Last time I said I looked through Arthur Rimbaud’s collected works in the middle of the nighttime looking for something to translate, combine with music, and perform. I guess I could have saved myself some time, because I eventually chose the first poem in the collection, The Orphans’ New Years’ Gifts, placed first because it was the first poem he ever published. When it appeared in print on January 2nd, 1870 Rimbaud was all of 15 years old.
On first reading, it’s not representative of the poems Rimbaud would be writing in little more than a year or so. While the entire poem is a gothic story, it’s also quite sentimental and largely conventional. For reasons of time and preferring shorter works, I decided to only perform the first part, but spoiler alert: it’s soon revealed that the children are recently orphaned and they are dreaming of their family still being intact and how they will give their now dead mother they expect to find in their dreams a pair of “for mother” plaques from each of them as a New Year’s gift.
But for us, the performer and listeners today of this first section only, this is no matter, because it’s the last day of 2021 and tomorrow is a new year. We know nothing of 2022 save for dreams pleasant or frightening. The coming year is a more mysterious ghost to us than our past years.
It might seem odd to say, but I’m an orphan — that’s not unusual, at my age most everyone is. It’s a different matter to write this as a 15-year-old, as an adolescent, as Rimbaud was. Those are the years that children learn how to gradually break away from their parents in whatever manner they fall into. Rimbaud instead would do this early and abruptly, leaving his mother — and for Paris, and unrest, and rebellion of all sorts in that “about a year” timeframe. Poetically and emotionally, this poem hardly seems to be a rehearsal for the Rimbaud of 1871 and after.
As I worked on translating this poem, I saw a little window into that other Rimbaud in this short first section. Those intimations were unlikely put there by conscious choice. Maybe they were slipped in by Rimbaud’s future ghost?
A few notes on how I translate. I generally don’t try to bring over the word-music (too tough, too damaging to other elements of the translated poem). I start attempting to be as faithful as I can, but then while in process I am often tempted to sharpen or expand on the images I’m trying to bring forward into contemporary English; because those images expand in my mind as I consider them, and because I want them to remain vivid. I’m of two minds about doing that, and I try to make clear here when I’ve really inserted something altogether invented. If you’d like to read the whole poem in it’s original French, here’s a link.
My local forecast says –11 F (-24 C) for New Year’s dawn. I think of a blues song Leo Kottke used to sing with the line “So cold in China, the birds don’t even sing.” Maybe that’s why I choose the guzheng today?
Here are a few examples in this one, in ascending order of significance. I suspect the curtain Rimbaud has blowing in the winter drafts is a bed canopy, a largely unfamiliar antique item, and instead I’m leading you to see a window curtain. Leading you to the window lets me transition to an image I sharpened. Rimbaud doesn’t explicitly say the cold winter birds are walking, but I think he did intend to tell us they aren’t able to fly in this moment, and I thought I’d underline that. And the final image, the one of New Year arriving as a woman in a dress of snow, I wanted us to see a tipsy celebrant whose party gown is no longer arranged neatly. Did the 15-year-old Rimbaud intend that image? I don’t know, but his future ghost might well have chosen it!
Yesterday I revealed that I wanted to do this piece to honor ardent Rimbaud admirer Patti Smith. Obligation completed, though you may notice this is nothing like how Patti Smith or her band would characteristically perform this. The first instrument you hear is a Chinese guzheng,* a sophisticated zither family instrument, then eventually a variety of drums and percussive sounds arrive along with electric bass, and finally a low synth moan. But did I make clear in talking about Smith yesterday: one of the things she demonstrated was that untapped possibilities of presentation styles are the point, not just duplication of one’s heroes.
*With expensive and exotic instruments like this I usually use what are called “virtual instruments” that sample the notes and sounds of the entire range of the instrument; and as in today’s piece allow you to articulate some of the instrument’s particular attacks and variations, like the guzheng’s vibrato. I select and play the notes with a little plastic keyboard or my guitar with a MIDI interface.
Happy Birthday poet, performer and rock band leader Patti Smith! We’ll get to her, girls basketball, Arthur Rimbaud, and studying French in Iowa before we’re through today’s post.
There’s a lot of things that go into this Parlando Project existing. One thread of that origin begins: I came to admire poetry as a teenager and a couple of years later I started to write it. I did those things sensuously, without deep understanding of connotation or denotation. I loved poetry and I wrote poetry as music: organized sounds that attracted and pleased me.
Let’s follow that thread, barely woven. I took French in high school in my little Iowa town. The teacher was an interesting man, full of iconoclastic thoughts and some experience in France itself that I don’t recall the particulars of. He seemed rather bold in my little farm town mostly settled by Swedish immigrants some 80 years before, and I suspected then he felt immune to criticism because he was a fairly successful girls basketball coach.* French was the only foreign language offered in my small high school, but I was both aware of Iowa’s history as a French colony** and with bilingual French and English labels and signs from fishing trips deep into Ontario Canada. I was not even a middling student in the class. I did fine with vocabulary, reasonably well with the language rules and syntax, but I was bad at conversational French, both being slow to pick up the knack for spontaneous expression using the words and grammar, and abysmal in pronunciation. I was entirely incapable of making the mouth sounds required. I suspect this is neurological, I have a general problem with mimesis in music or speaking. People are often shocked at how bad I am at that kind of thing.
