Back in 1916 American Poet Robert Frost published this short poem about what we’d today call Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is that syndrome where the increased darkness and other autumn changes set off depression in some individuals. Like many early Frost poems, it’s a beautiful, graceful poem with effective yet unaffected rhyme and meter — but when I saw it early today in a Twitter post by Cian McCarthy I was struck at the unusual way Frost treated this account of seasonal depression.
“My November Guest” is set in the time of year we’re experiencing in my part of Minnesota this week. We’ve had two days of dark rain, even thunderstorms, the rain falling unbroken through the bald branches of the trees. It was around 60 degrees F. when I awoke this morning. I rode my bicycle to breakfast at a café wearing shorts as I might in spring, but when I rode past a small pond on my route I noted per the Keats of memory that “The sedge has withered from the lake/And no birds sing.” I returned home and spent an hour or so reading on our porch, but the forecast says it’ll be 26 F by midnight. Snow and ice will be falling north of us over the evening. “Robert Frost” is certainly the correct name for a poet to describe this.
Within the poem’s 20 lines Frost recounts a conversation between the poem’s narrator (we’ll say it’s Frost for simplicities sake as I paraphrase the poem) and his “Sorrow” (the poem’s name for depression.) Most of the conversation are points sorrow (simultaneously personified as external nature) is making to Frost. Sorrow/nature is stating that these dark days could be seen as beautiful. Frost says he is listening to this, feels what his sorrow is telling him has worth. The poem continues: the absent bird song, no colorful leaves on the trees, the cold mist — is it the dullness of grey or the burnish of silver? “You can’t see this as beautiful” nature concludes.
Here is the song I produced from Frost’s poem in songsheet format. I present these in hope that better singers than I might perform them.
Frost’s last stanza is his part of the conversation. “Yes, I know how to read the book of nature — or at least the calendar. I wasn’t born yesterday.” His day, the poem’s day, like my day today, may have been dark and damp, but it wasn’t yet the winter that is coming over the walls of the calendar’s date-boxes soon. I know I’ll miss sitting on the porch, biking without mitts, streets only wet not packed with snow or ice. The early and long November darkness may overwhelm us, set off mad clocks inside us, but that’s only dark, only hidden. Or so we tell ourselves and light our LUX lamps. Frost says it’d be vanity to tell his sorrow and this nature this, his mere knowledge, for nature knows the is of this that surpasses knowledge.
Today’s music is a simple arrangement: me singing with acoustic guitar, as I quickly spent the middle of the day setting Frost’s poem to music and then recording it efficiently in my studio space before I need to hide my microphones from HVAC noises there. You can hear it with a player gadget where you can see that, or with this backup highlighted link for those who can’t.
I said, when I was listening to the Tell It Slant Festival’s marathon reading of all of Emily Dickinson’s poems, that I was jotting down lesser-known Dickinson numbers which I might perform in the Parlando Project manner. Well, here’s one of them.
If you’ve followed my various Dickinson performances over the years you may have seen me emphasize Dickinson’s visionary aspects, her outlooks gothic and satiric (often combined), and sometimes her abstract poems of philosophic thought. One thing I noted again during the marathon was that she can be a very acute and intimate poet depicting pain. She’s all that. But sometimes she’s more at playful. Today’s piece, “A Murmur in the Trees,” for example.
It’s glancingly a nature observation poem, but fancies have taken it over by half-way in, as a fairy tale seems to break out. The opening stanza sets things at night, and perhaps we are in the Dickinson garden (where Emily, predicting an REM song to come, sometimes did gardening tasks at night). There’s a noise, the title’s murmur, in the trees.
The second stanza breaks with a line of alluring consonance that remains a mystery to me, the “A long — long Yellow — on the lawn.” Sunset’s last light beams or dawn’s first ones? Filtered moonlight? And then we are told, something like little footsteps are heard.
The third stanza portrays little fairies or gnomes trooping home, the fourth, robins that could be strange birds who wear nightgowns and sleep in “Trundle beds” or Robin Goodfellow with wings. The poet’s speaker, presumably Emily herself, reminds us these are not metaphors in this moment for normal animals, since what she observes “would never be believed.” She finishes by saying that she won’t test the credibility of her observations anyway because she’s in league with those she’s observed, she’s promised “ne’er to tell” what her night garden contained. The final two lines return to mystery — if nightgown-wearing birds or gnomes, or the both of them hanging out together aren’t ambiguous enough — by saying “Go your way — and I’ll go Mine — No fear you’ll miss the road.” What’s the road? Are they birds seasonally approaching their autumn migration time where Dickinson is famously staying put? If we take that aspect, Dickinson appreciates they know a road away where she may not. Or is the road that other mystery, the “long Yellow on the lawn?” Fairies* are said to have paths (not to be obstructed) that are often difficult for regular humans to detect, but sometimes different colored grass or vegetation is said to be a sign of fairy roads. Is that the long yellow in the grass?
