After all the storm and breadth of remarking on my several-year presentations of “The Waste Land,” the totality of which takes more than an hour to listen to, it’s time to return to a smaller Modernism. To start that off, let me present a tiny poem by Emily Dickinson.
How many Flowers fail in Wood — Or perish from the Hill — Without the privilege to know That they are beautiful —
How many cast a nameless Pod Upon the nearest Breeze — Unconscious of the Scarlet Freight — It bears to Other Eyes —
Indeed, with some editing/translation it could be a full-fledged, circa-1916 Imagist poem. Dickinson’s poem speaks of plural flowers, and that’s in tune with the point it’s making, but an Imagist might have simply changed it to a singular flower, or at least an instant of several flowers. The negative-pathetic fallacy of the flower’s ignorance of its beauty might have been excised. So, if William Carlos Williams or H.D. had written it in the 20th century it might have arisen like this:
The flowers fail in the wood And perish from the hill. Is there a privilege to know That they are beautiful?
There is a breeze, and in it Some nameless pods — Seeds of scarlet freight Bearing from eyes to eyes.
More or less the same thought and brevity, just a removal of the remaining 19th century Romanticism that Dickinson retained even as she would question it, and of course the word-music changes some. Today I chose to keep Emily Dickinson’s word music and original expression intact. But either poem is making a declaration about art: that it’s often created because it must be, out of an urge that is as omnipresent and mysterious as flowers, and that like flowers it’s part of a reproductive system that allows many seeds for few flowers and even fewer idle reflective eyes to see the flowers, this passing fecundity and unnecessary beauty.
All flowers, like all artists, fail, but “Unconscious of the scarlet freight…”
I present this piece today as I read two memoirs by little-remembered early-20th century Modernists — and from those little-noticed flowers I noticed some others, eyes carried in the wind to my eyes that I hope to present here soon for yours. But for today, we have my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “How Many Flowers.” with a player that will land and bloom for some of you, and this alternative for those who don’t see the player, a highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab to let you play my performance.
*In our 21st century — with grace of a scholarly culture once blind but now can see — the depth and subtlety of Dickinson’s vision and the thought that she’s able to stuff into tiny poems is now widely celebrated.
Last time I left you with some impressions I got reading a George Orwell essay, but I also came upon a documentary this week on things this project deals with — things that you, welcome reader or artist, may also want to consider in your art or life. That film was The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith.*
I had some minor grasp of the loft scene in the ‘70s to early ‘80s, and I figured it might be worth a watch. I got more than I expected, though not quite what I expected. This story is centered in the late 1950’s, a time of tremendous artistic momentum that underpinned much that occurred in the more famous ‘60s later. Oddly the man, Gene Smith, featured in the title isn’t a jazz figure at all, but a photographer who lived in part of a run-down and irregularly converted commercial loft in New York City. Smith gets his name in the title, not only because he’s interesting and because his artistic biography is well-covered in the documentary, but because he had a curious desire at this point in his life to document large portions of his everyday reality via still photos, movies, writing, and copious audio recordings.
This trailer for the film leads with the Jazz, underselling the compelling story about photography it contains.
Lofts are often prized by artists, who like a gas are likely to expand to fill any space — and Smith certainly did that. Whenever I pause to consider my own studio space where many of the recordings for this project were done, I am embarrassed by how messy and cluttered it is. Smith matches me in that clutter from what we see, and the documentary would support a viewer who sees obsessive-compulsive elements in Smith. But unlike myself, or the garden-variety hoarder, Smith was a very accomplished black & white photographer in a number of styles. And then, somewhat like me, the clutter didn’t seem to stop Smith’s productivity — or if it did hamper it, his drive to continue to produce art was strong enough to make that issue moot.
I’m unsure how famous Smith is in art photography circles, but the film departs from its Jazz Loft focus to let us know that he was a very effective war photographer during WWII, one who was seriously wounded in the Pacific theater of that war. He worked for the large format magazines and photo services of the day as a photographer, with enough pull and force of personality to be allowed to create multipage photo essays he selected and laid out for publication himself. By the time of the Jazz Loft he seems to have been doing a lot of street photography, often shooting out of his window at the day to day people who had no sense they were being photographed.**
Even if, like me, you are not au fait with photography and photographers, it’s likely you know at least one or two of Smith’s photos. He’s the guy who shot the famous Harry Truman holding up the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline. And when I saw a print of another photo just pinned up somewhere off to the side in the clutter of his workspace early in the film, I wondered if he’s responsible for another image that I knew: the emotionally resonant “A Walk to the Paradise Garden” photo. If you watch the film you’ll get more context for that photo.