I did even more poorly in my freshman French class in my attempt at college. This was so even though by then I had an additional motivation: I had learned that French poetry was an important influence on Modernist English poetry. And then, after the Bob Dylan revolution in popular songwriting, French poetry was often cited as an influence on Dylan, and so then by one remove from Dylan, a reflected influence on others who sought to write unusual lyrics using expanded forms of expression.
Let’s skip forward to the fall of 1975. I’m living in a trailer in the middle of Newburgh New York, a small descending city beset with racism and mid-70s industrial ennui, working in the busy E.R. that served as the last resort of the uninsured sick and wounded of the area. I eagerly snag the first LP by a poet who has formed a rock band, and who has been performing 68.2 miles away down the Hudson river in Manhattan. A bootstrap magazine down there would put a label for her band and the bands that were performing around the same time and place: “Punk.***” Like most genre labels, that’s too reductionist, but there you are.
The album “Horses” by the Patti Smith Group presented something important to me, then, and from the uncoiled, frayed thread that unravels from there to now. It’s highly audacious and retains a considerable level of originality even today. I’ll allow that audacious may be the friendly way to say pretentious — the difference may be how much the results work for a listener. I can somewhat understand those that down-rate or even dislike the record, for even though some reject it for ignorant or stupid prejudices, others have valid reasons from their experience and ways of looking and doing. This is the nature of art, and it is almost required of art that breaks new ground. One must go on one’s nerve to be different — and nerve is another way to say that you fully risk pretending to validity and worth.
Horses is halfway a rock song record, and the other half is something else. Yes, Smith sings on the record, but often words are chanted, spoken, prayed, reduced to sound collages halfway between puns and scat singing. If one was to compare it to the singer-songwriter records of it’s day or to a hip hop record closer to now, it’s closer to the later but still its own thing. In the context of then and now, Horses is less likely than records of either the 1975 or 2021 poles to represent itself as a first-person narration of the singer. For much of the record’s running time Smith speaks as fuzzily defined protagonists that however lacking in biographic detail don’t seem to be herself. Rappers may like to put on exaggerated and boasting personas, and lately gender fluidity has found its way into hip hop, but Smith is male or of indeterminate gender for almost the entirety of her first record. Sexualized violence and unilateral lust occurs in a state between fantasy and reality. Visionary states of consciousness are entered into extravagantly, yet this never seems much like a psychedelic record of a few years before. Is it more gothic than many of those? Perhaps — but too Horses seems more consequential, and less a novel pipe dream.
Around this time, following my own thread, I began reading in translation and slowly translating to English a handful of French poems. I still “understood” little of that poetry, and didn’t even like all of it. I gravitated to the Surrealists mostly, but I had paperback volumes of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations and A Season in Hell, and I knew that the Surrealists thought him a Surrealist before their time. Yet to this day, I’ve not really come to grips with Rimbaud. Translation is one way to deeply understand, and that’s a route I’ve taken in the past couple of years with him.
From left to right: the most well-known photo of Rimbaud while he was still writing poetry, Patti Smith’s iconic Horses cover photo taken by Robert Mapplethorpe and a photo from the time of the Paris Commune in 1871 that has been identified as likely of Rimbaud.
Even superficially one can see the linkage between Smith and Rimbaud in the most hermetic piece on Smith’s record, “Land.” A protagonist character that may persist throughout this more than nine-and-a-half-minute piece, Johnny, seems to be a melding of one of William Burroughs’s Wild Boys**** and Chuck Berry’s persona of Afro-American guitar-playing crossover success, Johnny B. Goode. In place of Berry’s refrain of “Go go, go Johnny, go go” Smith substitutes “Go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud.” But Smith’s Rimbaud influence seems to be even deeper, merging somewhat too with her partnership with the young Robert Mapplethorpe. If decades of exposure to Rimbaud hasn’t greatly increased my understanding and/or appreciation for Rimbaud, I’ve oddly been able to appreciate Patti Smith from the first words I read of hers on the page, and from the first words on Horses.***** It was famously said about the first Velvet Underground record that few bought it, but everyone who did started a band. Horses sold a bit better, despite its originality and outsider stance. A lot of Horses’ listeners started bands too, and more than a few of us found it more than a demonstration of how to express unusual things within the context of an irregular rock band — we remember it helped us survive and find meaning in that survival. Does that sound sappy to say? Sound like late-adolescent hero worship? Examining myself I don’t think it’s as much of that as it sounds like. Maybe I’m wrong? I’m beyond caring this late in my life what that was, or why — I’m more at grateful I survived and can do this Project now.
Those who know Rimbaud’s biography or work from its appearances here or elsewhere will know how unique and audacious he was too. The most famous single fact about him is that he stopped writing poetry as a teenager, so his entire collected works are the works of a minor. Some of it conforms formally and shows a careful versifier, and some of it out-Whitmans Whitman in free expression of physicality and sexuality.
I awoke at 3 AM this morning, deciding I had to do something today for Patti Smith’s 75th birthday. My sleepless mind half-dreamed and solved that it needed to be something by Rimbaud. Despite reduced higher brain functions, I downloaded a collected works and began searching. Life situations will not allow me to complete any piece started as late as today by end of the day. So, this is Part One, all I can complete. Below there’s an audio piece containing my translation of one of Rimbaud’s best short, rhymed lyrics performed with a little Patti Smith Group feel to the music. The piece is Rimbaud’s “Eternity,” and it’s been one of the most popular ones the Parlando Project has presented. If you’d like to read my translation of the lyric or my original thoughts on the process of creating it, you can find that here. To hear it, you can use the player below, or this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.
