I’m not a scholar, but I play one on the Internet

Let me write a post about something that I experienced recently, just like a real blog would do.

Early this month I attended a virtual symposium Sonnets from the American  organized by Dora Malech and Laura T. Smith.*  I’ve heard “Zoom Fatigue” is a thing now, but I found it energizing. I’m still integrating things from this experience, but here are a few preliminary things this three-day program brought forward.

There’s still a lot to be discovered out there for me.  Even when I saw the listing of sessions, I came upon the subject of Fredrick Tuckerman’s poetry, a name that I’d never heard, and someone who was certainly not part of the American Lit canon in my mid-century day. I can see why he’s a fascinating subject, and the simplest thing I can say about his biography is one could quick-take him as “a male Emily Dickinson.” Similar locations, times, and period of social isolation. I’ve read a few of his sonnets, and so far they aren’t grabbing me, but then that may be me. I’ve been quite distracted as this difficult year has progressed.

Americans don’t mind messing with the sonnet form.  I started writing sonnets around age 20 or so. It was the first poetry form I cottoned to, and the only one that I’ve ever practiced much. There’s something about the length of 14 lines, long enough for a contrasting pair of lyric statements, but not so long as to ask the reader to maintain the mind-meld intensity lyric poetry asks for past endurance. The venerated Petrarchan and English/Shakespearean forms have mechanisms that have been established to work, and I wrote close to the form to start. I recall writing a crown of English sonnets as a 20 year old in a barracks on a fair grounds, but mostly since then I’ve wanted to see how many variations I can create inside the 14 line form, while at the same time worrying that I was cheating by not being faithful enough to it.

In session after session I learned from scholars that Americans not only brought a different sensibility to the matter of their sonnets, but that they didn’t mind morphing the form too. And why not, after all the Elizabethans didn’t just clone the Italian form.

I’m pretty sure I’m not up to snuff as a scholar, but I like running into scholarship.  Compared to any scholar (and many avid readers) I’m under-read. I’ve perhaps read more poetry than a few, but I’ve read many fewer novels than almost any serious literature person, and I’ve got lots of holes in contemporary poetry that this project doesn’t help me in remediating. And at my age, there’s also the “I read it fifty-years ago” factor. The younger scholars at the event had a reasonable retention of what they had read, perhaps more than I have read in my longer time. Is there a minimum amount of poetry one has to have read to have a significant interaction with it? I’m unsure. But what the scholars presenting at the event brought to this is new outlooks, new connections. In my modest, under-read way, this is what I try to do here.

To non-scholars who read this, if you think (perhaps put off by scholarly terminology or personal educational experiences) that scholars have dissected poetry only from corpses, the Sonnets from the American  event let me see the real enthusiasms that are out there.

Just this month I’ve noticed that the Royal Holloway, University of London seems to have linked to some thing or things I’ve written here. The referrers link lets me know that folks are coming here via that institution, but the referring links are behind a staff/student login, so I don’t know what. I’m not sure if that’s a blessing. I might be embarrassed by what I wrote!

There are more light-skinned people writing about Afro-American poetry.  I’m a hybrid music and poetry guy, this shouldn’t have surprised me. While this is a complex and delicate subject which cannot help but interact with wider social forces and existential injustices that this post cannot even begin to cover, in my 20th century Afro-Americans tended to write (where they had the opportunity) about current or recent generations of Afro-American music, and white writers, performers, and impresarios did a lot of the noticed work in reviving interest and applying attention to older Afro-American musical artists and forms. This is changing in the 21st century.**

Again, there can’t help but be an overlay of the American racial caste system here, but my observation, blinkered as it may be, is that this factor still exists in music scholarship and non-institutional enthusiasm.

