There isn’t going to be any new encounter with a set of words, nor any new musical combination with them today. I’ve mentioned during the last part of 2020 how this project that has brought me much joy and surprise has become more difficult for me. There are complicated reasons of little general interest that contribute to this, but this week there are again public events that have made it harder for me to concentrate on work.
Unless you are meditating in a cave somewhere, and only check in here as religious penance, you may easily guess what events this week have waylaid me. I feel compelled, for no logical reason, to bear witness to them, to watch them closely over the Internet at my shelter-in-place distance. Yesterday and certainly today that Internet will be filled with opinions. Well, that’s always so isn’t it — even if it may be to some degree even more so today. If you need opinions, you can drink of them until you are falling over swollen with them. I won’t fault you if you do, because I have read and will read some of them myself. I say this only to say that there’s no shortage of them, and so I will be brief and circumspect.
Painting by poet Kenneth Patchen who was also a pioneer in melding poetry and music, so don’t take this as some universal pronouncement. .
I revere democracy. Not because I think it incapable of monstrous acts. All governments are so capable, and if they exist for more than a brief moment, history testifies that capability will be exercised. Not because I think that our particular U. S. government structure is divinely inspired. Not because I’m likely to agree with what the majority of fellow humans believe about a great many things. I revere democracy because its evils are our evils, its good is our good — and that good is redeemable to outweigh the bad in us.
Whether the actors I’m observing are dressed as a Senator or dressed in a jokey t-shirt and a red half-billed hat, the desire — no, the actions — so brazenly presented and recently taken in the cause of maintaining the rule of a man so roundly rejected by our voters are obviously counter to that reverence. The Capitol building, the august chambers, are just symbols. Since many of us are writers, we know symbols can have a heft even if imagined, but still the real thing being attacked should be certain: democracy.
That’s right: the symbol has bricks and glass, the real thing is something we need to hold in our hearts and minds, another thing that’s a verb not a noun.
Instead of a new piece, here’s one I’ve presented before, by another Reverend of Democracy, Carl Sandburg. Don’t miss Sandburg’s subtlety here. He admits right off that we can be a mob. When he says “The Napoleons come from me and the Lincolns.” He doesn’t merely mean that the notables, the big figures of history arise from the crowd. Sandburg means to contrast Napoleon who quickly became a military dictator with a Lincoln. We can bring both forward.
What value is mystery and strangeness to gratitude, to a sense of thanks? Let me try an experiment with you here.
American Thanksgiving still retains a degree of its nature as a harvest festival, and so when looking for a text to use today I came upon this one by highly unfashionable poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Looking at the poem on the page one can see why modern poetic esteem may have passed Mr. Longfellow by. It’s a sonnet, intricately rhymed (ABBAABBA CDECDE), an antique skill that we no longer appreciate as much. Its imagery is both pat and removed from most of our daily lives, a rural landscape at night before the coming of electric lights, where moonlight can illuminate reflective objects and cast discernable if low-contrast shadows. Harvest signs include loaded wagons (“wains” is the charming old word for wagons chosen perhaps for rhyming needs), bundled sheaves of grain after reaping by hand, the changing of the bird population, falling leaves. In summary, we have imagery that is largely meaningless or lacking impact to us today in our modern America. It looks like stuff that is, and justly is, filed away in dusty poetry collections.
An illustration for “The Harvest Moon” from an 1880 edition of Longfellow poems
But what if we were to experiment a bit with Longfellow, and make him stranger and more mysterious? After all, this past rural world is now alien to most of us as some far-off land. And Longfellow, who we mistake as a rote poet here, has a subtle point to make, one that cultured British people might excavate and polish if this were a poem by Shelley or Keats, but which Americans may be too willing to overlook due to the old modes of Longfellow’s poetry.
In today’s performance of Longfellow’s “The Harvest Moon” I attempt that act of mysteriousation. It started with breaking up the lines and underemphasizing the end-rhyme. This lets it act as an occult undercurrent, rather than a regular chime we know is coming. I sing the words as if this is new and not fully understood to the singer or listener. And as I often do here, I make the music I wrote and performed carry a lot of the load. The main harmony is carried by a 12-string acoustic guitar, which is playing primarily suspended chords, chords that remove the 3rd of the scale that makes a chord major or minor, and replaces that significant note instead with a not fully discordant but unexpected 2nd or 4th. The bass plays a busy but similarly unsettled melody line under this. And as a final signal that we are to regard this old American landscape with a time-tourists’ eye, and not as an old poem full of discarded conventions, I play a higher melody line and drone on a sitar,* an instrument from another continent.