*Girls basketball was a big thing in Iowa outside of its largest cities who were uninterested in girls sports at that time. In those days it was played with special rules using 3 on 3 teams separated in each half of the court. This meant that girls that didn’t have shooting talent could play only defense and rebound, and girls whose talent was shooting could be very effective and dominate without having to be quite the all-around athletes that modern women basketball players are asked to be. This allowed good coaching and gritty players from small towns to beat many larger schools in the single-class annual state championship tournament which was broadcast live and covered extensively in the newspapers.
**Like snooty Parisians, even rural un-degreed Iowans of my time would know to discretely sneer “out-lander!” at anyone who pronounced our state capitol with un-French final “s” sounds. Beside that historical French connection, my aunt and associated pair of cousins had been posted with her husband in France with the Army, and those cousins were bilingual as they learned speech. She herself spoke French with a decided American southern accent, a little like American Creole. I loved that aunt so much, this might have also been a factor.
***I keep reminding my contemporary teenager that “punk” at its American inception didn’t mean a single style. It was more at the “irregulars” —those whose lives had not necessarily been as musicians — being pressed into service as the more exclusively musical Sixties predecessors died, became depleted from drugs (cocaine in particular gave too many a “best consumed by” date), or just became regimented in a new record industry that understood how to constrain musical artists into commercial money-makers. Speaking in the context of Rimbaud, I could note that “punk” originated as slang for a less successful/powerful criminals and by extension into less-powerful young men in homosexual relations.
****I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of those labeled “Beats,” but for some reason I’ve never really wanted to read Burroughs. I have no idea if that’s my loss. All I know about him is what others have said, but Smith has spoken of Burroughs’ influence, so I don’t need to draw the connection myself. “Land” itself was the hardest song on Horses for me to appreciate and enjoy. I’d been through some incidents of sexualized violence in my teen years and Smith’s use of that motif, while not exactly “triggering” in the modern parlance, wasn’t easy to appreciate.
*****I do own a copy of the indie single that preceded the LP, but I bought it after the LP came out. I first ran across Patti Smith on the page as a writer, before Horses. One early example I recall was a prose-poemish piece of hers called “Dylan’s Dog.” And I knew from notices that she and Lenny Kaye (another person I knew as a “rock critic” before I heard a note of his music) had been mixing electric guitar with poetry. By 1974-75 in Newburgh I was far enough away and far enough poor that I was disconnected from New York City, and so I missed out on the NYC CBGB’s scene.
Let’s continue our countdown of the pieces you most listened to and liked this past spring. As we move up toward the most popular one, we start today with number 7. If you want to read my first thoughts when the piece was first published, the bold-faced headings are hyperlinks to that. How well will these poems mesh with today’s Father’s Day? Let’s find out.
7 April Rain Song by Langston Hughes. Hughes gets two appearances in this spring’s top ten, and his second one here is yet another song of rainfall that fell in this season’s list. Hughes had a strong element of practicality in his poetry, clear-eyed looks at his times and place, necessary observations — even in this poem written for a short-lived children’s magazine that works as a calming lullaby, something a parent might sing to a child. I said last time in his early poetry I can hear Hughes adopting some of older poet Carl Sandburg’s approaches, and this poem pairs nicely with Sandburg’s “Branches” that came in at number 9 this quarter doesn’t it. But then Hughes in turn helped inspire Gil Scott-Heron, and I can hear how Scott-Heron used and extended what he gathered from Hughes.
6 The World Is a Beautiful Place by Lawrence Ferlinghetti This is a rare piece here that is not AFAIK in the public domain and completely free for reuse, but the death of it’s author this year felt like something that I must respond to, and the way I usually do that here is to perform their words. Listeners last winter and persisting through the spring continued to listen to this performance of one of Ferlinghetti’s poems leading to its second consecutive appearance in a Parlando Top Ten. Copyright aside, if you don’t have one of Ferlinghetti’s books, go ahead and get one. The generosity of his poetry will more than repay your contribution in buying it.
But for many in my generation, Ferlinghetti, and in particular his collection A Coney Island of the Mind, was always there. You’d visit someone’s apartment to talk, to organize, to party, to make out — and there in some improvised bookcase made of boards and bricks or milkcrates there’d be this book-cover wrapping a thin volume: black night and grey illumination that seemed to turn silver from its contrast.
Most of us were in a demographic that said we would likely have had parents then, but in a poem like this one Ferlinghetti was taking, to some suitable degree, the role to be our father. So, for this Father’s Day it is altogether right to listen again to him welcoming us to, and showing us, life. Player gadget below for some to hear the LYL Band’s performance, or this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab window to also play it.
Influences. Langston Hughes influenced Gil Scott-Heron, Ferlinghetti opened up poetry to many of my generation — and while immortal Dawn’s chasing the young Tithonus still seems a little pervy once we leave the mythological world, Rimbaud might well have been borrowing from that myth.
5 Dawn by Arthur Rimbaud Rimbaud on the other hand was never the suitable father figure for anyone. He might have been a teenager when he wrote this poem, but he wasn’t quite acting the child’s role here either, for as I translated this my understanding became that he and that personified borderland time of dawn have run off to the wilderness to swive.
