Let’s hope I don’t overextend my love for American poet Kenneth Patchen with yet another example of his work today, which happens to be the opening day for baseball in my city. Patchen wasn’t quite the modern day spoken word poet, but even 80 years ago he was writing in a form that works in that presentation — though more here in a mode where the listener is immediately attracted by references to our common life and speaking idiom, and then finds the poem going off somewhere else between its lines before it ends.
Many poets are indifferent readers of their own work, but Patchen is usually quite good. I actually muffed one line in his text today, but Patchen has modified several lines, either from the variations of performance, or in the case of the lips of the “girls of heaven” he seems to choose a gentler metaphor here.
Baseball used to brand itself as “America’s Pastime,” and this poem makes something of that with its intimations that like love’s fancy and poetry it fills time and makes a joke of watches and schedules. I note too, that Patchen, the pacifist whose world was at war when he wrote this, knows that concerted effort is not always noble, and that the blessing of wasted time is better than time wasting from want or wasting one’s fellow humans.
Oh yes, the prophets among us can see clearly that professional baseball is a business enterprise, full of the commercial slight-of-hand that parodies patriotism and oh-so-righteous conflict. I myself remarked last year as I was reading the newspaper, that I had finished the section dealing with the businessmen who wear uniforms and was now moving on to the — why-is-it-separate? — sports section. But then, oh prophets, who really can find any remedial pleasure in cheering on a grocery chain or brokerage firm?
As I write this, over at the baseball field the home team has just answered the visitors’ one run with four runs in the bottom of the 3rd and now a light rain says we stop and wait for rainbows — or if the game is called, it will all go away as if it had never happened. Time knows it’s real. Everything else is illusions.
Sunday is World Poetry Day and I should do a piece about poetry and poets to mark it. The specific idea of World Poetry Day is to celebrate every nations’ poetry, something I try to do here with fresh translations sometimes, but for today I’ve decided to use works by two American poets. The United States is still a young nation, still used to using the cruder tools of youth to impress itself upon the world, but our poets have had their innings, so today I’ll sing them to the rest of the world. First up: Wallace Stevens.
It’s not uncommon for poets to write poems about art or the art of poetry itself, but Stevens did this often. So it’s no surprise that “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” starts off with an assertion about poetry, even though the rest of the poem seems to progress into an argument about religion and religious propriety. Here’s a link to the full text of Stevens’ poem in case you want to follow along.
Stevens’ poem slows down our understanding of what it means using two tactics. First, it gives us at best one-half of a conversation: a little like hearing a person talking on a phone in public where the other party is inaudible. It takes considerable effort in comprehension to settle on what issues and points are being addressed in the poem’s speaker’s argument. I’m not totally certain I grasp them myself despite several readings and going on to perform the piece. Our high-toned old Christian woman may be expressing outrage at some more pagan and unfettered artistic expression on Stevens’ part. Stevens’ response is to point out that art has its own religion of a sort, its own myths and beliefs. That unheard party, the HTOCW, seems to make an objection regarding Stevens’ or art’s outrageousness derived from its beliefs and theoretical constructions, and Stevens’ then parries with a short aria on the extremes of Christian asceticism bellowed over a tink-tank Vachel-Lindsay-ish Salvation Army band. In summary he’s claiming they are alike: that the HTOCW and her co-religious cohort and he the poet both have their own guiding constructions (supreme fictions), their own expectation of meaningful belief and actions that promise — well, what do they promise, or rather assuredly deliver?
He’s not sure. A poet’s masque (a play) performed on earth may aspire to cosmic importance, but we can be sure the planets will not be all that moved. And the most fervent displays of religious piety can’t move the heavenly spheres who would at most judge them as unserious “hullabaloo.”
