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.
It’s second-hand and my fingers misunderstand it, but I’m somewhat musically indebted to a few guys who grew up in Maryland back in the mid-20th century. Depending on where you sit in the culture most of them, probably all of them, won’t be familiar to you. That’s OK.
Who are these guys that I’m saying you probably don’t know? One was named John Fahey, and two others slightly younger were named Max Ochs and Robbie Robinson (who eventually changed his name to Robbie Basho). There was also a fourth, named Ed Denson (who eventually changed his name to ED Denson).
Readers here of my age may remember there was this music called “The Blues” back in the Sixties, a charmingly obsolete Afro-American folk-art form* that had been revived so that British rock stars could be paid enough they could afford their hotel damage deposits. The Maryland guys were part of the early crew that went around finding the old 78 RPM records** that represented the earliest extant examples of that. Mind you that music was only about 30 years old back in the 50s and early 60s, but it could seem pretty cool and mysterious.
The Maryland guys were learning off these records and even from the surviving original artists who made them. But they decided to do something you might not expect with that music. They started to mix in other stuff. Stuff like South Asian music. Stuff like modern orchestral music. They used flat-topped, steel string acoustic guitars, like the pre-war Blues artists usually did, and they used techniques learned from these 78 RPM era Blues artists.*** They saw hidden or potential connections in what these mostly rural Afro-Americans were doing with Ravi Shankar and centuries-old Indian music, with what Erik Satie and Claude Debussy had done with the traditions of classical European music.
Max Ochs somewhere in “The Sixties”
Can you see now why I might have been influenced by that? I love the unusual combination and what it can illuminate. Also like myself and this project, there was next to no recognized commercial potential in this startling combination. So, this Maryland group started a musician led/curated Indie record label. Sixty years ago, some of these guys were doing what people who produce non-commercial music today do. They didn’t ask permission or wait to accumulate the right resumé, they just did it.
Their adventurous acoustic guitar instrumental music never became a big thing, but eventually it became a thing. Art doesn’t always ask to be big. It doesn’t ask for everyone or large numbers of people to remember it. It asks for some to remember it, and then for some of those to remember the experience of it deeply.
Which brings me back to one of those guys I said you probably haven’t heard of: Max Ochs—but this is a place Where Music and Words Meet, so I can focus on some of Ochs’ words today. I ran into “Don’t Die” on the Tompkins Square label’s web site 10 years ago. Perhaps Ochs’ words will strike you as they did me when I first read them.
Sometimes when you come upon words (like these of Ochs) by accident the connection is immediate, more so than ones you have searched for intentionally. These were words I needed, as deep and unpretending as those worn grooves on a 78 RPM record cut into solidified South Asian bug juice. A few days later I pulled them out and sprung them on Dave Moore and the LYL Band in an impromptu performance you can hear today.
Lately I’ve been presenting words from a fair number of poets who self-harmed themselves. Does self-harm make despair more authentic? Nope. Not only is that way too simple, it’s obviously a self-limiting tactic. When the world tells an artist they aren’t important and your art’s not worth it, the world’s in some way right—and it’s your art that tells the world it’s wrong. It’s a strange conversation that. I think some of the best art makes the argument that the world’s first assertion doesn’t prove its second one. The world’s objective argument that it’s not worth it is one of art’s arguments for why it must exist.
That objective argument, the number of listeners and readers, the level of fame, the amount of money exchanged for it all has integers to count for it. Against it I ask you to array that singular connection, often counted as one, between the artist and reader/listener/observer.
Max Ochs somewhere in the 21st century.
This past week, pedaling my bike on Highway 61 just south of the US/Canada border, I thought again of those words of Ochs I had performed nearly 10 years ago. I found a possible email for Max Ochs online, sent an email asking permission to present the words here and got a reply from Ochs. The Department of Synchronicity (where there are no schedules, but folks show up on time anyway) reported also via that email that someone else, Douglas Seidel, had just done a version this July of a spoken word piece of Ochs on Soundcloud. Seidel’s piece is pretty good too. Max said in his email that he had written music for“Don’t Die,” but that he’s never recorded it. You’ll have to settle today for what the LYL Band and I came up with.
Thanks to Max Ochs for his words and his permission to present them here. To hear “Don’t Die (Max Ochs Prayer)” performed by the LYL Band, use the player gadget below.