Actual photograph of enchanted birds attempting a marathon reading of all 1789 Dickinson poems. Meanwhile, tiny gnomes have paths and “houses unperceived” if you look hard enough in your night garden.
The little song I made from Dickinson’s “A Murmur in the Trees” can be heard with the graphical player below. No sign of the player? No fear you’ll miss the road, there’s this backup highlighted link that will open a player to play it.
*This second reading assumes some understanding of Celtic or British Isles folklore on Dickinson’s part. I’m not sure what is known of that possibility. There were Irish immigrants in Dickinson’s Amherst, eventually some as domestic workers at the Homestead.
How much did Emily Dickinson want her poetry to be understood? I can’t be sure, but I suspect she wanted it to be both puzzling and understood.* While she didn’t publish to any extent in her lifetime, she did send by mail or otherwise share poems with friends. The conventions of Dickinson’s 19th century America may be different, but it’s possible that not everyone understood each poem, or even welcomed the arrival of those poems’ enclosure, but these acts indicate that she had elements in her poetry that asked for a public place for her work.
The posthumous publication of a large selection of her poems in a series of books at the end of the 1800’s did find ample volunteer readers though. Selected from her handwritten manuscripts by outside editors and somewhat regularized, they were also presented with tacked-on titles and within subject sections like“Time and Eternity,” which however criticized by current scholars helped frame her work for her first posthumous readers.
There’s a certain kind of Dickinson poem, often with a touch of gothic whimsy, that most easily attracts a general readership. Others feature proto-Imagist observations that continue to delight readers. While there were other American poets of Dickinson’s time who had a substantial non-academic readership, now more than a century-and-a-half later, few read any other than Dickinson and Whitman.**
Having a general readership should discount no one’s literary merit, but snobbery may ask to have its say. If Dickinson is a poet admired and even read by those who are otherwise unattracted to poetry, this can be introduced as evidence against her worth as a true poet.
Given that, I have been noticing someone on behalf of the Emily Dickinson Museum has been regularly posting short Dickinson poems on Twitter asking for those who come upon them what their interpretation of these poems are. Few of the Dickinson poems this Twitter docent shares are the well-known “Greatest Hits” of Dickinson. Many are eight short lines, and those lines are often full of Dickinson’s oddest syntax and metaphysical musings. Being asked for an on-the-spot interpretation freezes many a reader as much as an armed robbery would — but at least in such a street encounter one likely knows where one’s wallet and valuables are. While I’m old enough to have grown accustomed to my own misreading of subtle poems that my fears of embarrassment are diminished, even I am hesitant to offer a Twitter reply. And this is true even though I’ve already performed some of Dickinson’s poems of that sort. What this series of Twitter posts demonstrates most vividly I think is that a great deal of Dickinson, though a time-tested popular poet, verges on incomprehensibility. So why did Dickinson write such poems?
My theory is that Dickinson was seeking to record in these cryptic short pieces certain moments of personal insight. Why take the time to versify them then? There’s evidence that Dickinson had a musical mind, and containing them such may have been a combination of the matrix of natural “music of thought” and the practical mnemonic virtues of verse. Dickinson was known to write short poems down on household scrap paper, indicating that thought was going on during domestic workdays. Perhaps I’ve come up with this mentally-drafted commonplace-book theory in that I spent some of my ordinary working life composing poetic stanzas in my head that were informed by things I was seeing and thinking while my hands were occupied. Such work is not necessarily “public poetry,” though in Dickinson’s case it now can be viewed by us strangers far removed by Dickinson’s time and place. Here’s her poem. You can be one of those strangers.
In memory of my feelings. Dickinson’s austere compression here.
So what was Dickinson on about with her poem known by its first line: “From Us She wandered now a Year?” I’m not sure, and I’m sort of comfortable with that. What is clear? It doesn’t have the attraction of imagery. “Wilderness” is totally undescribed, not rising to the level of an image, and “feet’ and “eye” are the only other concrete nouns in the entire poem. There’s no clear sense of where or when this poem occurs. While there’s some sense of separation or change as of the first phrase, the poem evokes no clear-cut emotional tone. “She” and “Us/We” are vague characters, though I read the latter as a general evocation of humanity. Dickinson’s eccentric capitalization invites us to consider many words as philosophic entities, not a “wish you were here” note about a traveling friend.*** Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, her posthumous editors, put this poem in that “Time and Eternity” section, and invented a title “Invisible” for it, which indicated they didn’t know what she was on about either.
