Allen Ginsberg’s America

It’s always the late empire period for old folks. When 1920 Claude McKay prophesied last time of granite wonders sinking in the sand at the end of his America poem, he was a self-proclaimed vital young man. He’s likely visualizing some hazy prophetic event with a undefined date as recorded by an even more distant future, and not the current toppling of certain bronze statues.*

McKay was 29.

To some old folks such as myself, fallen empires and overturned practices are not prophecy, we’ve seen them fall over as presently as gravity after their props and pedestals disappear, and so for the thoughtful among us, the conceivability that we might be living at the end of an American empire is not so strange, and even for the less-considered among us, we know our personal remaining time has shorter numbers.

This summer I showed a 15-year-old a YouTube recording of a live reading by Allen Ginsberg of his poem also called “America.”  They’d showed me YouTube videos of earnest anarchists explaining the essential evils of money controlling government, after which they ask me if I’ve read Kropotkin. They live in a world were schoolyard bullying is considered actionable, not character building, and where the ideograms of gender-queer nearly exceed the Phoenician alphabet. Marijuana is about as novel and exotic as some parent’s veneer liquor cabinet.

They also live in a world where the man with a gun is found in the right if he’s afraid, doubly so if he’s a government agent. Economically we have endured a second Gilded Age where we have the Internet instead of railroads. For this generation, their first memory of a President was a competent and graceful Black man. Their second memory of a president, is not.

I haven’t mentioned environmental danger, Covid-19, or spoken of that tiger’s tooth that sank into the throat of George Floyd in our shared city. My catalog will be too long or too incomplete. There’s no other choice.

Here, I said, “This is anarchism!” and I launched the video. A static picture of a 1960’s Ginsberg stayed stationary on the screen and the soundtrack played. Ginsberg wrote this when he too was 29, just as McKay had been, though decades later in the American experiment. There was another red scare going on. Likely it was not much safer to be Black (or Jewish), Left, poor, or Gay and expect legal respect between 1920 and the January 1956 Ginsberg aurally date stamps his poem with.

Ginsberg reading the entirety of his “America.”  Warning to tender ears: his performance, like mine below, includes one F-bomb.

 

In maybe a minute, 2020 made their judgement: “This is bad. It’s terribly recorded.”

I think its faults to this young audience were more at this was old, and this is not new. They had not lived in 1956, the supposed happy, carefree “The Fifties” of which “The Sixties” were in betrayal of. More than merely novel then for Ginsberg to stand up in public and say the  unholy word about the holy bomb; for him to speak frankly about not being neurotypical, gender conforming, and accepting of the post WWII social order; to not only oppose, but to make fun of racism and red-baiting, and to say all of this as if it could and should be said in poetry. This was no longer revolutionary to this teenage 2020 set of experience. There’s now a mix tape every day saying the same.

Revolutionary? I’m presenting this series for American Independence Day. “America”  is Allen Ginsberg’s declaration of independence. Like the later parochial details in the July 4th document that no one now remembers, parts may have dated. And it’s no longer novel to say all men are created equal either. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

“America”  is Allen Ginsberg’s declaration of independence.

So, I’m grateful for Ginsberg. I listened to that recording of his “America”  several times in the tumult of this year. Some things he speaks about are not, alas, mooted points. My young viewer may at times overestimate our current state of accomplishment, just as I’m intimately aware of how far we’ve come from then.

I saw Ginsberg read a couple of times, but never this poem. However, I have an aged memory of it being read, not by him but by an Iowa rock band called the Emergency Broadcasting System in the late Sixties. They would open up their first set with the lead singer speaking sections of this poem while the band riffed behind him. I liked the combining of rock band energy with this then only teenaged poem, and maybe that’s part of why this project exists.

I’ll note that the sections I quote from “America”  in today’s piece may be long enough that I could be breaching copyright on Ginsberg’s work here. Rights holders, if that’s the case, I won’t debate your point.

The player gadget for my performance of sections from Allen Ginsberg’s “America”  is below. Is there more to say and perform as I look to poetry’s statements on July 4th? I plan at least one more as we approach Independence Day—one from yet another American time, and with another outlook different from McKay and Ginsberg.

 

 

 

*It’s only in this century that I became aware that a large percentage of the Confederate Civil War statues date from the early 20th century period, not to the years right after the war. There were no monuments being erected then to the enslaved people whose bondage was material to making that genteel and romanticized world of noble warriors however. Must have been an oversight.

McKay did have one example of revolutionary change in his experience-bank: the 1917 Russian Revolution. Like many of his era’s leftists he was hopeful, even inspired, by it for some time. Yes, he reevaluated that eventually. Revolutionary ideals do not equal the regimes that follow.

The Most Popular Parlando Piece, Spring 2020

Are there people today still falling in love, or not falling in love together, or remembering love and almost love? Seems like a silly or rhetorical question doesn’t it.

So, yes, I suspect there are, as there have been before.

People fall in love on marches, at the barricades. Policemen fall in love. People fall in love in the time of plagues. Old people fall in love. Young people remember love or almost love. Oppressed people fall in love. People fall in love, but their partner doesn’t, and sometimes that partner is the wiser of the two.

So, is this the time for a poem of romantic love to be the most popular piece this past season? This is a time of new dangers and old evils. This is a time that predicts greater uncertainties and promises change if we act, and despair if we don’t. Can poetry put its “Queer shoulder to the wheel” as Ginsberg wrote? Should it?

Dada for Juneteenth

You have nothing to buy but your chains! For today’s Juneteenth, some Dada in advertising algorithms.

 

I’ll be honest, I think about that a lot this spring. It’s a large part of why it’s hard for me to get around to creating new work here as this spring unfurled. Honestly I have little right to present short pieces here on Emily Dickinson, Du Fu or Arthur Rimbaud, but I may have even less authority to write briefly on politics, economics, sociology, or epidemiology—much less American racial dichotomy and all it’s injuries.

