Do Not Frighten the Garden

Long time readers will know the Parlando Project is generally about the encounter with, and performance with music, of other people’s words. But I have mixed in words I’ve written here from time to time.

Today’s piece combines both threads. I wrote it, but it was engendered by reading another poet who publishes online as well as on paper.

I actually don’t read many poet’s blogs. This is likely because I’m searching through and reading a lot of other poetry that is in the public domain and free for this project to use. So when it comes time to take a break and catch up with other folks in the blogging community, I may be reading about music, history, politics, or visual art. I do follow one blog almost entirely devoted to the blogger’s own poetry: Robert Okaji’s “O at the Edges.”

Okaji posts often, and I’d describe his poetry as solidly in the post-WWII Surrealist tradition. A typical* Okaji poem will have strong lines with images often formed from opposites or unlikely combinations. In many of his poems you may not recognize exactly what he’s getting at, as he often approaches his poems “meaning” in the Surrealist tradition of surrounding it with miscellaneous statements.

I too can stay puzzled by the elusive “meaning”, even though I’ve read a good deal of Surrealist poetry and spent a fair amount of my 20s focused on writing in this manner, and then cautioned readers here that the lyric poetry I most enjoy is not so much about ideas, but the experience of ideas.

In most human writing we’re tasked with being clear, and even in poetry, poets often choose to puzzle us as readers only a little bit, asking readers to focus on only a small set of questions around the meaning in a poem. I happen to believe that the arts work best in multiplicities. Writers that ask readers to puzzle more make the poems that ask readers to puzzle less work better—and vice versa; just as music that avoids expectations and common methods of loveliness makes simpler and more consonant music stronger—and the converse of that too.

And remember, Okaji is a writer of striking images. Outside of the stand-and-deliver classrooms where we are asked to tremble out the “real meaning” of poems, one can simply take pleasure in the thought-music of an image.

You do not have to write Surrealist poetry to treasure the infusion an unexpected, even inexplicable, image can give you. Trying to write poetry without reading poetry is like trying to write music without listening to music. How many times when I’m listening to music do I hear something and suddenly realize: you can do that in music!  Okaji’s work may inspire you, even if you do not write in his style.

So a little over a month ago I’m reading this August post and poem of his, “A Herd of Watermelon,”  and one couplet attracted me so much, I started writing my own poem immediately, which now has become this post and piece: “Don’t Frighten the Garden.”

Melon Cattle and the Infinate Surrealist

 

Magritte had his apples, but Texans go for bigger fruit

 

 

Other than Okaji’s image of a herd of watermelon able to bolt, what else did I take from him for inspiration? Well, his scene and scenery has been to some degree Texas-based and I’ve been thinking a little more of Texas myself because my father’s family spent time in that state, and one of his brothers, an uncle of mine who was born in Texas, had just died this summer.

And so my watermelon herd is Texian.

I wrote my first few lines fairly quickly, and the rest of the poem developed over a month or so to full 14-line free-verse sonnet length. The final couplet seemed almost another voice coming in over the air as I composed it. Here I was, happily in Surrealist Texas free-verse land, when all of a sudden an Alexandrine pair of lines breaks in at the end! Did the spirit of Mallarmé know I was coming for him next?

Here’s the text of my poem “Do Not Frighten the Garden:”

Do Not Frighten the Garden

 

I’ve been playing more guitar lately, trying to maintain what I call, in my more pretentious moments, “my technique.” So, surreally, today’s music is orchestral. However, the top line melody was actually played on guitar, which—via the magic of a MIDI pickup—played the violin you hear. I also was able to make effective use of a timpani virtual instrument that’s new to my collection of orchestral colors. Give a listen to it with the player below.

 

 

*Okaji is more eclectic in his style than I can briefly outline here. Nor is all of his poetry elusive with its denotative meaning. Among other things I like that he does: English translations of classical Chinese poetry.

It Is a Small Plant

September 17th is the birthday of the American Modernist poet and physician William Carlos Williams, and today’s piece uses the words from one of his poems “It Is a Small Plant,”  the best known selection from a sequence of poems Williams called “The Flowers of August.”

William_Carlos_Williams_passport_photograph_1921

Just because you have have a passport doesn’t mean you have to move overseas.

 

Unlike some other American Modernists—including two poets he met and befriended while a student at the University of Pennsylvania, H.D. and Ezra Pound—Williams spent most of his formative writing years in the United States, much of it in his native state of New Jersey where he practiced as a pediatrician. Like his fellow stay-at-home Modernist Carl Sandburg, Williams wrote poems the followed the new Imagist rules, at least at the start, finding them useful in breaking away from the old poetic styles.

One of those Imagist rules, the first one in fact, was “direct treatment of the ‘thing.” That doesn’t mean that you just directly state the message from your heart. Rather, it means that you honor and hone the image(s) that represent your meaning as palpable thing, not as mere poetic decoration for your words. “It Is a Small Plant” demonstrates that by spending nearly the entire poem presenting a description of a flowering plant.