Do I have an impression? I think the poem’s “She” is Transcendentalist Nature, which as I understand Transcendentalism is essentially the revered manifestation of the true universe and any Creator. “Wandered now a year” is the unstoppable progression of seasonal time which goes forward over any barren obstacle that might stop a corporal creature (Wilderness) or without any memorial break for death or state of nothingness (Ethereal Zone). The second stanza says we cannot not fully understand this, though we may have some autumnal intimation at some part of this cycle, where we “took” (in) this “Mystery.”****
I could be wrong, but a worthy enough meaning. Still, the overall effect remains its stark unsensual expression. Few of the normal pleasures of poetry are found in these eight lines. No imagery, no statement of the senses meant to invoke feelings in the reader (other than mystification perhaps). Word-music alone is there in Dickinson’s hardwood-seat pew hymn-meter, the thing she used to write her own hymn book. This is a highly intellectualized and discorporate poetry, but as I said at the beginning, I don’t know if Dickinson intended us to read it. If not, then Dickinson’s feelings and experiences being left-out are beside the author’s point. After all, she herself may have sufficiently felt them, and this artifact is meant only to evoke that memory for herself. I, this other human today, have this overall emotion evoked: awe at the dexterity of her mind.
Today’s performance has music I composed and played in my “punk orchestral” style along with 12-string guitar. I’m using simple musical structures for the orchestral instruments, but I tell myself I can do so in the same way that guitar combo bands using a few root-V chords can none-the-less communicate something. It’s a brief poem that I represent in a short musical piece you can hear below with the graphical player, or in its absence this alternative highlighted link.
*This is a common, if not always acknowledged goal of poets: to be worthy not just of a reading, not just of some understanding, but to be worthy of a deeper and more careful and caring reading. That’s a lot to ask for words, even beautiful sounding words.
**I considered adding Poe to this exceptions list. Despite my own efforts, I doubt I could make a case for Longfellow retaining 21st century readership.
***Possible that there’s a specific lower-case “she” and this poem is more simply a “missing you” poem? I’ll offer this aside my theory, that if Dickinson felt that toward specific shes then it could occur to her to personify a manifestation of at least a conceptual Godhead as “She.” It’s possible to be thirsty and thoughtful.
****Sandy Denny’s song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” would be an example of a more elaborate and sensuous expression of the same sort of thought. It’s also a feeling I tend to get each fall, which may help spur my Septober Energy, where I set out to harvest what creative energy I have.
It’s that time again when I present our quarterly countdown of the pieces most liked and listened to here at the Parlando Project during the past season. We’ll proceed from the 10th most popular and move up to number 1 in the next few posts. The bold-faced heading for each piece are links back to the original post that introduced the pieces here, in case you didn’t see them earlier this autumn.
10. Cobwebs, Steel, and Moonshine by Carl Sandburg. Longtime readers here will know of my admiration for American poet Carl Sandburg, and so it may be no surprise that this is actually the second time I used parts of a single Carl Sandburg poem for a Parlando Project audio piece. The Sandburg poem is “Smoke and Steel,” a poetic celebration of labor and laborers from a collection of the same name published in 1920. I used that whole poem’s title for the piece I created out of the beginning of it for May Day in 2019, but for this past American Labor Day I used the conclusion of “Smoke and Steel” and gave the result this title. I dedicated it to another American poet, Kevin FitzPatrick, who was suffering from a serious and unexpected illness that killed him later this fall. This is the first of three poems in this fall’s Top Ten dedicated to poets Dave and I knew and exchanged work with who were suffering mortal illnesses.
I’m thankful that long-time reader of the blog rmichaelroman submitted a good guess as to what the steel might be in Sandburg’s short ode to workers and work: rebar.
9. Bond and Free by Robert Frost. It’s been a while since I mentioned it, but Robert Frost bugged me when I was young. He was still alive, and omnipresent in anthologies one might find in school, which caused me to treat him like other 20th century poets and critics treated Longfellow: as a square preaching platitudes who stood in the way of younger and fresher voices who’d question all that with a more unruly poetry. I was misreading Frost of course, but through that error I did find others I thought in opposition to him that I found rewarding back then. Eventually I came around to love the word-music in his shorter lyric poems, and from that attraction found a starker and more divided meaning was there.
“Bond and Free” is Frost in his more metaphysical and frankly philosophic mode, which isn’t my favorite Frost, setting out here a cosmic stage where Love and Free Thought conflict. He sounds more like Shelley or Keats in “Bond and Free” than the more modern diction he was able to make sing in other poems, but sing the words do.
Three young poets at work. One played in the LYL Band.
8. They’re All Dead Now by Dave Moore. One of the most popular of my Halloween series this year, even though it’s a longer ballad form story that put my singing strength to the test. Longtime listeners here will know Dave as the most common alternate voice here at the Parlando Project as well as the keyboard player you’ve heard in the LYL Band.