My observation that many who do  write of these things have no more authority than I do is not helpful. Another observation is that all us artists have is that: our observation. We must strive to be careful seers and more exact sayers of what we see, though we tend to be flat seers. Heaven and wildflowers: that’s leveling. Romantic love, that often-brief thing; and disaster, that sometimes-brief thing that harms long and painfully, we see them both, we write about them as if they’re equal.

As this turns out today, I will have slighted Mr. William Butler Yeats. I’ve talked not at all about his poem, the one that you listeners liked and listened to most this spring, though it’s hardly a perhaps to believe Yeats thought some of these thoughts and questions that I’ve filled this post with instead. You can read my original reaction to the poem, linked here, in place of something new today.

The player gadget to hear Yeats’ “When You Are Old,”  this love poem written by a 20-something about old age, is below. Thank you very much for reading and listening, and an extra thank you to those who’ve helped spread the word about the Parlando Project. There’s a lot of stuff here from the four years of this project to listen to, and I’ll still attempt to have new pieces here soon.

 

 

 

Obviously Five Believers (Thoreau, McClure, Whitman, Blake, Ginsberg)

Perhaps today’s audio piece and what I came to write about it has an interesting path. In words it’s a medium-length journey—so I beg your patience—but the places it goes are vast. Eventually, we’ll answer a question you may not have asking: who’s buried in William Blake’s tomb?

It started with an illustration drawn by Sergio García Sánchez which I saw on Kenne Turner’s blog this month. Turner’s blog has a great deal of manipulated and beautiful nature photography, mixed in with things he notices in his desert region location and occasional poetry, so it was unusual to see a drawing at first, but his post correctly located the words in the drawing and let me recognize the white haired old man whose beard is a star’s journeywork in this cartoon. The man in the drawing, the words, was Walt Whitman.*

Perhaps because Whitman’s words were embedded inside a drawing, they seemed Blakean to me as I read of that grain of sand, a hinge in the hand across the starry dynamo machinery of night. The main effect was to grab my attention and bring thoughts of doing it for this project.

And so I composed a small orchestra piece of music to accompany my reading of this piece, taken from the 31st part of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,”  using the 1855 edition. I’d normally give you a link to the text, but the two links above to Turner’s blog or to Sánchez’s picture are the best way to see the 1855 text I used which includes a line that was dropped in later editions, the line with the farmer’s girl and her iron tea-kettle that reminds us back to earth and daily life. For many compositions I’d be done.

And then last week poet Michael McClure died. He’s a poet of many events,** he read at the “Human Be-In” in San Francisco at the beginning of 1967, he can be seen briefly in The Last Waltz  movie reading Chaucer to the rock glitterati—but he may be most famous for being an organizer of the famous Six Angels in the Same Performance  reading at the San Francisco Six Gallery in 1955***

I know McClure best from a record album he made with ex-Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek and flautist Larry Kassen called The Piano Poems  in 2012. This was nowhere near my introduction to the Beat-associated “jazz behind poetry reading” style, but it’s a very good one. Listening to that helped build my own convictions for this project back then.

One of the poems performed on this set is McClure’s “Action Philosophy.” Though he didn’t on Piano Poems  as released, McClure would often introduce it by saying that his poem begins with words written by Henry David Thoreau. That led me to think about combining McClure’s incorporation of Thoreau with Whitman’s Blakean lines about the universe’s manifestation in everyday nature. After all, McClure extends Blake’s and Whitman’s vision, seeking to become the animals he sees, to inhabit them fully. That’s the animal meat of his poem, but it’s in a reality sandwich on this deli menu—those separated first and last lines present a vital dichotomy. Here’s the text of McClure’s “Action Philosophy.”

Five Believers Six Angels

Fifteen jugglers, five believers, six angels in the same performance! Tell your mama not to worry, ‘cause they’re just my friends. Yes, learn to play the triangle and visionary poetic figures will flock to you.

 

That first line: “That government is best which governs least” is taken from Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience,”  an essay that soon became important to certain liberation movements. Thoreau himself was speaking about the Mexican-American War and slavery in his essay, oppressive evils that he felt he had to take action against. Gandhi and Martin Luther King made explicit reference to this work of Thoreau in their movements against colonialism and American racial subjugation. Lines from it had vital currency during the anti-Vietnam War movements of The Sixties.

But that’s not what I associated this line with from my life in the later 20th century, or where you may most likely hear it today. Now if you see this line quoted, (perhaps misattributed to Thomas Jefferson, not Thoreau) it may be used to buttress some form of conservatism, particularly conservatism that has a claim to libertarianism. Libertarianism is a complex subject, too long to explore here today, but on the other hand, elements at the foundation of the Beat literary movement were anarchists, an alignment that would have fitted Thoreau.

Now we take another side-step. Back in the 1990s I worked with Gary, a white database programmer from South Carolina. He aligned strongly (as do some technology people today) with libertarianism and the political right that was ascendant in parts of America at that time. He was a great fan of Thoreau’s line, though I think he’d attribute it to his fellow Southerner Jefferson, rather than the Yankee Thoreau. From talking with him I felt that his philosophical libertarianism might have protected him somewhat from the racism, acknowledged or unacknowledged, that can be found in a lot of American conservatism. When he would talk about his political opinions, I’d say “Well, that’s not me, but you know a lot of the folks I read are anarchists, and they sort of have the same feelings about the dangers of governments.”

Gary replied with a question that might take a long time to answer. “What’s the difference between libertarianism and anarchism?”

