The Folly of Being Comforted

Readers often hear different poems when reading the same text. It’s unavoidable, even though it causes some authors to despair at how they are misread. So, it should be no surprise that it is possible in performance to recast poetry considerably without changing a word.

Around 1902 Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote a poem taking exception to a too-easy consolation meant to comfort. He cared for the poem enough that around 20 years later he revised it slightly, to emphasize his response to this well-meaning gesture, explicitly writing out the one word concise enough to underline his feelings at the offer of comfort: “No.”

Those who study Yeats’ life are pretty sure this poem is biographical and is based on his unrequited courtship of Maude Gonne. That’s a long story, and to say that these were two complicated individuals is to understate the matter. If one reads today’s text, that poem “The Folly of Being Comforted,”  in that biographical way, it makes sense. Here’s a link to that text.  That reading, coldly condensed, would have it that someone told Yeats, “Hey, that hottie that you are so enamored with — I’ve heard she’s getting older, grey hair, older skin around her eyes. Sure, they say with age comes wisdom, but never mind any of that, she’s no longer so attractive that others will be chasing her. So now, maybe your chance will come around.” And to this Yeats gives his “No,” explaining that as he sees it, she’s not lost a step beauty and attractiveness-wise.

There’s a perfectly good romantic love sonnet there, and that’s not what I performed today.

I’m mentioned this year that I have family and others I know going through infirmities and transitions. It’s not my nature to talk about them, or even to directly write of my own experience of those situations. Even though one of the principles of this project has been to seek out and to present “Other People’s Stories,” I’m hesitant to speak over their own voices*  in the same way that I’m comfortable talking about those long dead and in some cases too little remembered.

As I was working today on finishing the mix of the audio performance you can hear below, Dave called me to tell me that our friend and poet Kevin FitzPatrick had died last night. We were planning to visit him in hospice tomorrow. Now we’ll visit him when we think of him. Visiting hours are now unlimited.

Kevin FitzPatrick and Ethna McKiernan

For many years Kevin and Ethna would celebrate poetry in a public reading on St. Patrick’s Day in Minnesota.

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Another poet we both know, Ethna McKiernan, is also facing a serious illness this year. When I read and then performed Yeats’ poem, I was thinking of these things. I recognized it was a romantic love poem, yes, but I read all sorts of undertones in it. We are meant to pass over them in the “correct” reading. Maude Gonne was all of 35 when Yeats first published his poem, the grey hair and “shadows…about her eyes” were likely subtle things. We’re all more than double that. Age is not subtle at that volume. When I read Yeats’ simple elaborating line “I have not a crumb of comfort, not a grain.” I felt my own lack of useful care or comfort I’ve offered Kevin or Ethna, partly because I fear I’d be rather bad at it, and partly because I’m less close to either of them than even Dave is. That said I’ve been acquainted with Ethna for about 40 years. I may have not been close to her in her “wild summer,” but I knew her when. Yes, the fire “burns more clearly” with her even now as Yeats says.  After all, when you get our age, there’s more fuel.

Yeats called his poem, “The Folly of Being Comforted”  and he ended the poem with that title. He likely had real feelings in this matter, long ago when he was alive. When I think of these mortal matters, now, here, my feelings are different than a witty sonnet about someone’s crude mistake regarding his estimate of Maude Gonne. And so I performed my feelings, using Yeats words.

The player to hear that performance is below for many of you, but some ways of reading this won’t display that. So, I also offer this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab window and play it.

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*I feel I must guard myself in that partly because I’d easily fall into it if I didn’t.

Why Now, Vocalissimus

Today’s piece uses a very short poem I wrote in immediate reaction to some sad news I heard this weekend. Despite that news’ immediacy and particular sadness, the poem that resulted became something else, and I’m not sure why, even as I was writing it, revising it, and then figuring out today’s music and performing it. Being present throughout, shouldn’t I know?

Without stepping on anyone’s own living story, and my limited understanding and participation in it, let me just say that not one, but two poets that Dave Moore and I have known for many years have been dealing with potentially mortal illnesses this summer. I started intending to write a personal poem about considering their possible deaths, and some very tangled words started to emerge.