So, is there Jazz in this film called The Jazz Loft? Yes. The late ‘50s were a time when a great many magnificent Jazz records were made, and when high-quality live Jazz performance was still commercially viable. The NYC area was a center of both of those things. The Jazz Loft was apparently like some places I know from my youth just slightly later, it was an open scene, and folks just wandered in and out of some of the loft, including a number of musicians who used it as a place to workshop or jam for their own enjoyment. From Smith’s documentation, it was a somewhat integrated scene at the loft, but predominantly white.*** This may be secondary to the man who apparently owned the loft (he’s said to have been Smith’s landlord during the film) Hall Overton. Overton was a figure unknown to me who was active in what in that era was known as “Third Stream.” Third Stream was an effort to combine composed concert music, often with orchestral instruments, with Jazz. Many, but not all, of the proponents of Third Stream were white musicians crossing over from modern “classical music.” I don’t want to over-simplify this, but while some Afro-Americans coming from a jazz background were interested in such a fusion and contributed significantly, Black Jazz musicians were also involved heavily at that moment in trying to keep Jazz culturally and commercially relevant to their Afro-American peers (“Hard Bop” and “Soul Jazz”) and with the more spiritual and political Black Arts movement.
The film eventually gets to concentrate on Overton for a while, and he’s as interesting as Smith, particularly for someone like myself who’s interested in Jazz and composition. If he sounds like something you’d like to nerd over for a while, I can recommend this lengthy and detailed article by Jazz pianist and composer Ethan Iverson on Overton, but if you’re trying to finish a translation and eventual musical piece using words by Rimbaud, I’d suggest you don’t click on that link.
Other folks who drifted through the Jazz Loft have stories that are told in shorter segments, and I personally like the way the editing and flow of the film allowed the stories to emerge organically, like a good Jazz set. The use of the archival materials (largely from Smith’s posthumous archive) is done very well.
Jazz, “Third Stream,” late ’50 NYC bohemia, and black & white photography are all niche interests. You may need to be interested in at least two of those things to have the highly rewarding experience I had with this documentary. If not, you need to be open to adventure in these areas. No car chases, no who’s sleeping with who dish, no unfolding speculative universe, other than the one that the arts often live in inside everyone else’s: whale’s bellies and lofts.
What did watching The Jazz Loft bring me? An appreciation of Overton’s efforts, which were largely unsuccessful even within the limited expectations of his niche. In Smith’s story, I found a mirror of my own somewhat obsessive drive to make the elements of this project, and a warning of the possible side-effects of that.**** Recall as I concluded Part 1 of this, that one of my artistic maxims is: All Artists Fail. George Orwell was despairing in 1940 at the batting average of artists seeking to change things in his society, while I’m somewhat heartened that they keep trying. Same box score, just different outlooks. So, Smith succeeded, for a while, and then descended into a state that was productive but not healthy. Overton for all his not-even-a-footnote status in musical history, made an honorable effort. They chose their own adventure, followed its path, saw and felt and knew what they saw.
*This assumes you are giving evidence by reading and listening here that you care about some less-mainstream things, and worse yet, a variety of them. “The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith” is available most places you can rent or buy movies on computers, smart TVs, or tablets. There’s also a podcast-series which I have yet to sample.
**It’s apparent that many folks either didn’t know or didn’t care that they were being recorded by Smith either. The general reaction of those interviewed was that Smith was fairly overt about his documenting everything he could figure out how to capture, but other stories have him placing microphones all over the place. In terms of his photography within the loft, he had the advantage of “always being there” so that the people drifting in and out didn’t strike a pose for the camera.
***No, I’m not getting all woke on the people portrayed in this film. Just stating what I noticed that ran counter to my initial expectations of what I’d see in the Jazz milieu, even in the late ‘50s when de jure Jim Crow was still a thing. Indeed, the folks in the center of this film were probably significantly more cross-racial than their general society, and for that matter probably more than I am in this other century. Afro-American Jazz giant Thelonious Monk does have a sizable part in a story of one project workshopped at the Jazz Loft depicted in the film.
****I hope not that more dangerous take-away trope: well, I’m not that obsessed, or chemically dependent, etc. as that person.
American poet Wallace Stevens constantly spoke in his poetry about the creation of art. This sort of “art looking at itself” move has a danger of being too self-referential and one might fear that it would sit with the reader as unresolved as being between two mirrors. I think today’s subtle poem works, despite those risks, and we’ll see if my performance of it brings out something that you may not have noticed in it.