What an interesting question, and how long could that answer go on? I improvised my first thoughts, observational ones that day Gary asked it decades ago. “Well, some of it is just cultural associations. They dress differently, they listen to different music. And some of that is reflected from where they are moving from: Libertarians come largely from right-wing backgrounds and anarchists from left-wing ones, though each of them may be disenchanted with something from the Right or the Left respectively.”

McClure’s “Action Philosophy”  takes what might be a book-length examination and instead put a distinction into his poem’s first and last lines. The world of the Randian side of libertarianism is perfectly fine with hierarchies and a thought that the unfortunate are the unworthy, or if not that, the unavoidable. Most anarchists—and from McClure’s final line spoken here today, McClure himself—were not. So the first and last lines today are a meaningful combination.

That was my process, a path of liberties and syndication, from within which the piece emerged as the Whitman Blakean section enclosed in McClure’s poem which seemed so Whitmanesque. My performance and recording was done, and yet I went to bed last night with a question in my mind. “What did Whitman know of William Blake? Those lines seemed so Blakean to me.”

Those who read this blog know that when I’m reading a poem, performing, and experiencing it, there’s often one more question that comes from that process. I did a little research today, and found sources that say that at the time of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman probably didn’t know Blake’s work, but by later in the 19th century he certainly did; and that some of those reviving and extending attention on Blake also saw the strange connection between Blake and Whitman—I wasn’t the first. Here’s a link to a very fine summary written by Sarah Ferguson-Wagstaffe of what links are known and were noticed in the 19th century, and even a short bit from Whitman’s own private writings about how he felt he was different from Blake. Ferguson-Wagstaffe may be writing for a scholarly website, but she doesn’t bury the lede: Whitman designed his own burial tomb inspired by a drawing of Blake’s.

How did they come to similar forms of poetic expression? The translated Hebrew poetry of The Bible influenced both strongly. And the same political philosophies informed both men, Blake knew Thomas Paine, Whitman was reading Thoreau and Emerson. And maybe the muses, the angels, the wake-waves of ghosts from the last movements of the dead moving in our air pressed similar things into each poets’ ear. Right after Ginsberg read “Howl”  at the Gallery Six reading for the first time (and by some accounts it was the first public reading of any kind Ginsberg or McClure had ever given of any of their work), Lawrence Ferlinghetti contacted Ginsberg from out of the Gallery audience and said “I welcome you on the beginning of a great career.” Ferlinghetti no doubt knew he was echoing what Emerson had written to Whitman in response to that 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.

For those that note that I’ve borrowed a song-title from Bob Dylan, I point out one of my favorite investigations from this Project: my non-original, but still little-known, discovery that Bob Dylan was filmed doing the famous hand-drawn placard presentation of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with Ginsberg gesturing in the background in an alley at the very site that William Blake died. To warp the old joke: Who’s buried in Blake’s Tomb? Whitman. Who was illuminated at the site of Blake’s death? Bob Dylan. Is McClure, carrying his nesting twig of Thoreau, and angel or a condor now?

To hear a performance mixing in Thoreau, McClure, and Whitman with my music for a small orchestra, use the player below. Thanks for reading. Thanks for listening. Thanks for sharing these ghosts with me.

 

 

 

 

*Should I have used the more multitudinous verb “where” here?

**McClure didn’t even have to be there. In the summer of 1970, I was working frying hamburgers in Port Chester New York. Down the road was the Capitol Theater, one of those converted to rock concert venues of the age. At a bar in town Janis Joplin was drinking with Bob Neuwirth, and Joplin started riffing on a line from a McClure poem “Come on God, and buy me a Mercedes Benz.” Neuwirth scribbled the night’s journeywork on a paper napkin. Later that day she performed the resulting song at the Capitol Theater. Me? I just kept frying those burgers.

***True to their anarchist-hearts, the reading seems to have been blessed with several “organizers” but happened anyway. Kenneth Rexroth MC’d, Phillip Lamantia, Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen, Michael McClure, and Allen Ginsberg read. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, Ann Charters, and Jack Kerouac where in the audience. Since it was at this reading the Ginsberg premiered his long poem “Howl,”  that seems to have become the summary of the event, but the edges of the blast broke more windows. The 22-year-old McClure read a poem about the death of whales, showing that his “Mammal Patriotism” was already forming.

Are Song Lyrics Poetry? Part Two

Last post I rapidly traced poetry from the era of Homer and Sappho and the Confucian Odes,  jumped to English language poetry and finally ended with early 20th century Americans. I traveled fast, and simplified much, but it wouldn’t be out of line to say this is a progression from poetry that was expected to be performed with music to a poetry that wasn’t. Widespread literacy and the printing press, and by the Modernist era, a desire to include complex allusions and layers of ambiguity all helped this progression along.

Today let’s start in the 20th Century in America and follow the songwriter’s side of things. Popular songwriting had become industrialized. Composers and lyricists churned out uncountable numbers—and first by sheet music and then by recordings, film, and broadcasts, these productions could be distributed widely. Barriers to entry were low in this business, but rewards for popular success were high. Lyricists came from a wide range of backgrounds—some were middle class, even college educated, but many were immigrants or descendants of recent immigrants for whom English was a fresh language.

As with any mass art or market, much of what they produced was forgettable, a job of work, their ears may have sometimes bent to the muse, but their hands were looking for a paycheck.

Poets and literary critics occasionally paid a little bit of attention to that work in their time. Lively arts and all, some notice was taken.* With the music inspired by Jazz, the cultural force of the music could not be denied, even if the words that came along with it might be condescended to.