In the series “The Flowers of August,”  each of Williams’ other poems are titled with the name of a particular meadow or pasture flower, but not this one. So, I suspect this is meaningful. The description of the flower here sounds a bit to me like the common bluebell, but it’s possible that he diverged from botany in service of one of the poem’s images, or that the omission of the flower name in the title for this poem made a point for him.

The other, more important, mystery is who the “her” that is inspecting the flower with the poet is, the her who regards the subject flower as “a little plant without leaves.” At first. I wondered if it was perhaps a young girl looking at the flowers, but I now believe that it’s the “her” featured at the poem’s close: summer. If that’s so, that is the reason the flower has no name, as the human name doesn’t exist for nature and for nature’s incarnation as summer. And in the course of the poem, summer then too cannot care about the anthropomorphic desires presented in Williams’ presentation of the image of the flower.

Violet

Unlike William Blake, William Carlos Williams didn’t see Heaven in a wildflower,
but he did see nature observing himself observing the flower.

I’m not a quick understander of poetry. In working on this piece, I read Williams’ poem, enjoying some lines in themselves. The ostensible subject seemed to fit with the season and coincidentally with some other pieces I’m working on—but I wasn’t sure what it meant. In the course of fitting it with music, recording the vocal, and then tweaking and mixing the music, I lived with this poem for a good part of the last couple of days, reading or hearing the words over and over.

If I had been too concerned with its meaning, I might have stuck with my initial supposition, that it was child apprehending the flower. I was pre-disposed to that on first reading, having briefly re-meeting Margot Kreil earlier this week, a poet who wrote an excellent poem called “Weeds”  which featured just such an image. But I was more concerned with getting the drums right, playing the bass, setting up delay divisions for the guitar lines, and marshalling my limited keyboard skills for the soft keyboard parts, and then making that all fit together.

Through you don’t have to go through those composition and production steps, this points out again one of the things that music can do to change the context for words when it’s combined with them. While music can emphasize some mood or presentation of the words, in the same way that suspense music makes a film clip of a character walking down an unremarkable hallway scary, it can also offer its art as a distraction from worrying about meaning too soon with a poem.

To hear my performance of William Carlos Williams’ “It Is a Small Plant,”  use the player below.

 

 

Minnesota State Fair 7 A.M.

I feel like taking a break from the cosmic today. No mystic visions. No musing on transcendence. However, I’m going to go someplace different just the same.

For a little over twenty years I worked for a radio network that had a booth at the Minnesota State Fair. Midwestern US State Fairs are odd events. Tens of thousands of people attend each day for a ten-day run, yet what compels them is somewhat vague and mysterious. There’s a ton of food-truck style food, some of it comfort food—often sold in gallon buckets, which is more comfort than is comfortable—along with other fare that sometimes tries a little too hard for uniqueness. There are musical acts, but not anything that wouldn’t be on offer any weekend in Minnesota. There are exhibits, but in the Internet Age, one probably doesn’t need to go yearly to a few acres on the border of Saint Paul to find out anything.

In this piece I choose to highlight two other of the Fair’s most venerable traditions. The event serves as essentially the state championship round for livestock and animal breeding. Many of those animals are raised by rural kids. And the Fair is a prime stop for office holders and political candidates to speak, debate, discuss, and campaign.

Vague and mysterious compulsion: vegans and pubic cynics would be repelled at best by those two things. I am neither, but I also doubt that the average modern metropolitan resident gets up a month before or after now, and says to themselves: “I wonder what well-raised livestock looks like and I sure would like to hear a politician talk.”

The former is an understandable consequence of the modern age. The latter is more problematic, as the modern American republic expects the political business to be carried out by a largely disliked and disrespected crew. This modest little piece won’t change that.

Because I worked for a radio network, I was usually at our Fair booth on Judson Avenue before it opened. Judson is a reasonably wide but otherwise ordinary two lane city street. By the afternoon is will be filled shoulder to shoulder with people up and down its length, as far as one can see. But before 7 A.M. it’s just the folks who have Fair work to do. People compelled by very ordinary and understandable things, which is what this audio piece is about.

During most of the time I worked for the radio network, one of those folks with a job to do who’d arrive in the early morning would be Gary Eichten and his show’s producer. By midmorning, Eichten would interview office holders or office seekers, and take questions from the gathering crowd, fulfilling that second State Fair tradition. He was always the friendly professional, yet even working with him behind the scenes it wasn’t clear where his own political opinions were. One thing that did come though: he respected the job those office holders had or were seeking.

So this audio piece is my short Minnesota State Fair story: part that early Fair morning that few see, and part a tip of that hat to those folks who do their jobs every day. Musically we have the LYL Band in folk-rock guise again, with Dave Moore handling the organ. I played the bass line, and then the guitar part largely shadows the bass part an octave higher. My dad once asked me why lead guitarists always concentrate on the higher strings. Seemed like a good question then, and this time I didn’t.

Click the gadget below to hear the audio piece “Minnesota State Fair 7 A.M.”

August Moonlight

I promised last time that we’d move on from Emily Dickinson’s church of the August crickets to another take on something like the same thing. Dickinson’s words are set in the afternoon, but this one, “August Moonlight” moves on to August nighttime.