Stevens, though wordier than Emily Dickinson*, often has his poetry seem like a riddle or puzzle, and though his poems have a surface beauty one can see right off, they also sometimes work like a lawyerly contract with the reader, full of obscure words and fine-print sub-clauses that you may not fully understand.
Let’s listen to Stevens read his poem himself.
One can hear background noises outside the room in this recording, so Stevens’ voice is heard here “Out of all the indifferences.”
He’s not a bad reader, he does an acceptable job of bringing out the structure and word-music of this poem—but it’s emotionally flat, a default setting for many poet-readers. I think the theory is: if his words are good, well selected and ordered they should be able to convey all. If I listen carefully, I hear just a tiny touch of ruefulness in his voice as his poem nears its end, but it’s just a touch.
There’s an overall image in this poem laid out in the somewhat fussy title: that thing that causes us to create art—in Stevens’ case, poetry—is like a paramour. That is, it’s like a desired lover (and “paramour,” that somewhat unusual word he chooses, has strong associations with an illicit or secret lover). But wait, it’s an “Interior Paramour.” It’s something within ourselves. That internal duality will be dealt with in his poem.
At times he seems confident in speaking of this cause to create art, but look closely at the shading, the little codicils in his statements. “For small reason” we think our imagination is good. We are “poor,” not particularly perceptive or wise, we only choose out of the richness of all things some single thing that we’ll prize over all those things we are indifferent to. We do this to impose or create this intimacy we feel with our art, this imagined, chosen, second self, this internal paramour his title speaks of.
But, but…“God and the imagination are one!” Surely, this is praise.
Look carefully, “We say,” Stevens says: it’s but our claim. A God in actuality is some higher candle. What we feel we have, in our separate imaginations selected into art, that art that may cohere out of shared human centrality—is a smaller, lower light, shedding on a smaller circle: us perhaps and our work in the moment of imagination choosing creation, or that resulting work and a reader or listener.
That’s the internal paramour, the shame-feared, secret love inside us when we create. It’s a small lit space we make in darkness, where occasional readers or listeners see something like what we saw. Being together with little creation is enough. Being together with some audience out of all the indifferences is enough.
Today’s music is based obliquely on the Velvet Underground, a pioneering indie rock group that explored areas that later groups also chose to explore. On one level they seemed to be like unto a rock band: two guitars, drums, and a further musician who might play keyboards, electric bass or bowed strings–but their genius was to put those things together differently, to use those voices in uncharacteristic ways. How will listeners react when you do that? Well, for a lot of them it will be to reject it as worthwhile music, though some may see a new possibility. Some art comforts. Some art unsettles. Being together with some audience out of all the indifferences is enough.
I should note that I was reminded of this poem when the Fourteen Lines blog included it last month. I immediately thought I’d like to perform it, but it sounded like it was later Wallace Stevens. I did a quick web search to see when it was first published and the return said in Harmonium, Stevens’ first book-length collection which is in the public domain. I let out a shout and began work on the composition and performance I present today. It was only this morning as I started writing this post that I found that it was, just as I suspected from the title, from late in Stevens’ career when he was as old as I am now, and is therefore likely to still be in copyright, even though Stevens himself has been dead for 65 years. I feel conflicted about going ahead and presenting what I worked on and came up with, but have decided to take this route: if whoever holds the rights to Stevens work objects to this non-commercial use, let me know, I’ll gladly remove it.
My performance of “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” seeks to be unsettling. The two guitars don’t work like rock band guitars are supposed to work. The drums and their beat are strange, not tying things down as the instrument’s rhythms slide instead of lock. The organ plays low, driving somewhere you can’t see. And I chant Stevens’ words as if I know where they’re going, and yet I can’t yet say where that is yet. That’s what I feel when I create music or poetry. The player to hear it is below. Like some early Velvet Underground tunes, it may sound better around the third time you listen to it. But if you don’t like it, remember I promise various words and various music here, there are other selections available in our archives.
Thanks for sharing this little light by reading or listening tonight.
*Stevens was an actual lawyer. Dickinson came from a family of lawyers and I suspect either absorbed this manner of written discourse or may have inherited it along with her mental firmware.
I know, I know. Some come to blogs like mine as a break from politics. Carl Sandburg used to mollify the editors of Poetry magazine who wondered about the encroachment of his politics into his Imagist poetry by suggesting that no, he was a poet, an artist—and if a little politics snuck in from time to time, well he couldn’t help it being that it was part of him.
