I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Christmas Bells)

Here’s a hopeful song written by a worried man during the great trauma of the American Civil War.

Those who’ve followed along on this blog in 2018 will know that I’ve performed several pieces with words written by that man, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I’ve written about his once great fame and his steep fall from poetic fashion, but I’ve written little about his eventful personal life.

longfellows house in winter

Not all of what it seems: a picture postcard scene of Longfellow’s home during the Civil War.

 

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, there could be no doubt on which side Longfellow would be on. To the extent that Longfellow was political as a writer, he was resolutely against the institution of slavery. Longfellow was also philosophically a pacifist, but even before the war he was aware of the cost Abolitionist convictions could bring. His closest friend, Charles Sumner, a U. S. Senator and another Abolitionist, was sitting at his desk on the Senate floor in 1856 when three southern congressmen launched a planned assault on him. The leader of the crew beat Sumner into unconsciousness with a walking stick, while the other two held off any who rose to try to stop the assault, one brandishing a pistol to keep help at bay. Sumner was so badly injured from the attack he was unable to resume his Senate duties for three years after the attack.

By the spring of 1863, the Civil War over the maintenance of slavery was now two years old. No one knew how long it would continue or what the outcome would be, and once more someone close to Longfellow would feel its blows. Longfellow’s 17-year-old son Charley, who had firmly resolved his own feelings about the war, snuck out of the family home and made his way to Washington to join the Union army. In November of that year, his unit was reconnoitering around a Virginia location called New Hope Church. They found what they were looking for. A southern bullet ripped through Charley Longfellow’s torso sideways, just nicking his spine. Luck that, and luck that he was able to endure and survive a painful evacuation on a wagon and the woeful state of battlefield trauma care in his time. Over half-a-million fellow soldiers didn’t.

So, a month before Christmas, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was searching the maze of makeshift hospitals and camps in Washington until he found his wounded son. Son found, by Christmas the Longfellows could return home for further recuperation.

Today “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”*  if listened to casually may pass as just another carol, an obligatory musical evocation of some cheerful pealing on a winter’s holiday. But to the poet who wrote these words that Christmas, and to the nation torn apart, that he and his audience were part of, this was not merely another generalized Christmas card.

I wrote a couple of hundred words, meaning to put them here next, starting to say, preaching about, what Longfellow said in his poem—but Longfellow says what he needed to say pretty well and clear for an unfashionable poet. Maybe that “clear” thing is part of what is unfashionable, but despair shared and hope earnestly put forward is  a gift.

The player gadget below will let you hear “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Christmas Bells)”  as I performed it. To sharpen Longfellow’s point, I trimmed back the number of stanzas in his original poem and then again from the shorter number of verses usually sung in the hymn that was made from it. I also reharmonized the chord changes a little. Guitarists wanting to play this themselves can use this shared link to see the details of the open tuning and chord voicings I used for this. The modified tuning, with the two lowest strings on the guitar tuned down even lower, makes this very easy to play.

 

 

 

*When Longfellow’s poem was published the next year it was titled “Christmas Bells,”  but it’s now best known through the hymn/Christmas carol set to music by John Baptiste Calkin.

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The Book of Lu T’ang Chu

Why bother with little-known poets of the early Modernist age? Well, it’s conceivable that we can better understand the context the better-known poets were operating in by looking at the field the greats stood out from. And frankly, I get a kick out of looking at the left-behinds and odd corners. Like a crate-picker at a used record store, I’m looking for those weird finds that you can’t quite believe exist or that reflect some transitory moment in the culture.

I’ve already mentioned Arthur Davison Ficke in an earlier post as one of the Davenport Group, a bunch of Iowans, who with their rural Illinois cross-river neighbors, made a bit of a splash in American culture in the first part of the 20th Century. Ficke is not as obscure a character as Muriel Strode from our last post, but the separating distances of fame and achievement shrink as time moves on, so you’re not going to run into either of them in any survey course or even specialist literary class in school.