Then, in the mid-1930s, a decision was made, outside of music and poetry—a political decision—that eventually changed the course of popular music lyrics. For political reasons both international and U. S. national, the Soviet Union-dominated international Comintern and the U. S. Communist Party decided to switch tactics from a more purist “only the Communist Party is the solution” stance to a popular front position, where anyone to the left of the then rising Fascist forces were considered valid allies.**

In the U. S. this led to such slogans as “Communism is the Americanism of the 20th Century.” On a political level this meant that the Roosevelt New Deal wouldn’t be portrayed as capitalists pushing insufficient reforms to stave off the inevitable revolution, and that actual “card-carrying Communists” would be mixing more generally with socialists, liberals and centrists. But for our purposes, we need to look at how this played out in the cultural sector.

Popular arts, which could have been perceived as hopelessly compromised tools of the capitalist system, became more acceptable; but a more pure, folk expression that was seen as coming directly from and for the workers and the exploited, a music existing outside of the commercial infrastructure of entertainment, was even more ideal.

So here, twenty years before the “Great Folk Scare” of the 1950s were the roots of the folk revival.*** It’s in this pre-WWII period that Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie came of age and shaped their songwriting. Seeger was a Harvard drop-out and son of two musicologists.**** Guthrie was none of those things. The Popular Front meant that the likes of those two, and many others with high to low culture backgrounds, would mix it up.



My apologies to my Christian readers for posting this example of extraordinary Popular Front songwriting on Easter when it’s more a Good Friday kind of thing. Billie Holiday sings the harrowing “Strange Fruit.”

 

As songwriters this could have meant dour issue-of-the-month songs cleared by some central committee. And to be honest, each of them sang and wrote some of those, but both of them had Emersonian Individualist streaks.*****

And they listened too, had big ears. Afro-American music and musicians, isolated southern U. S. musicians who songs and styles were time-capsules of old British Isles tunes. Blues and “Hillbilly” music benefited somewhat from being a source and occasional fellow-traveler with this movement.

The Afro-American Harlem Renaissance is shaped by the gravitational pull of this political decision too. Civil Rights before the ‘30s was often aspirational, and though the folk traditions were honored before, this new emphasis on embracing popular and folk arts increased the interest and respect for them among an emerging new Afro-American cultural consensus.

Now we jump ahead again, it’s that un-named but important straddle decade of the late ‘50s to early 60s. Communist connections are poison. Illness had made Guthrie bedridden. Seeger is persevering outside of any first-tier commercial structure as a road-dog performer. “Folk Music” is now a commercial genre with a still bohemian/left-wing underground. Into this we inject the man who will expand the idea of what song lyrics will be allowed to do: Bob Dylan.

You don’t have to like Bob Dylan as a person, performer or songwriter to accept this truth: there are song lyrics before Dylan’s 1963-66 period and there are song lyrics afterward, but song lyrics are a completely different field after the change he proved was possible. This is why an artist as strong in his own right as Leonard Cohen can say in one of his last public statements: “Giving a Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan is like pinning a medal on Mt. Everest for being the highest mountain.”

But a Bob Dylan has causes, has a context in which he can happen. That choice Communist bureaucrats made for pragmatic political reasons in the mid-1930s led to a folk music scene 20 years later in which Afro-American blues and weird old folk music mixes with poetic Modernism inside the mind of one songwriter, and what comes out is strange and compelling.

Song lyrics don’t have to be a piece of work aiming for an established commercial target. Song lyrics don’t have to make clear front-to-back sense the first or the fifteenth time you hear them, they can mystify you and still have listeners. Songs with narrative elements don’t have to progress in a linear manner. Song lyrics can be about anything, can use any kind of imagery. Love songs can be ambiguous. Political points can be made metaphorically. You can combine different kinds of diction, even sample and reference various existing sources, and it doesn’t have to seem out of place or from the lack of original things to say.

One can point to song lyrics that did one or two of these things before Dylan, but after Dylan used many of them together and repeated that demonstration often, many songwriters wanted to try using any and all of these things, and their attempts caused other songwriters to do the same. A chain-reaction occurred.

Modernist poetry had done all these things already, and often—but Modernist poets didn’t write songs, and for the most part they didn’t read and perform their poetry charismatically. Some Beat poets, that faction of the Modernist movement that had vowed to remain resolutely bohemian, who had read their poems in front of jazz combos, recognized this was a different level of music combined with words. Allen Ginsberg heard a copy of Bob Dylan’s second LP in 1963. As the first side of that record moved inward toward the ouroboros groove in its middle, as “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”  played, he says he wept. Did he weep, feeling he was now displaced? Did he weep because this not yet 40-year-old poet might be replaced by this just over 20 singer-songwriter? No.

He wept, with an outlook of gratitude, because “There’s a saying among the Buddhists. If the student is not greater than the teacher, then the teacher is a failure.”


A long excerpt from “A Hard Rain Is a-Gonna Fall” with Ginsberg’s statement cut in.

 

Good story. But this was far from the end of the matter. A great many important poets and critics didn’t feel Ginsberg, or any of his Beat cohort, were very good poets. Therefore, Ginsberg’s say-so didn’t make Dylan a “real poet.”

You can’t say songwriting accepted or didn’t accept Bob Dylan, because acceptance is too meager a word for what happened—he changed how songwriting worked. The question of poetry “accepting” Bob Dylan, or songwriters in general, is still open.

Will I ever answer the question in the title? I beg your patience. This is by far the longest piece ever published here, even though I’m skimming over a lot of things. In Part Three I’ll finally get down to the answer that makes the most sense to me.

For an audio piece today I’ll suggest this one, one of the rare times here that I perform my own writing, a live version of “On First Hearing Blonde on Blonde”  by the LYL Band. The audio player is below. Thank you for reading and listening! Part Three, that should be the conclusion, comes soon.

 

 

 

 

 

*Decades after this era in 1990 literature professor Phillip Furia published his book The Poets of Tin Pan Alley  which helped convince this fan of more “authentic” songwriters that these commercial lyricists were not without considerable art.