But it just so happened, with a backwards echo, that after I translated this poem and moved on to translate a poem by Sappho, that the two poems were connected. Sappho’s ancient poem ended with the recounting of a Greek myth of Tithonus who, like the singer of Rimbaud’s 19th century poem, was taken off by a love-besotted Dawn. I didn’t know Sappho’s poem or this mythological story when I was translating the Rimbaud, but it now seems possible to probable that Rimbaud knew this myth and was referring to it in his poem. I dealt with this anachronistic learning timeline by replacing Tithonus with Rimbaud and the twist of Rimbaud’s own later life in the ending of my version of Sapho’s poem that you can read about here.
Many a father knows there’s an unintended corollary in Wordsworth’s line “The child is the father of the man.” The teenaged Rimbaud taught the aged me.
The ancient Greek poet Sappho is one of the oldest poetic voices we have record of. Like the Greek epic poet Homer, her work likely predates written literature and was originally intended to be sung. How much more do we know about her?
Almost nothing for sure — or even by likelihood. As with Homer there are traditions and later stories about her, none of which are plainly based on first-hand accounts, all written centuries later. If one prefers to base their literary analysis on the text alone, that would be just about the only choice in Sappho’s case. Yet for many people not generally interested in ancient Greek poetry, Sappho is best known for being a lesbian writer — indeed the very term for that erotic affinity is derived from the Aegean Island where Sappho lived, Lesbos.
I’d need to be more knowledgeable than I am to discuss how Sappho’s lesbian identification came to be accepted as general knowledge, but some arguments are made using evidence from the text of her poetry. Which brings me to the next thing I was reminded of as I looked at using some of Sappho’s poetry over the past couple of weeks: there’s really very little of it. Very little of it.
Imagine you are a couple of centuries after some event which has erased a great deal of our formerly recorded literature. Suppose you were, in such a time, to try to assess the works of T. S. Eliot, Bob Dylan, or Emily Dickinson based only on other writers’ surviving references to them, references you can only hope will be buttressed with a short quote or two. Everything else would be lost. Sure, those commentaries in surviving texts would be tantalizing, testimony to the author’s greatness — but because they were written before some general loss of literature, they are painful too in their assumption that they needed then to be only pointers to something every cultured person would know.
In such a world of imaginary loss T. S. Eliot would be the “April is the cruelest month” and “bang not a whimper” guy without necessarily the rest of the poems that contained those lines in context surviving. And what could we make about a lost work about, what — cats? Dylan’s music* might well be lost, but a few pithy phrases would survive because so many others liked to quote him to make a point about their times. Some accounts would say he was a great performer, yet others would make fun of his voice. Dickinson? Perhaps a legend would survive of a lifelong, lovelorn hermit, since that makes for a good story,** but beside that we could have only a stanza or so of her short poems, her actual art retaining only the “greatest hits” lines that got quoted, “Hope is a thing with feathers,” “Because I could not stop for death,” and so on.
Sadly, this is what’s left of Sappho’s art.*** So perhaps it’s consolation during Pride month that we have presently imagined her as someone like those we know today: a breathing, living individual of desires and feelings.
Until this century there are only a couple of Sappho poems that were complete enough to consider as an entire work. Then in 2004 another mostly complete poem was added to the canon. The text was found incorporated into the structure of a paper-mache like mummy case that had languished in a European museum. The ancient makers of the mummy case had just recycled what was then garbage dump material, but this dump just happened to contain a manuscript from the 3rd century BCE of a poem by Sappho.
If you’d like to see the text in archaic Greek, a gloss in English, and several English translations other than mine, you can find it at this page. Alas, I can’t link to this section on the long web page that this poem’s entry is part of, but if you search for (Control F on your keyboard) Lobel-Page 58 you’ll jump to it.
*Sappho was a composer and lyre player. Some accounts have her as the leader of a school that taught music, which led me to translate the opening of today’s poem as a musical admonition.
**That summary of Dickinson’s life isn’t all that different rounded-off from the one I received in my youth anyway, even though our modern scholarship has established a roughly normal life for Dickinson, whose noticeable agoraphobia came after her literary work decreased.
***There doesn’t seem to be a single cause for so little of Sappho’s work surviving intact. The random acts of time alone would account for much of that loss. The famed lost libraries of Alexandria no doubt carried some of her work.
****Rimbaud, who wrote his entire influential corpus of revolutionary poetry before he turned 20, spent the last years of his short life as a merchant-trader in an Ethiopian branch office dealing in coffee.
The last time I created and performed a fresh translation of a Rimbaud poem here, I broke from my usual practice with translation and produced a rhyming poem. I don’t usually do that. There’s too much else to try to bring over from one language to another to add that extra degree of difficulty. But in the case of Rimbaud’s “Eternity” I felt the incantatory power of the poem was too essential to discard.
Today’s new translation from Rimbaud’s French relieved me of that decision, as “Dawn” is from his collection of prose poems Illuminations. I’m still left with the usual problems of translation though. My primary goal when I translate is to make the poem vivid in the destination language, and that leads me to take care with two tasks: to transfer the sense of the poem’s images to the contemporary reader in the new language; and when a poem makes use of scenes or an overall plot, to do the same with portraying that. The translated poem’s sound word-music will almost certainly be diminished (per Frost’s “poetry is what’s lost in translation” declaration) but I try to respect the poem’s music of thought, that sense of harmonic relationships between things, the melodic undulation of its series of images. These primary tasks become fraught when the images and scenes are difficult, or by intent irrational or obscure; and in those cases determining the author’s intent and how understandable they would likely be to the intended reader they wrote them for adds another level of difficulty.