Unlike Strode, I could find out about Ficke’s family background. He grew up in one of Davenport’s richest and most cultured families. His father was a prominent lawyer and had amassed a considerable oriental art collection. After education in Davenport, Ficke was sent to Harvard where he was a classmate of Franklin Roosevelt. After graduation he was granted one of those traditions of the well off, an overseas tour which included travel to Japan.

Throughout his school years, Ficke was drawn to the arts, and yet family expectation dictated that he was to practice law. A career as an art critic and poet therefore progressed alongside lawyering. During WWI, and while serving as a military Judge Advocate, he met Edna St. Vincent Millay and eventually a post-war love affair blossomed. You may see some similarity to Millay in today’s Ficke-written piece, a rhymed, metrical sonnet, a form Millay also worked in.

Arthur Davidson Ficke and Edna St Vincent Millay

Arthur Davison Ficke with Edna St. Vincent Millay.

 

Like Millay, Ficke mixed with the Modernists socially while not consistently writing in the new Modernist style. This ambiguity of Ficke’s toward Modernism played out in an event we’ll cover in a future post.

I don’t find Ficke’s poetry as musical as Millay’s, but his“The Book of Lu T’ang Chu”  still has its charms. The poem combines Ficke’s interest in the Orient with a subtle observation about art in the modern age. This poem’s ancient Chinese emperor and Ficke himself are now both dust in the wind, as we all will be—but we can still listen to his meditation, set to my new music and performed on acoustic guitar, piano, and an attempt at playing (via a MIDI controlled “virtual instrument”) the Chinese traditional zither that came to the fore during the Tang dynasty, the guzheng. Use the gadget below to hear this.

I Am the Clod that has Taken Wing

Those new here may not know that the Parlando Project intentionally varies the words and writers whose work we present, and the types of music that we combine with them. We tend to use poetry as our word source, because compression and musical expression is baked in, but we don’t always use the most famous poets or poems (though I do enjoy trying to find something new in a well-known poem too)*.

Because obtaining rights to present poetry has difficulties, most of what you find here is from before 1923, but that doesn’t mean we won’t surprise or puzzle you with our authors. Today’s piece was written by Muriel Strode, who is an extreme case of biographical and critical obscurity. Almost nothing is known about her, and rather than Wikipedia, or one of the online poetry-promoting orgs or education sites, what info I could gather about Strode is largely from a single blog post.

As it often is with me, finding out a few things about someone opens up further questions. The bare bones reported in Terri Guillements’ blog post, partially informed by surviving relatives, is that Strode was born in 1875 in a rural township in Illinois, south of Galesburg where Carl Sandburg and Don Marquis spent their youth at nearly the same time. Her father was a “naturalist, teacher, and physician” and her grandparents were pioneer farmers and settlers according to Guillements. Her mother died when she was around 13 and her father remarried. At around the same time as her father’s remarriage, it’s said that she left home at age 15 (1890) to attend a business school, and a year later she started work in Long Beach California as a “stenographer and typist.” No context is given on this, but the remarriage and move far away from her childhood home happening at near the same time does lead one to suppose some friction.

The next markers in her life come in 1906, 15 years later. Guillements’ says Strode was able to buy two parcels of land in the Signal Hill area of Long Beach and the same year move to New York City. Also in 1906, Strode published her first book My Little Book of Prayer with Open Court Publishing out of Chicago. Open Court was the closely held venture of a German immigrant who had made it big in the zinc business, Edward Hegeler. Hegeler was a believer in something he called “the religion of science,” discussed briefly and tantalizingly in his Wikipedia entry, and Open Court worked to promote those ideas.

My Little Book of Prayer  might seem puzzling without those connections. It’s not a prayer book in the usual American Christian sense. God, even implied, is not present in most of its entries, nor are any conventional religious texts or figures present to an appreciable degree. The entries are short, aphoristic, and poetic enough that one might consider it an early book-length work of American free verse. On the other hand, they don’t exactly seem to want to work as poetry as Pound or the English and European Modernists were re-casting it. My Little Book of Prayer reads more like a self-help book expressed in strongly worded and rhapsodic affirmations. The general attitude is the that with the too-rarely understood right goals and attitudes, human potential is unlimited. You start out thinking this is Stuart Smalley in 1906 guise, then wonder if you aren’t reading a follower of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and finally end up considering if you are reading a very concise American and female Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche-piano

For today’s audio piece we feature Fred “Sonic” Nietzsche on the keys. Makes me think of the Bonzo’s “The Intro & the Outro”—which is a very good thing!