**As in the case I’ll make later regarding Dylan, please don’t let any personal feelings or judgements you may have regarding Communism or the Comintern blind you to the historical connections here.

***I can’t not mention one poet and musician who jumped the gun on this, Carl Sandburg, who published his important folk song collection American Songbag  in 1927. And for length reasons, I’ve largely left out the 20th century development of Afro-American blues and jazz. Charlie Patton didn’t wait for the Comintern to get in touch with him to forge his new alloy of styles.

****One of his father’s prize students was Modernist composer Henry Cowell. His step-mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger was in some opinions the most significant female American Modernist composer of the first half of the 20th century.

*****We can think of songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Bells of Rhymey,” “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,”  or “This Land is Your Land”  as exceeding requirements for that kind of song. Abel Meerpool’s “Strange Fruit”  is an excellent example of a lyric, written as a song, that would stand alongside poetry intended for the page.

In a Station of the Metro

As we were going to school this morning, my son and I were listening to reports from the South by Southwest event in Austin this week. The guy on the radio was explaining that while SXSW has broadened over the years, it’s still the place to go for Alternative Music.

“I wonder where you go if you’re looking for an alternative to Alternative Music?” I asked out-loud. Not the most original thought, but I’ve never liked labels even though we all use them.

My son—who’s reminded me for several years now that he is not a Millennial—replied “Well, I only listen to lowercase!”

Proud of that boy.

Well of course, Alternative Music or Indie music, or whatever you call it isn’t really a Millennial thing. It’s more of an outgrowth of Generation X* in the last century. And that in itself was just the next name stuck on whatever Dave and I were doing 40 years ago when someone thought Punk was the label. And then, scratch-off the sticky paper from a Punk from those days and most likely you’d find someone who was once a young Hippie. And Hippies were just kids that Beats thought hadn’t wised up yet.

I don’t know all that much of what Ezra Pound thought of the Beats, but I recall in the 1950s Allen Ginsberg wrote Pound in St. Elizabeth’s hospital where he was serving his commitment as crazy, the alternative to his prison cage for WWII treason.**  Ginsberg later met him in 1967 and Pound sorta-kinda apologized for the—you know, anti-Semitism and stuff.

But back in 1913, before either world war, Pound was trying to figure out modern poetry in English. If it would be, what it should be. He had some materials to reuse: medieval vernacular poetry, classical Chinese and Japanese poetry, some of the modern French poets, and he wasn’t the only smith at the poetry-forge either, Brits T. E. Hulme and F. S. Flint were working at this too.

Late 19th Century English poetry tended to be enwrought in the cloths of heaven, lofty abstract metaphors and repetitions of what were considered the usual Romantic poetic sentiments. Those poems sounded poetic, sure, but were they? But if so much of that was thrown out, what would be left, what could replace that?

In such a mood, in such preparation, Ezra Pound stepped out of a subway station in Paris. Something in the urban crowd he saw there struck him and he wrote a modest 30-line poem that is unknown to you and me. Pound did not like his 30-line poem. It may have sounded poetic, it may have looked poetic, but it seemed false. He wrung out the false and the result was two lines, the famous Imagist poem “In a Station of the Metro”  that begins “The apparition of these faces…”

Young Ezra Pound bundled up

Ah dude, nice marmot! The young Ezra Pound

 

I’ve used an excerpt of an account that Pound published three years later about his experience and aims in creating “In a Station of the Metro”  to begin today’s audio piece. I sometimes think of Pound as gruff, inward looking, full of unusual words and quotes from various languages I do not speak, a portrayal of a learned hermit that both of us want to leave alone. But if I’m to take him at his word as he tells this story, he is the transit-riding 20-something Pound, struck by ordinary daily beauty and not wanting to betray it with ordinary poetry.

What do the 14 words of “In a Station of the Metro”  tell us? It’s spring—for tree blossoms, like Meng Haoran’s famous short Chinese poem, are the central image. Perhaps there’s been a rain-shower while Pound was in the subway. He climbs up the stairs and unexpectedly the faces in the street are not cast down out of the no-longer rain. Perhaps the sun is peeking through. They are beautiful without saying, as blossom flowers are. As blossom flowers are, some would have been knocked down by rain, some nourished, and none will be even spring-forever.

To hear my performance of Pound’s account of how he came to write it, followed by the poem itself, use the player below.

 

 

 

*Has anyone fully blamed Billy Idol for that name? Idol claims he took his first band’s name from a 1950s book, but conceptually I’ve always wondered if Richard Hell and his song “Blank Generation”  was the fountainhead.

**Pound had remained in Italy where he had settled before WWII. Enamored of various esoteric theories he thought congruent with Italian Fascism, he recorded radio broadcasts which were characterized as propaganda for the enemy during the war. Captured after the fall of Mussolini, he was at first imprisoned as a traitor in an outdoor cage.

Longfellow Goes Beat

I live in one of the northernmost states in the U.S., a place where winter cannot be denied, and so we must make our treaty with cold and snow. Some will even claim it makes us better persons—hardier, accepting of the Zen of difficulties. Still, if Minnesota has inherent Buddhist elements, it doesn’t lessen my attachment to a shelf of warm clothes.

When I think of Buddhism I do not think first of ancient and overseas masters, but instead of the Beat Generation writers of my youth, the mostly men who reacted to the growing abstractions and high-mindedness of High Modernism with a return to immediacy and intimacy. The Beats could be seen as beaten-down by something, past the chance of winning a warm success, but they also asked that the word be understood as short for “beatific.” Allen Ginsberg explained: “The point of Beat is that you get beat down to a certain nakedness where you actually are able to see the world in a visionary way.*”

Like many things that meet America, Beat got absorbed and its rule-breaking became a style, a fad, a fashion, a look, a required attitude received with only enough meaning to make the accessory match the outfit. Every time I read to music here, I fear I’m seen as wearing a costume, playing a role.