Well, he was a poet, but maybe he didn’t want Poetry to know about the radical writing he was doing for the IWW at the same time he was writing his tight Modernist observations of our working life and living.
Woody Guthrie, who we might think of as the pluperfect tense of a protest singer, once said that anything that is human is anti-fascist, which would make a great deal of poetry into a political act, though I think he has to draw a rather gerrymandered line around the borders of human.
Many on the right find the continued use of racist and fascist as terms of approbation too broad a brush. I’d like to agree with them. I like exact words myself. I find in tired worn-out words a point of sadness, a heaviness in absence, a missed opportunity. But then sadness, oppression, and missed opportunities are not just dreary words I can discard for fresher ones, they are remaining realities.
Trump sucks the oxygen from a room, leaving only in the remaining vacuum assent or protest—but both of those are in an airless room. I post this photo I happened upon this morning because some of you will find enough air to laugh* and get some momentary relief from it.
Listen up team, there should be no “I” in “fascist.”
Will there be a few that won’t get the joke? Well that’s what I’m here for! The story I heard was that Woody Guthrie saw a sign in a war materials factory during WWII, and appropriated it for his guitar. I like that origin story, because it reminds me that my job as an artist is to get my work done, even though we’re in an emergency or emergencies—perhaps best to do it because we’re in an emergency.
Woody Guthrie in the upper left, inspire and inspired, “The workers in song” moving clockwise from Guthrie: Pete Seeger, Tom Morello, the fighting typist, Carl Sandburg (with my suggested machine sign), and two unidentified war-factory workers from WWII.
Those two women riveting an aircraft part in the collage above? That’s a very real part of a victorious war machine. Maybe they would also be part of the Seattle village helping raise war-baby Jimi Hendrix, an artist who made imaginary things. What does something imaginary have to do with winning a battle?** Every struggle, every war, is fought for things invisible as well as real. All progress is moving toward the invisible, like a future humanity that has moved beyond fascism and racism.
No new audio piece today, but of course there are hundreds of them to peruse here as part of the Parlando Project. Here’s one of them by Sandburg about work that you can hear with the player gadget below.
*More joke explanation. Right now in the U. S. there is a frank and acknowledged effort to reduce voting by mail during the current pandemic. The hope among those in the current administration and Senate is that this might not increase the right voters but it could exclude more of the wrong ones. This assumes that potential right or wrong voters won’t get mad about this.
Are there people today still falling in love, or not falling in love together, or remembering love and almost love? Seems like a silly or rhetorical question doesn’t it.
So, yes, I suspect there are, as there have been before.
People fall in love on marches, at the barricades. Policemen fall in love. People fall in love in the time of plagues. Old people fall in love. Young people remember love or almost love. Oppressed people fall in love. People fall in love, but their partner doesn’t, and sometimes that partner is the wiser of the two.
So, is this the time for a poem of romantic love to be the most popular piece this past season? This is a time of new dangers and old evils. This is a time that predicts greater uncertainties and promises change if we act, and despair if we don’t. Can poetry put its “Queer shoulder to the wheel” as Ginsberg wrote? Should it?
I’ll be honest, I think about that a lot this spring. It’s a large part of why it’s hard for me to get around to creating new work here as this spring unfurled. Honestly I have little right to present short pieces here on Emily Dickinson, Du Fu or Arthur Rimbaud, but I may have even less authority to write briefly on politics, economics, sociology, or epidemiology—much less American racial dichotomy and all it’s injuries.
My observation that many who do write of these things have no more authority than I do is not helpful. Another observation is that all us artists have is that: our observation. We must strive to be careful seers and more exact sayers of what we see, though we tend to be flat seers. Heaven and wildflowers: that’s leveling. Romantic love, that often-brief thing; and disaster, that sometimes-brief thing that harms long and painfully, we see them both, we write about them as if they’re equal.
The player gadget to hear Yeats’ “When You Are Old,” this love poem written by a 20-something about old age, is below. Thank you very much for reading and listening, and an extra thank you to those who’ve helped spread the word about the Parlando Project. There’s a lot of stuff here from the four years of this project to listen to, and I’ll still attempt to have new pieces here soon.
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.
I took yesterday off from the work of this ongoing project. I spent a good portion of it listening to music.