Now this project is enjoined by practicalities and by copyright law to concentrate on pre-1925 texts, which means that my interests in Afro-American poetry must make do with a shorter list of authors, but the Sonnets from the American event had plenty to interest me there. I could fill my dance card with presenters who’d have something to say about Paul Laurence Dunbar, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer. One of my favorite pieces I’ve presented here, Toomer’s remarkable Modernist love poem “Her Lips are Copper Wire,”  a 12-liner that works like a sonnet, got mentioned in several sessions I attended. Another personal favorite of mine, Fenton Johnson, got a shout out in question time at another.

I don’t want to give a misleading impression here. There were people of color presenting at this event and presenting important insights, but in the current isolation of my project I could think I was the only white guy whose interests in “Other Peoples Stories” included Black Americans as well as Elizabethans, Tang Dynasty Chinese, South Asians, various early Modernists, some French-speaking guys, and sundry 19th century library stack dwellers.

Negro sharecropper and two wagehands shucking corn for the landlord, a white woman. On road to Cedar Grove, west of highway No. 14, Orange County, North Carolina, Sept 1939

Different tunes, same words:  “Happy Harvest” or “Maggies Farm

Since I’ve written this instead of working on new audio pieces, I’ll leave you with a piece I did last autumn, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “October.”  Dunbar, the first successful Afro-American poet, emerging late in the 19th century, wrote in several styles: dialect poetry that I find hard to read and impossible to present, competent variations of late 19th century literary poetry and subjects, and a handful of poems speaking about the experience of an American Black man in an era when the promise of freedom was decaying steadily into a new era’s variation of denial of humanity. It’s those last poems, small as the number may be in his work, that he is most remembered for now. But what about this one? On the face of it, this is a harvest poem, a “happy autumn” number taking joy in the last bounty of fall.

It works entirely on that level. I’m not enough of a scholar to tell you if Dunbar ever expressed any other intent in writing it.

Now, listen to or read the poem again. Published in 1913, when large numbers of Afro-Americans were trapped in a feudal agricultural share-cropping system, where harvest’s bounty went to the white landowner and their family. I can’t unread the subtext here.  My performance of Dunbar’s “October”  can be heard with the player gadget you should find below.

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*I found out about this symposium via writer/editor/professor Lesley Wheeler. A big thanks to her for that! Wheeler’s own presentation at the event was on sonnets with radically short lines, a variation that I hadn’t thought of or tried.

**And wait a few years, and any fresh Afro-American musical innovation will get adopted by white musicians. I’m an American musician—most of the notes are Black. This blog started out largely focusing on the early 20th century Modernist poetry revolution, part of a multi-art-form change. Fenton Johnson’s poetry and Toomer’s Cain  are public domain examples of Afro-American Modernist poetic work from this era that I’ve run into so far, though maybe there are others yet for me to find. But, but, but, if one asks the question: “Where are the pre-1925 Afro-American Modernists?” all you have to do is look to poetry’s sister art music and the blind will see.

Claude McKay’s America

As we enter into the weekend celebrating American Independence Day on July 4th, I thought I’d put together some poetry about the American experiment. While not unprecedented, this is a complex time to be doing that. We are clearly in troubled times, and while I myself am as troubled as the times, I can still try to grasp what some others in their troubles and troubled times have chosen to say about America.

Let me start off with what a particular immigrant had to say almost exactly 100 years ago. The immigrant was Claude McKay, a Black man who came from Jamaica in 1912. Now of course, the presence in the then English colony of Jamaica of a man of African descent can be traced to the violent and involuntary diaspora of the slave trade before McKay’s time, but in his own lifetime, as an immigrant, McKay chose to come to America.

By the time he wrote this poem, first published in 1920, a number of then current events would have been impressed upon his thoughts. He first landed at the Tuskegee Institute in the de jure segregated American south, as close to the time of American slavery and the Civil War as we are to Martin Luther King and Woodstock today. He eventually traveled to the onset of the Harlem Renaissance in New York as well has visiting London and Russia. The life of a Black man was complicated by racism in all these places. Furthermore, if we are to apply the 21st century term “intersectionality,” McKay was working class, gay, and a committed Leftist.

