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.

 

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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.

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.”