All that distancing effect is to force the listener to hear this poem as if it may have some meaning other than a decorative picture of a quaint and therefore meaningless scene. Longfellow outright begs us to do this in the text when he writes “All things are symbols.” This poem is late Longfellow, he’s nearly 70 when he wrote this, his America has passed through a horrible civil war, his life has passed through multiple family sorrows, and he is now an old man. The songbirds gone here are but counters perhaps, but his life of poetry is nearing its close. He’s spent his life helping establish that there can and should be an American poetry, that there can be American poets. We are them. Our grandparents and great-grandparents are the children asleep in those strange and now far-off curtained rooms. We are the piping quails, grounded birds gorging on the grain-seeds fallen to the under-shadows of the harvested sheaves.
Let us be grateful, let us be thankful, for those before us. Wrong and right they labored for us. Enslaved and wrongful masters they planted and harvested on lands that cannot forget the exiled feet of those before us. How strange, that it was exiles and the tempest-tossed that appropriated this place. Exiles creating exiles. There is a mystery in that.
*If you visualize me sitting cross-legged on a damask pillow with incense wafting in paisley curlicues while plucking on that elaborate musical device, it may be good for the effect of the piece—but in the spirit of full disclosure I’m playing a MIDI guitar here which allows my plucking to be translated into the notes and sounds of that difficult to maintain and master South Asian instrument.
Nostalgia may be cheap, but none-the-less, we feel it. Perhaps by “cheap,” we mean “common,” and if so, should artists always flee that, the common experience? Interrogating the common may verge on an obligation in many answers to that question. What is it in our mundane experience that we may share with others, that we can bring something else to?
Here’s an attempt I made a few years ago to do that, accompanied by some music I wrote and performed earlier this year. I think it’s an example of some principles and risks in this approach. What are they?
How common is your common? On one hand we often enjoy and seek out the exotic, and art can help us explore that too. I’ve spoken here before about how the exoticism of some of Keats attracted me as a teenager, and the strangeness of Surrealism and the gnomic statements of Wallace Stevens attracted me before I could understand all that they were on about. But just as well we may be attracted as readers and listeners to things that speak to our own parochial experiences. Why would we read or listen to work about ourselves? Are we hoping to learn something just beyond what we already know? Or is it, as it was once said about the readers of small-town newspapers, that they’re read by the townspeople to see what the editor missed?
In these ways you may be helped if your common is shared by a lot of people, who know they share that commonness, or it may be best if your experience is novel enough to not be very common at all, and where the attraction is that common human motivation: curiosity.
How important is your common? Some works spend a good deal of effort making the case that the reader or listener is wrong in not thinking that the common experience the creator is examining is important. Others have a lighter load to lift: those who’ve witnessed momentous events or taken part in widely recognized essential activities.
The degree of difficulty for the former is considerable. You may bore your reader or listener with making your case for the value of the seeming unimportant—or not make your case vividly enough and have them give up with a “who cares” shrug.
Why would one then choose to explore something generally considered unimportant? Well, a good deal of art doubts hierarchies of experience. Societies invest a lot in hierarchies, and artists like to overthrow them. Societies are often wrong, cruelly wrong sometimes, in those constructs. Artists aren’t always right in their alternatives, or completely right, but we are tempted by angels and devils to try.
Back in 1973 I hosted a visiting German artist in New York. The musical souvenir he was bringing home was a copy of Charlie Daniels’ “Uneasy Rider,” a novelty hit single about a long hair at a redneck bar.** German appreciation of American music was it’s own approximation. This picture: “Rules of the Game” is by Renée Robbins, taken in Iowa in 1977. The player in it seemed sort of Charlie Daniels-ish to me.
What do you bring to this common experience? Why does your expression, your examination of some common experience need to exist? As a matter of political and social persuasion, the second dozen or even the second hundred similar account of a similar experience and evaluation of it may add weight to the scales of attention or justice. An atrocity like George Floyd’s needless death gains some of its power and value not because it’s unique, but because it’s not. It’s not the first or the second, or the hundred and first. We ask, we view, in a way that it be considered as if it’s the first, as if it’s an only. We ask too, fervently, that it be considered as if it should be the last. But in the world of the arts, of chosen creation, we have a burden in making the same point over again worthwhile.