Troubled times? The Palmer Raids and the original “Red Scare” imprisoned or deported many. The now better-known* and understood series of race riots and other acts of terrorism in the service of racial oppression were raging. Even in black and leftist circles, issues of black sexuality were a third rail, and McKay touched that rail.

And, as we now all know, 1918-1919 was also the time of the last great worldwide epidemic.

Given this background, as you listen to or read McKay’s sonnet “America”  you may be surprised that this cri de cœur is as nuanced as it is. In the three quatrains before the closing couplet McKay is essentially making the case that he’s energized by being at a time and place when these evils are present and unmasked to confront. I’ll personally extend his statement: The American Experiment is this. It’s not the absence of evil, our country was never an Eden. That we are still fighting for our ideals of openness, opportunity, and equality under the law is evidence of our frailty—and our stubbornness.

McKay America

Tragic persistence of metaphor: in 1920 McKay would paraphrase “I can’t breathe.”

 

Now what to make of McKay’s closing couplet, the turn the poem takes there as many a sonnet does? My first reading was that this is just the judgment of history: Babylon will always fall. Ozymandias leaves so fast he forgot to pack his trunk. That’s the clear reading of the 13th line.

A final line follows though. I think McKay the prophet here might have meant this too in his warning: we must change to extend our republic’s life, that all is at risk—even if every human, and every civilization, like every artist, will fail. Did we change from his time to extend our experiment? I believe we did. Are we called, are we in need of, more, further, change today? Well, what I think is less important that what you think, particularly if you are younger.

The player to hear my performance of McKay’s sonnet as a song with acoustic guitar is below. Is this the only statement for the 4th of July? No, I’ll be back soon with a reading from another American prophet.

 

 

 

*I was a history and civics nerd as a young person. I can tell you there was next to nothing to read about the racially charged riots of the WWI period until this century unless one knew to dig into primary sources from that time. The more distributed evil of lynching was acknowledged to some degree, but even when urban unrest returned less than 50 years later in the United States during The Sixties, I can’t recall a single pundit or think piece that referenced these events of the post WWI era.

Reading Du Fu in the Ruins (with hope)

I’m still unable to think of completing new content here, but let me quickly follow up to say that we seem to have passed through the worst nights featuring the burn and bust cadres on Lake Street in Minneapolis. Which leaves only the sorrow and injustice, more than enough to tamp down my muses.

If plagues, oppression, and fires seem Biblical, then we get miracles too. Take the scene of the semi-truck coming down the freeway with thousands sitting on the pavement in focused protest just past a gentle curve. I have surely slighted the murmurations of crowds in a recent post, because they parted in an instant of flight seen in the video that looped over and over in coverage last week. Moses and Aaron never saw the like—not a single significant injury. Knowing America bristles with guns governmental and otherwise is not a comforting thought any night for me, but also the guns barking hardly at all* (so far) seems nearly as miraculous.

 

Plagues and miracles: additional phone video showed some of the first to the cab stopped retribution being taken on the driver. 

 

I continue to be amazed and gratified at the racial diversity of the protests here. That shouldn’t be a miracle, but it’s noticeably different than the earliest BLM protests. This may be a result of the clear casual atrocity of the George Floyd killing or some “Great Awokening” kind of evolution. Call them the Prince Rogers Nelson brigade. Afro-Americans seem to be leading the protests and observances now and focusing on the issues and pain. When people jumped on the still crawling forward semi-truck and yanked the driver from his controls in the furious moment when several tons had just missed killing and maiming hundreds, it was Afro-Americans in the crowd who stayed the blows.