Lately I fear I may go too far in how I handle this, reducing to something determined that which the author wanted to remain mysterious or only an enticing sound or novel juxtaposition — yet still I risk it. Most other translations of today’s Rimbaud piece are less clear than the one I produced. My hope is that the sense of wonder in the poem is enhanced rather than reduced by portraying more exactly what I sensed Rimbaud was showing us. Here’s a link to the poem in French, and then here is the fresh translation I made and used for today’s performance:
Issues start with the poems opening sentence: “embrassé” has been translated as “embraced” (retaining some of the sound from French) and as “kissed.” From the whole of the poem, this non-native French speaker thinks there’s more of a context of grabbed or taken in here. Unlike others I then chose to make a compound English expression for Rimbaud’s single word: “caught and kissed.” My hope is that this sets up the story that Rimbaud seems to me to be telling, of the poem’s speaker and the dawn of the title being caught up in something between a passionate tryst and an abduction.*
Truckloads of dawn are being shipped while you sleep!
The second paragraph shows us an urban early morning as the sun is just rising. Grand public buildings, symbols of power and order, have no crowds or guards. The trees are still shadowing the streets. Warmth is only gradually emerging from the overnight chill.** The last phrase there remains somewhat mysterious to me, so I left it so for the reader. I believe the wings may be the pigeons or other early morning birds in front of the grand buildings, but “pierreries” (gemstones) is harder to grasp. I tried the thought that it might be iridescent feathers on the birds, but little else in this poem looks at such a close level and I suspect more at glints of early morning light breaking in, which helps inform how I handle the next section.
That next paragraph is mysterious too — and left somewhat at that in my translation. But I couldn’t resist making “blêmes éclats” into “gilded splinters.” It was just too good a connection from Rimbaud’s French to Afro-American creole French, known to me from the Voodoo folk-chant once appropriated effectively by Dr. John into a slow-burning musical ritual.
I think the next paragraph is dawn’s light coming in through tree branches, blonde on blonde.
In the next paragraph I once more choose a compound English expression rather than making a singular choice from the French. “Voiles” can be either a veil or a sail,*** an I think the sense of the poem wants it to be both. Dawn (feminine) is lifting veils, and the poem’s speaker (masculine) is setting sail on a voyage. Ecstatically Rimbaud is sailing down the streets in the poem’s mind and camera-eye out to the very borders of the city in a magical instant while dawn is still breaking and unveiling, to reach where in the penultimate paragraph dawn and Rimbaud fall onto a forest floor in what I read as a sexual embrace.****
Some readings of the poem have the final sentence as one of those “It was all a dream” trick endings. Yes, the poem intends to portray a visionary experience, but I think we’re still in the vision at the poem’s end, perhaps with the lovers only about to depart in a mid-day aubade — after all, the speaker has exercised the aubade trope of denouncing the time-announcing rooster. In their union, dawn and Rimbaud have stopped time, if only for an interval.
So, here’s the player gadget and alternative highlighted hyperlink for those who don’t get the player gadget in your reader to hear my performance of my new translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s “Dawn.”
*This poem is a vision, a fantasy. Yes, within the fantasy there’s no explicit consent, and we might read Rimbaud as male and the long-haired and veiled dawn as female (see the footnote on linguistic gender below) but that may be us putting our own casting on the fantasy roles here. But again, it’s a fantasy, and the loving and respectful rules of reality may contain it.
Alternatively, in kinky fantasy footnotes, my best-guess that the child (l’enfant) in that concluding embrace is a persona of the young Rimbaud, and that opens up age of consent issues regarding an encounter between the ancient cosmic event of solar dawn and a teenager. Beyond glib jokes, given Rimbaud’s biography, I wonder if that has been more seriously addressed by modern scholars?
**Personal aside: in my early-morning bike rides this May, I’m growing increasingly tired of the WWII-Fahrenheit temperatures of between 39-45 degrees so far. I want to ride with bare legs and arms and make vitamin D with human skin!
***The former noun is feminine in French and the later is masculine. My teenager strongly dislikes gendered languages with a personal dislike, and I’ve never cared for this common language feature for efficiency’s sake. Still, I searched the section to see if I could determine the gender intended and decided it wasn’t certain.
****Discrete Rimbaud leaves out (did I intend that pun?): forest floor matter in nether crevices, bugs more interested in their own desires, and pointy things extrinsic to the coupling. This is why Rimbaud is a poet!
For those that have been following our look at English poet Frances Cornford, we’ll have at least one more example coming of her stuff soon. But now is the time when we count-down the ten most liked and listened to pieces from this past winter.
It’s been a slightly difficult season for this project for me personally. It’s frankly been hard to keep up the level of posting, research, composition, recording, and playing that goes into it. What has been encouraging is the increase in listenership for the audio pieces and your continued readership here on the blog. December set a new record for monthly listens with increases coming significantly from those who hear only the audio pieces from the places where you might get podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, PlayerFM etc.)* During February the number of listens passed the milepost of 50,000 all-time downloads. This is small by the scale of Internet sensations (typically measured in millions) but to me that’s satisfying in the larger, but sparser crowd of those interested in poetic expression.
Readers here on the Parlando Project blog know that besides the same audio pieces the podcast listeners get, you get more information here about the writers and my reaction to what they’re doing. You might think of the blog as a kind of an “insiders ring” in that way. Blog traffic took off last fall, which made my heart leap up, and it’s continued at a similar level over the winter.