I said to my wife that afternoon: “It’s odd, but spending to much time composing music, performing, recording, and mixing it largely keeps me from listening to music I’m not working on. If I was a sculptor or painter I could listen to music while working, some even listen to music while writing,* but you can’t listen to music while working on music.”
I awoke this morning early, bid my wife off to work and went for my morning bike ride. I returned, ate breakfast, and set to work on completing a long piece that I’ve been working on for some time this month. Such work devours hours.
Or am I wrong to say this? Perhaps it is numbing. Like when your extremities grow cold in a northern winter. You don’t feel them going numb after all. The villain in the piece, the policeman with decades in a public service job, surely seems numb to the suffering he’s causing. Does evil flow both hot and cold in us?
How many will view this and swear, and then swear that they could never do what he seems to be doing, or at least never do it without copious anger. How many of us will not think about the other policeman, standing nearby, still in the portrait-mode frame. Will we ask ourselves, could we be him? Or will that question slide by us?
“What’s the broken world” – photo by Evan Frost for MPR News.
I’m a poet and musician. I run nothing, not even my own muses some days. Shelley aside, I’m not a legislator in session. I could do political analysis here, but choose instead to beg your indulgence to talk about how someone else’s words strike me a couple of times a week. However, I spent two decades trying to alleviate pain, fix people up, and keep people alive. My wife still does this work. It offends me when we fail. In the medical field we often know when we fail, and the philosophers kind or callous—who know that in a medical, mortal sense, we always fail—offer only partial relief.
Poetry and the power of music isn’t quite like philosophy. Music doesn’t want to be ideas, but their sound. It can express anger and sorrow and give it a towering spillway for those things to pour out. It’s not healing or justice exactly, but the sound of those things. And poetry is the literary art that uses words in the nearest same way.
If it’s not the actual, palpable, thing we need—if it’s not sorrow, anger, healing, justice—it may teach us to recognize those things, to see and join them in the souls of others.
Why say this? In the above I’ve tried to rationalize what I attempt to do, but tonight I doubt this too much to complete a new piece of music and write about it.
Last time I mentioned Charlotte Mew chose not the mention the specifics of a horrible war in her short poem. She could have written a poem longer than the Iliad and not covered all the callousness and killing, the heroes and the folly. Only in passing, I mentioned that meant her poem of grief isn’t necessarily tied to World War I, or to Britain—but I wanted very much then to stress another thing about short, lyric poetry: that you can carry it with you, that it can change and grow as you take it back out of your mind during the dealing out of a day or more. So I carry this bit from her poem over, yet another day.
What’s little June to a great broken world with eyes gone dim
From too much looking on the face of grief, the face of dread?
We are the pieces of that broken world. Can you feel the broken edges?
*I used to listen to music when writing sometimes, but I can’t recall the last time I did that. It’s probably been decades. In my youth sometimes entire first drafts of some poem would flow out while listening to a piece of music.
This may have been one of the first poems I fell in love with: the richness of the language, some sense of strangeness, the exoticness of the depicted setting–all enough for a young teenager. I did not mind the often outdated language then—less then than I do now—as I expected poems then to be written in an old and alien adult literary language.
If you’d asked that teenager what it meant, I would have probably stumbled out something to defend my appreciation of it—but what I did know was that “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is just flat-out lovely word music.
One could go on about that, but no technical analysis will increase or decrease a listener’s appreciation for that element. Music has a structure, theorems and practices, but it remains subjective and it is not engineering. My performance of it today may not do it justice either, let your own ear or voice be the judge.
You don’t need biography to feel this element in the poem, but Keats wrote this in the spring of a year in which he had cared for his brother Tom as he died of tuberculosis that previous winter. In around a year, the medically trained John Keats would notice symptoms that he well knew were from his own infection. Another year from there he would be dead from the feared infectious respiratory disease of his time. So I read it differently today in our time of the pandemic Covid-19.
But “Ode to a Grecian Urn” isn’t poetry as memoir, a common genre in our time. Instead, despite its failure as an example of pared-back language avoiding words describing emotions, the concept of the poem is not unlike that of Imagists nearly a century later.* Keats looks at a thing, a decorated classical Greek vase,** and records that moment.
I’ve figured out why it’s hard to create this week—the muses are sheltering in place. And it ain’t mine.
I’ll resist the urge to go through this poem line by line, but as the poem’s speaker approaches the titular urn he wants to interrogate it. One could draw a cartoon where the vase is in a police station room and the poet-detective is trying to tease out the details of the caper, while we the audience look on. The vase ain’t talking. The detective says that you were seen with that couple at that musical party, would you like to tell us why she was running? OK, so who were the musicians at the gig? You don’t know! Whatd’ya mean?