There’s been much chatter in the neighborhoods/local social media and in some mainstream media articles about who the smash and burn cadres are, and if they are in some organized sense. From watching hour after hour of coverage and trying to use what rusty “radar” I have from old activist days, I suspect at least some small-group organization aided by modern cell-phone tech and automotive mobility is a factor. When I talked to alternate Parlando voice and keyboard mainstay Dave Moore last week I said “Give me 50 agile young people with some hand tools and fire accelerants and I could create all the significant destruction of the past week.” Five teams of ten, even if they aren’t together, would work just as well. Largely unconfirmed reports have these as anything from leftish anarchists, to younger right-wing militia types who hate the police too, to drug seeking gangs.**

Multi-racial neighborhood people seem to be on edge about this. It’s not just some rehash of the old “outside agitators stirring up our good local Negroes” trope. As the protests become more focused and organized, they also seem more effective at recognizing adventurist acting out and curbing it.

When I spoke recently about the Gloomy Gus progressives, the ones who will sagely tell us how nothing ever gets better, and how this or that supposed progressive advance was an illusion or failure, I perhaps should have made clear I was talking to an element in myself too. My nature and life says the human condition is limited, even though it can store immense amounts of hate and love, creativity and indifference.

What are those limits? What elements will be part of the solution or part of the precipitate? What I think about these things, what I can do about them, is less important that what you and you and you think and do.

So, nothing new today, but here’s Dave Moore and I performing a poem written in a set of wet ruins by the supreme classical Chinese poet Du Fu centuries ago, and translated by myself. Was Du Fu a Gloomy Gus? Maybe, though like Robert Frost when he was lost or downhearted, he knew to press on anyway. Here’s the text if you’d like to read along, and the player gadget for the peformance is below unless you’re reading this with the WordPress IOS app (try using a browser instead to hear the audio piece in that case).

Jade Flower Palace – Du Fu trans. by Frank Hudson

The stream winds, the wind sighs.
Rats are running in the rafters.

The prince who owned this palace–
No one knows his name,
But it stands, abandoned beside these cliffs.

In dark rooms green ghost fires are shinning.
The streams now run over the boulevards.
From the trees I hear flutes? Voices?
Autumn leaves are wet with rain and rattle in the wind.

The young palace ladies,
Once painted on scrolls:
Now yellow dust buried in the earth.
What use now their robes,
their makeup and kohl?
And his gold chariots and the men who drove them?
There is only this carved stone horse.

I sit down on the grass and try to write of this,
But my ink is overcome by rain or tears
There are many paths away from here
How long are any of them?
None of them go on forever.

 

 

 

*One man reported shot and killed in what was sketchily reported as a looter/store-owner confrontation is all I know of. He seems forgotten in the surplus of events.

**One publicized arrest so far is a white guy (from, of all places, Galesburg Illinois, the hometown of Carl Sandburg) who live-streamed himself doing stunt arson and looting for a following that looks smaller than this poetry and music blog. The main argument for gangs is that far away from many of the crowds of protesters that unintentionally provided herd-cover in the early days of this, a large number of drug stores got broken into across the city.

from “John Coltrane Live at Birdland”

Continuing on from my post late last night, and the feelings of insufficiency we as artists may feel in the face of horrible things: cruelty, injustice, the taking of lives, the crippling of souls. As one of America’s sublimated poets put it, I think it all together fitting and proper that when we do this, that we feel this insufficiency. If something has risen to the level of being unspeakable, how can we speak it?

I’m still silent with answers tonight—and as with many things, my answers as an old man are less important than those you may find. So, let me instead give you a story and a testimonial.

The story may seem long ago to you, but it doesn’t to me. It happened in 1963, in my lifetime—not 1863 and the time of Lincoln, slavery, and Civil War.

It begins not with art but a group of domestic terrorists who were bombing and burning things in Birmingham Alabama. Terrorist is an ugly word, as it should be, but it’s likely that most terrorists think of themselves as partisans, as fighters against oppression, the necessary ones who will take the steps others shrink from.

Of course, I see these men as simple killers. I can suspect them of getting off on the clandestine evil of setting bombs and fires, of shooting into the night. And the “oppression” they are righteously bombing to oppose? They are more at the license to continue an oppression of others. On a Sunday morning, September 15th in 1963 they set off a bunch of dynamite at a church in their town. Just another bombing in a series.