Given that I mostly keep with the older pre-1924 Public Domain stuff that is unrestricted in reuse, and because I wander about various musical genres in a way that’d tempt many old car radio listeners to “push the button” and current playlist streamers to tap play next, I especially appreciate those who stick with this project and it’s eclectic tastes!
Let’s go to the countdown. Today we’ll cover numbers 10 through 8 as calculated from listens on all platforms and likes here on the blog. The title of each piece will be hyperlinked to the original post, so you can click and check on what I said about it then.
10. Rimbaud’s “Eternity.” This winter I decided to make things more difficult for me by doing more translations of non-English poetry, adding translation to the whole compose/record the music, play most of the musical parts, research the context of the text, and then write about those tasks. And Rimbaud may have caused me more trouble in translation that anyone other than maybe Mallarmé. I labored to some kind of reasonable draft on two or three Rimbaud poems, but the results just didn’t grab me in English. Knowing that some other poets who I admire think highly of his work, I couldn’t figure out if I was picking the wrong poems, or what.
“Go Rimbaud, Go Rimbaud….” The most famous photo of the teenaged poet.
Then with his “Eternity” I realized—this poem’s impact in French comes from its invocatory power. This is why someone as unafraid of going over the top as the young Patti Smith could be drawn to his writing. Free verse can reach that level, but loosening my translation so that I could (uncharacteristically) render it as a rhyming verse made this one more compelling.
9. “The Labors of Hercules” by Marianne Moore. Marianne Moore writes in English, but her expression is so unusual that I feel like I need to translate her to get to the heart of her poems. Unlike Moore’s contemporary Gertrude Stein, whose verse is even harder to draw denotative meaning from, the task of performing Moore to music is challenged by her conversational rhythms which sound like someone talking.** Not only does this make it harder to fit in regularized music (I didn’t) it tends to lure the listener into thinking that they should be able to comprehend what Moore is getting at. With Stein you’re quickly aware that words are being used in a musical way, so you can just enjoy them for sound value. With Moore you sometimes think that the speaker herself or you the listener are in early days as English as a second language.
A lesser-known photo of Marianne Moore. Like Frost and William Carlos Williams, I always visualize her as if she was born at that advanced age that she was at when I started to encounter poetry, not as this young woman
I’m doing the back-patting here, but I think I helped Moore’s gist come across a bit better by my performance than the poem left sitting mute on the page.
8. “Ghost Blues” by Hugo Ball. Another case where I decided to go with a looser translation in order to vivify the original work for the modern English language user. The original post shows some of the intermediate steps I went through in translating this Dadaist poem from German. One thing that I think I’ve figured out after the original post is that a word that I couldn’t find in any of my accessible German dictionaries, “Gängelschwemme,” is probably a place name. My performance uses “spillway” for it, and still I have no way to know for sure (if it is a place name) if it references something along those lines.
I decided to make this a Dada Blues as it might be loosely rendered by electric players in the blues revival of the Sixties. Unlike a lot of pieces here, this one isn’t really composed. I had setup a loop to see if my translated text might fit to a groove like that. As I sung, I felt moved to plug in an electric guitar as I tried the lyrics.
“Hey, this works pretty good” I thought. I hit record. And one take later this is what you get.
If you’re new here you may notice that all of these are electric guitar pieces in a rock’n’roll context (though “The Labors of Hercules” is more irregular and somewhere in-between post-rock and free-jazz in my mind). Long time listeners here know that’s not what we consistently do. Stick around, the next three of the Winter 2020 Top Ten is coming up soon.
*Just to clarify expectations: the Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet podcast is only the audio pieces themselves, unadorned. While I suppose I could chat about the poems and my music in the discursive and wandering way most audio podcasts do, I don’t do that.
**Back in the 1960s when I first got a little plastic cassette recorder, I took to recording people having casual conversations and then transcribing the words literally. Here’s what shocked me in this practice: the words on the page made little grammatical or syntactical sense. The transcriptions didn’t even match “natural, realistic” dialog in fiction. Our daily conversation is often more avant-garde than we realize; and we are comprehensible to each other orally in ways that we would not be if our speech was turned into page text, through things like timbre, expression, non-regularized conjunctions and connections.
I suspect Stein and Moore were both more exacting mental transcribers of what we actually say aloud than conventional literature expected, and as two women aware of the modernist movement in general (not just literature, but music and visual art) they combined this objective phenomenon with their own aesthetic techniques.
I started out this January trying to translate Rimbaud, and it’s only as the month is ending that I’ve finally got something to present. Why was this such a struggle?
Well, some of it’s me. I’m having a harder time this winter keeping up this project, and by focusing recently on translation I’ve only made it harder on myself. Why do I do these translations on top of composing, recording, and playing most of the instruments in the pieces? That’s more than a rhetorical question, I’ve sincerely asked myself that this month. I’m not a speaker of any of the native languages of the poets I’ve translated, so I work with the highly welcome online dictionaries and computer translators available—but I’m not a literary scholar or expert on any of these poets, and I’ve never lived as part of their culture. I worry about getting it wrong, doubly so in that I present them publicly.