The second way Stevens intentionally slows down our comprehension is with language, the stuff and lexicographic music of his poetry. Most any stanza of a Stevens’ poem is equal to a “Word-A-Day Calendar,” and this poem doesn’t disappoint: nave, citherns, peristyle, masque, epitaph, flagellants, muzzy, and hullabaloo are not common modern English language words, and I’ll wager that most readers, even the most educated among us, would be hard pressed on getting 100% on a definition test with that list.* I’ve always “read” Stevens as having fun with his use of these obscure words, and in many cases here he’s punning on their sound, so we think we understand something we hear in a performance from the sound, while on the silent page they remain stumpers. Making someone a nave/knave is to fool them. A peristyle projecting upwards sounds like a periscope from a WWI U-boat or trench. A masque might as well be a mask. Flagellants with muzzy bellies sounds like flatulence from fuzzy bellies.
And while not an obscure word, “palm” is repeated several times in the poem with different meanings pressed onto it by context. It first seems to be Christian praise, as in the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, a moment of triumph to be followed by Good Friday (and then, yes, for believers, Easter). In its second mention, the poet might earn laurels, palms of honor for their work, but like the praise of the crowd it may be fleeting, pace what I call Donald Hall’s Law. And lastly, the palm plants become hands I think, the two seemingly opposed, the two sides — the prim believer and the pagan poet that the poem has satirized — I believe, palm to palm, a pair making a prayer.**
Let’s look at the poem’s end at last: Stevens seems to be saying that salvation by faith in art or religion is unclear. Widows wince when doubt says they may not meet their husband in heavenly reward or when that doubt (or belief) is sung impiously by some poet who calls his art, his mythology, the “Supreme Fiction.” God and the muses are both winking at us, telling us that we only half have an understanding, flirting with us on that unknown stage of our best fictions.
Stevens was a famous late-starter, publishing his first poetry collection Harmonium where AHTOCW first appeared at age 44. Millay was already on to her second collection featuring First Fig at age 28.
What then to make of the poem I combine with it, a short poem with plain words that many feel they understand at first sight: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “First Fig,” the one that begins, as so many have memorized, “My candle burns at both ends.”*** Is this not also a poem of faith in poetry? Yes, with the same limits and lack of assuredness. Is it also one half a debate with another point of view? Yes too, though it be a short epitaph “unpurged from bawdiness.”
In effect, “First Fig,” the opening poem in Millay’s A Few Figs from Thistles, is the title poem, the dedication of that short collection that set out the Millay outlook on youth, freedom, and autonomy sexual and otherwise. It made her famous for a while, and unlike Stevens’ knotty poems, hers (and herself) seemed understandable. Here’s its full text.
We understand this poem quickly to say: that one may, from our passions artistically — or otherwise in that mere and yet larger life — expend or risk so much that we allow it to be foreshortened, but that we believe that intensity is illuminating, possibly worth the sacrifice. Note, there’s no explicit conclusion. Millay’s poem doesn’t say outright it’ll be worth it, and other poems in A Few Figs from Thistles are not sure either. Its illumination is brief, a night in length it says. Yet a poem we think we understand, that we might memorize and carry in our muzzy brains may change as we project its light on different walls.****
Given Stevens’ satiric and philosophic wordiness, I came to think pairing it with Millay’s short heart-song would be a worthwhile contrast, each stronger with their lights against the ground of the other. You can listen to the performance and see if that’s valid — but before I go, is there one thing we don’t understand about Millay’s short poem?
Well, there’s the title. It’s such a short poem, yet we forget that there’s this added pair of words. I’d guess that many that know or have even memorized the poem forget the title. One thought was that it might be referencing an idiomatic English expression: “I don’t give a fig about…” which could easily be given an intensifying modifier “I don’t give a single (or the first) fig about…” I had assumed that fig, like the euphemistic interjections sugar or darn, was just a word used to replace a ruder word that started with the same letter-sound. I even wondered: was that idiom around when Millay wrote her poem in 1920? Well, just as I wouldn’t know muzzy or cithern fully when I read Stevens, it turns out I was off a bit. The idiom seems to date back to Shakespeare’s time or even more, which is odd in that the fig isn’t even a native fruit in England. It comes from Spanish and Italian; and it’s not only a word but it has a Mediterranean hand gesture to illustrate the thought, involving the thumb placed between two raised fingers. The intent in gesture or word in this idiom is to refer to low pink-toned lady parts, and in the patriarchal context then it’s an expression of contempt.