Why those words? I’ve already told you I don’t know for sure. Perhaps the words were tangled because I don’t feel I’ve been a supportive friend in their time of illness for complicated reasons which include my social awkwardness and not really knowing to what degree they would welcome that in their situation. The tangled words were awfully impersonal, even if the person wrestling with them was infused with emotions.

I decided to leave the tangled syntax of what came out, because I came to feel that their odd flow was a potentially striking effect, slowing the reader to consider them more closely. I made attempts to bring the personal in, but none of my considered words seemed to fit when I did. Could the impersonality too be part of the way the poem means? Yes, by this point I truly wondered what my poem — my own poem — meant.

Why Now, Vocalissimus

Why now, when it is already so
when I listen to people sing in the night,
that so many of them are dead?

And some of the words that comfort us,
or cause us to wonder at why we’re not,
were written by those who now never talk.

But if you go to silence for after all,
leaving just words, sundered breath,
will they be but husks, after seed has left?

When I completed the draft I used today, I thought it had become a poem that isn’t about particular people, but about us (you, I, anyone) wondering about what a poet leaves when their poems no longer have a choice but to remain silent on the page. I know that is a problematic mode. T. S. Eliot, who like many effective poets was right and wrong about why his poetry — much less poetry in general — worked, would approve of this poem’s impersonality; but in our century now we often expect poetry to include diaristic detail, and while the muse wouldn’t supply it, I myself expect that the poem should be specific about those that I’m thinking of — and yet to include explicit thoughts of that while they live seemed morbid and presumptuous. Even though I present this piece today, I’m not sure the poem is done with me yet.

Empty Milkweed Husk by Heidi Randen 1024

Poetry. Seeds. Speak it!

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What’s with the weird Latin word in the title? It’s to lead you away from me and my particular poets in my thoughts, and back to just about the only appearance you’ll find of that word used in an English language poem: Wallace Stevens’ “To the Roaring Wind.”  In that poem “vocalissimus” is that voice of the muse that asks to become the voice of the poet; and by extension asks us to be the voice of the poet beyond their lifetime, which is what this project is about in our normal course of presenting other people’s words.

Let me leave you with one thought: you here who write, read, speak poetry are part of a continuum. Poet’s poems dream of being more than your poem — the ones with personal details, the ones without. Few will achieve that dream, but still they dream it, before and after the dreamer.

Many will see a player gadget below to play my performance of “Why Now, Vocalissimus.”   Some won’t, so I supply this highlighted hyperlink that will also play it.

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To Poets Not Dying Young

Poems and songs about those artists who die young are easy to find.*  Why should that be? Well, tragic aspects there are plain to see and it’s easy to note the lost potential in an early exit. I think there’s a further factor too: we are much in love with the trope of young artists whose work is caught in a rising arc before falling with melted wings. It’s extraordinarily difficult for an artist to continue to impress or delightfully surprise over a long career. We artists repeat ourselves and are judged to have become stale — or we change and produce work that isn’t judged correct to be coming from us. Perhaps this is inevitable. Or maybe in part it’s us as readers, listeners, audience, who contribute some faults to this by always seeking new faces — or the practical use of any failures as telling markers to drop attention.

I’ve made no secret here that I’m old. I missed out on being a has-been and I’m not anyone’s coming thing in the arts. In a strange way I find that frees me from those burdens, and I only need to carry my age and infirmities while producing new work. This summer as the blog and listenership has its seasonal drop off, I’ve indulged myself and your attention with more work with texts written by Dave or myself. I do notice that the poetry I’m presenting here of mine is overwhelmingly focused on loss, something Dave usually avoids. Young poets, young musicians, often add gravitas with similar emphasis — and I should note, young artists can and do directly experience those things outside of the world of imagining. Experienced artists may more likely realize this is a choice, one that we are free to question and doubt. But, speaking for myself and my summer it’s been more at reporting. The everlasting crisis of the wider world continues — unjust losses there are still noted — but each day I think of the closer infirmities of those I know: small losses for me beating in resonance to their greater losses, and less specific worries and predictions for myself standing before me as I look through them to assay these others unavoidably present and particular ones. This is likely the selfish and self-contained man’s version of empathy.