I think I have three reasons. First is that it expands what I can present here. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s difficult to get permission to do what I do for work that’s not in the public domain, and I don’t want to use other people’s translations that are in copyright without permission. Second, I think this is a great practice to improve one’s own poetry. Do any creative writing programs these days require or assign translation of poetry?* I don’t know, but if not, I’d encourage that. The struggle to find the best English word, to not harm the strength of an image, and to shape the poem so that its word-music works are directly transferable to writing one’s own poems. And here’s the last reason: I think performing a poem illuminates it for the reader/performer, it makes it part of your breath. Translating it imbeds it even more so in one’s mind.
So why was Rimbaud a tougher task?
Unlike other poets, I’ve never been a Rimbaud fan, even though Modernist French poetry was an enthusiasm of my twenties. I think I bought a translation of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell at the same Savarns book store on the Minneapolis West Bank where I picked up poetry chap books by Patti Smith and collections of French language Surrealists. And Smith and Surrealists liked Rimbaud a lot. Smith has spoken reverently about how her copy of Rimbaud helped her through her own early twenties, but Rimbaud didn’t perform that service for me.**
Sentinel soul. Teenage poet Arthur Rimbaud
But even just as myth, Rimbaud has an inescapable pull. There’s no story like it: a bright teenager drops out of secondary school, flees to the Paris of the Paris Commune in 1871, takes up with celebrated poet Paul Verlaine. Disasters ensue, including taking the most famous non-fatal intra-author bullet from a disordered Verlaine. In the midst of this, he writes furious poetry, poetry capable of impressing the most avant garde writers of the 20th century to follow.
“Situations have ended sad/Relationships have all been bad…” Plaque marks were Verlaine shot Rimbaud.
All this as a teenager. As his teen years end, he stops writing and moves to Africa to work as a commercial trader, never returning to the writing life and by accounts actively distaining it. He dies of cancer at the age of 37.
As we’ve seen recently here, there are other teenaged poets who’ve produced work we still read today. But very few of them produced their greatest work at that age—and arguably none of their youthful work was as influential as Arthur Rimbaud’s.
I’ve dealt with the trouble that hard-to-grasp, obscure, and Surrealist poets present to translations. Rimbaud was as tough as Mallarmé in that regard. In one Rimbaud poem I finished a complete translation draft, but was left with an “is that all there is” feeling that the result wasn’t all that compelling. I started another and then another, but again the early results didn’t seem like I’d grasped them or that they’d work here.
Then it hit me, at least with his poem “Eternity,” part of its power is incantatory, it’s in the metrical and rhyming effects in the original French! This shouldn’t have surprised me. While there are other ways to achieve similar effects: parallelism, repetition, old-English alliteration, even a certain kind of intellectual rhyme in imagery itself, rhyme is still used in most songs and hip-hop rap flows, not because there’s some kind of rule about it, but because the expectation of return to the rhyme gives a certain fatalistic drive to the verse. And “Eternity’s” meter is also unusual, it’s a very short line, just five beats.
Do you remember me saying that I almost never try to bring over the sound of the original verse into my translations, that I’d rather focus on making the images vivid and for the poem to have whatever good word-music in English? That’s still a practical rule, which may go double when translating from a language like French which has the benefit of so many more rhyming words; but in this short poem I decided to move over to respecting the syllable count of the original line and to a ABCB rhyming scheme.
For good or ill, this did cause me to play more fast-and-loose with some of the more difficult images and phrases in Rimbaud’s poem, ones where other translators had other readings. If it sounded good, if it kept to the scheme, if it seemed to advance some overall flow to the poem’s meaning from image to image, I judged it “close enough for rock’n’roll.”
In the end, my main diversion from other translations of “Eternity” I’ve seen is that many other translations make this poem more of a brag that Rimbaud has absorbed the infinity of the titular eternity and is now it’s master. My version has a more elusive eternity and a sense that others are seeking to apprehend it, much like a search for an underground partisan. Because the other translators may be Rimbaud scholars with a greater mastery of French, there’s a good chance they’re more correct—but if there’s a possibility that the “I is another” in Rimbaud’s poem, there may be an element I’m bringing out that was always there. Here’s a link to the poem in the original French for those who’d like to check.
Musically, this is rock in the ragged sense that rock’n’roll is a loose and inclusive form. There’s no tight backbeat, the bass is a bowed contrabass with some filtering, and the guitar won’t really play the blues—but the overall guitar timbres are from the rock palette. For the chord cadence I made a nod to some of those who did help me get through my 20s. The line in Rimbaud’s poem that ended up being translated (loosely in this instance) as “I see no escape” brought to mind “All Along the Watchtower” sideways to me, and the chord cadence I use is also somewhat similar to Patti Smith/Bruce Springsteen’s “Because the Night.” The lines in my translation “Murmur our desire/Night that is nothing/A day that’s on fire” could well fit into that sort of expression. Some of you know the drill to hear it: the player gadget’s below, but what if you don’t see a player? Here’s an alternative, this highlighted hyperlink will also play my performance.
*I know in the past students were assigned translations from classical Greek and Latin poets as part of general studies. While this came from the idea that classical grammar and vocabulary were the basis for mastery of English (a suspect notion) I think it must have helped many a budding poet.
**It was poet/musicians did that for me: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Smith herself. All of these are controversial figures in purely literary circles. I can tell you that none of them helped my standing in those 1970s years when I should have been establishing the peripatetic poetry career that I didn’t have. It would have been better for me, influences-wise, if I could have said Rimbaud instead.
“Red Rooster” was written in 1917. It’s an Imagist poem, a good example of how this pioneering school of poetic Modernism might present things directly, without nearly as much scholarly allusion as later Modernism was prone too.