He’s also a fine writer of poetry and songs. For reasons too complicated to deal with now, I fairly often sing Dave’s songs here rather than having him sing them himself. There’s a factor when someone sings another writers’ song. While they may bring a different kind of talent and musical craft, they may also somewhat misunderstand the song — or misunderstand (maybe more at “re-understand”) it in a valuable mutational way. Though I’m not a great singer, I do try to bring something to Dave’s songs when I present them here.
Every song stands to gain much more than one more life when sung by someone else. From time to time I’ve encouraged others to sing some of the Parlando Project songs. Anyone have their own cover of one of our Parlando Project pieces you’d like me to hear?
This Friday is International Jazz Day, and for a project that subtitles itself “Where Music and Words Meet,” it’s a little odd that I talk less about the musical half of what we do. My project assumes that poetry, even on the page, can be defined as words that want to sing. What manner of tune fulfills that desire? It varies.
Early in this project it became apparent that I was going to feature a lot of early 20th century verse as it was the newest poetry that was clearly available for reuse. This was the time when literary Modernism came to English language poetry, greatly expanding the tactics that could be applied to poetry, and it came in too with an idea that much of what had become expected of poetry was tired and worn out, inauthentic and false.
Almost simultaneously, a very similar movement was happening in music. Though largely segregated from European Modernist composers in person, Afro-Americans were developing at the turn of the century a twisted helix of musics that came to be called Blues and Jazz. Differentiating between those two things is a complex matter. Blues is a nearly inescapable element of Jazz, and Blues is more substantially a vocal music, and so Blues needed a poetry from the start. That means that Blues song lyrics are the Modernist revolution as originally expressed by American Black people, though because of their context and place in American culture this was not understood as such. Like Modernist poetry, Jazz and Blues too demonstrated freedom to use new tactics, and they too wanted to replace tired and false musical tropes.
Poets, even those who intend for their work to be published and read on the page, can’t help but be informed by the music they know and admire. Earlier this month I’ve speculated on Emily Dickinson’s use of 19th century hymn-song meter and a possible connection for her deviation from strict poetic forms informed by her own improvisations on piano. By 1920 we had a Modernist Jazz music coming to America’s attention, and literary Modernist verse, though not without its naysayers, had reached an American audience too. It’s like flame and gasoline, isn’t it? When are they going to meet?
I can’t say what the first Jazz Poem was, or who wrote it. If it was composed by an Afro-American it may have been unnoticed, unpublished, and unrecorded (save by the oral tradition and the folk process which didn’t keep their names). Some of the traditional folk-blues lyrics seem to date from the turn of the century, but they were not printed as poetry then — and even as vocal recordings, the oft-cited first blues record, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” dates from 1920.* The recording history of Jazz predates that a bit, with the all-white but still claiming “Original” Dixieland Jass Band’s broadly comic “Livery Stable Blues” coming out in 1917, and that’s sometimes cited as the earliest Jazz record. Two poems already featured here: Ray Dandridge’s “Zalka Peetruza” and Fenton Johnson’s“The Banjo Player”were available in 1922 for James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry.** The former’s “tom tom” beat and the later’s Modernist free verse could make them Jazz Poetry. Some articles cite Langston Hughes’ “The Weary Blues” of 1925 as the first Jazz Poem, and it is unquestionably a Jazz Poem, but even Langston Hughes had some issues to overcome with it. Back in our February focus on Locke’s The New Negro anthology of 1925, recall that the elders mentoring and gatekeeping The Harlem Renaissance weren’t yet welcoming Jazz into high culture and were unsure of its effect on their project to elevate America’s appreciation of their race.
No, not that Prince’s band. A 1915 example of proto-Jazz and Blues being integrated into society dance music.
Which brings us to the underrated Modernist figure of Carl Sandburg,*** the white Midwesterner who had won the Pulitzer prize for his free-verse poetry in 1919 while being based in Chicago. In 1920 he publishes a follow-up collection, Smoke and Steel containing today’s poem called “Jazz Fantasia.” This too is clearly Jazz Poetry. It appears to be portraying an instrumental performance, and while unlike Hughes’ poem it quotes no Blues lyrics, it’s clearly a Jazz performance with its imitation of horn sounds, the husha, husha, hush of brush work on the high hat, and their sandpaper swish on the snare, the tin can of cowbell, and the knocking pan-metal ring of stick hitting rim.
If not Blues form as such, two details from Sandburg’s 1920 words (here’s a link to the full text of the poem) stand out to me. Half-way in, there’s a car, a cop, and… “bang-bang!” Striking to hear a still modern pain in a 100-year-old poem isn’t it! And the poem’s conclusion makes a case for the breadth of Jazz expression infrequently made in the fad for Jazz during the Jazz Age: that it wasn’t only frantic music with comic musical effects suitable for careless youth further forgetting their cares, but that it could also portray some green night lanterns and the boats ceaselessly beating against the current.