*I kid, I kid. Afro-American music and the Blues which was a 20th century expression of it, is the largest single component of American music, and some of those British guys understood that. A lot of Americans got introduced to other American blues artists by those UK musicians.
**These precious records were made of shellac, a resin secreted by bugs in South Asia. Therefore, if one listened to old Skip James or Charlie Patton records and then started trying to mix that with Indian ragas, you’d literally be digging deep into the histories of the records as objects.
***What techniques? Open or altered tunings, where the conventional EADGBE tuning of the guitar is changed to allow different resonant and harmonic effects. Finger-style plucking which allows for independent melodic lines to be played simultaneously. Slide guitar, where the strings are not fretted with the fingers, but stopped with an object like a metal tube or glass bottleneck. String-bending vibrato. The last two allow not only for vocal like effects but for microtones that exist outside of the standard chromatic and tempered scales used in most Western music since Bach’s day.
Over the years I’ve developed a tough-enough way to be cheerful and productive, my own “grant heart” to myself. Though on the face of it, it sounds glum, I’ve learned it by reading about artists or from artists talking about their work, and it goes by this cheerful motto: “All artists fail.”
All artists fail more than they succeed. Every. One. No artist is so broadly popular that everyone likes their work. Even those that might gain a plurality of some kind, for some time, that likes their work, will find most of that group “ignoring” them most of their lives, because our attention is so precious and limited as audiences. One’s privilege as an artist is to get to fail again. If you don’t like how you’re failing, fail better, or fail differently, fail more often.
And even those artists we think of as succeeding sometimes, sometime find themselves succeeding in misunderstanding or misapprehension.
How can this knowledge help us, grant us heart, and not crush us? Anyone who makes things should carry in themselves the conviction that the world needs more of what they do, even if they or the world don’t know it yet. We are making more of what needs to exist, though that may fail when the world doesn’t know what to make of it. It may fail because we are wrong about its necessity. And it can fail because of how we choose to manifest our art.
Are we good enough to manifest our art so that it will not fail all the time? If our desire, our artistic conviction, is somewhere around helping heal the world and cleanse it’s perceptions, you may take that as beside the point. Decades ago, in the early days of the modern emergency medical system, I once helped receive a patient in cardiac arrest as they arrived at an ER, delivered by a volunteer ambulance corps. The man in the back of the rig, still in the human heat and confusion of the moment, said that he would have performed CPR, but that his certification for CPR had expired.
Well, you have to try, even though CPR then, as I suspect it does now, mostly fails. Art, even good art, usually changes our perceptions for only moments, leaving us nearly as deaf, blind and numb afterward. If art can heal the world, it’s a long course of treatment, and its healing is imperceptibly slow.
So, if you want to make art, want to write or make music, take heart and make sure your goal is to cleanse perception or heal the world. Add to your goals one more precept, to try to not bore the audience when it grants you it’s precious attention. If you want to create art because you want to succeed, consider a lottery ticket instead.
What a roundabout way to get to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Thanksgiving poem “Merry Autumn.” How did the poet Dunbar “fail?” The child of two enslaved African-Americans, raised by a mother who learned to read to help educate her son, Dunbar was able by the age of 21 to gather some appreciation for his poetry, which spoke in three voices. Voice one was that of an accomplished 19th century poet who spoke like the East Coast “Fireside Poets” such as Longfellow, using a middle-Atlantic diction that may sound slightly old fashioned to us, but was the established voice of poetry in America at the time. We in the 21st Century may hear the peculiarities of that voice from our vantage point in time, but it would probably have not seemed like a dialect at all to his contemporaries. He also wrote in two other American dialects, and dialects were a great American literary fad of the late 19th Century. We might rarely encounter the remnants of this fad in Mark Twain or some other regionalist writers nowadays, but the idea of using written English to represent the different pronunciation and syntax of a big country before broadcast media was an artistic and commercial success of the time. Dunbar’s poems, then, also “spoke” in an informal, less-educated Midwestern dialect, and in what was considered as the southern black dialect of the time.
It’s hard to say how accurate this black dialect was. Dunbar’s mother likely would have spoken in it. Even though we’re speaking about speaking of just a bit more than a century ago, it may come down to the same informed guessing that allows actors to perform Shakespeare in “original pronunciation” productions. And Dunbar’s transcribed accuracy aside, how it would be read by fellow African-Americans and how it would be read by Americans of European extraction would likely have differed greatly. On the page, his Afro-American dialect poems can look/sound like the black-face makeup minstrel-show dialect performed by successful white entertainers who perfected cultural appropriation for laughing audiences. The humble-brag of the Afro-American dialect poems may be abstractly similar to the tropes of the his Midwestern regionalist dialect language, but in the end, it was not “read” as similar by the predominate culture.