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To Poets Not Dying Young

I enjoyed some dissonant chord colors and an “Is it in major or minor?” rub in this one’s music.

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Today’s piece uses a text of mine I call “To Poets Not Dying Young.”   The effect I’m trying to convey is the wearing of life on the body and soul of older poets who persist in their observation and writing, and it’s written in the hope that we, as audience, retain our ability to read and hear them. I do worry that the images are too enigmatic in this one, but maybe the connotations or some incantatory power will carry the effect through to you. Even to myself, their author, some of the images reflect more than one thing, and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.

The Parlando Project plans to restore our usual service in presenting texts by other writers in upcoming pieces you’ll see here soon, but to hear this one you can use a player gadget below if you see it, or this highlighted hyperlink which will open a new tab window with an audio player.

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*Here’s a post and a short and graceful poem linking several “died young” poets by American poet Anne Spencer.  And here’s a real-life ghost story post that has as its musical bit a poem by Carl Sandburg about another poet who died young.

And here are three to argue from the other side for older artists persisting. An aged Longfellow calls on the spirits of other older artists to make his case.  And his contemporary in Britain, Tennyson famously hymned a possibly deluded old Ulysses asking for one more voyage. And here’s another one of mine, in full rock fury recalling a young man who was once thought a coming man in his field and who persisted in making art past fame. If you didn’t like today’s musical piece, these five pieces will give you a wider sample of what we do here.

The most popular Parlando piece for Fall 2019 is…

We’ve reached the top of our seasonal top 10 covering the pieces you most liked and listened to over the past three months, but before I reveal the top piece, let me cover one other area.

I know from growth in the audience that some of you are new to the Parlando Project. Because of that, every so often I should explain what this project does. We take words, mostly poetry, mostly other peoples’ words, not our own, and combine them with music we write and perform ourselves. Sometimes we sing the words, sometimes we don’t, sometimes we split the difference somehow.

By intent the poetry we use and the music we create for it varies. Most texts are used under public domain rules.*  What kind of music do we use? I try to make it a whole lot of different. I’ve never been able to answer the simple-sounding question “What kind of music do you like?” because the idea of liking one kind of music is just not in me. So be aware that you may run into music here that you don’t care for, either because of our limitations as musicians or your own tastes and expectations—and that may happen right after a piece you liked. The same applies to the words we use. There are over 400 examples of what we do here in our archives, so you can move on and look at another one anytime. If you wonder if we’ve presented a poem or author, search here and see.

OK, so who sits atop our Autumn 2019 hit parade? William Shakespeare that’s who. That’s no surprise considering that it’s his Sonnet 73 which begins “That time of year thou mayest in me behold” (but which I’ve always thought of as “Bare Ruined Choirs”  for its most famous image)—one of the longest-famed “autumn of one’s years” poems in English.

Shakespeare Sonnets1609 edition Title Page

Let England Shake-Speares. The title page of the first printing.

 

I wrote at some length about my experience of the poem in my original post here, but I’ll reiterate only one point: even though this poem resonates with many older people and older lovers in particular, it was written by a man in his early 30s. Consider all the exegesis of Shakespeare’s sonnets that seek to tweeze out his sexuality, incidents to fill out his biography, or the identity of the fair youth, the dark lady, or “who really wrote Shakespeare,” and consider that they were written after all by an actor and a famously prolific creator of opposite and varied characters. I too want to invest those sonnets with his experience, to believe that this great artist is letting me see his heart. How much is intentionally or unintentionally “real,” and how much is a good illusion? We may never know, but we have the art none-the-less.

Here’s the player to hear my performance of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 “Bare Ruined Choirs.”  And a sincere thank you for listening and reading this fall. I hope that some of the pieces we’ve presented have pleased you and illuminated some matter or another.

 

*This means that the poetry is usually from before 1924. I happen to like (and have grown to like even more via this project) a good deal of early 20th century Modernist poetry, but we’ll jump around to older stuff than that too. While we’ve done many of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits” over the years, I’ll use lesser-known poets and poems when they strike me as interesting.