It was imperative to me that today’s musical performance for International Jazz Day must use some approximation of Jazz. I play no brass instruments and I find them hard to approximate with virtual instruments articulated by keyboards, so you’ll hear an anachronistic, more modern, Jazz trio: drums as featured in Sandburg’s poem, guitar, and bass. The player gadget for this may appear below — and if it doesn’t, this highlighted hyperlink will also play my performance of Sandburg’s “Jazz Fantasia.”
*In 1903, Afro-American composer W. C. Handy encountered a Blues playing guitarist in Tutwiler Mississippi, noted he was singing a Blues song with recognizable Blues lyrics. He thought the music was “The weirdest thing he’d ever heard” but by smoothing it off and adopting it to the composed brass band and society dance music he was familiar with, he made use of those Blues elements.
**Other examples of Jazz Poetry influenced writers I’ve managed to sneak in here are Kenneth Patchen who read to Jazz music, Le Roi Jones/Amiri Baraka, a poet who also wrote widely about Jazz, and even words by Laurie Anderson who was influenced by fellow Chicagoan Ken Nordine who had released several LP records he called “Word Jazz.” The music on Laurie Anderson’s recordings doesn’t read as Jazz to most, but focus instead on her voice and you’ll hear that same ‘50s cool jazz phrasing.
***I often make the case here that Sandburg’s poetry contains some admirable examples of the compressed and spare Imagist aesthetic, but besides poetry he’s intimate with the rise of photography as an art via his wife’s brother Edward Steichen, he was reportedly the first daily newspaper cinema critic in Chicago, and he was an important popularizer of American folk music.
And speaking of Langston Hughes achievement, Hughes’ early poetry often sounds unmistakably to me like he had “heard” Sandburg and taken some of his riffs into his own heart to be further extended by Hughes’ personal familiarity with the Afro-American experience.
Before continuing with our count-down of the most liked and listened to pieces here this past autumn, let me remind newcomers what the Parlando Project does. We take words, mostly other people’s words, usually poetry, and combine them in different ways with original music.
“Oh, you mean you make them into songs?” Well, sometimes, yes. But not always. I don’t always sing the words, thus the project’s name.
“So, it’s spoken word with some music in the background.” You could say that about some pieces, but I want the words and the music to interact, comment on each other. The music isn’t just background.
“Music with chanted words. Are you a rapper?” I wish. Can you imagine the commercial potential of old guys chanting poetry, often to acoustic instruments? House-party! I’ll bring the Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, and Fenton Johnson! No, I’m not a rapper, but you could say that I’m more a separate branch growing off the roots of things that rap also grew from.
“Are you some kind of beatnik?” Wait, where’s my black turtleneck, I’m going to reverently listen to some cool jazz records now while trying to remember what was so important about being intoxicated first. Oh, what was the question again?
“The last few numbers on the Top Ten had those orchestral instruments. Are you setting poetry texts to music in the tradition of art song?” One limitation of this project is that neither Dave, nor certainly I, possess bel canto voices that can realize what most art song composers do. I’m conceptually doing what art song composers do, but the empirical results reflect my outlook, performance resources, and limitations. Also, like Yeats, I fear that elaborately sung melodies obscure the impact of the words.
OK, back to the countdown. If you’d like to read what I wrote when I first presented these pieces, the bold-faced titles are hyperlinks to that.
The first edition of Dickinson’s poems featured a picture of Indian Pipe flowers in bloom, but like all flowers, autumn, if nothing else, ends their term. Indian Pipe (also called Ghost Pipe) is a strange plant that doesn’t use photosynthesis, but rather gets its energy from fungus. The picture was chosen because avid botanist Emily liked this unusual plant.
3. As if the sea should part by Emily Dickinson. From Emily B. to her American admirer Emily D. we go. For all the mythos about Dickinson’s later years of not leaving her family home, does anyone ever ask if being cooped up in a house with a family half-heartedly uninterested in poetry was all that comforting to her? In her most vital writing years, Dickinson still roamed some physically—and mentally. I’ve had some fun over the years here suggesting musically and graphically that Emily Dickinson would rhyme with Sixties psychedelia. “As if the Sea should part” is certainly mental traveling of the purest sort. The player for this performance is below, or if you can’t see the player, you can use this hyperlink.
2. The Listeners by Walter de la Mare. When I started this project I thought I’d be rocking out more often than it’s turned out to be the case. Part of that result comes from being increasingly unable to record with Dave or others, and some from enjoying the novelty of being able to score and play orchestral instruments. My version of de la Mare’s weird minimalist ghost story isn’t crossing the hardcore boundary, but this is a rock band arrangement that sounds good turned up on your speakers. The player to test that claim should be below, or if not, this highlighted hyperlink will play it.