Did Millay know the derivation of the idiom? I don’t know — but she likely knew the non-etymological meaning of the phrase. In the context of the one-side of the debate that “First Fig” is presenting, that indicates that the speaker doesn’t give a single fig for the off-screen speaker who disapproves of the possible costs of passion.
*Ones I’d miss or get half-credit for? I knew citherns were an instrument from my interest in unusual instruments, but I wouldn’t be able to describe one definitively. I probably once knew peristyle from an early interest in classical theater, but had forgotten its meaning. Muzzy was dark to me and would have been a clear miss. A good dictionary then or the Internet now allows us to decode the original denotative meanings, but these still keep us from understanding Stevens too soon. And they can just be fun to come upon in a poem!
***If HTOCW may be Wallace Stevens’ mother, one of those that had memorized Millay’s “First Fig” was my father, who once or twice recited it to me. What caused him to memorize it, or to read Millay? I never knew. He never lived a bohemian life, and as far as I know he lived a modest, constant, and long life. I can guess however why he recited it to me, who did have my bohemian modes and times: to say that he knew something of that, or that I could have faith that something worthwhile could come from that.
****I’m increasingly seeing readings that see coded (intentionally or unconsciously) in this poem an expression of Millay’s bisexual/polyamorous autonomy.
Today’s piece is a winter poem for troubled lovers, but in the wandering tradition of this project, we’re going to go somewhere else on our way there.
Next week there is to be an inauguration of a new American President. It’ll be the 13th new President in my lifetime. Though I remember witnessing all these inaugurations in part through news reports, photographs and recorded footage; to the best of my recall, I have only watched two as they happened. Which ones? Most recently, I watched Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 while working in a place with a newsroom; and then, before that, as a schoolchild I watched John Kennedy’s inauguration.
I believe this is so because in our democracy we have a tradition of our Presidential terms ending and beginning uneventfully and with a comforting regularity. It’s not that we citizens ignore that there’s a new President, but the event itself happening is largely unremarkable.
Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 was contemporaneously recognized as a post-WWII milepost, the Presidency passing to a young former enlisted man in that war, moving us beyond a country ruled before by 19th century men. As I said, I was a schoolchild. My class watched it on a single gray TV set placed up high in front of our schoolroom instead of our usual lessons. I don’t think I was alone in the audience for that event in thinking it was important to pay attention to what was said, watching for news of a new era we knew was new.
Obama’s election and inauguration said something about America recognizing it had changed its evaluation of people of color.* It’s become a mark of sophistication and analysis to say that was an illusion, disproven by everything wronged people and close examination brought forward then, and since then. I thought, and think, we’re in the midst of things. If more know that now, the marker post of Obama can still tell us where we’ve come from and where we can go.
Is it a coincidence that both of those Presidential Inaugurations had a poet read a poem as part of the ceremony? That’s not a common choice: Kennedy was the first President to ever do so, and only one other President, Clinton, did so besides Obama.
Now, as it happens, I hope to watch the Inauguration next Wednesday, because this one seems more precious to me, more extraordinary, something not to be taken for granted. I will not watch it expecting or requiring great words — no need anyway, because the event alone now has a greatness thrust upon it. Yet coincidence or not, there will be a poet, a particularly young one, reading next week: Amanda Gorman, all of 22 years old.
There are several videos of Gorman reading on the web, but I wanted to bring forward what she says here about her poem for Independence Day, which starts with Phillis Wheatley and mentions that she’s speaking in the Washington-Longfellow house that day. It occurs to me that Gorman seems to be essaying a kind of civic American poetry that Longfellow might recognize.
So, now I’m ready to return to today’s piece, one using the words of American poet Kenneth Patchen’s poem “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground.” If you’d like to follow along with the text, here’s a link to the poem. “The Snow is Deep on the Ground” seems to fit my times, and perhaps it fits yours too, and so we may think of it as my unofficial poem for this January’s Presidential Inauguration.