Doubt Brings Autumn

Today’s post includes the 400th audio piece since this blog officially launched in August of 2016. For such round numbers it seems appropriate to use a representative selection, but then the Parlando Project’s aesthetic is to avoid formula. So, the text for today “Doubt Brings Autumn”  is from my own poem. Long-time readers/listeners here know that’s not my usual practice.

When I started the Parlando Project I hoped to create 100 to 120 of these combinations of various music with various words. The music would test my limits as a musician and composer, and the words would be focused on “Other Peoples’ Stories,” an emphasis on other writers and artists rather than my own life.*

I had no idea how enriching it would be to encounter the work I would turn to, looking not just at “Poetry’s Greatest Hits” but also at the lesser-known poems and poets. That choice made around four years ago largely by intuition and confoundedness still seems to be the right one.

I started with some pieces already done, and some already expected. Not nearly 100, but once this project ignited it was hard to put the fire out. Now at 400, the natural urge is to press on to 500.**

One key to keeping this process going and to avoid the formulaic is to introduce random or coincidental elements into the making of these things. One favorite toy of mine to play with is to intentionally seek out and explore misinterpretations of sentences. Syntax and context is a slippery thing after all, why not have some fun with it? Until last month I didn’t know what to call this kind of language play, when it suddenly occurred to me where I must have picked this concept up.

There was once a great comic duo called Burns and Allen, whose career spanned the later vaudeville stages to radio to early television. The act’s trick was for George Burns, the straight man, to report some mundane event or judgement and for the comic, his wife Gracie Allen, to then find some confounding misinterpretation of that statement. Hilarity ensued, as any attempt to put the Dada spring-snakes back into the can was met by more sproinging twisting of the otherwise obvious meaning.

Poetic license: I couldn’t find any short clips of the classic double act, but the concept extends to this scene

 

 

That realization led me to name this kind of language play a “Gracie.”

“Doubt Brings Autumn”  began with a Gracie. A blog I read regularly written by an Iowan, Paul Deaton, had in series discussed the seasonal cycle of his food garden and an orchard he works at over the past year. His posts, as well as alternative voice and keyboardist here Dave Moore’s garden probably led me to use more stuff related to gardens this past year. In one post this fall Deaton remarked that frost and even some snow had come and that “If there is any doubt, autumn has definitely arrived.”

We all know what Paul meant, but if one takes this as a Gracie, it could just as clearly mean that doubt, even in small doses, causes, brings on, autumn. That became the germ, the seed, of this poem.

It’s been through a number of versions and revisions, and I revised it yet again slightly this morning after the performance you’ll hear was recorded, but the idea, inherent in both Paul’s life (he’s contemplating retirement) and mine (I’m “retired” but working near-constantly on this project, my “garden”) was a rich one. Our doubts, our questions about how to continue and react to our own seasons, are they cause or effect?

Doubt Brings Autumn

This is the current version with a small change in the next to last line

 

The last line works not just from its sound but gains also from another accident of English. The words unraveling and raveling are not opposites, each form of the word means the same—but raveling is the rarer word and subconsciously adds a paradoxical element that winter could  intensify instead of relaxing and untangling our unanswered questions, our doubts.

Another note on this poem in process: when I read an earlier version an accomplished poet whose work I respect reacted to the pun for frost and Frost***  with dismay. All poems and poets work from their own sensibilities, but mine steadfastly believes that humor, even the coincidental humor of Gracies and puns is unavoidable in the human condition. That other poet’s reaction was likely right, in that many (who knows, maybe most) will find the mood broken by that move in my poem. I do wish I didn’t confound them, but I somehow must.

Musically, I’ve finally been able to play fiddle rather than violin on a piece using the MIDI interface on my guitar. The sound of largo bow work is lovely, but so too are many folk traditions which saw away more insistently. The player to hear “Doubt Brings Autumn”  is below, and thanks to all that read and listen here!

 

 

 

*This insight came from a review of a book of Kevin FitzPatrick’s poems, where the reviewer seemed surprised and delighted to find many poems there “with other people in them.” “Why should this be rare?” I asked myself. In a musical metaphor I’d remark that I love solo acoustic guitar—just one set of hands and six strings—but what if all music or even all guitar music was only that or even mostly that? So much we would be missing!