It’s time to count-down the audio pieces that you liked and listened to here most this past autumn. But before I get to the count-down I’ll mention that new pieces are getting harder for me to produce for a number of reasons. As of now, I still plan to produce some additional examples of what the Parlando Project does: combining various words (mostly poetry) with various original music (as varied as I can make it). Still, given the over 500 pieces already posted here, there will be a lot to explore while you’re waiting. What are those pieces like? Or unlike? Well, our quarterly top-tens are one way to see.
In each of the listings below and in the coming days, the bold-face titles are also links to the original posts where the pieces were presented in case you’d like to see what I wrote about them then.
10. The Poetry of the Root Crop by Charles Kingsley. I love coming across a remarkable poem I’d otherwise never come upon unless I was working on this project. “The Poetry of the Root Crop” is largely unknown, and its author Charles Kingsley is too. No one seems to care much about his poetry, and even his lonely web biographic sketches barely mention it. I remember one I read saying his poetry was “competent.” Oh my. We poets are claimed to be a grandiose lot, and “competent” is a pen-knife between the ribs, not even a public execution. Kingsley the man is also lesser known, particularly here in the U.S., which might be unfair and yet favorable to us enjoying his poem. Considering Kingsley as a thinker and active force in his time has me going over this project’s many presented authors and recalling that while many had ideas I could agree with, they are often mixed with other prominent ideas and convictions that appalled me.
Poems can be about ideas, though they are not the ideal container for them as such I think. We are blessed that “The Poetry of the Root Crop” isn’t a manifesto, though it uses some cultural markers as part of its scenery. What it is, what poetry is, is an apt container for communicating the experience of experience. Kingsley’s experience of a graveyard and/or garden can change how you see the thing yourself. To have that transference between minds isn’t merely “competent” I think. If you don’t see the player gadget to hear this piece, this link will also play it.
9. No Common Ground by Dave Moore. Oh, how I miss having more of Dave Moore’s voice here. The pandemic has separated many artists, and performers most of all. How cruel this illness has been to have one of its earliest American super-spreading events to be through a group of people singing with each other!
So, it’s ironic that Dave’s piece that found so many listeners this Fall is about our chosen separations, one that I thought particularly apt for our current year when I reposted it on November 7th. The player gadget for “”No Common Ground” is below, or as an alternative, this highlighted link for those that can’t see the gadget.
8. Back Yard by Carl Sandburg. I think it likely that Carl Sandburg had some ideas I don’t agree with, but I don’t look for them too hard, because I’m so grateful for the feeling of fellowship I often feel with him. “Back Yard” too is not a manifesto, though it’s not hard to see its experience of the experience of an urban immigrant night as a statement by a son of a Swedish immigrant. Part of what I plan when I return to new pieces here is to talk a bit about our experience of the common ground of darkness as winter solstice approaches here in the Northern Hemisphere, and while Sandburg talks here of summer, his night somehow holds more than broad daylight can.
“Back Yard” has continued to draw listens since it was first posted here two summers ago, and this September, as summer was leaving us, there was another strong spike in listens. My stats tell me I have listeners here who are approaching summer solstice below the equator, so this one is right on time for you.
Oh, there are a few words you’ll hear in the background that aren’t Sandburg’s. Some other angel’s alchemy from the common ground graveyard/garden of Kingsley’s poem perhaps? You can use the player to hear those night voices, or this alternate, highlighted link.
What value is mystery and strangeness to gratitude, to a sense of thanks? Let me try an experiment with you here.
American Thanksgiving still retains a degree of its nature as a harvest festival, and so when looking for a text to use today I came upon this one by highly unfashionable poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Looking at the poem on the page one can see why modern poetic esteem may have passed Mr. Longfellow by. It’s a sonnet, intricately rhymed (ABBAABBA CDECDE), an antique skill that we no longer appreciate as much. Its imagery is both pat and removed from most of our daily lives, a rural landscape at night before the coming of electric lights, where moonlight can illuminate reflective objects and cast discernable if low-contrast shadows. Harvest signs include loaded wagons (“wains” is the charming old word for wagons chosen perhaps for rhyming needs), bundled sheaves of grain after reaping by hand, the changing of the bird population, falling leaves. In summary, we have imagery that is largely meaningless or lacking impact to us today in our modern America. It looks like stuff that is, and justly is, filed away in dusty poetry collections.
An illustration for “The Harvest Moon” from an 1880 edition of Longfellow poems
But what if we were to experiment a bit with Longfellow, and make him stranger and more mysterious? After all, this past rural world is now alien to most of us as some far-off land. And Longfellow, who we mistake as a rote poet here, has a subtle point to make, one that cultured British people might excavate and polish if this were a poem by Shelley or Keats, but which Americans may be too willing to overlook due to the old modes of Longfellow’s poetry.