This time they kill four little girls getting ready for sunday school.

Earlier that year, another of America’s displaced poets, Martin Luther King, had written his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”  in that town, that great document of the necessity of ending racial oppression, and now that year he would eulogize the four little girls. Eloquence was in town, continuing political pressure was in place, and the evil light of the terrorist bombing illuminated the words of those the bombers opposed. How sad and horrible it is to recount that.

That same year a jazz musician, John Coltrane was very busy earning a living with his art. When I say busy, I mean busy in a sense that boggles the mind. In that year alone he released four studio LPs while gigging constantly with his Quartet. Two weeks after he would have heard the news of the four little girls, he was due to play a New York City engagement at the Birdland club, which produced the live recording that gives its name to today’s post. Right after Coltrane finished the Birdland engagement, the group was off to Europe for a tour there. Four little girls dead, dynamited by their fellow human beings in furtherance of an evil idea. John Coltrane kept working.

Weeks then in Europe, and upon returning to the States the gigs and recordings continue. Somewhere between the day after the bombing in September and a one-day recording session on November 18th Coltrane came up with a musical piece that he called “Alabama.”

Then at the beginning of December when Coltrane’s tour was stopping in San Francisco he recorded a TV show. The format of the show was for the artist to play 3 or 4 songs and engage in a few minutes of interview with the host, but Coltrane begged off the interview. The host, Ralph J. Gleason, Mr. Rogers’ cardigan and all, subbed in a little explainer about the how jazz was like writing poetry in the middle of a supermarket. Cringe if you like at the metaphor and the white guy non-musician explaining it all to us,* but that’s what Coltrane and the Quartet then do. “Alabama”  is strictly-speaking wordless. The John Coltrane Quartet spoke with their instruments.

The TV show where “Alabama” premiered. At 7:40 Gleason gives his “poet in a supermarket” metaphor, and at 9:35 the Quartet starts “Alabama.”

 

 

The four little girls, so cruelly and unjustly dead that same fall. In the interim, a U. S. President has been killed too. Hot studio lights for the cameras, a cost-saving bare sound stage to film in. Those five minutes of “Alabama”  have been introduced to an audience for the first time.**

To my taste, Coltrane’s playing on the TV show performance of “Alabama”  is even richer than the recording made a couple of weeks earlier though the rest of this Quartet of great musicians were a bit sharper in the recording studio take—but in either case there are notes he plays in “Alabama”  that are quite possibly the saddest and most resolute notes ever to come out of a horn.

That winter “Coltrane Live at Birdland”  is issued as an LP record which includes the recording studio version of “Alabama.”  Another release in Coltrane’s furious pace of working and creating. The liner notes on the record were penned by the man who’d sign them then as LeRoi Jones.***

The art of the liner note is a dead art now, but today’s piece quotes a few lines from Jones’ piece of work (the entirety of which you can read here). Those that remember Jones’ notes often recall its opening line, which is also the first line I speak here today. If the job of a liner note writer was akin to writing advertising copy, to attract the consumer, that opening line is highly subversive of that intent:

One of the most baffling things about America is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here.

Way to ship units LeRoi!

When it comes to writing about “Alabama,”  the song on the record where the Coltrane Quartet most directly speaks to that vileness, Jones writes:

I didn’t realize until now what a beautiful word Alabama is. That is one function of art, to reveal beauty, common or uncommon, uncommonly.

Jones knows what the tune’s about surely. I don’t know if I’ve fully absorbed that sentence yet, but if you are a person for whom 1963 might as well be 1915 or 1863, and you want to know what it felt like to know of such evil and endure it with an open heart, and to counter it with something that is beautiful (Oh! How can that be?), then you can find it in John Coltrane

Jones says John Coltrane’s art can change us, though neither he nor I will guarantee it. Can it? These are days that cause me to doubt. But if Coltrane doubted, he didn’t’ stop. I honor that belief. Perhaps art works in ways small but deep, and then only for some portion of us humans some of the time. If art like Coltrane’s carries me through sometimes, is that a reason I create art myself?