But let’s return to that almostness, that never. The lover and the beloved are palpably close, yet they cannot touch. The musicians are playing, but it’s somewhere out of ear-reach. Are they all six-feet, a social distance apart? What’s avoided by this freeze, this lock-down? The sorrow with a “burning forehead, and a parching tongue.” Keats seems to intend this as an illness metaphor.***
The poem tells us this vase includes another scene, a cow being led to a ritual slaughter. A vegan, Hindu, or animal-rights advocate may cringe, but the scene is one of an entire town wishing for this consummation, and we may conclude the scene is “You will die so that we may live or prosper”—which after all is the belief of all such rituals. I’m not supposing that Keats was Joaquin Phoenix, however we may view this sort of thing; and most readers have historically taken the poem’s characterization of this as pious at face value. But Keats could have imagined his urn with another religious scene, and chose this one.
If he doesn’t want an element of dread in the sacrifice scene, why does he choose to add the detail that the pious morn has left a town with eerie deserted streets?
At the poem’s end, Keats places the famous couplet “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” As well-known as these lines are, they’re the source of some controversy. Some think them profound, some glib. They are meaningless babble or a concise summary of Keats’ aesthetic.
The urn, this mesmerizing object, has artistic impact, and that means it’s beautiful in an aesthetic sense. It doesn’t mean it’s clear in its message. It doesn’t mean it’s a simple comfort. Yes, Keats says near the end, the urn is “A friend to man.” But friends are friends partly because they will tell us things that mere sycophants or acquaintances won’t, and friends will be there when things are not all wonderful and happy. It’s true too in this sense: that it is not telling itself with ulterior motives or self-interest.
The experience of the two scenes that precede this summing up are not happy ones. Even the consolations of artistic immortality are slight: we know nothing about the end of the lover’s pursuit, the musician’s tune, the name of the village or if it prospered, or if the sacrificial cow had a soul that was reborn.
As I performed it I decided to downplay what that past teenager would have read as a ringing conclusion. After all, whatever Keats’ sweet unheard intent might have been, his object that we can see and puzzle over tells us that the urn is saying this to him, not some “deity or mortal, or both.” A piece of art says what it says in ways its creator cannot control, as the poem predicts it: “In midst of other woe than ours.”
So, I read it today as that weak voice that says, from when this poem was written, from this time when I performed it, in a time of contagious illness, in a time when caretakers were at risk, to a time when our streets are silent, at a time when some pious ready sacrifices instead of remedies, a time when music is silences and lovers parted—that there is somehow something beautiful to be discerned that is still as true as our living moments.
Speaking of musical engineering, I decided to keep the music silent or very minimal for the first part of this one, even though this project is all about combining music with words—the text’s “unheard music” was just to powerful to contradict. I also chose to keep everything in a major key/major chords, because that too is how I read the text: the urn’s subjects think they are in joy, though we see them, like re-viewing films and video of past happy social crowds today, in a different frame. To read the full text of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” go here. The player gadget to hear my performance of it awaits you clicking on the player gadget below. Stay well. Take care.
*The idea of poetry expressing the experience of another piece of art, particularly visual art, ekphrastic poetry, long predates Modernism and Imagism. By using this approach to the everyday encounter with the world, the Imagists extended this technique.
**There is wide agreement that there is no singular vase/subject to discover that Keats actually encountered in a moment. Britain had recently absconded with “The Elgin Marbles” from Athens, a series of marble sculptures that Keats viewed in London, and he had seen period vases, even making his own drawing of one.
***In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag spent a good deal of time on the historical ascribing of tuberculosis to a dissipated or too passionate life-style in pre-germ-theory times. Currently, lovers may be close but separated precisely by our knowledge of microbes.
Let’s return today to the English mystic and poet William Blake, but continue on a thought that is inherent with the last two pieces, one by Yeats and the other by a long-winded guy who writes this. Poetry, just like other writing can, within its levels, do any number of things. One can seek to teach, to reassure, to tell stories, to amuse, to make philosophical points, or to abstractly portray beauty in poetry. Some poets, some critics, some projects, believe some of these are more worthy aims than others. From one day to another I may favor one of these over another in my reading, my performances here, in my own writing.
There’s a certain “high church” of poetry that feels that which aim and which methods are used in reaching it is crucial—and that other choices harm the art. I’m not smart enough, or well enough read, to know if they’re right.