In today’s performance of Longfellow’s “The Harvest Moon” I attempt that act of mysteriousation. It started with breaking up the lines and underemphasizing the end-rhyme. This lets it act as an occult undercurrent, rather than a regular chime we know is coming. I sing the words as if this is new and not fully understood to the singer or listener. And as I often do here, I make the music I wrote and performed carry a lot of the load. The main harmony is carried by a 12-string acoustic guitar, which is playing primarily suspended chords, chords that remove the 3rd of the scale that makes a chord major or minor, and replaces that significant note instead with a not fully discordant but unexpected 2nd or 4th. The bass plays a busy but similarly unsettled melody line under this. And as a final signal that we are to regard this old American landscape with a time-tourists’ eye, and not as an old poem full of discarded conventions, I play a higher melody line and drone on a sitar,* an instrument from another continent.
All that distancing effect is to force the listener to hear this poem as if it may have some meaning other than a decorative picture of a quaint and therefore meaningless scene. Longfellow outright begs us to do this in the text when he writes “All things are symbols.” This poem is late Longfellow, he’s nearly 70 when he wrote this, his America has passed through a horrible civil war, his life has passed through multiple family sorrows, and he is now an old man. The songbirds gone here are but counters perhaps, but his life of poetry is nearing its close. He’s spent his life helping establish that there can and should be an American poetry, that there can be American poets. We are them. Our grandparents and great-grandparents are the children asleep in those strange and now far-off curtained rooms. We are the piping quails, grounded birds gorging on the grain-seeds fallen to the under-shadows of the harvested sheaves.
Let us be grateful, let us be thankful, for those before us. Wrong and right they labored for us. Enslaved and wrongful masters they planted and harvested on lands that cannot forget the exiled feet of those before us. How strange, that it was exiles and the tempest-tossed that appropriated this place. Exiles creating exiles. There is a mystery in that.
*If you visualize me sitting cross-legged on a damask pillow with incense wafting in paisley curlicues while plucking on that elaborate musical device, it may be good for the effect of the piece—but in the spirit of full disclosure I’m playing a MIDI guitar here which allows my plucking to be translated into the notes and sounds of that difficult to maintain and master South Asian instrument.
As a person educated in the mid-20th century this is what I knew about Fredrich Nietzsche: he was a philosopher who was all the rage in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century and he had this thing about achieving a more perfected human condition. Oh, I knew one more thing about him, something that discouraged all other curiosity: the Nazis liked him, saw him as an intellectual forerunner of their decidedly non-intellectual movement.
I know only a little more than that now. In the past few years it’s become accepted knowledge that the Nazi connection was to a large degree accidental. Nietzsche’s sister was his literary executor,* and she was a Nazi fan-girl who did a great deal to forge that linkage; and since the Nazis were nationalists, the available idea that there was a notable German cultural figure whose contradictory writings could dab some intellectual cologne onto their bully-boy stink was useful.
But this fall, while reading a blog I follow,** I learned another thing: that Nietzsche was also a poet. Which shouldn’t be news to me I guess, but it had never occurred to me, even though as a philosopher Nietzsche seemed to be something of a human quote machine who could turn out memorable phrases. And today’s text, “In German November,” was the example that introduced me to that fact.
Ah sunflower! Weary of cold and $%*@! snow.
I know only a little about German literary Romanticism, but what I know makes Nietzsche’s poem part of that tradition: worship of nature, doomed love—Damn! There’s even a prominent talking flower for Odin’s-sake! This can seem very twee in summary, but Nietzsche redeems it with his gift for language and characterization. Unlike other translations I’ve done here, this one’s poetic images and plot moved rather easily into English.
This is autumn: it — it just breaks your heart.”
After the poem establishes its “This is Autumn…” refrain by opening with it, the first full stanza has a graceful post-equinox image of a now lower sun against a mountain that would please Wang Wei. The poem’s second scene, set in a orchard with post-frost fruit starting to rot mixes sex and death tropes effectively. And then there’s that talking flower.
It takes some nerve to carry that scene off both as a writer and as a performer. I felt I had to push myself as a singer to portray the sunflower, and part of the reason I’ve started to put chord sheets up for some of my compositions here is to encourage better singers to improve on my attempts.
Simple chords, but this one has opportunities for a singer.
Because Nietzsche’s German moves fairly easily to English my translation doesn’t differ that much from the one in this link, which also provides you with the original German. One choice/change I made: I wanted to emphasize the existential angst of the sunflower and to strengthen an image—and so the original German: “in ihrem Auge glänzet dann/Erinnerung auf” gains a repeated word “memorial” reflected in the dying flower/eye. I also thought the implied pause in Nietzsche’s refrain: “This is autumn: it—just breaks your heart.” could be emphasized further by repeating the “it” for a stutter effect.