**If I’m able to reach that number, I think that would be a good time to reassess the effort and focus it takes to do this project. If you’d like to help encourage this effort, the best thing you can do is spread the word. I have (too?) little inclination to promote this project on social media or even face-to-face. But even if I had that useful skill, I wouldn’t have time to do it.

***In my awkward defense, I pointed out that Robert Frost likely intended to pun on his own name in his magnificent “October”  where the endangered garden grapes have already suffered a leaf-wide incursion of burning frost.

Seventeen Almost to Ohio

Two threads lie here, waiting to be woven together. One thread: those young pre-WWI Modernists, the other: writers in old age.

Young: Mina Loy, Alfred Kreymborg, Glaspell and Cook of the Provincetown Playhouse, early in their careers, workers shaping modern literature—though none of them are remembered much now. Older poets: Longfellow, Donald Hall, and even Sarojini Naidu, Dave Moore and I, all speaking for carrying on past youth. Longfellow of course is no longer read for his intrinsic value, Naidu’s poetry is not read in the West, and Donald Hall concludes in his late-life essays, that he, like the majority of poets who receive prizes, notice and ample publication in their time, will be unread 20 years after their death. Moore and I of course are in a different, more perilous, class of ranked achievement. If Hall is right, Dave and I can look forward to equaling prize winner and American Poet Laurette Donald Hall’s status (unread, forgotten) in only 20 years!

There’s your writer’s affirmation for today.

What happened to those bright young Modernists? Cook died young. Kreymborg, that pre-WWI networking avant garde-ist, had a long post-war career judged by literary critics as undistinguished. Glaspell had an increasingly difficult second half of a career, though she won a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1931 for a play that few praise now, the sort of late plaudit that sometimes comes to pioneers when prize committees compensate for overlooking earlier achievements. Like Hall, Mina Loy lived into her 80s, but unlike Hall, the last half of her life seems fallen from any career path. So, even before she died in 1966, she’d already achieved Hall’s 20-years-past-death status.

In 1960, Loy was 77 and living in the Western US when young poet Paul Blackburn was sent to interview her. A creaky hundred-minute tape exists of the encounter. Loy’s memory of things a half-century old seems spotty by this time, and this once eloquent poet grasps for words, even her own words, when asked to read her still modern sounding verse from her youth. Her readings are flat, though she occasionally is stirred by remembrance of the times and places when the poems were written. Once or twice she humble-brags or finds sincere surprise at how clever she had been. Listening, I wanted her to claim outright the fierceness she had shown back then. Instead, she seems an old 77, tired and distracted.

Mina Loy Paul Blackburn

Mina Loy in later life by Jonathan Williams, Paul Blackburn 1966 by Elsa Dorfman

 

Blackburn is patient, and he rarely man-splains or talks over Loy, something I would be all too prone to do if I was the man holding the microphone. He seems to genuinely admire Loy’s poetry as he seeks to add to a record of a career that was forgotten then, and he wants her to know that in 1960, at least one reader “gets” what she wrote in 1914.

Just past one hour in the recording, something extraordinary happens. Blackburn, touched by one of Loy’s recovered memories, a feeling perhaps amplified by additional visual clues he would have in the room that are not imprinted on the audio tape, exchanges with Loy a memory from his own youth during the second instead of the first world war.

I have taken that story, much as Blackburn expressed it that day in 1960, with some minimal editing and shaping for the words of today’s audio piece.

Of course, we’ve now largely forgotten Paul Blackburn as a poet too, following Hall’s law. Blackburn died too young, and more than 20 years ago, but his story struck me as a tightly expressed spontaneous poem. What was this: a poem he had already written, one he was paraphrasing from memory for Loy? Was it a poem he was thinking of writing as he interviewed the aged poet, perhaps thinking the tape recorder could serve as well as a notebook jot to put a first draft down? Was Blackburn simply a practiced poet who could orally improvise from his skills a well-shaped improvisation?

Whichever, I think it’s beautiful. His story combines looking back at youth and a landscape that is no more, with Dante’s Inferno moved forward to Greatest Generation Pittsburg, and it has a closing that contains a remarkable Imagist jump into synesthesia. I call my arrangement of Blackburn’s anecdote told to Loy “Seventeen Almost to Ohio.”