The player to hear me read a small section of LeRoi Jones’ liner notes to Coltrane live at Birdland is below. When I created this performance early this month I did not include any of the sections where Jones talks about the tune “Alabama,”  but I was trying to give some flavor of Jones parable about Coltrane’s power and conviction. Musically, my composition and performance is just a trio, there’s no saxophone.

 

 

 

*Yes, I cringe because I recognize myself there in a black&white mirror. Because I operate a musical instrument at times, I claim to be less guilty of the cringe factor. This likely convinces no one.

**Some have sought to document Coltrane’s gigs and recording sessions. There’s no account of “Alabama”  being played at any of the live gigs before this TV show. The version on “Coltrane live at Birdland”  is not live, but from that short studio session in mid-November.

***Later Amiri Baraka. A man who went through so many stances and positions in his life that it’s unlikely that any sane man can find agreement with all of them.

The Easter Flower

I could have chosen another poem for Easter, but besides this one’s song-setable qualities, “The Easter Flower”  is a poem about a Christian holiday written by a non-believer.

No, let me strike that casual term, “non-believer,” which doesn’t seem to fit McKay. He was a life-long radical, an unwavering believer in workers rights and social justice, always stalwart against colonialism and racism. As a radical, black, gay, immigrant man these beliefs were no simple balm to his soul, and by that I judge his beliefs to be strong and tested. McKay was also a confirmed skeptic, analyzing situations and sometimes changing his views on how these goals may be achieved, but that doesn’t alter those beliefs.

Now some of that may or may not resonate with you. Believers who do not share your beliefs can be rough companions to your reading or listening. Rest easy, this poem isn’t like that.

Here’s a link to the full text of the poem.

First off, like Wordsworth’s famous “Daffodils,”  this is a poem about a past-tense experience, something that exists for the poem’s singer only as a limerent memory as he sings of the flower. McKay who grew up in rural tropical Jamaica spent much of his life in more northern climes. The weather forecast for Minnesota calls for a few inches of wet snow for this Easter, and if non-tropical Minnesotans find this disappointing, all the more so for McKay.

So, the lily in the poem is likely a childhood Caribbean memory, and the plant the Trumpet Lily, the Easter Lily, is not native to these then English colonies. It was introduced there by a missionary who brought it from Japan in the 19th century. I don’t know if McKay knew that, but this flower he remembers at Easter time amidst thoughts of home is a colonial artifact as well as a Christian symbol.

Claude McKay and Easter Lily

Claude McKay and the flower of his complex memory

 

In the poem’s second stanza McKay modulates the flower memory, displacing the pale flowers in his mind by liking it to a formation of “rime,” the hoar-ice that forms along shapes when foggy water vapor freezes rapidly, uniting the poems present voice in a colder Easter with the warmer past. The end of this stanza and the beginning of the next form a vivid spring rebirth image, as devotional as any Christian mystic could have written.

And then the poem let’s us know that McKay isn’t a Christian. Indeed, at the time the poem was written he was an atheist.*  Therefore, the remembered image of the Easter flower is extraordinarily alienated from the singer. It’s in the past, in the ground of a country he no longer lives in, it’s a religious symbol not of his religion, it’s a non-native plant introduced by colonialists, growing in a climate of soft fragrant April nights, not a sleety cold northern city.

How easily we might skip through this poem, hearing but it’s lovely sounds and involuntarily resonating to the memories of a holiday with flashbacks of chocolate bunnies and jelly beans—or for devout Christians, one might hear only the inspiration of the image of the tomb earth giving way in resurrection. But that’s not this poem. McKay ends saying that he, “a pagan,” is overcome by this none-the-less, worshiping at another religion’s shrine. Why? From what? I think he chooses to make it undetermined. Homesickness even for a colonial homeland he felt he needed to leave is there. A certain ecumenical mystery too. The sensuousness of the flower is an undercurrent, the night smell of the flower has pheromonic power.