Gaslight Poetry Cafe

Not quite as portrayed on the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the legendary New York Gaslight coffee shop

 

So, what’s this got to do with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—the square’s square—the man who wrote poetry that poets of the last 100 years find worthless?

Let me put Longfellow in a laboratory and see what we find. My lab: it’s a jazz club, probably downstairs, past the gray concrete curb turning winter white. It’s darkened enough inside the room that it’s sometime, night—but what year? The crowd is burbling, so’s the coffee machine. Wait staff are delivering and clearing tables, setting a tray on the bar for a moment to let another pass, talking of nights-off. A couple in the darker corner are nearly making out and can’t hear the band for the sight and breath of each other. A writer at a table closes a notebook, nothing more is in it today. The room is small but fairly full, about half talking their own talk and about half looking at the low bandstand, the quartet.**

The bass and drums begin, the guitar comments and the piano-player chords on the side. The bearded man steps to the mic, sheaf of paper in his hand.

“Snow-Flakes***”  he announces. Is this beatific? Is this visionary? Maybe it is, he looks that way. He is a strange cat: saying words “doth” and “bosoms”—like Lord Buckley perhaps. If he was translated into Chinese and then back to English, the Beat element would be clear; but even as it is, the words are beautiful, and he lets them slowly stay there that way, “This is the poem of the air.”

The drummer is still slapping the snare with his brushes, as the bearded man at the microphone gestures onward to the band, with a slight roll of his hand. His face changes. The vision’s past, is there a resolution? “Psalm of Life****”  he says.

This other poem is confrontation to everything we’d expect in this club for those who listen here and think about what they heard. “Mournful numbers,” are told on this stage every night, and he’s dissing them right off, and he ceases to pause his words now. The dance of the snowflakes becomes a march of “Let us, then, be up and doing.” What is this? The must be shoveling and stuck car after the beautiful, sorrowful snowfall?

He ambles off as the band riffs for another couple of minutes. What does this strange combination of poems mean? A snow-flake satori in a field, and then a command to earnestly strive. Yes, this Longfellow is a strange cat, even here.

My performance of Longfellow’s “Snow-Flakes”  and part of “A Psalm of Life,”  is available with the gadget below.

 

*In the course of the long influences that led me to doing this project, a local Iowa rock band of the late Sixties, “Emergency Broadcast System,” would open their 1968 sets with the singer speaking a good portion of Ginsberg’s America  over the band riffing.

**I recorded this on Christmas afternoon, first laying down the drum track and playing my Bass VI, an odd instrument that adds two higher pitched strings to the conventional four-string bass, instead of adding lower strings, the more common variation. I used this higher range to play the repeating, descending riff that occurs throughout the song. I played guitar around this rhythm section and then played the block piano chords. As a last step, I figured if I’m going to impersonate a jazz quartet I might as well go all-in and put in some fake club ambience. Maybe this did come from binging The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel  this month with my wifeor from nights at the old Artists Quarter in St. Paul and listening to Sunday at the Village Vanguard  by the Bill Evans Trio too many times.

***This one goes out to Mary Grace McGeehan of My Year in 1918, who thought of this poem when she thought of Longfellow. It’s one I’d overlooked until she brought it up, and what a graceful lyric it is!

****I performed only about half of this once well-known poem of Longfellow’s here. Several phrases in it were mottos for my grandparents’ generation, and my parent’s generation passed them on to me in occasional speech under a thin varnish of irony to preserve them. As a result, both the poem’s claim that “Life is real! Life is earnest!” and it’s command to “Let us, then, be up and doing” have remained with me.

A Poison Tree

Earlier this month I mused a bit about renowned poets’ “batting averages” when I use their words here, that the hall-of-famers and MVPs don’t always get the most likes and listens, that many of our most popular pieces use words from poets that are much lesser known. Of course, those levels of response may be secondary to the music Dave and I supply and our performances having their own range of attractiveness, or it could be that the subject matter of the popular lesser-known poems resonates in some way with audiences.

Perhaps it’s just random fate at play, but poet and artist William Blake never attracts much of an audience here, though he remains dear to my heart for his stubborn individual persistence and production. Blake is an 18th Century writer who looked backwards to Milton and Dante as much as he predicted the early 19th Century romantics. In America, he’s loved by some outsider poets such as Allen Ginsberg* and Patti Smith, but in England he may be encountered as the lyricist of a national anthem “Jerusalem.”   Compared to our founders of American Modernist verse, he can be in his “prophetic books” more long-winded than Whitman—and yet also as seaming simple and elusive as Emily Dickinson in his short lyrical poems. If you hear Blake as hard to value or difficult to appreciate quickly, you are likely hearing him right.

Take the piece that the LYL Band performs today, “A Poison Tree.”  It’s Dickinson-short, and like some Dickinson, if you give it only cursory attention, it seems like a simple moral tale. It certainly starts off like one. To paraphrase, I was mad at my friend, but we were open about it, and it all blew over; but with my enemy, I kept my anger a secret from him and it didn’t go away. This poem was even once published under an (ironic) title “Christian Forgiveness,”  and that may be what you expect to hear extoled. After its few moments this poem ends, it goes away, and that could be what you think you heard. But it’s stranger than that—unvarnished fairy-tale strange.

Blake A Poison Tree page

One nice thing about William Blake poems: I don’t have to hunt for illustrations

By the third verse the poet/speakers’ hidden, festering anger, has produced an apple, an Adam and Eve apple, a Snow White apple. Sure, magical realism, expected poetic imagery this. How’s the plot going to go on from here? Will he wicked-witch-trick the foe into eating the apple? Will he somehow reconsider his anger and resolve it? Will he somehow eat the apple himself by some misapprehension? Will he patent the apple’s genetic design and make so much money that the foe will be forever jealous?