Today’s music, like the interview, is restrained: contrabass, a pair of cellos, piano, and percussion. I strove in my  performance and arrangement to do justice to Paul Blackburn’s story. To hear it, use the player below.

 

Morituri Salutamus

I suspect no poet in the past couple of centuries has suffered a greater decline in esteem as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This is not due to some scandal in his biography, for as far as I can tell he lived an admirable life, but artistically he’s been indicted for a number of crimes and misdemeanors. Before I go over those, let me briefly summarize the heights from which Longfellow has fallen.

He was the first self-sustaining professional American poet, the first to reach a considerable level of national and international success. By the middle of the 19th Century he was roughly as famous as Tennyson and Dickens, known and generally admired by his contemporary poets, and avidly read by a broad non-academic readership. He sustained this fame for several decades and further, past his death in 1882. His general readership survived into my grandfather’s generation, and then through my father’s, and to a degree, into mine. Somewhere in the middle of the 20th Century, this engine of fame and readership broke down, and by now they’ve torn up the tracks of the Longfellow Line, and ragged grass grows over the railbed.

I grew up reading Longfellow as the next generations might read Dr. Suess or Sandra Boyton in childhood. As I reached the age of ridicule, I could revel in Bullwinkle the moose in his parody poetry corner reciting Longfellow poems that I knew. Now Longfellow is probably not well enough known to satirize.

So, what are Longfellow’s poetic crimes? Meter and rhyme and a certain amount of antique diction—though we are able to somewhat forgive the English romantics of the generation before Longfellow those afflictions. Earnestness and popularity, two things that no ironic 20th Century Modernist would wish to be accused of—but Robert Frost survived the later, while being seen (mistakenly) as expressing the former. Longfellow’s contemporary, Walt Whitman, explicitly sought to commit the earnestness and popularity crimes—though, as the old dis goes, for many years, Whitman couldn’t get arrested for it.

Whitman-Longfellow

The good gray poet Whitman, and his doppelganger the forgotten famous writer Longfellow.

But Longfellow’s capital offense, the crime his reputation has been executed for, is simplicity and conventionality of thought. If I had to be Longfellow’s defense lawyer on this charge, perhaps I’d be reduced to throwing his case on the mercy of the court. Longfellow’s writing is often expressly didactic, and impersonal sentimental themes abound. Over and over again, he counsels perseverance and its seeming opposite, acceptance of impermanence. A more metaphysical poet would show his work and do more with incident to earn his conclusions. A more modern poet would make sure to make his life’s painful particulars his main subject.

Ironically, Longfellow’s life story is full of such material. Today we often think of poetry and art as an extension of memoir, and that writers earn their license to express things from their life stories. Longfellow would have had that license.

Some forms of Modernism believe that the best way to deal with complex emotion or great pain is to put it in the silences, in the blank spaces. These Modernists believed this would be more effective, because they are signaling with this constrained and minimalist expression that the thoughtful audience needs to seek for what is not said.

20th Century Modernists decorated their foreground with images, not antique forms of literary expression, and the complex message is encrypted in those images as if by steganography. Could Longfellow be doing something similar in the blank spaces between the lines of his hypnotic verse?

Today’s piece uses words from a late Longfellow poem “Morituri Salutamus,”  a Latin title taken from the famous gladiator phrase “Those who are about to die salute you.” The bulk of this poem, written for the occasion of his 50th college class reunion when Longfellow was 68, is taken up with matter that might appear in a commencement speech or the granting of an honorary diploma. Its purported mode is lightly elegiac, advice to the young is given; but as it proceeds, Longfellow transitions to a not over-worn thought. He prepares for the poem’s final stanza by cataloging some swan-songsters of literary history: Simonides, Chaucer, Sophocles. For compression, and for my preference for briefer work, this last stanza is what I used for today’s piece.

In that final stanza, with supple verse, Longfellow concisely implores his aging generation (and himself) to continue to labor to create, to create better. That’s not a complex thought. Does it need to be? Is it easier or tougher to do because it’s a simple thought?

To hear my performance of the conclusion to Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamus,”  use the player below. Some of you will not see the player, but then this highlighted hyperlink can be used instead to play it.