 

None-the-less at the beginning of The American Century as education, industrialization, science, and an expanded political franchise were in motion, the book seems to have struck some sky’s-the-limit chords. The St Louis Globe-Democrat published this breathless notice:

If you want to know the greatness of a soul and the true mastery of life, apply to the Open Court Publishing Company for a slip of a book by Muriel Strode, entitled simply ‘My Little Book of Prayer.’ The modern progress of sovereign mind and inner divinity from the narrow cell of the ascetic to the open heaven of man made in God’s own image, is triumphantly shown in it, yet a self-abnegation and sacrifice beyond anything that a St. Francis or a Thomas a Kempis ever dreamed of, glorifies the path. To attempt to tell what a treasure-trove for the struggling soul is in this little volume would be impossible without giving it complete, for every paragraph marks a milestone on the higher way.”

How Strode hooked up with Open Court and its philosophy is one mystery. Even Strode’s southern Illinois childhood is not in Chicago’s orbit, and we know too little about her parents’ social class or connections. One theory that occurs to me is that somewhere in that Stenographer/Typist job title was an intelligent and ambitious woman who made social, commercial and philosophical connections with entrepreneurs and businessmen in those 15 “lost years” that may have been in California.

One piece of evidence for that: two years later she married Samuel Lieberman, “the president of an iron and steel firm in Chicago where Muriel had worked.”

Today’s piece, taken from her later work, 1921’s A Soul’s Faring Instead of Open Court, this one was published by Boni & Liveright, a New York-based imprint much associated with literary Modernism.**  By this point someone had dubbed Strode as “The female Walt Whitman,” and her free verse is, if anything, more unabashed and heroic*** than Whitman, which takes some doing. One has to be of the right mind to read much of it—it’s so over the top. The same Nietzschean philosophical concerns remain from her Open Court books, and the individual, roman-numerated, sections are barely longer at times than her earlier aphoristic “prayers.” There may be a growing mysticism entering into the work as well as elements that at times echo deep-ecology thinking about nature.

After reading three of her books, doing this research, and working on incorporating something I took from the XXXV section of her “Songs of the Strong”  inside A Soul’s Faring, I still don’t quite know what to make of Muriel Strode. The gushing visionary true-believer attitude, even for a reader such as myself who enjoyed William Blake as a young man and who also appreciates Whitman is just so strong, and some underlying “Like attracts like” Law of Attraction elements seem unavoidable.****  So, I can’t say I’ve become a fan, as much as I must acknowledge her audacity and extremity of expression. Perhaps she’s best taken in small doses, in disconnected aphorisms?

In seeking to maximize that element in Strode’s poetry, I’ve adapted her poem, trimming even this already short work back even more, and turning one of its lines into a refrain. And for music? Well, I told you at the start we like to mix things up. Our last piece was orchestral, featuring strings and English horn, but today’s piece, which I call “I Am the Clod that has Taken Wing”  in my adaptation—it’s metal, and of the sludgy type. Maybe in honor of Open Court and the Gilded Age Mr. Hegeler (who must be a Galvanized Age figure), it’s “Heavy Zinc?” Metal is a type of musical expression where you can say anything, no matter how outrageous, and get away with it; so maybe that fits in an odd way, which is what we do here at the Parlando Project. Here’s the player to hear it.

 

 

 

*If you’re not in the mood to adventure into this unusual story of a small town girl who makes her way in the world and some transitory literary notice, our archives here have lots of  better-known poets from this same era and before.

**You, and the world, may have forgotten Muriel Strode, but Boni & Liveright were the first American publisher of William Faulkner, Ernest Hemmingway, E. E. Cummings, Jean Toomer, and Hart Crane and the US publisher of T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.”  So, between the boards, Strode was in high-lit company.