What did Patchen intend with the repeated image here of deep snow? As a northerner I know one thing it portends, a restriction of movement, and it’s often too a trope of accumulated time. I read something now in the image that Patchen may not have intended, restricted as I am in movement by our current epidemic and having just endured a cloddish act of insurrection deep in whiteness. It seems, or we hope it is, that that “war has failed.”
Patchen says the snow is beautiful though — but specifically it’s beautiful in a fallen state, something meteorologically and theologically true in Patchen’s poem.
The poem’s third stanza has muffled terrors. What a strange and yet strong line “Only a few go mad” is! And the whiteness “like the withered hand of an old king” undercuts any sense of simple winter landscape beauty. To say twice “God shall not forget us” implies this is in question, doesn’t it?
The poem has it what we know more than we know by faith: our love, our lovers. How beautiful it is to be loved, to love. And to know that after talking of politics in a world where lies and flags are used as shields and lances to beat each other with!
My performance of “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground” can be heard with the player below, or if you don’t see that, with this highlighted hyperlink. The musical core today is my naïve piano playing, over some drums and small percussion instruments. To add some character to the string bass part I doubled it with a synth-bass. Thanks for reading and listening, particularly as my ability to produce new pieces is reduced right now.
*There was something else about that Presidency. I’ve lived a long life, and yet in all those years Barack Obama is the only President I’ve ever had who was younger than me.
Recently I mentioned I might return to the Modernists of 100 years ago who inspired a lot of the material I’ve used here over the years. And indeed, I read two early William Carlos Williams collections early this new year looking for material as I prepared to do that.
And then, as a novel from 1925 warned: “Somewhere back in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night….” and we’re borne ceaselessly into Make the Confederacy Great Again. Doomscrolling overcame me, and my concentration scattered without need for pepper spray. Unlike some others this week, I don’t want to play-act armed revolution — and despite the abundant wrongs and injustices of my government, I’m not even enthusiastic about the real thing. If I can’t bear up under the tedium of actual politics and its incremental proposed solutions, why then must it follow I would want the excitement of the barricades?
I had to sidestep new pieces for a while. Yesterday I was granted a few hours in which I might work on them, and so I felt compelled to return to what I had thought of using for the new year, and this poem from American Modernist poet William Carlos Williams was on the top of the stack. It’s called “January,” and it was published 100 years ago this year.
As to doomscrolling vs. poetry, Williams said: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
By some caprice of the muses, this century-old “January” seems to address my situation in this one. Williams speaks of the distractions outside himself as he continues to write, and to winter’s “derisive music” he replies he’s still “bound to my sentences.” I can’t be sure what specifically inspired this poem. Williams could simply be sick of winter, that season that litters itself all over the landscape and then freezes itself in place. Or it could be speaking of his place in the Modernist movement, which was gaining traction culturally while (in Williams’ judgement) it wasn’t recognizing his part in it sufficiently.*
For our own arts, that’s an indispensable act for us: to stay committed to our work. Beside the world’s events that tell me that what art does is not quick acting enough to serve as a vaccine for our society, beside doubts that I should be better at what I do before presenting it, beside my own particular guilts that I should spend less time doing these things and more at promoting it, there’s no work to fail or be ignored unless one does one’s work.
I had to work quickly on the music, relying on some things that have become stylistic standbys for me in this Project: bowed strings (contra-bass this time), electric piano, electric guitar, and drums. In his poem, Williams develops the idea that the distracting winter wind is playing music to interrupt his own word-music. He describes this music as featuring the chromatic scale interval of the fifth. Reading the silent poem, you might think he’s talking about a dissonant interval since he also says twice the winds’ music is “derisive.” But the fifth is instead a sweet interval, even if one plays minors or major scales against it or piles on fuzzy overtone-rich distortion. From a musical perspective, I’m thinking Williams is saying that even the winter winds are not as cutting, honest, and to-the-bone as he wants to write. They’re derisive because they are merely sweet.