The same year this poem was written, its poet was published in Poetry magazine, the beacon of mainstream American Modernism, alongside poems by Ezra Pound, Vachel Lindsay, and William Carlos Williams. Three years later the author had a collection published, containing over a hundred poems. Poetry’s editor, Harriet Monroe, speaking from her post-WWI maps-being-redrawn time, called that book “This miracle” and “A richer promise for the new age than may be read in treaties and decrees.”
Other reviews? That book-length collection had a forward by Imagist Amy Lowell who said of the work:
When one reads a thing and voluntarily exclaims ‘How beautiful! How natural! How true!’ then one knows that one has stumbled upon that flash of personality which we call genius.”
So, immense promise, now an assay of genius—though Lowell also cautions that within the collection “Inadequate lines not infrequently jar a total effect…” That first book went through at least seven printings and two other poetry collections followed shortly thereafter.
Go ahead, drop down to the bottom and listen to “Red Rooster” now. It’ll be interesting to encounter it before you know more about the author.
Willie Dixon & Howlin’ Wolf said ”No peace in the barnyard, since the little red rooster been gone.”
Who was the author, the poet with the mystery attached? Hilda Conkling. How come you (likely) haven’t heard of her? Well, we discussed “Donald Hall’s law” here last year. Hall said that most poets, even most poets who win awards and are published in the usual ways, are forgotten by 20 years after their death. There’s that. And Conkling had a short career, no more new poems from her after 1924, though she lived until 1986. But here’s the most significant reason: Conkling wrote “Red Rooster” when she was seven, her first collection was published when she was ten, as her output was already dropping off, and she gave up creating poetry entirely at age fourteen. A teenaged poetic legend like Arthur Rimbaud would be Sophocles writing Oedipus at Colonus in comparison.
Both Lowell and Monroe considered Conkling’s age, and both thought the case of Hilda Conkling might tell us something about childhood and poetic genius. The case for pre-adolescent children creating art has been argued a great deal since then. Art critic Herbert Read encouraged thorough arts education for school-children in the 1940s. Kenneth Koch taught classes where children were exposed to poetry and urged to write it. Koch wrote a couple of books to encourage this in the 1970s, and by that time the idea of arts for children was spreading out generally. In the early 1980s Dave Moore and I had heard so much of this that Dave (raising a precocious Hilda-aged child himself at that time) wrote an LYL Band song called “Kids” where the indignant child artists claimed, “we’re the natural poets, so shut up…” But despite that subsequent educational movement, Hilda Conkling is still a strange case: she started at age four, by the story, spontaneously, not as a pre-school exercise. Her father left Hilda’s mother around the same time, and Hilda told her mother that she’d composed a poem, which she then recited to her as a gift. The poems over the next decade followed the same process. Hilda’s mother was a writer and college literature professor who had exposed Hilda to books and music from an early age. One assumes Hilda learned to write later in childhood, but she would always recite each new poem to her mother, who would write them down.
Your first thought may be same as mine, that Hilda’s mother composed or helped to compose the poems. That’s possible, even probable, though the mother denied this, and said Hilda was always careful to correct any mistaken transcriptions. Amy Lowell deals with the issue by pointing out the childish elements in some of the poems as proof that they were genuine. But that speaks not at all to the idea that the mother improved or regularized the poems, or that some poems, even if they had a germ of an idea from the daughter, had elements that the literature professor mother further developed. It’s not hard to imagine an aiming-to-please daughter accepting some of what the mother transcribed and read back to her, even if it wasn’t what she had said, because she liked her mother’s changes, or didn’t want to disappoint or displease her.
The other accepted plot point in this story is that Hilda’s mother asked Hilda to write down her poems herself as Hilda turned 14, and then Hilda’s poetry stopped. That argues for the importance of the collaboration both as motivation and as conscious or unconscious editorial assistance. There are theories that Hilda may have had a disability which made writing her poems down difficult for her, but no additional life-evidence is offered to indicate that. The suggestion that Philistine and patriarchal society may have pressed the creativity out of the child has been offered. No one seems to have considered that Hilda might have continued to write poetry after age 14 but kept it to herself (a not-uncommon teen-age practice).
So much to wonder and doubt in this story—but we’re left with the best of the Conkling poems, such as “Red Rooster.” Could what’s good in it be unintentional? In the opening observation of the rooster, the metaphors have just the right taste (comparing the irradiance of the bird’s feathers to wet rocks and to boat hulls seen through water). The poem’s turn and development in the last few lines seems even more remarkable. The rooster as symbol of masculinity is time-honored, but we’re ¾ way through the poem before we leave objective and immediate observation to have the rooster characterized as both proud and foolish, and foolish like unto Joseph leaving his family with his “coat of many colors.” The concluding couplet is just great poetic invective. Did a seven-year-old write that, intuiting not just the nature of the conflict in her home, but a vibrant, time-resonating metaphor for it? Was Hilda a 20th Century Mozart, or a prolific creator that sometimes landed a lucky strike? Or was it help from a wronged-by-a-man ghostwriter/mom? As a reader I don’t care. “Red Rooster” doesn’t read as unintentional, as a random combination—but then again, we readers are great pattern-seers, as anyone who’s worked with things like automatic writing or cut-up discovers.
My best guess is collaboration, a child and an adult seeing and sharing the world together. That, like this poem, could be extraordinary too.
Here’s my performance of “Red Rooster.” Give a listen to it with the player below.