compare. There’s 5 of them, and only 1 of me. Oh, and talent.
Musically, I went with bass, drums, two acoustic guitars and my voice for this. I was aiming for an impression of the sort of thing The Pentangle did many years ago. They were better at it, but it was good to try. Use the player below to hear my performance of Millay’s “Rosemary.”
One way to get experience is to seek it through the directed travel of a pilgrimage. Many religious traditions include the idea of a such journeys, and one side-effect of a shared destination is the mingling of travelers from diverse setting-off points along the trail.
In the Middle Ages, in England, one pilgrimage had the greatest potential to bring a diverse group together, the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Canterbury where the sainted Thomas Becket had been assassinated. A series of stories ostensibly told by various tellers together for this trip became the great early work of English literature: Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.”
April is National Poetry Month in the US, and though this celebration’s founders give no exact reason for April being chosen, two widely known poems explicitly start in April, and whether it’s cause or effect, I think of these poems when I think of April and National Poetry Month. The oldest of these, is today’s post “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” which begins:
“Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote”
Now I know I’ve let slip too many typos in these notes before today, but that’s not a particularly bad day at the keyboard—instead, it’s Chaucer’s version of English as spoken in the 15th Century. It’s a challenge to read this in the original pronunciation, though I once was delighted when a skilled classical music DJ mic checked at 5:45 AM one morning with a perfect rendition of this Prologue in Middle English. I’m not going to attempt the same; today’s episode uses a modern English version for clarity, and in consideration of my thicker tongue.
Musically I’m not in the Middle Ages or in Canterbury for this piece either. I’m going to use the 12-string guitar once more. There is no shrine here in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, but for some reason three of best players of this troublesome priest of an instrument came to prominence here: “Spider John” Koerner, Leo Kottke, and Steve Tibbetts. For this episode, the 12 String’s musical tale is told in the character of Steve Tibbetts—or rather a modest imitation on my part using Tibbetts’ distinct stringing of the 12 string, which uses octave strings only on the two lowest courses of the 12 string with unison string pairs on the rest.
More thick strings, fewer skinny ones, setting up a 12-string Tibbetts-style
To hear the 12 string strung that way, and to hear about the English April in Chaucer’s report, use the player that appears below.
Monday night here in Minnesota it snowed. As I took my pre-teen son to school in the morning, he looked at the inch of fresh snow on the spring ground and said “Mother Nature is drunk. Shut her down!”
I rode my winter bike to breakfast that morning, and the trees overhanging the street were shedding overnight ice chunks that their budding branches were rejecting in the morning. As this shrugging hail fell on my ski helmet, it bounced off with a “ping!” like marbles or ping pong balls, and popped onto the icy street like broken ornaments. A few hours later, in the late afternoon, I rode again to the grocery store in considerable sunlight. The streets were dry and I was in shorts and a T shirt.
Plenty of patio seating available for Tuesday breakfast
Minnesotans have a well-worn phrase for our edition of the book of nature. It’s not a hand-bound collection of poems like our New Englander Emily Dickinson’s, but a play script. “The Theater of the Seasons” we call it. Famously, we try to hide emotions here, but we sure do enjoy a little drama with our weather forecasts, keeping an eye peeled for news of storms that can kill or injure you. Sitting in the upper Midwest we can receive weather sweeping up from the Gulf of Mexico or dropping down from the Northwest Territories. So, particularly in Spring and Fall, the Theater of the Seasons plays in repertory here in Minnesota.
Today’s audio piece is short, less than 2 minutes long, and it’s called“Theater of the Seasons,” expanding on that phrase a bit. I think you’ll enjoy it. The player gadget appears at the end of the post, as usual.
As part of this blog’s participation in National Poetry Month, we’re trying to provide even more audio pieces like this that you can stream. If you know someone who might enjoy words combined with music like this, why not take this month to let them know about us and our Parlando Project, or share this or another favorite on your own blog or chosen social media site.
I’m often attracted to Chinese poetry, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s the deceptive simplicity to the images, that hardly seem like images at all if one expects the showy metaphors used by many western poets. The concision of many of the most admired Chinese poems can be shocking. And to me there seems to be a radically flat broadness to the way some of the poets consider society and politics. Like a lot of my favorite UK folk songs, the tales of royalty and servants, peasants and generals, saints and drunkards seem to treat them all with the same even diction and consideration.
From what I read, Du Fu is highly regarded as poet in Chinese culture. He wrote in the 8th Century, about the time someone in Europe was compiling Beowulf between long drinks of mead out of cups made from skulls. Du Fu’s time was a chaotic one, with the Chinese kingdom falling into rebellion and civil war. “Spring View” is his response after his side had lost the battle and he was in disgrace.
Du Fu: the red trucker cap or the pink pussy hat?
In translating Du Fu’s “Spring View,” I thought of our own times, particularly here in the United States, three months now into some kind of change. Alas for Du Fu, I became so enamored of seeing our own current events in his lament that halfway through I started to get more “free” with my translation, until by the time I reached the final line, I chose to conclude on a different thought altogether from the original. Consider it a theme and variation composition.
I do not read Chinese, but here is Du Fu’s “Spring View” as written:
国破山河在 城春草木深 感时花溅泪 恨别鸟惊心 烽火连三月 家书抵万金 白头搔更短 浑欲不胜簪
Musically this piece uses 12 string acoustic guitar, an instrument I love to struggle with. The overtones and extra harmonics of the 12 strings are the attraction, and the danger too, as they can clash a bit. Some musicians work very hard to try to even out the intonation of those notes to minimize this, leading to one of my favorite music jokes. Question: how long does it take to tune a 12 string guitar? Answer: Nobody knows.
“Every politician should be issued a 12 string, because you never really tune it, you just negotiate with it.”
My approximate ear has come to embrace the somewhat woozy sound of the 12 string for much the same reason that loud electric musicians may choose to welcome feedback or that electronic musicians select the detuned effects of things like ring modulators.
To hear Spring View (after Du Fu) use the player below.
This one isn’t quite as old as yesterday’s post. American poet Dave Moore wrote this only a few years ago.
Americans have a history, but for most of us it’s not a long one. And Dave lives in Minnesota, which was only widely settled by Europeans less than 200 years ago. Even given this short history, people sometimes like to research the history of their homes, and to find out who the former owners and occupants were. I don’t know if Dave did this with his house, but he didn’t, he imagined it well.
I set this to short acoustic guitar tune, and I am again the reader of this piece. Although it may take a moment to load and appear, the player should appear just below this and allow you to hear it.