What did a young Dunbar think of all this as he wrote his poems in either of these languages? I do not know, but his dialect pieces were something he was praised for by the cultural critics of the time, and they no doubt aided his marketability. He eventually expressed despair at the concentration of the attention on the Afro-American dialect poems. Perhaps he had wanted to say that he’s all of these things: a black man, a Midwesterner, and a man who could sing a middle-Atlantic song as sweet as Longfellow or Whittier, and instead he was seen as the man to represent only the borough of his race in the eyes of those who did not share his experience. He had to try. He “failed.” Today we may be grateful for his failure.
Today’s piece “Merry Autumn,” doesn’t show Dunbar’s later despair. It’s largely in the “Fireside Poets” mode, though he drops into informal Midwestern idiom once or twice. And following the precept to not bore the listener who lends their attention, he takes a contrarian stance toward the old poetic trope of Autumn symbolizing death and a fall to winter.
I sing it here with a folk-music type melody, an acoustic guitar, and some strings for accompaniment. Use the player below to hear it. Thanks for taking the time to listen!
Today’s post returns to the issue we touched on last month with “Acting.” What is an artist’s proper role regarding politics and social issues? And why do artists who engage in politics draw especial condemnation for doing so?
This may be the wrong question. Does anyone ask, what’s the proper role of a lawyer, real estate tycoon, school teacher, doctor or fry cook in politics? None that I’ve heard of lately. My working answer to this possibly disingenuous question is going to be long, so if you can, bear with me.
Probably the only other profession that has its participation in politics questioned in any way would be clergy, and I think there are a pair of oddly similar issues with artists and clergy speaking on politics.
Artists, at least good ones, by their nature tend to be “progressives.” Please, if you can, skip by any associated political stances you attach to that label, it’s honestly the best word I could come up with. By “progressives,” I mean that artists naturally seek change, novelty, and the advancement of new ideas even if they are built on older ones. Scientists and technologists have a similar bent, but artists like to think of themselves as ahead of even the sciences in this regard. Religious leaders, teachers, preachers, tend to be “conservative.” Please apply the same caution to that word as I asked for “progressives.” By conservative, I mean that they see the values in cultural traditions as possibly being given by supernatural forces that are of a higher order than mere human thought, or at the very least, that traditions are time-tested in such a way that they need to be honored, and to extent that seems reasonable to them, for those traditions to remain unchanged.
Are there “conservative” artists. Yes, they are. It’s quite possible to be artistically progressive (important for good artistic work) and politically conservative. Shakespeare presents himself as conservative politically, but was a culture changing artist. And it’s easy for me to think of some 20th century artists who are not “conservative” but “reactionary,” Ezra Pound for one. Caution again, just a label, let me explain: I use reactionary as a label here to denote people who believe that some important elements have failed to have been conserved, and that change is necessary to return to that state or set of values that no longer effectively exist.
Are there religious “progressives.” Yes indeed. Remember that religious people overwhelmingly believe that certain values are given by superhuman forces, ones that exceed what humans themselves might honor. There has always been a large part of religious thought that says that mankind is “fallen” and so therefore is in constant need for change toward the good, a good that might never be properly illuminated by fallen human thought.
So for both our “conservative” label (clergy) and “progressive” label (artists) we’re talking associated tendencies, not absolute dictates. Humans are complicated after all; but I think that’s one thing that strangely joins concerns about artists and clergy in the political arena. Opponents to conservative clergy and progressive artists see these groups as respectively prejudiced, temperamentally oriented toward resistance to necessary change or moving toward too broad and untested change. In this outlook, their self-selected temperaments that lead to their professions blind them, and so they aren’t viewing things fairly or deeply enough because of who they are. One proof we can see in this is that it’s rare for conservatives to criticize conservative artists in politics, or for progressives to criticize religious leaders who champion progressive causes. The belief here would be that those who go against natural tendencies in their professions must be significantly immune to that issue of characteristic prejudice.
You might next think or ask: well doesn’t a fry cook or a real-estate tycoon have their own prejudices based on their livelihoods? What’s different about artists or clergy?