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud (Daffodils)

It may be U. S. National Poetry Month, but one can’t deny the impact that English poets have had on poetry, particularly before the Modernists launched with significant American participation.

Modernism, as practiced by those early 20th Century Imagists sought to cleanse poetry of the rust and rot of “poetic language” and rote abstract metaphors. Strong, exact words, no more complex or numerous than necessary were to describe things that were actual things, not merely decorative analogies to describe something else. By the 1920s, that American import, T. S. Eliot, became the standard of one large stream of Modernism. Although inspired by this fresh use of language, the Eliot wing of Modernism sought to rid poetry of “romanticism,” defined as a relentlessly subjective expression of personal experience unshaped by a greater historical and cultural understanding. Poetic language might be refreshed, but the cult of the great poem returned, and said that poetry is best to be in service of great themes and elaborate—rather than elegant—structures of thought.

Early Imagist/Modernist poems were about moments. The High Modernism of Eliot allowed it to be about eras. Imagists prized images of things formerly ignored or costumed only in the rhetorical finery in 19th Century poetry. High Modernism still allowed the mundane to stand for sublime thoughts, but it often sought to display a level of knowledge and literary scholarship along with the everyday in its choice of images.

This is why it’s important to look at the early part of artistic movements. Often their best ideas become mutated as the movements develop. Their revolutions become the new orthodoxy.

Today’s piece, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud (Daffodils)”  is by English poet William Wordsworth, one of the founders of Romanticism. It’s a poem that can be attached to an exact (April, Poetry Month) date: April 15th, 1802, and to a walk that Wordsworth and his sister took in rural England. But that’s not how the poem was written. Wordsworth wrote it a couple of years later. He referred to his sister’s detailed journal entry about the April walk to refresh his particulars. His wife supplied two critical lines for the final stanza. This was not a spontaneous outburst of subjective personal feeling at all.

Daffodils at Kew Gardens

I couldn’t make it to the Lake District, but even a month ago, daffodils were blooming during an English Spring in Kew Gardens
In a few weeks my lawn will look like this in Minnesota—only dandelions, not daffodils.

 

When I performed the version you’ll hear below, I made one significant change and one minor one. The minor change? I dropped the adjective golden from his line “A host, of golden daffodils.” I suspect I did this by accident as I performed it. Not to dis Wordsworth (and by the way, Billy, what’s with that obvious pen name “Words-worth” for your poetry gig?) but I think I improved the line when I sung it as “A host, a host of daffodils.” First off, daffodils are a common flower, and they are in the wild always yellow. Strict Imagists would say the golden adjective is therefore unnecessary—and it is, well, a gilding of the lily. I can’t recall my reason for the major change, dropping the next to last stanza—I may have desired to shorten the piece for performance—but it is the weakest stanza in the poem.

The resulting “Daffodils”  I perform wouldn’t have been far from what F. S. Flint or Richard Aldington would have written a century or more later as pioneering Modernists. After all, Wordsworth said that he was trying to cleanse English poetry from special, high-flown, poetic diction too, to return it to “as far as is possible, a selection of the language really spoken by men.”

I do retain something else Wordsworth does here, something I don’t recall the Imagists doing much. “Daffodils”  is presented in a framing device, while the Imagists were all about the presentation of immediacy. Wordsworth doesn’t say merely that looking at all these wildflowers, the temporary exultation of spring, was transfixing—and he says that less with that next-to-last stanza removed. This is not a poem only about letting us see them in their wild, external multitude through his eye on an April walk in nature.

No, the poem starts, deliberately, in past tense. “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” And the poem closes even more removed. The speaker of the poem is not the energetic nature-walker strolling in Spring. In the actual, unknown, later time of the poem, he’s lying on a daybed, vacant or pensive. These daffodils are now only obtainable by the “inward eye” of recollection.

Setting something in the past can be seen as a tactic of sentimentality, something the Modernists distained, but what we have here is worth that risk. How so?