But there’s one thing impactful poetry shares with the other arts: that’s the texture of the immediacy of experience, of how its creation, its creator, its reader, its listener feels and shares of any of this.
So, it largely makes no difference to readers today what political side William Butler Yeats was on in the Irish Civil War. And if post-WWII “Westerns” dealt with certain horrors: racist terrorism, genocide, colonialism, and the responsibilities of citizenship in an uncertain and sometimes buffered way, well so be it. What remains is the emotional and perceptual core transferred now.
Today’s piece is a section from one of William Blake’s “prophetic books,” a series of very small editions he wrote, illustrated, colored and printed himself. As a young man I admired that. Blake bows to no other as far as “Indie Cred,” “get in the van,” and DIY spirit. Furthermore, he developed (or envisioned) his own mythology to explain his metaphysical outlook.
I can still remember first reading about Blake in a list of minor poets* in some leftover textbook of one of my parents sometime in the mid-60s. The note said that while he wrote some charming short lyrics he later descended into longer works that were judged as borderline insane. To many a young person that’s not a tragic story so much as it’s intriguing.
A year or two later the rock’n’roll band The Doors dropped a Blake line into an album cut and I eventually was able to get a few paperbacks collecting Blake poetry. “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” youthful Byronic mythos was part of this no doubt.
I couldn’t make head nor tails out of Blake’s “prophetic books.” I could see the Milton and Books of Moses references, but that didn’t illuminate things much. In the decades since, there have arisen many Blake scholars who worked out his structure and epistemological themes to a great degree. That’s helped. But even then as a teenager, and now as an old man, I could and can still catch glimpses of how it felt to apprehend and sing these things Blake wrote. The poems are like their illustrations in Blake’s great plan for “illuminated books:” they are meaningful in their impact without necessarily telling you what they are meant to mean within some overall structure. And that’s probably how visionary works should be.
A recent special exhibition of Blake works in London was celebrated by projecting one of Blake’s most famous images on the dome of St. Paul’s cathedral. Not shown: the irony of nonconformist Blake’s image on a national religious landmark.
So today I’m going to perform part of the final chapter of Blake’s Book of Urizen which comes after Blake has told something like a condensed tale of “Paradise Lost” or the book of Genesis; but with his own vision of the creation of the world and religion and the fall and fate of humankind. It doesn’t require that you understand or agree with Blake’s ideas if I can help illuminate Blake’s words so that you can understand the feeling of creating in a failed and fallen world.
In Blake’s mythos mankind is descended from fallen Eternals, blind to the infinity of the universe and their own souls. When we see his famous picture of a bearded Urizen with a compass at right angles measuring the world it’s not only a picture of visionary might—it’s the picture of a fallen, blind Eternal assiduously measuring a world with a puny device.
I didn’t go directly Doors rock’n’roll for today’s audio piece, instead the words led me somewhere else, to one of the things that influenced that band: the mythos of another visionary: Sun Ra, the Birmingham Alabama born Afro-American who recast himself as a prophet from the planet Saturn, and thereby encoded African and Afro-American culture as an infinite thing.
Here’s one of the best-known of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which means it’s clearly one of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits.”
Since I’m not a real scholar or expert in such things, let’s take a look at it as if it was another of our presentations of lesser-known poems by little-known poets. You may want to follow along with the text, which can be found here. What might we see if we encounter it this way, without preconceptions?
The first thing one might notice is the antique language. In this case it’s not so much a case of “need to look that one up” words so much as it’s the olden-days tenses, pronouns and word forms: “mayst, ”thou,” “see’st,” “fadeth,” “doth,” “perceiv’st,” and “ere.” Given that the sonnet is a compressed form (this one uses 121 words) that might put one off. The syntax too, is not modern-day natural speech, but then when undertaking a sonnet even modern-day poets will sacrifice some of that for sound and compression of expression reasons.
If one is able to overlook those two things, or simply accept them as artifacts of the form and the time it was written, the next thing I notice is how much is stuffed into those 121 words. Tonight I’ll go to a meeting with three other poets, two of which are more accomplished than I am, with several published collections under their names. If I was to present to this group a poem with as many ideas and loosely linked tropes as Sonnet 73 (albeit with whatever level of skill I otherwise possess) they would likely be puzzled and displeased with it. Modern poetry is full of a great many styles, but many of them don’t try to push so much into so short a poem.