But of course, we do take up this challenge. How many poems, how many songs are about the flush of love and desire? How many works of art are about the absences of death? By some accounts, all of them that are any good. I think there’s a great middle range between love and death that is open too to artistic expression, the range of how we see, feel, hear experience between those two poles. It may seem trivial compared to the existential fact of death or the powerful urge of joined fertility—but great or small, your charge is to bring something else to this common experience large or small, call it beauty, call it a frame, call it music, call it a vibration that we can feel together.
Now, let me exit the high falutin and get down to today’s piece and see how I dealt with an element of my common in “Small Iowa Town, after World War Two.”
I had my own mondegreen moment listing to this today. I heard myself saying in line 23-24 “Seeing the storefronts in their row inhaling silently the adults…” instead of what I wrote above. I may keep the unintended revision.
First off, the subject matter is problematic. The experience I speak of here is shared by few even of my age cohort, and every day by fewer, as older generations pass on. Yet, it also has little appeal of exoticism. In my grandfather’s time and before this culture, the small rural American town, was common, and a considerable amount of art (much of it not high-art, and much that was aimed at the cultured market was critical) dealt with it. As I said in starting this post, a sentimental or wistful nostalgia is considered cheap and if it’s also not even considered common to the reader/listener, there’s no path to success.
I will note that I consider the experiences I recount in this piece as exotic. I’ve spent over half a century away from it, it seems strange/familiar to me now, an unusual construction. I make in my defense a common plea of the artist being accused of trafficking in cheap nostalgia: I’m really talking about how memory, change and experience work.
Is it important? I’m not sure. That I’m writing this generalized essay says that I doubt you will think it so. I plowed this field early in this project with one of the least popular pieces ever presented here: “Homeopathic Hometown,” and this may not fare any better. I plead the audacity of the artist that wants to tilt at hierarchies of importance.
Right now there’s a good deal of mistrust in America between the generalized* remaining rural citizens and it’s urban and suburban centers. Even though I’ve been away from small-town Iowa for so long, I can understand loss and aggrievement.
So, what can I, what did I, bring to this problematic subject to make it worthwhile? I tried to talk about the strangeness of the change, that part I find exotic, that far-away world that assumed permanence of a kind. I leaned on the slowly evolving music a good deal today. As in “Homeopathic Hometown” there’s a linkage that I feel viscerally between a certain kind of German music of the late 1960s through about 1990 or so, a melding of the then new synthesizer sounds with a particular European interpretation of progressive rock music, and my experience of these changed small towns. When I listen to the Bowie Berlin trilogy I get nostalgic not for a Berlin I’ve never known, but for a rural Iowa I think I know. It’s one of those odd links I can’t quite explain, but feel. Long rolling songs about long rolling hills and valleys. Small as a palpable absence. Grant Wood as a German Expressionist.
The player gadget to hear “Small Iowa Town, after World War Two” is below. It’s a bit longer than most things here, but I had to give it some time so the music could expand. Perhaps the music will work even if the words don’t succeed.
*Well, there’s a good deal of mistrust, period. And the residents of country and remaining small towns are not monolithic stereotypes. They weren’t then, and they aren’t now—and nobody likes to be reduced to a type—but generalizations of a divide and a mutual dislike and attribution of bad motives aren’t baseless.
**At the conclusion of the song, singer Daniels states that he wishes he’d taken his misbegotten car trip west on a route (across Iowa) through Omaha instead of through Mississippi.
Claude McKay led an outsiders’ life, Allen Ginsberg became a near celebrity bohemian whose outsider status changed over his life. The author of today’s poem in our Independence Day series was more well-known than Ginsberg in his day, and he was as far from being an outsider as any American poet could be. At one time, as many knew and read his poems as Edgar Guest’s, and he was a much better versifier.
So, do you know today’s poem from the above title, or from the name of the longer work from which it’s excerpted, “The Building of the Ship?” It’s highly unlikely that you would. The American writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow went from being the stuffy square’s square, the kind of writer that Modernists didn’t want to be, to a forgotten man, the writer that no one remembers even to reject. He was a civic poet, a poet’s role that no longer exists in white America. Along with a handful of other men, most of whom he knew, he sought to create an American poetry in the first half of the 19th century when the American experiment was still new. After all, when he was born in 1817, many who celebrated July 4th were around for the July 4th! And for much of his life Longfellow lived in a house that George Washington had lived in while commanding the American Revolutionary War troops.
George Washington lived here, and later so did Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And a child named Darby Vassall. Haven’t heard of that last one? Read on.
In 1855, an elderly man visited that house where he had been born in 1769, meeting with Longfellow there. The man’s name was Darby Vassall, and this was the nature of his birth: he was born to enslaved Afro-Americans owned by the owners of that big house, which made him a slave by law from birth. When the Revolution came, his masters sided with the British, and so after the Battle of Bunker Hill, the owners skedaddled off to safer British-controlled territory. This left the house available for the new Revolutionary Army’s commander, General Washington, as spoils of war. Washington left his short-term smaller quarters and went to the big house to move in.
And here’s the story Darby Vassall liked to tell about meeting The Father of Our Country. There he was, six years old, and the revolution had by accident empirically freed him. He was swinging on the gate of the very house Longfellow now lived in, a time-honored childhood pastime then and now (see also sutures and Colles’ fracture.) General Washington, impressively tall for his time, and like the house’s absent owners, a rich slaveholder who traveled with an enslaved manservant, asked the boy if he would like to work for the new occupant, this man who’d become so honored and famous that people even now buy his portrait for something between 25 cents and a dollar.
Darby kept swinging, sizing up the tall white man, and then asked “How much are you paying?” Darby says Washington kind of lost interest in the conversation at that point—because, you know, slavery. He looked like a gentleman Darby later recounted, but “He was no gentleman.” Now that’s an Independence Day story!
We don’t know all Vassall told Longfellow about the house Longfellow now lived in, but the stories must have been interesting. The best-selling author blew off a meeting with his publisher to hear them all.
Have I forgotten to talk about Longfellow’s poem? No, this is another poem for our July 4th series. It comes at the end of a much longer poem Longfellow published in 1850, one that less than nobody reads today. The entire “The Building of the Ship” is an allegorical story of a venerable ship builder* who with the help of a crew including a younger apprentice builds a ship for a merchant, more magnificent than any the builder has ever built. While building the ship, the apprentice and the master ship builder’s daughter fall in love, and the old master promises that on the day the ship launches his daughter and the apprentice will be wed. After many supple verse lines detailing the construction of this ship,** it’s complete and it launches with a epithalamium in which the new and lovely ship is embraced as a bride by the timeless, older, gray sea.
If the poem ended there it’d remain a curio of interest to scholars today, a romance in a European style adapted with distinctive American details and accomplished in English verse with a difficult rhyming scheme that never grates or seems fake, the sort of thing that is easier to do in French or Italian.*** But Longfellow had an envoi of sorts. The ship, as all man-made things do, would eventually wear out and come to a wrecked end. A downbeat, look-at-oneself-through-the-grave warning that would also not be out of place in romanticism.
This whole poem, along with that ending was sent to the publishers.
Then Longfellow called it back. He had a revision, with an entirely new ending. You can read the old ending and the story of the last-minute revision here. Not only is the new ending upbeat, it seemed to retroactively change the poem that proceeded it. That boat-like-a-bride thing was still there, but the ship was named “The Union,” and in those manifests of the things that made the ship, the entire young country seems to be the source. The Union becomes not just a marital union, it becomes the United States.
Here’s where that civic poet role comes into play. In the dozen years leading up to the Civil War, the delicate balance of slavery’s evil in a democratic country was becoming harder and harder to keep from spilling, the compromises seeking to keep the country in existence more and more difficult to negotiate. Longfellow’s new envoi, the one that I perform today, may seem anodyne if considered as an abstract statement of patriotism, but in 1850 it was a considered second-draft meant to say that ideals of the American experiment should continue, needed to continue, because those ideals, those plans, however imperfectly applied are contagious (in a good non-Covid-19 way). Enough for a small 6-year-old to stand up to Washington for example.
Now if we are to consider inspirational Afro-American patriotism, the best story that is likely not true is that Winston Churchill once quoted in a public speech Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die,”a Black man’s valiant ode to self-defense written after the deadly “Red Summer” of 1919, but then applied during the darkest days of Great Britain standing against Nazi-occupied Europe. No one has such a transcript or recording. But there is a recording of Churchill reading a section of the abolitionist**** Longfellow’s envoi during that time in a speech of endurance in 1940.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Longfellow’s “Sail On, Oh Ship of State” is below. I’ll note that my performance has some flaws that I’m accepting for now in order to get this out in a timely manner, but the spirit is there. Happy 4th of July though it be just one date. May freedom and independence come to all of us. The revolution is plural.
*Though Longfellow lived and wrote much of his work in Cambridge Massachusetts, he was born and educated in Maine, and even at this late hour he probably vies with Stephen King and Edna St. Vincent Millay for the title of most well-known writer from Maine. Maine was a shipbuilding center in the 19th century and so the poems extended allegory of shipmaking was local color to Longfellow.
**I’m no expert here, but those who know about early 19th century American shipbuilding seem to feel that Longfellow got the details of ship design choices and construction right.
***Many prosody theorists think that rhyming English poetry is a mistake, as we have many fewer rhyming word-endings than other European languages. Longfellow’s poetry may not be to modern tastes, but one thing he did have was a non-forced and impressive “flow” in the hip-hop/rap sense.
****Among the favorable reviews from abolitionists: Thomas Wentworth Higginson said of “The Building of the Ship” “The most complete and artistic which he ever wrote.” Lincoln was said to have quoted the envoi lines in private to his secretary as the Civil War broke out—and broke down in tears before he could finish them.
As we enter into the weekend celebrating American Independence Day on July 4th, I thought I’d put together some poetry about the American experiment. While not unprecedented, this is a complex time to be doing that. We are clearly in troubled times, and while I myself am as troubled as the times, I can still try to grasp what some others in their troubles and troubled times have chosen to say about America.
Let me start off with what a particular immigrant had to say almost exactly 100 years ago. The immigrant was Claude McKay, a Black man who came from Jamaica in 1912. Now of course, the presence in the then English colony of Jamaica of a man of African descent can be traced to the violent and involuntary diaspora of the slave trade before McKay’s time, but in his own lifetime, as an immigrant, McKay chose to come to America.
By the time he wrote this poem, first published in 1920, a number of then current events would have been impressed upon his thoughts. He first landed at the Tuskegee Institute in the de jure segregated American south, as close to the time of American slavery and the Civil War as we are to Martin Luther King and Woodstock today. He eventually traveled to the onset of the Harlem Renaissance in New York as well has visiting London and Russia. The life of a Black man was complicated by racism in all these places. Furthermore, if we are to apply the 21st century term “intersectionality,” McKay was working class, gay, and a committed Leftist.
And, as we now all know, 1918-1919 was also the time of the last great worldwide epidemic.
Given this background, as you listen to or read McKay’s sonnet “America” you may be surprised that this cri de cœur is as nuanced as it is. In the three quatrains before the closing couplet McKay is essentially making the case that he’s energized by being at a time and place when these evils are present and unmasked to confront. I’ll personally extend his statement: The American Experiment is this. It’s not the absence of evil, our country was never an Eden. That we are still fighting for our ideals of openness, opportunity, and equality under the law is evidence of our frailty—and our stubbornness.
Tragic persistence of metaphor: in 1920 McKay would paraphrase “I can’t breathe.”
Now what to make of McKay’s closing couplet, the turn the poem takes there as many a sonnet does? My first reading was that this is just the judgment of history: Babylon will always fall. Ozymandias leaves so fast he forgot to pack his trunk. That’s the clear reading of the 13th line.
A final line follows though. I think McKay the prophet here might have meant this too in his warning: we must change to extend our republic’s life, that all is at risk—even if every human, and every civilization, like every artist, will fail. Did we change from his time to extend our experiment? I believe we did. Are we called, are we in need of, more, further, change today? Well, what I think is less important that what you think, particularly if you are younger.
The player to hear my performance of McKay’s sonnet as a song with acoustic guitar is below. Is this the only statement for the 4th of July? No, I’ll be back soon with a reading from another American prophet.
*I was a history and civics nerd as a young person. I can tell you there was next to nothing to read about the racially charged riots of the WWI period until this century unless one knew to dig into primary sources from that time. The more distributed evil of lynching was acknowledged to some degree, but even when urban unrest returned less than 50 years later in the United States during The Sixties, I can’t recall a single pundit or think piece that referenced these events of the post WWI era.
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?
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.
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.
I neglected to plan ahead enough for today’s U. S. Presidents’ Day holiday. It’s an odd holiday anyway, of no great interest to the large number of readers/listeners this project has overseas. And for Americans, the title and avowed purpose of the holiday may be especially fraught in our present day.
Back when I was young, it was two holidays, celebrating two specific Presidents: George Washington’s Birthday and Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday. The first President, a leader of the American Revolution, had a cardinal virtue: he could have become the dictator of the newly independent country. That after all, is the result of many revolutions. He was one of the richest and most powerful men in the new country, full-fledged in the 1% for certain. Yes, part of his wealth consisted of enslaved men and women he owned, but these facts strangely testify to this one important fact in his character: he could have been that dictator. He could have run our country as a personal plantation. He would not.
Abraham Lincoln is another case entirely. I’m not au fait with the demographics of the early 19th century United States, but Lincoln’s family was undistinguished in wealth and fame then, and the circumstances of a rural frontier farming family in his time and place would rank his conditions with those of the world’s poorer regions today.
American poet Carl Sandburg was born less than 70 years after Lincoln, the son of a wealth-less immigrant in a rural America that was different from Lincoln’s, but much closer to Lincoln’s country life than we are today. When, in the last previous decade to be called “The Twenties,” Sandburg chose to write a biography of Abraham Lincoln, he could see those differences, smaller though they were to his eyes. And his eyes were an Imagist poet’s eyes.
This led to an unusual book,* one that was once central to Sandburg’s contemporary renown, but now is generally less well-regarded. Sandburg chose to tell the Lincoln story, as he might portray a scene in one of his poems, with a great deal of humble detail that at any moment could slip into a wider context unexpectedly. His palpable reverence for those humble details is unmistakable.
When Lincoln wrote and spoke the great American civic poem called “The Gettysburg Address” he famously began by noting our “fathers brought forth upon this continent.” Sandburg though, in telling Lincoln’s story was not exclusively beholden to the patriarchy. And so, however late for Presidents’ Day, here’s a piece more directly about the holiday’s forerunner: Lincoln’s Birthday, as portrayed in Sandburg’s book.
I could see Sandburg, being a poet, choosing poetic methods of refrain as he tells the story of Abe’s birth, and then but a few pages later the death of Lincoln’s mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln. Each event is set in humble rural isolation, with a central image of a bed of poles and animal hides, cleated to the wall in the corner of a hand-built, dirt-floor hut. This is where Nancy Hanks first presented us Lincoln’s birth day, and also where she died nine years later.
When Dell books got the paperback rights to Sandburg’s condensed version of his Lincoln book, they also made a 1956 comic book from it. The unknown artist didn’t follow Sandburg’s text accurately for the interior scenes however. The cabin drawing is based on a later reconstruction and the interior panel could be a 20th century home familiar to the 1950s reader.
Can we believe that’s an American story, much less the story of the birth of a President? It seems like a tale from somewhere else, particularly today. Oh, so much, particularly today. Like a grim fairy tale passed down from some old country. That the Lincolns’ nearest neighbors have the name “Sparrow” only adds to this effect. I decided that Sandburg’s Lincoln tale needed an invocation, a striking way to set us in readiness. My choice for that was to begin with a quote from Patti Smith’s “Birdland,” another place where music met words to tell the tale of a child who had lost a parent. In the little section I chose here Smith—like Sandburg will at times in his tale—steps outward from the particular in her poem to the promise of an ecstatic future.
The player to hear this performance should appear below. Because I was so late in getting this piece together, the main section retains a “scratch” rhythm section track I used while constructing the piece that I’d normally replace, but I doubt it detracts much from Sandburg’s story.
*The first book, published in two volumes, Abraham Lincoln: the Prairie Years was followed up several years later with Abraham Lincoln: the War Years published in four volumes. These books were in their time a success, and helped form the American cultural understanding of Lincoln in the 20th century. After another interval of years Sandburg created his own one volume condensation of these books, greatly shortening the original text. With my short deadline, it was from that later edition, the one I could get quick access to, that today’s text it extracted.
Certainly not the most self-love inspiring/invest me with hope/promise to give me beauty title for a poem. Mid-century American poet Kenneth Patchen could supply those sorts of things, but in his first book, Before the Brave published in 1936, he was looking around him, and the things he saw and felt were ominous.
In that collection and this poem, Patchen seems militant and politically committed in tone, though the poems seem too immediate to the times for me to fully decode his advocacy. “A Letter to Those Who are About to Die” indicates something’s coming, but it doesn’t simply say what. Violent revolt or revolution? Another World War? State-run oppression? Radical social change? If we study history, we know that it turned out to be some all of that. By the time Patchen was writing “A Letter to Those Who are About to Die,” the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War and the Japanese invasion of China were at hand or a few months away. Hitler was firmly in power in Germany. America was in economic crisis—and if you were poor, black or another ethnic minority perhaps only a generation away from another country that might be equally troubled, your life was now doubly challenged.
A photo of the young Kenneth Patchen in the 1930s
I know the later Patchen, the pacifist, the poet of love, the painter of illuminated outsider pages, but this was an angrier voice, more desperate than I expected. He was all of 24 and he’d just found the love of his life—but this wasn’t a newlywed world of hope. Could we look back from our perch informed by 20th century history and say he was wrong, that he was over-reacting? No. The ovens, the bombs, the death marches, the battle beaches, the truncheons, the gulags, the lynchings, the public gunshots.
Someone called Patchen’s mid-century cohorts The Greatest Generation. They fought for and against these things, perhaps in roughly equal numbers, and there are claims in all alignments that some of the above list of horrors were necessary to defeat some others also of the above. Objective history can tell us this all happened, even if it can’t speak with one voice on which horrors were justified. As far as I know, Patchen was against all of those horrors, which made him an outsider in his generation. Idealist? Naïve? An individual who opted out from being blamed for history?
I’ve been taken this spring by a song of Andrew Bird’s “Bloodless.” Bird’s an artist that I’ve previously admired more than I’ve wanted to listen too, but this song has a laid-back Curtis Mayfield/Marvin Gaye groove and heart that I can’t deny, with lyrics about the poets exploding like bombs “And it feels like 1936 in Catalonia.” That feels, in my present, like today’s Patchen poem.
Andrew Bird’s “Bloodless” official video.
So, even with that title that refuses to be attractive, I’m willing to give Kenneth Patchen a read and a performance, and you may be willing to give it a listen.*
Musically, my band and voice aren’t going to be keeping Andrew Bird awake on those nights when it’s music and not the parallels of the Spanish Civil war that interrupts his sleep. However, Patchen is one of those pioneers in combining spoken/chanted poetry with jazz-influenced American music, including collaborations with John Cage and Charles Mingus and a series of LPs with other musicians issued in the ‘50s. I do not expect or wish to frighten the ghosts of Cage and Mingus, only to honor their, and Patchen’s, independent spirit. The player gadget to hear my performance is below. There is no easy place to read the text of this poem on the Internet, but this link may work for those that want to read along.
*By coincidence, the Poem-a-Day from poets.org today is by Fatimah Asghar titled “I Don’t Know What Will Kill Us First: The Race War or What we’ve Done to the Earth,” which title probably equals Kenneth Patchen’s in click-through rate, even though the poem itself might ask us to read the title after the poem rather than before. I sat in a bakery this week and overheard two older white guys, looked my age or a bit younger, discussing the ridiculousness of fears like unto Bird’s and Fatimah Asghar’s these days in America. I wonder what Kenneth Patchen would say if he were to stop by?
Today’s piece uses my own words to present some images regarding American musician and songwriter Jimi Hendrix. Just like William Carlos Williams meditation on a small plant last time, I pretty much follow the famous Imagist rules: direct treatment of the thing, no unnecessary words, and musical phrasing instead of mechanical metrical feet.
Each one of the images opens up what I hope is a rich question. It’s my hope that the resulting poem and audio piece assists you in remembering these questions that I see as posed in Hendrix’s life. Here is the poem I wrote and used with today’s music:
For the American Hendrix
And then he laid the guitar down, and set it afire
Which seems silly or sacred, depending on the art
He had only to keep himself alive, which would kill him.
He took every stop on the three 21 fret train tracks,
Slid between the rails, rode them underwater,
Understood the train-whistle called his ancestors
Living in the amplifiers, that he could not shake out,
That he could not know, that were here,
Before European words, that were here,
Brought in shackles, that were here,
Building in electricity, that were here
Now, for children who did not know they were children.