As I mentioned above, I went for it in this performance, and given my limits as a singer it may not be to everyone’s taste, but it was the best I could do given the more limited recording opportunities I have these days. The player gadget to hear it is below. Thanks for reading and listening in whatever November wherever you are.
*Nietzsche died in 1900, late enough to give his ideas access to the early 20th century’s cultural ferment, but with the benefit that the proponent of those ideas wasn’t around to contradict the uses interpreters put them to.
**Byron’s Muse. I like to think I’ve outgrown youthful goth romanticism, which fits badly with my aged frame and less virginal connections to death, but Byron’s Muse sometimes reminds me that artistically there is still some attraction there.
Emily Dickinson didn’t mind at all being strange or odd in her poetry. For example: today’s poem, which after an opening line quickly goes off to a strange place and then stops at eternity in less than 40 words. In one of her best-known poems, “Because I could not stop for Death,” she saunters at a mid-19th century horse-drawn pace to eternity. But with today’s poem, rocket ships couldn’t leap as fast. Here’s a link to the text of “As if the Sea should part” if you’d like to follow along.
It’s not only pace that separates Dickinson’s mode of expression in these two poems. On the face of it, “Because I could not stop for Death” begins as a somewhat friendly and homespun gothic, a tale of a clearly metaphoric trip told with homey touches in its imagery: children playing at recess, harvest-ready fields, the early chill of oncoming autumn night. “As if the Sea should part” starts with a miracle which might draw us in, as if we’re to be following Moses across a divinely separated sea. But it’s not exposed seabed and astonished crabs we’ll see as the sea parts. It’s “a further sea.” And we’re off!
And then that further sea parts, and reveals another sea. This is all beyond the speed of even these few words, it’s almost beyond the speed of thought or revelation. Li Bai’s mental presumption conjured up some drinking pals here a few posts back, but Dickinson’s poem progresses too fast to present itself as mere fancy. Dickinson had a famous two-factor definition of poetry: a goose-bump chill that would make any clothing as insufficient as a gossamer nightgown outdoors in autumn—or the top of one’s head being taken off. This poem intends or portrays the later.
I get the impression, the three seas are only a start, this first parting of the waters to reveal other waters which also then part. Why does she stop at three, other than it being the minimum to establish the pattern? I found one reading that thought the capitalized “Three” in the poem may be intended as the Christian Trinity,* the three-form God-Head. Many of Emily Dickinson’s family and cohorts took to revivalist Christianity, something that Emily specifically resisted. We also know that she knew of and may have had an affinity for Transcendentalism, an American movement that sought a more immanent, first-hand spirituality based on the soul of humanity and the revelations of the book of nature. The experience in this poem seems more the later than the former, but “presumption” is a key word at the center of the poem. After all, the poem begins with “As if…” telling us this is imagined, not direct observation. This entire poem is her mental flight, and not a meditation on the seashore, which after all would be a hundred miles from Dickinson’s Amherst.
The final stanza is extraordinarily difficult to follow. “Periods of Seas” starts out gnomic, and the best I can extract from it is that Dickinson’s mental traveler is now also seeing not just the measure of oceans’ surfaces, but the measure of time when seas might dry up or form—but all those eons are being seen in a measure of three words. Even at the speed of her vision she realizes that there is no way to reach all the shores of seas in this infinity, for at the greatest speed of mental travel they will part and show new seas.
Am I reading too much into this? And is this just so much mystical “Oh, wow man, I just realized the universe is like infinite, ‘cause even if you reach the edge of it, what’s beyond would be just more different universe still forming, you know!” Well serious cosmology and humankind’s sobering spiritual awe at nature, or its foggy analog of too many bong hits, Electric Kool Aid, and cups of Chinese wine, it’s all a little too much. Dickinson had a garden to keep, food to prepare, poems to write and sew into little books. Why did she write this down? To briefly remind herself of what happens when the top of her head lifts off perhaps. She may never have intended it be something for us to read and understand, though we might still hear it, somewhat muffled, over the roar of parting seas.
“I believe I’ll go out to the seashore, let the waves wash my mind, Open up my head now just to see what I can find” are not lines from Dickinson’s poem. Also kids: drugs and vinyl are both overrated. Sarcastic political activism is too, but which of these are necessary?
A tip of the hat (or is that the top of my head?) to the Fourteen Lines blog where I came upon this Dickinson poem for the first time. Today’s audio performance of Emily Dickinson’s “As if the Sea should part” relates to the particular foggy analog of mid-1960’s psychedelic music, a little like something that Country Joe & the Fish would fry up back then. The player gadget to hear it is below for most of you, but if you don’t see the gadget this highlighted hyperlink will also play the piece.
*This reading then has the “presumption” as the poem’s speaker scoffing at the presumptive idea that the God-Head could be limited to merely three manifestations.