*The collection this poem appeared in was titled Sour Grapes. Williams thought — and some later critics began to agree with him — that American cultural critics were more enamored of WASP writers and overly eager to establish their own Ivy League version of the Oxford-Cambridge hierarchy for poets and poetry. Williams’ father was raised in the Dominican Republic and his mother was from Puerto Rico. Now of course, both Williams and some guy named Trump both went to the University of Pennsylvania, which is officially in the Ivy League. While Williams did post-graduate travel and work in Europe too, unlike some other American Modernists he was committed to making his poetry speak in, and to, an American way.
A momentous week in the United States as election results are counted, and I’m frankly distracted from my normal creative routine. But as we wait, I can offer this piece by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that I presented as part of a celebration of American Independence Day last July.
Mixed metaphors: ships and trains. Minneapolis has a replica of Longfellow’s famous house, if you look closely outside it, you can find remnants of trolley tracks that now start and finish under the earth.
As we noted back then, Longfellow’s 19th century American poem was sent by Franklin Roosevelt to Winston Churchill during the darkened days of WWII in the middle of the 20th. Maybe it speaks to Longfellow’s country here in our 21st century. The player to hear my performance of Longfellow’s “Sail On, Oh Ship of State” is below.
It was those other Twenties, the last ones before ours. Some people are in the streets, angry and sad in every mixture, protesting lives that will taken away by force of law. Authors Katherine Anne Porter, John Dos Passos, Edna St. Vincent Millay* are among them. Mounted police are before this ragged line of protestors who are sagging back from the horses of disaster.
Here’s Porter’s account** of a moment in that night, resurrected from her notes 50 years later for a magazine article:
One tall, thin figure of a woman stepped out alone, a good distance into the empty square, and when the police came down at her and the horse’s hoofs beat over her head, she did not move, but stood with her shoulders slightly bowed, entirely still. The charge was repeated again and again, but she was not to be driven away. A man near me said in horror, suddenly recognizing her, ‘That’s Lola Ridge!’ and dashed into the empty space toward her. Without any words or a moment’s pause, he simply seized her by the shoulders and walked her in front of him back to the edge of the crowd, where she stood as if she were half-conscious.”
That’s a remarkable story, one often recounted about Lola Ridge in our newer century, and it was my first introduction to the poet whose text I’ll present today. What might one think from this testimony about Lola Ridge? Brave, foolhardy, self-less, self-harming, committed, able to throw it all away?
Perhaps as an aesthetic choice, Ridge never smiled in her photos.
Best as I can tell, she was all these things and more. Before this event she had been born in Dublin Ireland and her family had emigrated to New Zealand while she was a child. Eventually finding herself as a young woman in a bad marriage there she fled to Australia, took up poetry and visual art, emigrated once again to the United States, first landing in San Francisco, but proceeding to New York City and the Modernist and Anarchist ferment there around the time of WWI.
She was published by and was associated with the leading Modernist publications of her time, and her poetry was firmly in the free-verse and Imagist style, but with a significant commitment to portraying poverty and urban grit . Even among her co-revolutionaries in politics and the arts she stood out then by her austere commitment to these then somewhat intermingled causes.
It’s a complicated story about why you may not have heard of Ridge, but today you’ll get to hear one of her poems performed. Titled “The Dream,” it’s easy to see it as an Imagist poem. Like so many of the Modernist movement poems it’s a charged, compressed moment told with images without a single overt statement of emotion. The uneven lines and unusual line breaks and the use of colors for adjectives are hallmarks of Imagism. The full text of “The Dream” is linked here if you’d like to read along.
“The Dream” was published in Ridge’s second book-length collection Sun Up in 1920, but I don’t know when it was written. It’s possible that it, or some version of it, might date back to her days in Australia, since Sydney harbor is mentioned. Following from its title, it can be taken as a somewhat apocalyptic or fantastic vision. Or you can take it as expression of a rough morning’s awaking. It’s also a word painting of an urban scene, and in that guise it seems to focus in on pollution. Indeed, part of it could pass for poetic reportage on the strange Australian and American skies this year after the massive forest fires.
“Air heavy…Vapor of opium…Sulphurous mist…Its sun the junk of red iron” skies after massive forest fires in the Western US and earlier this year in Australia.