***There’s also an erotic element in A Soul’s Faring  that might remind one of Whitman.

****What we know of Muriel Strode’s life story reads like a romance novel, doesn’t it? Here’s one more novelistic touch, and if you’re a skeptic about the “Law of Attraction,” you’d best ascribe it to a failure of authorship: those two parcels of land Strode bought before leaving California? Turns out about the time A Soul’s Faring  was published, they found oil under them. Lots of oil. If you listen to today’s audio piece over and over, and perhaps play it backwards, who knows what riches will come to you.

The Vanishing Red

Do you think you know Robert Frost? You know: steadfast New England farmers, Currier and Ives snowfalls, happy roads less traveled by. We might think of Frost as the friendly Modernist, with good ol’rhymes and rhythms and narratives of American scenes of Americans bearing up to the burdens of life.

Robert-Frost on a wall

Robert Frost. Wry poet of the good old days—or maybe not?

 

Today’s piece is instead the hard-boiled Robert Frost. It’s blank verse, but the beat is implied, the sentence structures beat against it, and my performance choice was to not emphasize the meter. What “The Vanishing Red”  portrays is, straight up, a racially-motivated murder, and the way Frost tells the tale uses sly ways to frame this story.

He doesn’t get out of the first line before he starts this framing. One of our characters is called the “Red Man” by history. A term roughly equivalent to the N-word for indigenous Americans, but one that in Frost’s time was not considered socially unacceptable.*  Frost wasn’t going to shock or disgust his readers in 1916 with that epithet at the start of his poem, like he might some today, but he wants us to know from the start that the race and history of this man is material to what is going to happen—but we don’t meet him yet.

Instead we meet another man, the Miller, who’s talking in a way we might find familiar. He starts out by telling us he’s not guilty of something before he’s even been charged with it, claims too that he’s not one of that PC brigade who “talks round the barn” instead of straight talk, that he’s a get-it-done doer.

Frost adds just a tiny bit of narration after the Miller’s speech. Some may read this narration as excusing the man, but the narrator’s pointing us to think about two things as the story will continue. The narrator says, let’s not consider this as history (“too long a story”) or politics (“who began it”). As we’ll soon see, we’re going to consider this as an Imagist poet would consider it, as a presentation of what Ezra Pound called “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” History can be dulled by time. Politics says there are two sides.

Old Grist Mill

Nostalgic postcard or dark satanic mills?  Frost reports, you decide.

 

But first we have one more exchange of dialog. Our unnamed “Red Man” is at the Miller’s mill, and we hear nothing he says directly, but we do hear what the Miller puzzles about what the other man is communicating. The Miller portrays the other man as without English words, but he interprets some “guttural exclamation” anyway as surprise, and this is somewhat sketchy. Is the native American puzzled by the mill’s mechanism? Surprised at being seen by the Miller?

Is the Miller even reading the other man well? I think not. Afterall, the Miller has another reaction, stronger than his sense of what the other man may be feeling, and Frost’s narrator also doesn’t “talk around the barn:” it’s disgust. But that’s not what our Miller portrays in his next piece of dialog. He acts friendly, offers to show “John” his mill.**  Ah, the “Red Man” has a name, he’s not some reductionist cypher for an entire continent’s indigenous peoples, and since it’s an English name, we might surmise that he might even be one of the Massachusetts tribes that attempted to synthesize with the new rulers, taking to Christianity and living in “praying towns.”

And now the Imagist poem begins, ten lines. The Miller opens a trap door and shows John the water-power wheel, and a poem that has been entirely without imagery suddenly gets a vivid image. The wheel’s water forebodingly is like struggling, thrashing fish. The door closes, and the door’s handle (a metal ring) we are told makes enough noise with this shutting to be heard above the noise of the mill. And the Miller returns upstairs, alone. The wheel’s turned around to the beginning of the story where the Miller laughs, though it’s not quite a laugh. He meets a customer carrying more meal to be ground at the mill, who doesn’t understand what has just happened. We ourselves are just understanding what has happened.

What has happened? The racist Miller has thrown John, the “Red Man” into the mechanism and killed him. Frost wants you to feel that by showing you this moment in time, but he also wants you to vividly feel the lack of notice, the vanishing in the title, which isn’t some passive mystery, it’s an act of human cruelty.