Two lines into the third verse, it goes somewhere else than any of those easily comprehendible endings. The enemy sees that apple, that property of our poet/speaker. He wants it! He breaks into the speaker’s garden and steals it undercover of the night. Thus, the poison apple kills the foe. And the poems speaker sees this and is “glad.” Roll the credits, and anyone who’s been paying attention should walk out puzzled.

What the fruit!

Could Blake be saying that hidden anger is dangerous material, you need to be careful with it, as stuff could happen? Or is it a more elaborate allegory? Is Blake saying that our enemies will covet our anger, even if we think we are keeping it hidden, and the foe, seeking to seize this anger (perhaps it’s righteous or powerful) will kill themselves? Or, in the context of Blake’s overriding mythos—where the righteous, authoritarian deity, similar to the Old Testament Jehovah, is not simply good, and must be opposed—is Blake demonstrating that our festering anger will turn us into a trickster god who will allow the fall of man from Eden? Or is this a simpler anecdote about passive-aggressive sins, where the story is: well I was mad at him and he was my enemy after all, so why warn him off from my poison apple, he had it coming?

To those attracted to it, “A Poison Tree’s”  power derives from this mystery couched so simply. But if it only confounds you, that’s OK too. The Parlando Project tries to vary things—not to confound you, but because we’re attracted to a diversity of ways this can work or fail.

To hear the LYL Band perform Blake, use the player below.

*Allen Ginsberg sang Blake poems regularly, once issuing an LP of his performances with an eclectic group of accompanying musicians and performing them live. His unguarded and guileless performances of Blake were one influence for what I do here.

London between snows

One more post where we slide the Parlando Project and “other people’s stories” to the side and become more like a conventional blog. Last night in London was a blustery snow squall, but as Minnesotans who know that the Theater of the Seasons plays in Repertory, we were up and around throughout the day. Our target was the area around the Strand and Trafalgar Square to hit the National Gallery. We really only struck Trafalgar Square a glancing blow, though it seems an impressive urban plaza. As we approached through the flakes and gusts, I pointed to the back of the column and asked my wife why they had a monument to Captain Crunch here.

Admiral or Captain

Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, and close up of the statue at the top

 

Faux-naïve humor aside, some of the best parts of the day were the little things. As we passed a small library I saw a poster in the window about Sylvia Pankhurst, the most radical of that suffragette clan. Inside was a small exhibit detailing the middle of her career in anarcho-syndicalist circles which lead her to a steadfast effort to warn against the rise of Italian Fascism in the years between the wars. Some of the exhibit showed the efforts to extend Fascism to Britain through local London groups, which included the information that the library building itself had been formerly the headquarters hall of the Italian Fascist organization.

Shortly after entering the National Gallery we noticed these mock Roman mosaics on the floor leading into the central gallery. At first glance, one assumed they’d be the sort of stolid decoration museums are known for—but wait, is that Bertram Russell? Winston Churchill? Turns out they are a set of witty between-the-wars comments on the modern virtues. “Don’t tread on Gretta Garbo…” sings Ray Davies in my mind.

Lucidity with Bertram Russell

Lucidity on the ground in mosaics

 

We’d come for a Pre-Raphaelite exhibit which showed how much these original hipsters loved to put mirrors, particularly convex mirrors, in their paintings. At the exhibit I learned that the art Academy the PRB bros rebelled against had been in a wing of the National Gallery building, a museum then full of the lush late Renaissance paintings loved by the 19th Century. As young rebels are wont to do, they instead looked to the earlier painters with their sharp Colorforms palette.

We took a side-trip down the Strand until we came upon the Savoy Theater and then the grand Savoy Hotel. Our bootheels had to do some wandering, but, sure enough, we found the alley where the “Don’t Look Back”-“Subterranean Homesick Blues” was filmed, and where more than a hundred years earlier William Blake had lived and worked on his Dante “Divine Comedy” etchings as he lay dying. We couldn’t see the Thames to confirm if flowed like gold, what with all the buildings the years put there between Blake’s place and the river, but you could still see Dylan and Allen Ginsberg standing in that alley.

The Savoy Alley yesterday and today

Click the link in this caption to learn more about Angels in the Alley by the Savoy Hotel

 

That evening we went to a mostly Mozart concert at Saint Martins in the Field, which was fine. Now that I actually try to write string parts and play them via virtual instruments, it was nice to see hands play the articulations from a front-row seat. But, before the concert, we ate at “The Crypt” beneath the church, which is not just a goth-sounding marketing name, but the actual crypt, complete with grave markers. My wife wandered about the area, reading the grave markers, noting one for a five-year-old child.

Everything in the past is beneath and beside us. Everything in the future is too, but we cannot see nor feel it yet.

Help grow the audience and alternative ways to get the Parlando Project

I enjoy making these pieces and talking about the process that leads to them. If you’ve ever come across a post here and pleasantly thought “I didn’t know that,” well, I likely had that same experience, sometimes just a few days before you did. Similarly, if you’ve ever listened to one of the audio pieces and enjoyed music and words illuminating each other; well, I’ve spent hours composing, playing, recording, and mixing it—heard parts of it up to a hundred times—and I enjoyed doing that. I’m not bragging there. As my own “producer” I’m well aware that I’m pushing my limits as a musician in making these pieces—but why go to the trouble if you aren’t making music that you, the musician, want to hear?

Well yes, I know one answer to that question, but we’re not a commercial enterprise. We don’t do sponsorships or ads. I do this to hear these poets and writers in a new way and because I’m attracted to the stories surrounding the words. But when I do those things, I’m often thinking about you too,  listeners and readers, the folks who pay us not with money, but with your attention.

I can’t say enough about how much I appreciate that.