I thought it a delightful little nature poem when I read it as a teenager. Then I read it decades later, as my Eagle Scout father, the angler long accustomed to waiting perpendicular on the flat surface of lakes, the man who had bicycled across his rural state many times—while then, as I re-read, he was further and further confined to lying flat in rooms with the erasing of days. In that later time, noting the wild daffodils bliss is told to us in memory, I reversed Wordsworth’s famous dictum on the origin of poetry. In my reading, in that time, it became a poem, a song, of tranquility recollected in emotion.

Here’s my performance of “Daffodils”  as I sang and accompanied it on acoustic guitar.

The Oven Bird

With today’s post, we’ve reached the 100th official episode of the Parlando Project, where we mix words from many sources (mainly poetry) with various kinds of music. For the 100th piece I’ve decided to feature an older recording of mine, almost 10 years old, of my performance of Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird,”  because it marks some of the initial ideas that lead me to this ongoing Parlando Project.

Parlando Project 100th audio piece

the Parlando Project has posted 100 audio pieces combining music and words

 

Frost’s “The Oven Bird”  is a devastatingly accomplished lyric poem written early in the 20th Century. The rhythm of the lines both grooves and varies itself, like the best music, and the rhyme scheme is elaborate, yet it never falls into forced rhyme. Frost’s language here is so plainspoken, ironically saving the fanciest and longest word for the poem’s last line. Frost is as rigorous a modernist as any of his contemporaries in the Imagist school. He’s as willing as any of them to hack away all the overused and overgrown 19th century “poetic language” and to use no word more than needed, but he does it here while writing a sonnet in rhymed metrical verse that sounds as natural as any free verse.

Allow me to indulge for minute my musical interests for a moment. What Frost does here (and elsewhere) is like what John Coltrane did shortly before changing his focus to what was to be called “free jazz,” where melodic freedom was stressed by radically simplifying the underlying harmonic structure. Coltrane wrote and recorded the most devilish difficult set of rapid chord changes constantly shifting the harmonic center, an obstacle-course of a composition called “Giant Steps”,  and then proceeded to improvise over it as if it was no matter to him to make those changes. Like Coltrane, Frost could seem free, natural, and innovative, while writing inside a constraining form. This sort of kindred accomplishment speaks to what attracts me in the Parlando Project to equally privileging music and words.


“The Oven Bird”
  has a reputation as a downbeat poem, and while Frost will not sugar-coat the human condition, I did not, and still do not, find it so. In “The Oven Bird”  Frost draws our attention to a bird that sings on, past the promising days of spring, and whose song is none-the-less, loud and insistent, even though he’s singing in a season where he might well feel out of place and out of time for song. Then in the closing section we’re first told that the future holds the fall season—and by extension, both the fallen state of man and the death cycle of nature—and “the highway dust is over all.” Some have read that line as Frost noting the coming of the 20th Century roads that will close out even more forest and bring some measure of end to the natural world. I think instead the “highway dust” is more at a statement of the death of all living things (dust implies in my reading “to dust”) and that dust is the dust of a set, laid out, road.

Oven Bird

The oven bird: “He knows in singing not to sing”

 

Finally, Frost hits us, and me specifically near 10 years ago, with his conclusion—one that says much for this project that seeks to find “The place where music and words meet.” He says those of us, also mid-summer and mid-wood who listen knowing these things, sharing the bird’s predicament, should know that the bird has these teachings to pass on to us, “He knows in singing not to sing” (a zen koan of a line) and that the present question is “what to make of a diminished thing.” What a progression to this, from the plainest language with simple words never more than three syllables long, singing us the oldest cycle known to self-conscious humans—and then Frost gives us a line suitable for meditative thought and a question.

This is where I break from those who see this as a despairing poem about death, failure and decline. The poem asks what to make of that, offering the example to loudly sing.

To hear my performance of Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird”, the 100th offical audio piece posted here as part of the Parlando Project, use the player below. “The Oven Bird”  performance is voice and acoustic guitar, but if you listened to others,  you know that the music and poetry we use varies. If you haven’t listened to other audio pieces in this project, check out the monthly archives for more. And if you like this, hit the like button or the follow button, and share this post or this blog address on your favorite social media channels. Those who’ve already done so help keep Dave and I encouraged to create new material, and you have helped grow the number of people listening to pieces from “Parlando – The Place Where Music and Words Meet.”