My answer to that moves to another thing those two professions have in common: they are both pretty much in the same business. When a religious leader gives a spell-binding sermon, or a writer moves us to tears, when a religious visionary tells us what the angels said to them, or the musician brings sounds together in a way that moves us, when the crowd rises as one, with one hosanna on their lips, does it matter here who is at the front of the house?
What is important to our question comes after these remarkably similar experiences. Are we in that crowd, and yet not moved to rise in praise like the others? Is there often a let-down, however vague and hard to explain afterward? A way in which we feel unworthy, a way in which we feel we thought we were changed and yet we are not changed? Do we ever feel tricked: fearing, or perhaps even knowing, that the artist or preacher has engineered this with the techniques of their craft, techniques that might work regardless of the content they convey?
Now what if the person at the front of the room is not an artist or a preacher, but a political figure? Don’t all the same things apply?
So all this is a prelude to a very short, yet puzzling piece, with words by William Butler Yeats: “On Being Asked for a War Poem.”
Why puzzling? Yeats is good example of an artist engaged both in spiritual concerns and politics. In the struggle for Irish independence, Yeats was a leader in the idea that Irish cultural independence as a pre-requisite for political independence. If skeptical of armed rebellion, Yeats consistently pushed for what eventually became the independent Republic of Ireland and he become a Senator after Irish independence. One of Yeats inspirations, Percy Bysshe Shelley had famously said “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Yeats in effect revised Shelley’s passage by striking “Unacknowledged!”
Couldn’t make it in the NBA, but an artist engaged in politics
What would you expect from such a man in regards the use of his art for political purposes? You’d guess he’d be all in. Well, he was asked, just like the title says. Edith Wharton asked for a poem from Yeats for book meant to raise funds for Belgian war victims during WWI, and this was his response, which indeed was printed and therefore served its charitable purpose. Here is the entire poem:
“I think it better that in times like these A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth We have no gift to set a statesman right; He has had enough of meddling who can please A young girl in the indolence of her youth, Or an old man upon a winter’s night.”
So why is Yeats seeming to refuse to put his artist’s shoulder to the wheel and write a “war poem,” as so many others did? Well first, Ireland’s position in WWI was complicated, as it was not yet independent. Ireland’s colonial ruler, England, was engaged. The ancient principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” might make an Irish nationalist (at the least) abstain from taking sides.
He goes beyond that however, on the face of it saying that a poet—“a poet,” unqualified, not “this poet,” or “given that I’m a colonial subject against my will, don’t ask me for poetry about your war.” Poets, he says, have “no gift to set the statesman right.”
I don’t know what was inside Yeats’ mind, nor am any kind of expert on his work, but in thinking about these things, about how the artist, the clergy, and at times that statesmen, are all in the same line of work; an alternative reading has come to me.
That pronoun “He” that starts the fifth line, why did Yeats not make the antecedent clear? Most readers believe that the “He,” the one who’s suited to pleasing an indolent young girl or an “old man upon a winter’s night”—that last, a character who could be that frightened and lonely farmer in Frost’s poem we recently featured here—is the poet, or a poet performing his rightful role. If so, it’s a surprisingly modest, even dismissive, statement of a poet’s worth. However, the last noun before that pronoun “He” isn’t the poet, it’s the “statesmen.” English syntax rules indicate that “statesmen” could likely be the “He.” If I write “Frank went to a Minnesota Timberwolves basketball game, saw Karl Anthony Towns, and he scored 42 points.” We know that I couldn’t score 42 points, even in an empty gym, not because of my athletic ineptitude, but because we usually think the pronoun refers to the last applicable noun before it.
Not the author of this post, but he can play some ball
So did Yeats slyly mean to say that a statesman, like the poet, like the artist in general, is engaged in the same game, fooling the youth and the feeble old?
I have more to say about artists with political opinions in the upcoming week, but to hear the LYL Band and William Butler Yeats “On Being Asked for a War Poem” use the player below.
Today’s post, as I’m reminded specifically today about the clergy and political action by his life, is dedicated to Lester Moore, the father of Dave Moore. You’ve heard Dave reading and playing keyboards here (including the various keyboards in today’s piece).
Unlike jokes, you can explain a poem without killing it. Explanations may wound or amputate the poem a bit, but sometimes the dissection reveals things you couldn’t see before. My rule here on the Parlando project is to generally not explain the poem or the music, to let you experience it as it unfolds. But I like to break rules, so today I break this one. If you’d like to hear the The Day Lou Reed Died before the explanation, go ahead and click the gadget you’ll see at the end of this and then come back to this.