Today’s music is two pianos, bass and drums. I’ve been suffering from a cold for the past few days which made completing today’s spoken word component a challenge, and I did miss one phrase in Frost’s text and didn’t get another one completely correct, but you didn’t get to hear any of the coughs and voice cracks from the bad tracks either. To hear “The Vanishing Red”  use the player below.

 

*For example, the college I went to over 50 years ago called its sports teams the Redmen then. I had a tiny part in the beginning of the process to change that.

**Acton Massachusetts had a grist mill and more. I can’t find any pictures of them, but the town still has a Grist Mill Road.

I’m Nobody Who Are You?

Last time I talked about how hard it is to be sure how Emily Dickinson meant her poems to be read. Some poems seem gentle, some fierce. She sent some to her more conventional friends enclosed in letters or gifts—but some she never shared, and puzzle even hard-core literary critics to this day. When is she applying a clarifying simplicity to complex or profound subjects and when is she undermining simple statements or homey images with subtle side-glances? She’s a small-town 19th Century person, a stalwart reader of the book of nature—and yet she sometimes reminds me of later 20th century urban wits, like Frank O’Hara or even Dorothy Parker as much as she reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Am I reading this into Dickinson, or is it already there?

Emily D the T Shirt

Been there, done that, got the T-Shirt.

 

Well, I take today’s Dickinson piece pretty much as it seems, a humorous conspiracy with someone, perhaps the reader, wherein lack of credentials or claims to the podium/lily pad are brushed aside. This is a good place to begin observation and then art, or the circle back from art to observation of it, perhaps the best place.

So here’s Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody Who Are You?”  as I performed it, available through the player below. And not to shout from the lily pad, but the only reward I get for the time and effort of doing this is you, the audience who listens to these various words from past nobodies who want to talk to us. Thanks for doing so, and if you find something here you like, please let others know about it.

 

Tell All the Truth but Tell it Slant

What was Emily Dickinson’s personality like? Biographers have tried to line that question out from the available evidence filled in with supposition; but then none of us present exactly the same face, the same sensibility to all people and at all times. And any of us who are writers may also know that what we write and how we live can differ, even if only in expression.

This is partly why we have so many Emily Dickinsons, not just over time since her emergence on the page in 1890, but now in the present days, depending on reader’s framing. Today’s piece, “Tell All the Truth, but Tell it Slant”  can be read as a playful and humorous observation, as a serious artistic credo, as a secret diary of non-conformity, or as a dark observation of human fearfulness. How many Emily Dickinsons had how many intents as she worked out this little poem?

Charles-Temple-Emily-Dickinson-silhouette

Her dark materials. A silhouette of the teenaged Emily Dickinson.

 

As I often do with Dickinson performances, I leaned a bit more to a serious mode of expression, which doesn’t preclude the thought that Dickinson would be internally chuckling. I tell myself I’m just trying to channel something I feel as I experience the poem, but I may be also trying to overcompensate for the Dickinson widely assessed in my youth as an eccentric dealer in homilies, a naïve artist without the depth of metaphysical thought that mid-20th Century High Modernism adored. It seemed then to have been an unspoken assumption that Emily suffered from “lady brain,” that imagined biologically-stunted inferior organ with sentiment where exploratory thought would be. Sure, her syntax and imagery had some originality, so we’ll allow her into the anthologies with the serious poets.

My model of humanity is more androgynous than most, but let us allow female associated elements in her artistry, just as we should be sure that there are experiences from gender and class roles in her time and place. But let’s not overdetermine what she did, what she can still do, when we read, perform or listen to her poetry.

As I said, “Tell All the Truth but Tell it Slant”  can be read as a light-hearted jape. I even remembered the first line taken for the title on publication as “Tell the truth but tell it slant,” forgetting the “all.” Is that “all” there just for metrical reasons? Because, if that “all” is meant, it changes things doesn’t it. It goes from a reading of “Well, it’s not polite or advisable to go around spouting the whole truth at every occasion” to a more general statement, that the truth is never  told directly. And then the second line and its “lies”—surely one of the most punned-on words in English. It that just an easy rhyme? The next line, “Too bright for our infirm Delight” could have been in a William Blake poem.