I made do with a simple demo recording of the main vocal and acoustic guitar track for my presentation of “The Dream” so that I’d have time to complete the string quartet part of two violas, a violin, and a ukulele bass faking a pizzicato cello part. Real string composers and players will note how simple my parts are for the quartet. I sometimes think of my string writing as “punk-rock orchestral,” in that I hope simplicity in my technique and conception brings a certain focus on the unfussy parts of music that might still have an impact on the listener. The player gadget to hear it should be below (unless you read this on the WordPress reader for the iPhone or iPad, in which case you’ll need to switch to a browser to hear the music, or subscribe to the audio pieces via Apple Podcasts).
I don’t know if this is still so, but in my mid-20th century youth it wasn’t unusual for children to read some of the American 19th century worthies in ways not unlike the Young Adult books of today. So before I was old enough to take drivers ed, I’d read Tom Sawyer and a smattering of other Twain, some shorter Longfellow poems (the epics didn’t attract), and lots of Edgar Allan Poe. In a year or so I would start to read Keats and Blake and move on to literature as school assignments.
Other than availability, I’m not sure what drew me to the Poe. The gothic stuff may have attracted me for its examination of human oddness, and I recall the hyper-rational side of the detectives or adventure stories like “The Descent into the Maelstrom” pleased me. His poetry worked well enough, though I was not yet committed to poetry.
Did the antiqueness of the settings and language bother me? I don’t remember that being an issue. No, the world of Poe or Twain wasn’t the world of colorful tailfins and gray TV, but it seemed tolerably close to my own.
My Poe phase didn’t last long, and even finding out that some of the French poets who would intrigue me in my 20s had first or second-order influence from Poe didn’t make me want to re-read him. My casual judgement that I’d rather read something else has continued, and so today’s piece, “A Dream Within A Dream” is Poe’s first appearance in this project.
Mad, bad, and daguerreotype to know. Edgar Allan Poe.
“A Dream Within A Dream” is not overly florid nor is it chained to a too-simplistic, toe-tapping rhythm. Grains of sand and tormented seashores may be over-used tropes, but this poem doesn’t pass these off as priceless revelation, only handy counters to make the poems stark point: that since life is transitory itself, those things that one creates within it, however placed in the scale from practical to fanciful while alive, are in a final judgement as substantial as dreams. It’s implied that—like many a poet, writer, or artist—the poem’s speaker’s life work was judged while alive pretty close to the not-useful, fanciful side. The poem’s tone seems sad about that, but then it has that subtle valedictory dig: the same holds true for those who think they are doing more important things.
This poem was first published in the last year of Poe’s life, and as Poe struggled to earn enough as a professional writer, it’s ironic that the Wikipedia article on this poem says that the next month the owner of the publication ceased paying writers.
This Wednesday, October 7th is the anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s death under mysterious circumstances where he was found dazed and confused in Baltimore and died after a short hospitalization there. Oddly, I didn’t know that I would be writing this on the eve of that anniversary, so maybe some of Poe’s sand grains have washed up here?
Poe still attracts musical settings, so maybe it’s time for me to weigh in with my efforts. It’s been awhile since I ventured into the world of synth created sounds, which are the dream created inside the dream of music. So, today’s piece let me use some weirder analog synth sounds that make no claim to reality. Though the featured sounds today are entirely digital, created inside a modern computer, they are imitating analog synthesis waves with grains of ones and zeros, and I got to wiggle knobs to control parameters in real time just as the early analog synth players did.
Silicon music, like Poe’s grains of beach sand, the anonymous Internet sea will take almost as quickly as they are made. So before they slip away, you can use the player below to hear my performance of Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Dream Within A Dream.”
Forever and Crumbling. So if I disregard the outsized number of listens Hopkins’ poem got, this summer’s most liked and listened to was another Emily Dickinson-based piece where I joined two short and somewhat abstract Dickinson poems into what I thought was an interesting combination. I called my combination “Forever and Crumbling.”