I knew nothing of this poem’s author, Richard Le Gallienne, before I found these words looking for some material on the end of summer. I still know little about him. He’s from Liverpool England, but his lifetime only overlapped the Beatles a little at the end, and besides he’d moved to France by then. In his youth he wrote for The Yellow Book, a short-lived but influential periodical of the ‘90s. No, not the grunge ‘90s, though the thought of Husker Du, Nirvana, or The Replacements being drawn by Aubrey Beardsley (the Yellow Book’s art editor) gives me pause to think. No the 1890s, the “yellow decade,” when using art to throw light on difference, and difference to throw light on art was all the rage.

I’ve always loved the visual art associated with The Yellow Book and the circles surrounding it, but frankly, I’m not a big fan of most of the writers associated with that movement. There’s a kind of dead-end romanticism about a lot of it. Even in my youth, when such things might have been attractive to me, the writers, taken as a group, seemed stilted, like it was a paint-by-numbers picture of a Keats poem.

The visual art however gets past any of that, because it’s just so beautiful in line and color. 70 years afterward, the art of The Yellow Book circle was one of the chief influences on San Francisco rock poster art. So I could have thrown Le Gallienne’s words in with my take on a slinky Grateful Dead space jam or maybe some Beatley folk-rock. I did neither. Instead I paired it with the night-time side of the Velvet Underground, the representative New York City rock group of the 60s.

While I’m at it: Grateful Dead, The Velvet Underground. They’re supposed to be in complete opposition. Sonically there is a bit of a gap there, I’ll admit, though nothing that music couldn’t bridge. But nothing alike? Each band is fronted by a guitarist who has a problem with heroin. The bass player (and sometimes the keyboard player) is really an avant-garde classical composer. They both start out playing to dancers swimming in colored lights at events heavily associated with and promoted by a non-musician guru. Both bands had trouble selling records, at least at first, but those who did find them started forming bands beloved by cliques of college students. Both bands are known for an un-compromising poet maudit stance. Of course, one band hangs out with gangsters leading to a well-publicized incident of an audience member getting killed at a show. One wanted to call to call an album “Skull F**k.” One band put a drug kingpin in charge of its sound system. The other band hung out a lot with artists in lofts and had girl-germs for letting a woman be their drummer.

Seriously folks, I kid. I think it was John Keats who said that great artists must be capable of liking both the Grateful Dead and the Velvet Underground. He called it Negative Capability. Coleridge was always reminding him of that whenever Keats couldn’t clamp onto a good ground when trying to jump-start Coleridge’s rusty Borgward sedan.

Alas I’ve run out of time. You could have been reading “William Morris and Andy Warhol, pretty much the same thing.” Feel free to use the rest of your time listening to “August Moonlight” as Richard Le Gallienne thinks about what it all means out behind the barn. The gadget to play it should be right below this. And you know, that rhythm guitar part might have been a little influenced by the Beatles “Rain…”

Further In Summer Than the Birds

William Blake wrote “To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour.” Brothers and sisters, it’s time to testify, and I want to know: are ready to testify? I give you a testimonial:

Emily Dickinson!

Okay, that’s a metaphor. The poem that provides the words to this piece “Further In Summer Than the Birds” uses a similar trope. Dickinson starts with a joke, yoking the language of a high church Christian service (instead of the rock’n’roll revivalist call I supply above) with–what? Late summer, the laziest time of year, before harvest. And worse yet for the comparison, she leaning down to the grass and hearing not mighty choirs or church organs, but those famous orchestrators of silence: crickets.

Dickinson, like Blake, was a religious rebel. Many members of her family were swept up in the 19th century religious revival, while she, an otherwise dutiful family member, actively resisted this. I think the poem starts off drawing us in with satire of religious services, but then we get to the mysterious last stanza. Dickinson’s syntax is so abstract that I (and other readers) are tempted to just let the sound of the words flow over the ear without need to extract meaning. Perhaps this was effect Dickinson wanted, as my best understanding of that last stanza is close to that. That line “No Furrow on the Glow” sounds great, but is also seems to say: no easily extracted message can be “farmed” or “gardened” from this church of the crickets.

Similarly, I don’t know exactly what “A Druidic Difference” is. Might be more satire. Or it might be that this glowing August sound which can’t be used to raise crops of meaning, is the meaning. The Druidic difference may be the isness of nature itself. But that’s me attempting to cultivate the experience, furrowing my brow to plow another furrow on the glow.

I think this speaks to the heart of something the Parlando project seeks to highlight. Poetry is not merely meaning, Poetry’s sound. It’s statements, its way of saying, has the structure of music; and music, it has the beautiful structure of thought and the human voice without the burden of specific meaning. That is why music and words meet here.

The music for “Further in Summer Than the Birds” shows a little of my Velvet Underground influence, and specifically with this piece, their eponymous 3rd album. Later this month we’ll visit another set of words about August and crickets along with some louder Velvets influenced music.

To hear the “Further in Summer Than the Birds” as played by The LYL Band, use the gadget below: