Last time, American satirist Mark Twain took aim at the pretensions of half-hearted sentimental memorial verse. Today’s barbs for bards are from a younger Twain. The text is taken from what was apparently a journal entry written on shipboard in 1866, before Twain was established in his literary career. Elsewhere on the web “Genius” is identified as a poem, and perhaps in manuscript that intent is clear—but when I first read it, I suspected it could be notes for something not yet finished, or even cue-phrases for a humorous lecture.
150 years and the mystery of what it is hardly obscure the points Twain makes. The alienated, self-pitying, and intoxicated artist, damaged by a feeble market that is itself a claim to their originality, is a type we can still recognize—even for some of us, in the mirror. In my performance I chose to bring forward what I think is some ambiguity in the piece. Twain never quite shows the work itself is a worthless affectation, while indicting the affectations around the artist specifically and wholeheartedly. Yes, the poet’s rhymes are said to be “sickly” and “incomprehensible,” heavy charges laid on them by those “with sense” who are not hip enough to appreciate the “genius.” Every single poète maudit* since would take those charges as badges of honor. I sense some mixed admiration for this stubborn guy who sensibly should take available steady work as a sawyer, but instead sticks to writing.
The pen name was still fairly new, and the ‘stache hadn’t yet leapt to his upper lip, but here’s the twenty-something Twain.
After all, Twain himself was not far from that state. He was not yet a successful writer. He hung out with a group of self-described Bohemians in San Francisco. He lived in his Twenties a fairly reckless and feckless life, fleeing to the west from Missouri to escape the Civil War and the draft, fleeing Virginia City for San Francisco to escape a duel occasioned by a slanderous article he had published, and this particular journal entry had him on a ship heading to Hawaii, leaving San Francisco. “No direction home, like a complete unknown…”
And all his life, Twain was two, a man who clearly wanted success and recognition, but whose writing and outlook was distrustful of established norms, propriety, and shibboleths.
If “Genius” is notes for a talk and not an intended page-piece, it points out that Twain’s eventual career included substantial work as a speaker who told humorous stories. We have a name for that sort of work today: stand-up comedian. During his time out west Twain met and befriended Artemus Ward, a man who has since been called the first stand-up comedian. They met in the mining boomtown of Virginia City, and the story goes that after Ward’s performance, Twain took Ward on a drunken tour of the rooftops of the town. Given their state, the risk to American culture of such an intoxicated lark was in retrospect considerable, so perhaps we should thank the town constable who along with a shotgun filled with rock-salt, ended that escapade.
So, Twain lived to write his books and to skewer poetry. The player gadget to hear my performance of Mark Twain’s “Genius” (whatever it is, or was intended to be) is below. Here’s the full text of “Genius” as is appears elsewhere on the web.
*Was Twain skewering a particular poet, or a type? Edgar Allen Poe, the American poet of his time who lived and sang the “songs of a poet who died in an alley” would be one candidate. And it could be in some part a reflection of persons in the West Coast bohemian scene he was sailing from.
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.
Here’s the other pole of Carl Sandburg, a prose-poem about the nature of government. It seems so far from the tight compressed Imagism of “Gargoyle” that one might wonder how it could be from the same poet. I may have a clue there, so read on, I’ll return to that thought.
But first let me note that Carl Sandburg had some unique experience to bring to this subject. This poem comes from his landmark Chicago Poems published in 1916, a collection that both established his bonafides as a Modernist poet and as a foundational writer of American proletarian poetry. But before that he’d been a first generation immigrant,* a Spanish-American War soldier, a college dropout from a no-where college, and an itinerant worker. In the first decade of the century, as he turned 30, he was working as a daily paper journalist as he began a period of political activism in Wisconsin as a Socialist party organizer. In 1910, the city of Milwaukee elected a Socialist mayor, and Carl Sandburg took a position in his city administration. He was a self-proclaimed idealist as well as an aspiring poet. In his new job in government he was ready to—well, let me quote how he remembered itin an interview in 1953:
We were to build in Milwaukee the kind of planned city which existed in some places in Germany and in other European cities where socialism had taken hold….Then came the jarred awakening. Hordes of job-seeking Socialists descended on our office wanting the crumbs of victory. They behaved just like the Republicans and the Democrats on that day when they swept into power. This was not idealism; it was the old spoils game.”
In another account he said that his first official act in the new administration was to handle a citizen’s complaint about a dead dog in an alleyway.
After two years in government, Sandburg kept with poetry but went back to Chicago and to getting his paycheck from the Fourth Estate. Thanks to Ben Hecht, a fellow Chicago newspaperman, we can sense what being a newspaper reporter in Sandburg’s Chicago era might have been like. Hecht’s play The Front Page has been made into a movie three times, with most favoring the middle version, His Girl Friday, as cinema, but the original 1931 version is most faithful to the original play and era.**
Sandburg’s “Government” may not be one of his greatest poems, but I’ve maintained that poetry (like other arts) can serve us even when it’s not some sublime act. You’ve heard me maintain that Sandburg has poems that deserve to be considered in that sublime class, but this one shows us something too.
So now that we’ve detoured in the non-aesthetic realm of politics, let me come back to that thought, however unformed, that I have about the compressed Imagist Sandburg, the one we forget or underestimate, the poet who has poems that can stand with the other Modernists in concrete and incised compression. In “Government” Sandburg, though in a prose-y and less concise manner than the Imagist Sandburg, shows government in its evil and corruption is us, human us. It seems an institution as we speak of it in tired language that poets must avoid and repair, an external thing, like a building or statue put up long before our time—or if living, a monster from the other. However impure, however damaged, our republic is; however unclean our language is; however dull, ignorant, insufficient our thoughts are; we are the blunt weapon that damaged it, we are the only tool to repair it. Blunt tools break, sharp tools repair.
Here’s my performance of Carl Sandburg’s “Government” available with a player gadget below.
*I grew up in a small Iowa farm town with substantial Swedish heritage. In my half of the 20th century I believe I may have underestimated the impact that Sandburg’s parents were immigrants, or that parts of WASP culture may have noticed this about Sandburg more than you or I might think. Last year when reading more about another under-considered Midwestern Modernist Edgar Lee Masters who crossed paths with Sandburg in Chicago, I was struck at how often Masters referred to Sandburg as a Swede/poet in a context that I believe was meant to be read as a natural incongruity, that such a coarse background could be associated with the athenaeum of poetry.
**Footnote fans, be prepared for a wild mouse of a ride in this one. In The Front Page remember how the corrupt mayor is indebted to “the black vote.” In 1915, the black vote was largely Republican, and the Chicago mayor that year was William Hale Thompson, a character that could give our 21st century President a run for his money. He survived WWI politically despite being pro-German and reflexively anti-English, and with a drain-the-swamp campaign that was working to make sure the money sump-pump went toward his pockets. He was finally voted out of office by the campaign of Anton Cermak, the most important mayor in the history of Chicago. In that campaign, Wikipedia quotes Thompson as Tweeting (well, I guess not, it’s 1931 after all—but the flavor sure sounds reminiscent of our contemporary) “I won’t take a back seat to that bohunk, Chairmock, Chermack, or whatever his name is. Tony, Tony, where’s your pushcart at? Can you picture a World’s Fair mayor with a name like that?”
So, what’d Cermak do that was so important? In 1933 Cermak took a fatal assassin’s bullet that could have hit the U. S. President-elect Franklin Roosevelt standing next to him. Regardless of who took what bribe from who, or who did a better job of expired canine disposal, or even weighed against the epic odyssey of the Afro-American migration to urban centers, the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 would have likely changed America and the world’s history immensely.
By way of footnote dénouement, I’ll note that Cermak’s son-in-law Otto Kerner chaired the commission that was charged with evaluating the urban riots of The Sixties. Read this linked article for a sense of what was said then, and then consider Sandburg’s words in his great poem “I Am the People, the Mob:” “When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: ‘The People,’ with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.”
Continuing on from my post late last night, and the feelings of insufficiency we as artists may feel in the face of horrible things: cruelty, injustice, the taking of lives, the crippling of souls. As one of America’s sublimated poets put it, I think it all together fitting and proper that when we do this, that we feel this insufficiency. If something has risen to the level of being unspeakable, how can we speak it?
I’m still silent with answers tonight—and as with many things, my answers as an old man are less important than those you may find. So, let me instead give you a story and a testimonial.
The story may seem long ago to you, but it doesn’t to me. It happened in 1963, in my lifetime—not 1863 and the time of Lincoln, slavery, and Civil War.
It begins not with art but a group of domestic terrorists who were bombing and burning things in Birmingham Alabama. Terrorist is an ugly word, as it should be, but it’s likely that most terrorists think of themselves as partisans, as fighters against oppression, the necessary ones who will take the steps others shrink from.
Of course, I see these men as simple killers. I can suspect them of getting off on the clandestine evil of setting bombs and fires, of shooting into the night. And the “oppression” they are righteously bombing to oppose? They are more at the license to continue an oppression of others. On a Sunday morning, September 15th in 1963 they set off a bunch of dynamite at a church in their town. Just another bombing in a series.
This time they kill four little girls getting ready for sunday school.
Earlier that year, another of America’s displaced poets, Martin Luther King, had written his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in that town, that great document of the necessity of ending racial oppression, and now that year he would eulogize the four little girls. Eloquence was in town, continuing political pressure was in place, and the evil light of the terrorist bombing illuminated the words of those the bombers opposed. How sad and horrible it is to recount that.
That same year a jazz musician, John Coltrane was very busy earning a living with his art. When I say busy, I mean busy in a sense that boggles the mind. In that year alone he released four studio LPs while gigging constantly with his Quartet. Two weeks after he would have heard the news of the four little girls, he was due to play a New York City engagement at the Birdland club, which produced the live recording that gives its name to today’s post. Right after Coltrane finished the Birdland engagement, the group was off to Europe for a tour there. Four little girls dead, dynamited by their fellow human beings in furtherance of an evil idea. John Coltrane kept working.
Weeks then in Europe, and upon returning to the States the gigs and recordings continue. Somewhere between the day after the bombing in September and a one-day recording session on November 18th Coltrane came up with a musical piece that he called “Alabama.”
Then at the beginning of December when Coltrane’s tour was stopping in San Francisco he recorded a TV show. The format of the show was for the artist to play 3 or 4 songs and engage in a few minutes of interview with the host, but Coltrane begged off the interview. The host, Ralph J. Gleason, Mr. Rogers’ cardigan and all, subbed in a little explainer about the how jazz was like writing poetry in the middle of a supermarket. Cringe if you like at the metaphor and the white guy non-musician explaining it all to us,* but that’s what Coltrane and the Quartet then do. “Alabama” is strictly-speaking wordless. The John Coltrane Quartet spoke with their instruments.
The TV show where “Alabama” premiered. At 7:40 Gleason gives his “poet in a supermarket” metaphor, and at 9:35 the Quartet starts “Alabama.”
The four little girls, so cruelly and unjustly dead that same fall. In the interim, a U. S. President has been killed too. Hot studio lights for the cameras, a cost-saving bare sound stage to film in. Those five minutes of “Alabama” have been introduced to an audience for the first time.**
To my taste, Coltrane’s playing on the TV show performance of “Alabama” is even richer than the recording made a couple of weeks earlier though the rest of this Quartet of great musicians were a bit sharper in the recording studio take—but in either case there are notes he plays in “Alabama” that are quite possibly the saddest and most resolute notes ever to come out of a horn.
That winter “Coltrane Live at Birdland” is issued as an LP record which includes the recording studio version of “Alabama.” Another release in Coltrane’s furious pace of working and creating. The liner notes on the record were penned by the man who’d sign them then as LeRoi Jones.***
The art of the liner note is a dead art now, but today’s piece quotes a few lines from Jones’ piece of work (the entirety of which you can read here). Those that remember Jones’ notes often recall its opening line, which is also the first line I speak here today. If the job of a liner note writer was akin to writing advertising copy, to attract the consumer, that opening line is highly subversive of that intent:
One of the most baffling things about America is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here.
Way to ship units LeRoi!
When it comes to writing about “Alabama,” the song on the record where the Coltrane Quartet most directly speaks to that vileness, Jones writes:
I didn’t realize until now what a beautiful word Alabama is. That is one function of art, to reveal beauty, common or uncommon, uncommonly.
Jones knows what the tune’s about surely. I don’t know if I’ve fully absorbed that sentence yet, but if you are a person for whom 1963 might as well be 1915 or 1863, and you want to know what it felt like to know of such evil and endure it with an open heart, and to counter it with something that is beautiful (Oh! How can that be?), then you can find it in John Coltrane
Jones says John Coltrane’s art can change us, though neither he nor I will guarantee it. Can it? These are days that cause me to doubt. But if Coltrane doubted, he didn’t’ stop. I honor that belief. Perhaps art works in ways small but deep, and then only for some portion of us humans some of the time. If art like Coltrane’s carries me through sometimes, is that a reason I create art myself?
The player to hear me read a small section of LeRoi Jones’ liner notes to Coltrane live at Birdland is below. When I created this performance early this month I did not include any of the sections where Jones talks about the tune “Alabama,” but I was trying to give some flavor of Jones parable about Coltrane’s power and conviction. Musically, my composition and performance is just a trio, there’s no saxophone.
*Yes, I cringe because I recognize myself there in a black&white mirror. Because I operate a musical instrument at times, I claim to be less guilty of the cringe factor. This likely convinces no one.
**Some have sought to document Coltrane’s gigs and recording sessions. There’s no account of “Alabama” being played at any of the live gigs before this TV show. The version on “Coltrane live at Birdland” is not live, but from that short studio session in mid-November.
***Later Amiri Baraka. A man who went through so many stances and positions in his life that it’s unlikely that any sane man can find agreement with all of them.
Musically we ricochet again (as this project often does) from last-time’s acoustic South Asian ensemble to today’s rough’n’ready one-take rock band. For the words though, maybe not so great a jump, even though Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert Frost are approximately a century apart.
Emerson is the prime American cultural instigator. Like many pioneers it’s easy to see where his maps may have been a bit off, his cultural borrowings misunderstood or missing sufficient attribution, but the route he set the American culture on, however paved, fueled, and electrified, is still one many travel on today. His conceptual school, Transcendentalism, whether acknowledged or not, can be found easily in 21st century America. It is impossible to think and write about ecology, perhaps even to use the word at all, without echoing Emerson. It’s difficult to examine mysticism or Asian religious traditions in America without going places that Emerson went before the Civil War, and if we do either of those things along with some practical sense that we’re using them to rebuild and reform our individualist understanding of the world, we’re doing as Emerson urged. It is both diminishing and praising of Emerson to say that he’s the first self-proclaimed “self-help” American authority.
If Emerson isn’t a great poet, America’s greatest poets often owe much to him. Whitman sought to use his concepts. Emily Dickinson clearly absorbed some of his then new thought. And so too Robert Frost, who is always examining nature and mankind and drawing hard lessons from the pairing of them. When Beat poet Michael McClure’s speaks as a bird or otter, and declaims public maxims,such eccentricities are Emersonian as much as they are from Emerson’s own small-town neighbor Thoreau.
So, today’s piece, which Emerson called simply “Fable,” may not be a great poem if we have criteria to judge such things, but it has begotten great poems. The sage as small animal theme would please Dickinson. The flattening of greatness across multitudes of small things would be Whitmanesque. The cracker-barrel retort of the squirrel who knows, for all external mightiness and achievement, that his daily talent to be able to crack a nut is exquisitely necessary would fit Frost. The charge of change in attention, that the mountain is also just a squirrel-track, would serve Wallace Stevens well.
Returning to end, why the rock band today? The current Covid-19 situation has removed coincident live music—that joy of sounds and breaths in the same room—not only in public performance but in the kind of informal get-togethers that musicians of all skill levels and genres have enjoyed forever. I now miss even the difficulties and limitations of such things, finding it sad that I have no way of knowing when I’ll experience them again. “Fable” today is an approximation of a live band. I started with the drum pattern, added bass, the rhythm guitar, the piano track, a second “lead” guitar part, and declaimed Emerson’s words, doing each in one pass. There’s no composition process as a separate step, no great consideration on instrumentation. Even if it must be done sequentially: end, back to start, and track again, I wanted to approximate what playing live with others feels like.
In Emerson’s “Fable” the mountain calls the squirrel a prig: a self-righteous, self-superior, self-satisfied prude or killjoy. That’s an odd accusation: a majestic mountain charging a little bottom-of-the-food-chain critter with unjustified audacity. Gee, Mountain, project much? The squirrel is “self” indisputably—it cannot be otherwise—but that doesn’t mean it must also be any of the other things on the right-hand side of “prig’s” synonyms. Covid-19 is a mountain, large and natural, undeniable. My little squirrel track, my little path to crack the nut today, is not majestic nor considered in geologic time. What care I for the age and resolve of the mountain. The eagle, the owl, the car-tire have already said there’s no time to waste.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Emerson’s “Fable” is below. If you’d like the text of the poem, here’s a link—and at that page there’s a link to someone else performing “Fable” with music, music with it’s drone and percussion that sounds a little like last time’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”
It’s time to wrap up our National Poetry Month celebration, and once more I’m going to present a piece where I wrote the words as well as the music, a piece in celebration of the unpredictability of poetic genius. In the “Song of Myself” section I presented a few days back, Whitman proclaims that America contains multitudes, plain and profound things, contradictions—and furthermore that everyone of us can contain all and each of that.
And by Whitman’s time we had Emily Dickinson, born a free white woman in a prosperous household, yes, but not yet in a time when those of her gender could hold for the power of her own mind. Her grandfather, her father, her brother all made and read the law, but she fully became Shelley’s unacknowledged legislator of the world.
In all the oppressions and focused indifference of America and the world, humankind still has these poets. Let us wonder and rejoice in them—and also those living now—who, whatever their given lot in life, open themselves to a blessed consciousness and find someway to convey it to us.
Speaking now of my poem that makes up today’s text: I think I called it a Confucian ode not only because I tried to use whatever understanding I have of how Li Bai and Du Fu expressed themselves in 8th century China, but in the sense that the much older odes collected by the school of Confucius were intended to instruct society as a whole, not just serve as an anthology for other poets.
Here the text of today’s piece. Classical Chinese poems don’t use punctuation either.
The process of explaining poems can suffer from the explaining the joke or speaking about music dangers. But since I have a passing acquaintance with this poem’s author, let me say a few words about my intent this time. In the first stanza, I note the priors from which our three poets came: William Blake’s father was a hozier, a maker of socks,* Emily Dickinson, as we’ve already discussed was the daughter of a lawyer, and Walt Whitman’s father was a house carpenter.
If poetic accomplishment was a matter of instruction, none of them would have stood a chance. Of course, there are other poets with fine educations, and poets whose households were steeped in literary culture and expectations; but in the area of poetry, they historically stand side by side with these of more modest backgrounds.
Pound has a point. I too think Whitman could have used a good editor, though perhaps then he wouldn’t be Whitman, so capable of maddening us to contradiction with his excess. In this year’s portion of “The Waste Land,” “Death by Water,” editor Pound took the exceedingly well-educated Eliot’s lengthy tale of a shipwreck and drowning and carved out the sharpened epitaph we now know, that I could present this month. So, in the second stanza I make my bow to craft, and to those of us who help preserve and present the work and souls of poets. I speak of this craft and preservation as a container, much as the poets are containers for the blessed consciousness they open themselves up to receive.
In the third stanza, I make a new connection to the first two stanzas. I speak of those wealthy in this world, with fine socks and gloves, lawyers to take care of their contracts, and builders to make their towers. If you are an American these days, you may think I refer to a particular someone who puts his name on lots of tall buildings—but that name is writ in water. By such actions and pride they are saying the buildings are not the point, they—their selves—are what is contained in them.
If we’re labeling things, the top on the other side should say “noggin.”
I end the poem with another stanza and a final couplet, continuing to tie the preceding in. This is my attempt at the “music of thought” I speak about often when I speak of poetry: a power that finds harmonies in thoughts, images—rhymes in things not only in words. Why must we say and share our poetry? Because it’s not ours. In acts like the Parlando Project and histories of much, much more, humanity preserves and presents it, and celebrates it in National Poetry Month.
Yes, if we wrote it, we stayed still to write it down, practiced the discipline to convey what blessed consciousness may have conveyed to us, removed the words and other personal cruft that obscured it, cut the cord and buried the now shabby afterbirth. We share it, not because it is ours, but because it has worth.
Thank you for reading and listening, thank you for the kind words. Thanks to Dave, Heidi and Bert for helping make this project happen. April is ending, but May can be filled with poetry too, so follow this and spread the word. The player to hear my performance of “Confucian Ode on Blake, Dickinson, and Whitman” is below.
Is he joining me in celebrating National Poetry Month? Last week Bob Dylan released a new song called “I Contain Multitudes.” It’s pretty good, mixing the elegiac mood and the bittersweet blues. Like Dylan’s other new release, “Murder Most Foul” from earlier in the month, folks quickly swept through the lyrics to collect and note the allusions. They found that “I Contain Multitudes” has literary references mixed in with the musician and cultural touchstones. Poets William Blake and Edgar Allan Poe get name-checked.
But for some reason, the main poetic link Dylan seems to intend was missed in most of the early write-ups I read. The song’s refrain, which also supplies the title, is a line from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” We’re going to fix that today.
Over the years of this project I probably haven’t presented enough Whitman. He’s the indispensable ice-breaker of poetic Modernism, even for those that didn’t attempt to closely follow his style. By writing in free verse with no set line length, irregular meter, and no need to make the rhyming word, he freed poetry to be infinitely expansive and did for poetic music what Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane did for instrumental music. Once this idea of freedom was demonstrated, any number of other Modernist approaches eventually developed, some of which don’t directly bring Whitman to mind as a model, though that doesn’t mean that they didn’t benefit from his revolution.* And some subsequent writers did show the influence of Whitman’s characteristic word-music: Carl Sandburg, John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Allen Ginsburg. Stop for a minute: all three of those writers—all examples where one can trace the lineage of Whitman easily—are influences on the language and expression of Bob Dylan. Whitman, like Dylan, loves the wide-ranging catalog, the linking of things plain and exotic, the workman’s comment and the sage’s koan.
So maybe it was time for Bob to give a nod to Walt—and for me to do so too.
I’ve chosen today to present the last two numbered poems in Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Besides the “I contain multitudes” line, this selection also includes some other of Whitman’s most famous proclamations: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself,” “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” and “Look for me under your boot-soles.”
Barbaric Yawp in action: “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Well, maybe if you take off the hat and remove your shirt Walt.
Although I approach Dylan’s age, yet somewhat in arrears, I’m not going for the old-man lope of Dylan’s recent songs today.** No. It’s time to rawk! My personal index-thought as I composed, arranged, and started to perform this was “Whitman as if done by Iggy*** and the Stooges.” As with many of my index-thoughts in this project, I missed the mark, but that’s OK, maybe I came close to the bulls-eye of another target nearby. Since I long for the sound of a loose and loud rock band in these days of social distance, I tried to make one myself for this piece, even attempting to duplicate the kind of thing my LYL Band partner Dave Moore might have played on piano when that was possible. My shelter in place partner Heidi Randen kicked in some backing vocals on the chorus. It took me to this morning to get a time when I could crank a guitar amp to get the feedback and speaker interaction for the Ron Ashton-style guitar solo, which I scheduled between my high-schooler’s interactive telelearning sessions.
As always, the next audio piece will likely be different than this one, so check back (or hit “follow”) to see what the Parlando Project does next during National Poetry Month.
I’ve largely put off considering the American Modernist poet Marianne Moore. Why? Largely a combination of difficulties in understanding her verse with an inability to appreciate her word-music. When I look at a Marianne Moore poem I’m usually struck by a combination of plain-spokenness with a knotted syntax that obscures the direction of her meaning.
Ordinarily I’m perfectly willing to put up with hard-to-understand-on-the-first-reading poetry—indeed I can like poetry that I can never quite grasp as long as its language makes me gasp. But a Moore poem on the page, and in its first or even second reading often seems more like a set of notes for a poem or one of my own jumbled first drafts rather than an elusive song I’m driven to follow by the impetus of its structure.
But of course all of that is an impression based on limited exposure to her work. Late last year I put down a short list of works that would come into public domain in 2020, and one of those works from the last decade to be called “The Twenties” was Marianne Moore’s first book-length collection Observations.
This month I read Observations. I was puzzled by many of the poems—that I expected—but what surprised me was how consistently the poems take a stance of protest, opposition and stubborn grievance. Don’t ask me to explicate each poem in Observations, I’ll fail that test, and even if my understanding of the alliances of various Modernist has been refreshed and expanded by doing this Project, I can’t say completely who or whose poetic theories are being skewered, but Moore’s first collection can be read as a collection of dis tracks.
Marianne Moore has a few things to say about obstacles and those that put them up
Observations contains Moore’s most famous poem “Poetry,” the one that begins “I too dislike it.” But as it sets out it’s ideas of proper poetry, it’s relatively gentle in chiding those that fail. Other poems in the collection are not so gentle.
Take the one I’m performing today: “The Labors of Hercules.” The title helps us with a reference before we get to Moore’s discursive style. In Greek mythology these were a series of 12 tasks, each one next-to-impossible on its own, all of which the hero Hercules must complete as penance. Moore doesn’t seem to follow the scheme of these classical tasks.* Instead she sets out the tasks that have been made next to impossible for her (or her like) to create their own variation of American Modernist art—and there’s a bunch of them.
Is the mule at the start of the poem then her own poetic muse, not conventionally beautiful and lyrical? The rest of the obstacles/tasks seem more outer than inward. There’s a narrow-minded pianist too tied to the score** to improvise or compose in a new manner. A string of invective brings us some “Self-wrought Midasses of brains” with “Fourteen-carat ignorance” that she’ll disappoint. She sarcastically threatens to rebel and dress up as the specifically male and bearded representation of time and posterity.*** She disputes the theory (propounded by T. S. Eliot and some lions of New Criticism) that detachment from one’s particular personality is required for creative power. She runs into the “High priests of caste” and lashes them with some further, unmistakable invective. Next she says she’ll have to teach saints to atheists to succeed in her penance.
There’s a line I’m not sure of that follows: “Sick of the pig-sty, wild geese and wild men.” Moore might be saying she’s sick of reflexive poetic worship of a timeless nature, as she shared a Modernist interest in observing the man-made and mechanical as worthy of poetry. Myself, I like a poem that freshly opens the book of nature as much as the next person, but there are days when one more poem about majestic wild-geese or another Robert-Bly-has-helped-me-come-to-terms-with-my-masculinity**** wild man poem makes me gag.
The poem closes on a short litany negating a series of common prejudices and ethnic stereotypes. I will not tarry long here to note that several other Modernists of 100 years ago were not shy about displaying each of these bigotries. In the context of this poem, Moore is saying “and besides all of the other things I’ll need to overcome, I’m not going to score easy points with bigots.”
Andy Gill in action with the Gang of Four.
It’s my hope that my performance of “The Labors of Hercules” helps as much as what I’ve written above to illuminate Moore’s poem. Musically I was thinking of Andy Gill, a guitarist who I admired greatly and who died this month. I didn’t mimic his distinctive sound or the can’t-not-dance groove of the group he founded, The Gang of Four—but a little of his attitude was informing me. The full text of Marianne Moore’s “The Labors of Hercules” is linked here. The player to hear my performance should appear below, and all the Parlando Project audio pieces are also available on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Just look there for (or on other podcast sources) for The Parlando Project.
**”Tadpole notes” made me think of immature notes that haven’t grown into those real toads for one’s imaginary garden, but it appears that Moore’s quoted image is more likely a reference to the shapes of notes in conventional notation with their bodies and tails.
***Moore’s politics are not something I know a lot about. Socialism of the William Morris sort is said to be an early influence, but she was an ardent woman’s suffragist 100 years ago when she still couldn’t vote as a matter of law. At the time that the female “song-bird” poets (Teasdale, Millay, Wylie, and others) were starting to be denigrated by high-church Modernists, Moore was one woman who was going to fight back with her own distinctive Modernism.
Tom Rapp is a singer-songwriter whose work I love, and whose 1972 joint setting of a Shakespeare and a Sara Teasdale poem is one of the inspirations for this project. Rapp had a favorite story about the earliest days of his overlooked career: while still a child he entered a talent contest in Minnesota. The story varies. He may have performed an Elvis Presley song. He finished second or third. Another Minnesota singer, a similarly young Bobby Zimmerman,* finished fifth. The Zimmerman kid eventually went on to have a career that outpaced Rapp’s.
But then, Rapp would always add, it was a baton twirler who finished first.
American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay is another poet who began writing and publishing early, sending poems to magazines when she was still a teenager. At age 20 she submitted one of her grander early poems to a literary magazine’s 1912 poetry contest, and that poem “Renascence” oddly created considerable publicity when it didn’t win but finished fourth. She was a young, poor, rural kid and some said she should have won on the merits of her poem—even including the guy who won the contest, Orrick Johns. As with Tom Rapp, you may have to be a reader of blogs like this one to have some sense of who Orrick Johns was.
If you ever loose a talent or poetry contest, consider that baton twirler.
Just kids. Whiten the background and Sinatra the jacket over one shoulder, and you’ve got that Robert Mapplethorpe/Patti Smith’s Horses cover a few decades early
After the contest and the brouhaha, a benefactor saw to it that Millay could attend college, and a few years later this other early poem of hers, “The Little Ghost,” was included in her first poetry collection. “The Little Ghost” isn’t the grandest or most incisive poem Millay would write, so even though I’ve done many Millay poems here, I had overlooked this one until I saw it this month over at the Fourteen Lines poetry blog.
My reaction is shared by most who encounter this poem: it’s charming and only a little bit chilling. Yes, there are a few mildly annoying inverted word order make-rhymes, but it’s the little details that make it work I think. That the ghost seems to enjoy the poet’s garden-work (gardening inherently partaking of the life-death-life cycle), that she enigmatically shows no sadness at being dead, that she (though immaterial) is gracefully careful of the poet’s favorite plant, that she walks away (though a ghost, and a ghost of a child) with the substantial while insubstantial bearing of a great lady.
There’s no redrum, no haunted charge to the living, no absolute-zero temperature of next to death. Millay doesn’t even make the revelation that the child is a ghost a held-off-for-the-big-surprise-reveal—that fact’s in the title and the first line. Still, in the moment the poem lets us experience, the poet doesn’t yet know what we know. That’s the little chill.
Some readers have said that Millay intentionally or otherwise put her own past childhood self in as an undercurrent of this little ghost, and that reading works too, though I don’t know that’s a secret meaning that one must get to fully enjoy the poem. What with the garden setting, and that annual reincarnation, I do get some sense of spiritual kinship between the poems living speaker and the ghost.
Did that inform the music choice? I am back in my South Asian mode today with hand percussion, tambura, and harmonium. The instrument in the right channel that sounds vaguely South Asian is an ordinary electric guitar, one with a vibrato arm that lets me get a bit of that characteristic pitch waver.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The Little Ghost” is right below.
*Zimmerman changed his last name to Dillon and then to Dylan. My late mother-in-law used to tell the story of meeting Betty Zimmerman at a function decades ago, and as mothers in those olden days were prone to do, they got to talking about each other’s children.
“You may have heard of one of my sons. He’s Bob Dylan.” Betty proudly said.
My future MIL Maxine came back with: “Who’s Bob Dielan?”
When she told me the story some years later, she explained “I didn’t know! I didn’t have much time for music back then.”
I’ve not engaged much in re-blogging, but two pieces I’ve read this week really struck me: one for an idea and examples of how it might be executed, and the other for a sharply-written essay on a novel from the same early 20th century era that much of the poetry we use comes from.
The idea? A professor and poet Lesley Wheeler, who teaches a course in American poetry from 1900-1950, gave this assignment in lieu of the conventional essay: “create 8 pages of a little magazine from the period, including a cover, masthead, mission statement, table of contents, and a few ‘solicited’ submissions (mostly real poems from the period, but they were allowed to make up one or two plausible imaginary modernists, too, and write poems in those personas). They also had to write reflective essays explaining their literary and design choices and providing a bibliography of models and other sources they consulted.”