Let’s briefly look at those thoughts and the images by which we are to experience them. The first two lines open with a common autumn poem touchstone: the turning, falling, and fallen leaves. There are approximately 127 billion English language poems using autumn leaves by now, though there might have been only a few dozen in Shakespeare’s time. I think his image here is dual though, the left-leaves are compared to a balding head.
He’s not balding, he just has a large forehead. This disputed portrait has not been used to argue that Shakespeare was actually written by Larry Fine or translated from Klingon.
This image is further developed or morphed in the next two lines, including the image by which I always remember this poem: the now bare or near-bare branches bereft of the migratory and mate seeking/singing birds of earlier in the year liked to a ruined choir loft. Since choir lofts are elevated, and we’ve started with leaves equaling the now spare hair on a head, they are also the mind and voice which engenders such poetry and song.
Starting in the 20th Century some Shakespeare scholarship relates that ruined choirs image to the destruction and abandonment of Catholic abbeys and churches during his century. If so, Shakespeare has brought an undercurrent of the dangerous social change of his century into his short poem.*
Shakespeare doesn’t linger on that image, though it is so sharp it may have made his point. He next moves on to another image we now find common, the ending of a day related to the later parts of one’s life. His take is the variation (also used in some autumn poems) that there is extra beauty in the endingness, by implication it’s preciousness of limits, and from the luminous colors of sunset. He develops this a bit with an image that would have once seemed common, but has since fallen into disuse: that sleep is a model of death.
The final quatrain before the concluding couplet develops yet another image, one steeped in fire as one of the classical four elements. It’s antique physics, but observationally still rich for anyone that has ever dealt with burning wood: the speaker is the hot coals, hotter than the kindling fire of youth, or the early lapping flames. Since this is ostensibly a love poem, one can take this as another commonplace: fire equaling desire. My reading is that the love poem aspect is yet another layer of image, present, but not the only element, as it’s also about the artistic spirit that could create such a sonnet. The final line in the final quatrain is nearly the equal of the “bare ruined choirs” one. “Consumed by that which it was nourished by” is both a statement about the scientific nature of combustion; about desire, love, and it’s ending; and about the artistic impulse: that we must burn, fill and empty ourselves as if by weightless flame; that we will consume our time, our life-time.
The final couplet, as with many an English “Shakespearean” sonnet, jumps on to something else. In its guise as a love poem, it says that the lover must be extra passionate and devoted, because the poem’s speaker has limited time left and yet they still love them. What should we make of that? As a devotional interpersonal love-note, the thing the poem presents itself to be, it has emotional heft.** As a statement about the artistic drive, likewise. Every time one sets out to make something, we truly don’t know if it’s the last work we will do. As we age (I’m old, this is eminently personal with me) this becomes less and less a moot philosophical point. Treat the work as a lover, treat your lover as a work of art.
So, there’s a lot of territory in this poem. Even doing my best to present it with my performance there’s too much here to absorb in one listening, one reading, in one moment in one’s life. This is a reason why other kinds of poems may be better received. Many modern short poems seek to make one point, or tell a story with a plot rather than a complex instant that has no plot yet, or several plots happening at once. Those poems can work too, and work quickly.
Shakespeare seeks to lure us with his word-music, even now centuries later, even though he’s going to try to put a gallon of thought into a pint-sized poem, and even if he’s going to use a form of English we strain to hear as natural. “Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang” isn’t just an image, and an allusion to a piece of history that may be unfamiliar to us, it’s a lovely piece of sound. I could go on with other lines that have their compelling worth as sound: “When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang” or “Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.” Can that word-music let us live with the 121 words long enough to get over the things which make us either hear this as “Shakespeare” the brand name or as an example of obsolescence?
I tried in my performance to illuminate the text and its sound as best I could. You can hear it with the player below.
*I’ve always loved the way Michael Wood presented the beginning of his series of TV programs on Shakespeare by saying he was born into what was a police state due to the whipsawing religious and geopolitical changes/wars/disputes England went through in the 16th century.
**By pointing out that this poem in my mind is expressing something about the experience of making art, I’m not prudishly seeking to eliminate the erotic reading. Many of the best images are bilateral. They aren’t just some thrown-off thing meant to decorate the poem with some cleverness or allusion. The thing used to represent the thing is real, maybe even more real than the thing it signifies. The thing signified enriches the image just as vice versa.
One piece of evidence that Shakespeare intends this as a complex set of images is that it was likely written when Shakespeare was in his 30s. Sure it reads “true” for this old man, but it’s not memoir as poetry. Memoir as poetry can work too, but I often feel that we’ve over-emphasized that mode.