I started writing The Day Lou Reed Died on that day, exactly three years ago, but it took me about a month to come up with version you hear here. I did the music shortly after finishing the words, playing all the parts myself.
The poem takes a rhetorical stance of negation. It tells you what it thinks using the dark illumination of telling you what it doesn’t think. The first part parodies Frank O’Hara wonderful poem on Billie Holiday’s death, which is full of details of life in New York City in the high 1950’s. In that same section I remind the listener that Lou Reed was part and not part of that time, a man (like myself) a generation younger than O’Hara. Like O’Hara apparently, it was a surprise and not a surprise for me to hear of Reed’s death while planning for a social occasion. Holiday, like Reed, was known to be sick, but there was no public death watch.
The next section is a list, continuing the rhetorical negation. I start right off with saying I’m not thinking of Andy Warhol, whose connection to Lou Reed’s first band, the Velvet Underground, was something of a platinum-blond albatross around its neck. The assumption was that Warhol was the mastermind behind the Velvet Underground, which slighted the real innovators inside the band (Lou Reed and John Cale), and it allowed folks to contextualize the band, as many of Warhol’s pieces were then, as a put-on, a commercial parody of real art. As the list goes on I use the Warholian tactic of linking to a variety of commercial Andies, humorous in their inapplicableness to Lou Reed. I end the list with two unlike entries: the title of a famous avant-garde film and then “androgyny” to turn the incongruity one more time, as we might well associate Lou Reed with either.
The next section “I put on the indie rock station” starts, like the unexpected death announcement, with an actuality of the day I experienced. I expected them to be playing a lot of Lou Reed songs if not a full-fledged format change to all Lou Reed. Instead there was nothing—but so influential was the Velvet Underground to indie-rock, that as each song began I wondered if this was going to be a Lou Reed song or a cover version of one. No one put it better than Brian Eno did when he said:
The first Velvet Underground record sold only a few thousand copies, but everyone who bought a copy started a band.
This section was my way of saying the same thing, while noting that Lou Reed’s death did not get the public attention that David Bowie or Prince’s deaths a few years later did.
And the social event I was preparing for in the first section? The wedding reception for two women who had married that year after same-sex marriage became legal in my state. I try to recount the great sweep of change in my lifetime in this section. The young Lou Reed helped pioneer portrayal of gay, bi and trans people in his songs. The emergence of that portrayal in Reed’s art is a complex subject I’ll largely skip here, as it would take too long. In short, at least at first, Reed associated his gay characters with the demi-monde he sought to portray in other aspects. Like the term demi-monde I just used, this was something of a 19th century, or early 20th century way of looking at things—but I use it because those of Reed’s age (or mine) grew up in a world in which the culture and still living authority figures were from before WWI or its aftermath.
And at this reception, there were many children, grade school age and younger, and to keep them occupied there was a gymnasium dance floor and, a boombox and some rented lights. Their parents were dancing with these children, and as the swirling lights drifted over these single-digit-age dancers my mind recalled the young adult faces attending the Sixties “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” happening that was the public debut of the Velvet Underground, documented on the back cover of their first record. As much as an old man can while dancing, I figured the actuary tables on these children. Some of them may well live into the 22nd century. From a world where homosexuality was unspoken, to a world in which it was roundly denounced, “treated” and imprisoned, to a world where there is a homey, pot-luck Midwestern wedding reception, to a world I will never see or be able to predict almost 90 years from now. This is the arc of our culture and our experience of and as living artists.
The last section has gotten a rise out of a few people. What I wrote is somewhere between subtle and a mistake I fear. Staying with the negative rhetorical tactics I’ve used throughout the poem. I say:
As artists are inessential to art,
Art is inessential to change.
As beauty and justice pass through us,
Let us stop, and feel this
Beating through our veins.
More than one has heard those lines and missed that it’s a two-part equation. Are artists inessential to art? No, in that obviously living artists are necessary to make art. But also, yes, in that we know that art continues to have impact past the lifespan of the artist. Perhaps in that 22nd century someone will still listen to the work of Lou Reed. The second part says this artist/art comparison is equal (“as”) to art is to change. So, to the same degree that living artists are necessary to art, art also creates change; but in the passage of time in which immortality may allow art to outlive artists, that change will become something that is no longer “change” as it becomes part of everyday life.