Voluntary orphans, immigrants discovering new worlds,
Walking on squatters’ land, not forgetting to bring their chains.
Jimi Hendrix plays for hippies in 1967. Do you envy them or feel superior to them?
In the first stanza, I remind us that Jimi Hendrix was a consummate showman, and that he used showmanship to wrest attention for his art, specifically when he appeared at his first significant concert as a bandleader at the famous Monterey Pop Festival and burned a guitar at the conclusion of a flamboyant act. I present this performance as being consistent to Hendrix’s commitment to his art, as a rock’n’roll musician, an itinerant life with associated dangers, which in his case lead to short life and career. Worth it? Necessary for success?
Hendrix ends his first American show as a bandleader with a sacrifice to his art.
The next stanza acclaims Hendrix for expanding the vocabulary of the electric guitar, using an image of the six-string guitar fretboard, which he transcended with notes beyond the temperament of the frets and though the use of feedback where the notes from the amplifier speaker reflect back to the guitar in the musician’s hands producing sustaining overtones that can be difficult to control but produce extraordinary effects. The question here: these sounds can be harsh, discordant, even painful, but do they too have a necessity?
Next stanza: this feedback is presented as Hendrix’s ancestry: part indigenous, native-American; part Afro-American, a descendent of slaves. This makes Hendrix the point where two arcs of American heritage cross: those that were brought to American against their will, like as to livestock; and those that that were already here and were supplanted by brutal or conniving invaders. The questions here should ask themselves, don’t you think?
The final lines move from Hendrix, to his audience while he was alive and performing: largely white, largely young, many taking a hippie bohemian voyage I liken to America’s famous immigrants, choosing to leave the world of their homes for some promised new world that cannot, and will not, be exactly as promised.
Whatever generation you reside in, you cannot get on a boat or plane to visit another generation’s time; but when you look at a picture or video of a crowd watching Hendrix play, consider those faces. They may be distracted by the day, transfixed or stunned, ignorant and seeking, intoxicated but intent, pleased and puzzled—they may not look like Hendrix, many will seem by their faces to not share his heritage, and none can know the depth of that heritage—and yet, they are dealing with the experience of his art. I ask you not to feel superior or inferior to them from the position of your age or the accident of your generation, but to instead to look to your own heart and ask if there you find some blindness or power, and then to ask, as the concluding words of “For the American Hendrix” does: when coming to your new land, did you carry with you chains?
47 years ago today, Jimi Hendrix died, perhaps alone, perhaps ignored by his companion of itinerant convenience, trying to continue his art, ignorant of the strength of European sleeping pills. To hear my performance of “For the American Hendrix,” use the player below.
The end of the poem I feature today (“A New Colossus”) has become, slowly, over years, a sort of fourth American credo to go with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and yet it’s only its last lines that are widely known, thanks in part to a lovely musical setting of that part of the poem by popular songwriter Irving Berlin.
As a person who has edited other works for length to fit them into the focus of the Parlando Project, I can see why Berlin made his choice. The ending is the payoff of the poem, a charged and memorable statement. Most poets could only hope for as much as this: that many readers or listeners will remember at least a line or two of of what they wrote, even after hearing it but once.
Look, I know it’s a marvel of classical Greek engineering,
but as an American. I think Jolly Green Giant and peas.
I am going to present the whole poem in my setting however. It’s only a sonnet, a 14 line poem after all, and there’s some good stuff in the setup. First off, it’s an independent American poem to its core, starting by dissing the glories of ancient European culture and one of the “7 Wonders of the Ancient World.” And its author, Emma Lazarus, also stands forthrightly for the power of women to express a controversial political opinion, though this poem was written in the 19th Century when women had no right to vote. Although this is not a modernist poem, such as those that would be written 40 or 50 years later, the lesser-known part of the poem contains one powerful compressed image, a flame of fiercely desired freedom that is “imprisoned lightning.”
For Emma, Forever Ago. David Bowie was thinking of her in his last work “Lazarus”
Honoring that lightning image, I’ve chosen to not present this piece as a musty patriotic homily, but as the impassioned cry that it was meant to be—and besides, the sentiments of this poem are likely now as controversial as ever. Irving Berlin presented the excerpted ending as a chorus of hope. I take the whole of it and storm it with Telecasters, drums and bass.
To hear the audio piece, use the player that appears below.