The second stanza* starts with some inverted order poetic diction, but it may be forgiven, as we finally get to a physical image: lightning and frightened children. Dickinson appears to be siding with the filters, the myths, the accepted consolations of fibs and filigree we buffer the truth with. And perhaps she is. It may come down to how much or how often Dickinson, or you yourself, look away from the truth, how often the wisdom of your fears can help you survive.

In the end in this performance, I thought it might be key to consider who is charged with—or to—“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Is it society, or those who speechify to us as if we’re frightened children, who slant the truth? Or is it us, who should tell all  the truth, even if we need to put it indirectly so that our audience can discover it, as the world gradually discovered further Emily Dickinsons, for ourselves, in our own time?

Musically, I return to my weird folk-rock sound and I choose to make Dickinson’s first line into a refrain to stress its ambiguity and centralness to the poem. Hear it with the player below.

 

*One joy of the poem comes in the end of this stanza’s third line: “dazzle gradually” where the meter and consonance of the chiming d and l sounds enchants.

Justice Denied in Massachusetts

Partly for the reason of sadness and disappointment with my country, and partly for disappointment with myself, it’s been difficult to focus on combining words and music recently. This is a value of one of the Parlando Project’s principles: Other Peoples’ Stories. When I cannot put the words together, I can listen and absorb someone else’s.

Yesterday, feeling particularly sad and angry, and holding it in so as to not harm with it, I went looking for someone else expressing what I could not express myself.

I looked first at Carl Sandburg, who after all was a committed political radical as well as a too-often overlooked Modernist. But with Sandburg’s expression love was almost always present—a good thing, but not in tune with my feelings. Sandburg may have been the right medicine, and I took some of him in on Friday for my health, but I didn’t want only medicine.

And then I found my howl, and strangely at that. I knew Edna St. Vincent Millay had written political poems, that in fact they had harmed her artistic reputation. The witty line I recall was that Millay’s anti-fascist poems did more to harm her artistic standing than Pound’s pro-fascist ones. Today’s words are from one of her early political poems: “Justice Denied in Massachusetts.”

I can see where the Olympian “New Critics” docked Millay on the basis of this one. It’s chock-full of that awkward backwards and inside out “poetic” syntax that reads like a stiff translation from another language. The early Modernists, even as they translated, were dead set against this—and they have a good point. Millay’s words here were hard to read with emotion, so stilted and undirect as they are as sentences. However, that could well be part of Millay’s point here (consciously or unconsciously), as the poem’s speaker is not speaking clearly; and for my benefit—however difficult it is to perform—she is speaking precisely in a confused mixture of disgust and disappointment. All the reverse/”poetic” syntax just makes it more twisted in at itself. A poet today might make this matter even more obscure with modern poetic syntax that also abjures plain speaking in the service of art, but in our current context we’d be expected to accept this as the way art talks.

One problem with political poems is that to the extent they speak to an issue they can become museum pieces tied to forgotten events. If they were to be effective, they could even be seeking that fate. Millay is writing here in the immediate aftermath of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti—a particular cause—but for my purposes, this has little bearing on the matter. She is speaking to women and domestic and domesticated people such as myself. Only the title is tied to then current events—the feeling and her point, ties to our own.

“Let us go home, and sit  in the sitting  room.” New Critic Cleanth Brooks placed his entry in the contest for most bone-head review of all time by reading this refrain line and Millay’s poem as a straightforward resignation at the course of events, rather than the ironic statement of disgust that it is. I can only hope that the savvy observers of our country are similarly wrong, similarly misreading.

Millay stands for something

Mr. Brooks, you may notice that I’m not sitting, but standing for something.

 

My music for this is based around a G suspended chord, where the third of the chord, which would dictate if it’s minor or major, is omitted. This gives the chord a feeling of awaiting change, awaiting formation. At times the replaced note to the defining third is a tangy second, other times a more consonant fourth. Risking grandiloquence, but I feel our country is similarly suspended now, and the cadence is to be ours.

Here’s my performance of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Justice Denied in Massachusetts.”