That’s a powerful idea. She shows examples of some of the responses to the assignment, and I’d love to see more of what the respondents chose to do. No one lives in history, even those old dead people were immediate. Here’s a link to her post.
The essay came from an unexpected source. I follow a blog Yip Abides that features unusually framed urban-midwestern street photography, a genre that follows the photographic aesthetic of my late wife. He also likes to feature videos that have impressed him, often animation. Visual art and musically oriented blogs are a large portion of my follow list as my own portion of reading on literature is taken up almost entirely with things that directly apply to material for this project.
But this week, there was a post there about The Virginian, a novel I’ve never read, but one of that helped formulate a genre, “The Western,” that dominated popular entertainment in the mid-20th century much like a certain kind of SF/Fantasy dominated the last part of it and the beginning of our current century.
The blogger, Bob Roman, writing about The Virginian ranges perceptively over the areas I’d want a writer to cover. What’s the connection between the cowboy “necktie party” and KKK style lynchings and murders?* How much does the American frontier underlie some particulars in contemporary libertarianism? And there’s more. Well worth reading, and here’s a link to it.
And before I leave to write another post on a new audio piece, a few miscellaneous follow-ups on things discussed earlier in the year.
I’ve now seen the first episode, and so far it seems to be what I’d hoped it was: a tongue in cheek re-contextualizing of Emily Dickinson’s life which both comments on her actual mid-19th century issues and our own times. Last year’s theatrical film Wild Nights with Emily tried to do something like this and had its moments, but I thought the overall execution flawed. Wild Nights with Emily and Dickinson are both comedies, but it was as comedy that Wild Nights failed, its portrayals of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Mable Loomis Todd were all too broad. True, they are peripheral characters in Wild Nights, but that too was a choice. As best as I can tell from one episode Dickinson doesn’t make those choices and is the better for it as a comedy. The characters of Dickinson’s world are more rounded portrayals.
The first episode was full of little footnote-quality accurate factoids about the Dickinson family—the creators apparently wanted to show they had done their research. Two choices Dickinson appears to make could work or fail as the series continues: It may have trouble showing why Dickinson matters and it makes the choice to play Emily Dickinson as younger than she was.
At least in the first episode, Dickinson is represented as being recognized by some in her peer group as “a genius” and a few lines of one of her best known poems are repeated almost as often as the hook in a current pop song, but we so far get no sense of why her poems are crucial. This may change over more episodes of course, but it’s always hard to show what a writer does visually. If you do a biopic about a great performer you show an actor portraying them performing, if the simulation is good you’ve made your case. Watching someone write, or how that writing works inside the minds of readers, is not so easy to act.
The first episode seems to be set in 1852, when Dickinson was the age that actor Hailee Steinfeld who plays her is in real life, 22 years old. But this is before Dickinson wrote most of her poems. Chronology seems to be a difficult issue for filmmakers trying to portray Dickinson’s life, but if the show works, I’m willing to grant them license for being loose with that. More problematic is that they appear to be portraying Dickinson as a teenager rather than as a 20-something, much less the 30-something that apparently wrote much of the poetry. I’m aware that different times had different norms for childhood and youth, but were 22-year-olds acting more like 16-year-olds in 1852? I couldn’t help but think the history they were unintentionally demonstrating was the TV and Hollywood practice of having high-school age characters played by 20-something actors.
I’ve had to live through an era when Dickinson was thought of as an arid eccentric, frustrated spinster, and even as a corrective I’m not sure I want her now to be portrayed as only the hormone-saturated brain of our adolescences either. We’ll see how they deal with that as the show goes on.
The knowing comic anachronisms and indie soundtrack? Bring’em on! The Parlando Project obviously isn’t opposed to purposely doing that kind of thing.
In closing then another thing relating to a recent presentation of a Dickinson poem here. What might be behind that striking image of windblown snow starting to fill a field as “summer’s empty room” in Dickinson’s Snow poem? Well, it was one of those poems she enclosed in letters (one of Dickinson’s contemporary uses for her writing). This one went to Susan Gilbert, the woman some modern scholars posit was her lover, and who was certainly one of the intelligent intimates that helped sustain Emily. I think that was an image of longing in the otherwise “winter wonderland” mise en scène of Dickinson’s poem.
An audio piece? As we approach winter solstice, here’s one of my favorite Dickinson presentations from this project, “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.” The player gadget is below.
*White-on-white lynchings and extra-judicial killings were a common trope in Western movies and TV shows of mid-century, while terrorism directed at Afro-Americans was almost never the subject of popular entertainment. Consciously or subconsciously, this could have been American culture trying to address that which it was loath to address.