“Forever” talks about the localized instant we all live in, that Dickinson lived in too. “Crumbling” talks about decay happening from a chain of those instants. In theory the two pieces, that Dickinson wrote separately, change/enlarge when related to each other. That and my musical performance of them is my contribution. Your likes and listens say that some of you found that worthwhile.
I’ve sat here most of the morning and now into the afternoon trying to write something useful in addition. If we are charged to “live in the moment,” 2020 makes that especially challenging. If we seek to halt and reverse the cobwebs and rust on our ideals and nation, like Dickinson’s “Crumbling” it will take more than an instant’s act. Nothing I wrote today brings what I can believe adds anything to our instant in time or repairs our current state of dilapidation. When I first posted this piece in the first week of June, I felt the same awkwardness. I have faith (or is it only habit?) that art and beauty have worth, but it takes a lot of faith some days.
Wishing all of us justice and mercy, and some wisdom to see a balance of those.
It’s time to look back over the summer and see which pieces you liked and listened to the most during this season. As always, I’m going to count up to the most popular in a series of posts here over the next few days. Each bold-face listing is a link to the original post, in case you’d like to read what I said when I first presented it.
10. Before Summer Rain by Rainer Maria Rilke. Long time readers here will know that I like to take a crack at original translations, and I even wrote a post this summer about how I, a person with only a little French in high school over 50 years ago, goes about this—and why you might want to try this too. Regardless of your level of language mastery and your obligations to the original writer, a public translator must also take up an obligation to produce an impactful, living poem. It may be unavoidable that you bring your own gifts as a poet to this task—or even up your game to be able to do that while using another poet’s inspiration as your matter.
Rilke currently has a reputation as a poet of spiritual uplift, a man whose lines get Pinterested over photos, quoted in journal entries, and immortalized on refrigerator magnets. In short: the self-help poet of spiritual self-improvement. I’m not going to knock that. There’s a hell of a lot of lesser things that a work of art can do than to make someone feel better, less lonely in their thoughts, or to help them think that they can better themselves. Sure aesthetes, that’s not all poetry can do, and while I’m no Rilke scholar, I think that isn’t all Rilke can do either.
My translation focused on Rilke’s images in his poem, trying my best to make them understandable or at least striking, and to give the poem a working English word-music.
9. Huazi Ridge after a poem by Wang Wei. More translation. The cultural and linguistic audacity to translate classical Chinese poetry has to be a few orders of magnitude greater than translating 20th century German (a language I don’t speak, but I had grandparents who did).
I decided to term what I derived from the sparse literal translation I had of this poem “after Wang Wei,” which is likely more accurate than calling it a translation. But if you are going to use what is more frankly your impression of a poem, the charge remains the same: give us something vivid and give it some word-music that works in English.
The music music here includes my simple approach to the Chinese lute, the pipa. While guitarists might think they have some grounding with this not unrelated string instrument, the pipa, like the western lute, has almost no sustain compared to the modern guitar. Great players can wring a wide range of sophisticated effects from the pipa, but a naïve player like myself just hopes to add a little bit of a different timbre that reflects the culture that produced such distinctive and highly compressed lyric poetry.
If you like to hear what the pipa is capable of, Gao Hong demonstrates it’s range while performing her composition “Flying Dragon” in this video.
8. Government by Carl Sandburg. Carl, whose parents spoke Swedish, makes things easy for me by already writing his poem in informal modern English. Sandburg worked for the Socialist* mayor of Milwaukee before he started his career as a poet in Chicago and published his first collection, Chicago Poems, where this one appears. His day job in Chicago was working as a newspaper journalist in the era made famous by the play and movie The Front Page. These things mean that when Sandburg writes this poem and says repeatedly “I saw…” it’s not just some poetic trope.
His final stanza is a fairly sophisticated analysis of politics. Interestingly it’s not—in this poem—a ringing call for change. The statement here that government is made up of humans, and that it therefore inherits human characteristics, is on the face of it an explanation of the political failures this poem testifies to. But nested in this also is the idea the government can change as people change (and change it). No, it won’t be perfect, but it can be better.
*Midwestern Socialists of Sandburg’s time reached the highest level of Government administrative responsibility in US history.
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.