To hear my performance of Claude McKay’s “The Easter Flower”  use the player gadget below.

 

 

*In the last decade of his life, 20 years after this poem was written, McKay was attracted to the Catholic worker movement. After a period of self-searching he became a member of the Catholic Church.

We Wear the Mask

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.

Young Negro Poet Dunbar poster

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.

We Wear the Mask

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.

Sympathy (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings)

The last two times I presented poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar here I went out on a limb on subtexts that might be present in those poems. “October”  is on the surface a harvest “Happy Autumn” poem, but there’s an element in it of the personified rich harvest’s carefree possession of wealth. Just a handy poetic metaphor? Perhaps. And then there was his valentine of a poem “Kidnapped”  which could plausibly be connected to the Cupid and Psyche myth, but specifically deals with the narrator being captured and taken from its home. Just another recasting of a widely utilized myth? Could be.

But you see Paul Laurence Dunbar is the first successful Afro-American poet. A man whose parents had both been slaves, whose ancestors would have been very non-metaphorically kidnapped, and a man whose race in his 19th century were the harvesters who retained none of the wealth that accrued to the owners.

Today’s piece by Dunbar carries its subtext clearly—it’s hardly subtext at all! One cannot read or hear it and not see it as a statement about freedom denied. Partly because it can be applied so directly to Afro-American history, it’s become one of Dunbar’s best-known poems.

Dunbar Live!

Dunbar with violinist. Seems like an idea….

 

I don’t need to add to Dunbar’s words today. But since my ego claims I should say something, I’ll note this: Dunbar chose to write his poem as a universalized statement. There’s no lack of Afro-American experiences of freedom limited, other-defined, and outright denied—but the poem he wrote speaks universally of that issue.*  The specifics of racism and economic deprivation would be self-evident to his Afro-American readers anyway.

Was writing about denied freedom in metaphor a commercial choice, in accordance to the poetic style of his time, or an example of a largeness of his soul? Well, now his poem exists, and it speaks to freedom denied to anyone who encounters it.

Levys Ad and Malcom X

I started thinking of wry captions for this. Nope, the picture doesn’t need’em.

 

Another setting from me using violin, cello, and acoustic guitar today. I went out last night after working much of the day on this audio piece and saw songwriters playing acoustic guitar at a local venue. I enjoyed the concert, but also in the background I was thinking: alas, I can’t really play guitar or write songs like they do. I watched them changing chords rapidly compared to what I could do earlier in the day. That’s so useful I thought, recalling that I had had trouble rendering my leisurely cadence earlier.

I’m not sure why I thought that. I’ve been doing both of those “I can’t” things for over 40 years, despite limitations on my part that change over time. When I returned to the piece today my guitar part didn’t sound as wanting as I remembered, and the uncommon “i, III, VI, v, i” hopscotch chord progression of my composition seemed worthwhile to the morning’s ear. My violin line (played on guitar via MIDI) seemed better than I remembered too. I still wish I was a better singer, but I can express my own way with melody on an instrument even if my singing limits me. The piece seemed valid to me again.

What lesson to draw from that? Comparing your art to others can be fraught. Sometimes when you need to improve, observing others can show you the way. Sometimes when you’re different, it’s still good, and not a falling away.

To hear Dunbar’s “Sympathy”  as I performed it, use the player below. The full text of the poem is here if you’d like to follow along.

 

 

 

*A good argument could be made that there is a specific to the Afro-American experience in Dunbar’s metaphor though: the caged bird’s song. American music, that stuff that we (and a great deal of the rest of the world) have come to hear as the strongest part of our American culture is disproportionally Afro-American music.