As we near 200 audio pieces published, I’m looking for that audience to increase this year. I know we’re quirky, but so’s this modern world. Variety has been a goal from the start, so I expect that some episodes/posts/pieces will be more interesting than others to any individual reader/listener. I intentionally do that, because I find there’s often no delight without surprise.

So how can you help this audience grow?

Well, read and listen, though you’re already doing that, and you don’t need to do anything more.

Hit the like button if you like something. It’s a little thing, it’s become an Internet cliché, but it may help some for folks finding us, and it always gives me a good feeling when I see those icons at the bottom of the post.

Subscribe. There’s another term that’s become cliché, but there’s no cost or obligation to do it. I use the subscribe feature for blogs I’ve found interesting even for a portion of their posts, because it helps me find those posts of interest more easily.

Subscribe part 2. The Parlando Project started out as a podcast, where the audio pieces you see at the bottom of most posts can be automatically downloaded to your smartphone, tablet, or computer. Again, there’s no subscription cost. As a reader of this blog you’re “insiders,” and you get more information on the audio pieces, but we still have more listeners via the podcast than listener/readers here on the blog. The podcast audio is the same as what you get on the blog, but it comes to a subscriber automatically. You can find the Parlando Project on Apple Podcasts/Itunes, Stitcher, Google Play Music, player.fm, and many other podcast sources/apps.

Subscribe part 3. Since the beginning of 2018 we’re on Spotify, though with a footnote. The Parlando Project is in Spotify’s podcasts section, which is gradually being rolled out to the various Spotify apps. Only the most recent Parlando Project pieces are in Spotify’s listing, but it looks like you can add a Parlando Project audio piece to a Spotify playlist.

Yes, I’ve considered getting at least some of the audio pieces on “regular” Spotify or other popular streaming music services, but so far the costs and time to do that are stopping me.

Use the social media buttons. At the end of each post there are buttons to use a variety of social media platforms. The time producing the Parlando Project keeps me from all but minimal time on these platforms myself, but when someone does do this, it seems to help other people find us.

There. Now back to what we do regularly. Here’s one of the first audio pieces posted here back in 2016. “Angels in the Alley”  is a bit longer than what’s become our average, and I like to think our audio quality is getting better since then too;  but “Angels in the Alley”  is also more of a narrated spoken word story than others. What’s the  story? The death of English poet and artist William Blake, and how it connects with this famous rock’n’roll video clip. Ever wonder what Allen Ginsberg is gesturing about in the background at 1:35 into this?

 

And here’s the LYL Band with one theory:

A Song in the Garden of Love

Today we offer a respite from my voice and the return of alternate Parlando Project presenter Dave Moore. And since it’s been a few days since the last new audio piece, today’s piece combines a lyric written by William Blake with one by Christina Rossetti. Two great poets in one piece! Ladies and gentlemen, there is no greater value you can find today in the poetic words mixed with music marketplace!

Both pieces are stated by their authors to be songs, either in the name of Blake’s collection where “The Garden of Love”  first appeared, “Songs of Experience,”  or in the title itself for Rossetti’s piece, which she called just “Song.”

So of course, both pieces have been set to music and sung before this, but it was Dave Moore’s idea to combine the two pieces; and one can immediately see once he did this, how tightly they fit, with Blake sorrowfully reporting the graves in the garden, and Rossetti musing on the grave and its landscape.

Rossetti wrote her “Song”  while still a teenager. Unlike Blake who was born in a religious dissenter family and grew increasingly distrustful of the corruptions of organized religion, Rossetti would become one of the most graceful and modest of the poets of the Victorian Christian revival. Strange, isn’t it, that the two poems mesh together.

Christina Rossette on staircase

“If you listen very hard, the tune will come to you at last”
Christina Rossetti listens for inspiration, or puzzles over her holiday gift list

 

Speaking from my poet/musician duality, the version of “The Garden of Love”  that I most recall is the one recorded by Allen Ginsberg in December of 1969. Ginsberg’s recording is played, followed by a 20-minute discussion of the poem and performance here. The four speakers in this discussion mull on the country music waltz feel Ginsberg performed the Blake too. If I were in that room, I could have replied from the musician side of that duality, that in 1969 there was a bloomlet of counter-cultural figures essaying country-music tropes to the puzzlement from the hippie audience as to what level of irony was intended. Two musical figures close to Allen Ginsberg had taken part in that move earlier that same year: Bob Dylan with “Nashville Skyline”  and Ed Sanders with “Sanders’ Truckstop.”

Wm Blake The Garden of Love

“A dominie in gray…led the flock away.” Blake’s self-illuminated song.

 

Our performance of this mixes Dave’s somewhat church-hymn organ (Ginsberg often used a hand-pumped harmonium organ in his live performances) with my country-ish Telecaster electric guitar, so perhaps Ginsberg’s country move was stuck in my memory as we performed this. Here’s what Dave Moore said about his performance:

“Wayback Machine time.

This song goes back to the early days of the Reagan years, which he ended up forgetting but we can’t.

Probably this is my first attempt to put music to classic poetry, I just thought they fit together so well & expressed both despair and hope so well. This one is my favorite vocal of all attempts at this piece. My introductory verses for each poet are new & I wish I’d separated them from the two little poems better, but that’s what you get with one-takes. Ah, sweet death, we can still sing.”

Dave points out a contrasting benefit of the pieces here performed as the LYL Band, which are not only “one-takes,” but are often pieces that only the composer-vocalist has any sense of the structure of, leaving the rest of us to follow and create parts on the fly. This leads to a certain roughness, and yes, at times, tentativeness too—but I believe there is a corresponding sense of the undiscovered and its discovery that may come across to the listener.

To listen to the LYL Band perform Dave Moore’s pairing of these two beautiful, yet sad, English lyrics, use the player below.