Fall 2019 Parlando Top Ten, numbers 7-5

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.

Hathor pendant from Pylos gravesite

An African goddess pendant found in an ancient grave in Greece.

 

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.

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.

Memory of June

As promised, here’s a love poem, one written by Claude McKay the Jamaican-born poet and writer who worked for many years in the United States. McKay sort of bridges the gap between Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Harlem Renaissance for Afro-American poets.

Like Dunbar, Fenton Johnson and Anne Spencer, his poetry was written early enough to be included in James Weldon Johnson’s pioneering 1922 The Book of American Negro Poetry.  Like Dunbar, McKay could write a smooth metrical/rhymed poem in the 19th century style, but like Fenton Johnson he often set his poems in distinctly urban settings: the northern U. S. cities that were the terminus of the Great Migration of southern Afro-Americans during the 20th century. Alas, also like Fenton Johnson and Anne Spencer, his published poetic work seems to have fallen off by the late 20s, though McKay’s prose career continued throughout the 30s.

Claude McKay

Claude McKay

 

One of the poems James Weldon Johnson included in his anthology continues to be one of McKay’s best known, his sonnet “If We Must Die,”   a passionate ode to desperate self-defense that doesn’t once specifically mention the white race-riots, lynching and other terrorism that was a cardinal problem for the civil rights movement between the abandonment of Reconstruction and the middle of the 20th century. I find this an interesting choice on McKay’s part. I’m certain many readers of “If We Must Die”  understood in McKay’s time exactly what he was writing about, even to the specifics of it down to names, places and horrific details. But that’s not in the poem itself, unless you count the “O kinsman” address in the 9th line and the external knowledge of who that might be defined via McKay’s skin color. Is McKay’s choice intentional? By omitting his race and context, which his readership largely knew anyway, he’s saying self-defense isn’t a thing to be granted to or earned for Afro-Americans somehow, but a fundamental human right to be self-asserted. McKay had many other poems in which race is mentioned after all—makes it seem all the more to be a choice.

By choosing to state this universally, “If We Must Die”  has even engendered an unverified factoid that Winston Churchill quoted this poem in a speech during the most desperate days of WWII—but all that is in war and ugly violence, and I promised you a love poem, and “Memory of June”  is that—though it has one somewhat ambiguous phrase that might make it part of a struggle.

Here’s the text of McKay’s “Memory of June:”

Memory of June

 

Did you spot it? You should know I’m not about testing you; you are to only score yourself here. I didn’t see it the first time I read it either. Do you think it’s the phrase “your brown burning body” celebrating mutual Afro-American love and desire? Well this is poetry, a pleasure, not bomb-defusal, feel free to hold for that. It is a pretty poem, a romantic one, isn’t it?

The subtle, ambiguous line I eventually noticed is earlier: “For one night only we were wed.” McKay is now widely assumed to have been gay, though he never “came out” and nothing I’ve read so far tells me why this is now assumed as known.*

Let’s assume this is so. It is also safe to assume that few readers of the poem when it was first published in 1920 knew this, other than those in McKay’s intimate circle. Now the course of love is complex. Many nights of love are singular for many reasons. And Afro-American couples accrue special challenges. But McKay chose “wed,” the thing that gay couples were officially denied until late in my lifetime.

McKay might well be using the same tactical move as he used in “If We Must Die”  in a different context, one where a then more secretive circle would read this poem differently from the common reader.

So here we are in June, a traditional month for weddings and also gay Pride month, and I present Claude McKay’s “Memory of June,”  a love poem, not another poem about war or violence. Except love isn’t simple, and good love poems aren’t.

The player to hear my performance is below.

 

 

 

 

*This sort of ex-post-facto outing without a diary, journal or other unpublished manuscript that would be easily cited if it existed often comes from gossip or oral history—two names for what is largely the same thing, but gay history has fewer paper records to rely on. So, evaluating that isn’t simple, and McKay isn’t notable enough for this to be something I can find quickly.