Some people live so long as to make time and its boundaried eras seem a foggy measure. Such a man was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the American poet, painter, and bookstore owner who predates and post-dates the Beat poetry scene — or for that matter the Hippie scene, and our century’s activist eras and its search for peace and justice. If you are a fan of generational short-hand (I’m not) you will notice that every one of those eras was widely denounceable as impractical, delusional, and in most ways inferior to those that came before that.
“Thank you for your service” is the reflex response nowadays. Surely due, but I think also of his post-war service, helping promote a new more vernacular American poetry via his work, encouragement, bookstore and small press. His own 1958 poetry collection A Coney Island of the Mind was immensely popular,* and seeing it or Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (which Ferlinghetti published**) in their paperback black and white form was once a common marker in smoky apartments during my youth.
Around the time this Project was beginning I performed a couple of Lawrence Ferlinghetti poems live with The LYL Band. I’d actually hoped to get permission to post those performances someday, but emails to City Lights garnered no replies. Hearing today of his death, and thinking of his life that well-lived, I thought inescapably of this poem of his from A Coney Island of the Mind entitled “The world is a beautiful place.” I’ve decided to post our performance here in the spirit of gratitude and in memoriam. If any rights owner objects, let me know, and I will remove. The player gadget for our performance is often below, but this highlighted hyperlink will also work if you don’t have the gadget on your screen. If you want to read silently, or read along, here’s a link to the text of Ferlinghetti’s poem.
Want to hear another version of “The world is a beautiful place?”
*Some accounts say Coney Island is the most popular poetry collection ever published in English. I’m not sure of that.
**Was Howl a big “get” that he was lucky to land for City Lights? Not exactly. He was put on trial for publishing it, and Ferlinghetti figured he’d go to jail. The Fifties judge, to some surprise, ruled it not obscene.
It’s always the late empire period for old folks. When 1920 Claude McKay prophesied last time of granite wonders sinking in the sand at the end of his America poem, he was a self-proclaimed vital young man. He’s likely visualizing some hazy prophetic event with a undefined date as recorded by an even more distant future, and not the current toppling of certain bronze statues.*
McKay was 29.
To some old folks such as myself, fallen empires and overturned practices are not prophecy, we’ve seen them fall over as presently as gravity after their props and pedestals disappear, and so for the thoughtful among us, the conceivability that we might be living at the end of an American empire is not so strange, and even for the less-considered among us, we know our personal remaining time has shorter numbers.
This summer I showed a 15-year-old a YouTube recording of a live reading by Allen Ginsberg of his poem also called “America.” They’d showed me YouTube videos of earnest anarchists explaining the essential evils of money controlling government, after which they ask me if I’ve read Kropotkin. They live in a world were schoolyard bullying is considered actionable, not character building, and where the ideograms of gender-queer nearly exceed the Phoenician alphabet. Marijuana is about as novel and exotic as some parent’s veneer liquor cabinet.
They also live in a world where the man with a gun is found in the right if he’s afraid, doubly so if he’s a government agent. Economically we have endured a second Gilded Age where we have the Internet instead of railroads. For this generation, their first memory of a President was a competent and graceful Black man. Their second memory of a president, is not.
I haven’t mentioned environmental danger, Covid-19, or spoken of that tiger’s tooth that sank into the throat of George Floyd in our shared city. My catalog will be too long or too incomplete. There’s no other choice.
Here, I said, “This is anarchism!” and I launched the video. A static picture of a 1960’s Ginsberg stayed stationary on the screen and the soundtrack played. Ginsberg wrote this when he too was 29, just as McKay had been, though decades later in the American experiment. There was another red scare going on. Likely it was not much safer to be Black (or Jewish), Left, poor, or Gay and expect legal respect between 1920 and the January 1956 Ginsberg aurally date stamps his poem with.
Ginsberg reading the entirety of his “America.” Warning to tender ears: his performance, like mine below, includes one F-bomb.
In maybe a minute, 2020 made their judgement: “This is bad. It’s terribly recorded.”
I think its faults to this young audience were more at this was old, and this is not new. They had not lived in 1956, the supposed happy, carefree “The Fifties” of which “The Sixties” were in betrayal of. More than merely novel then for Ginsberg to stand up in public and say the unholy word about the holy bomb; for him to speak frankly about not being neurotypical, gender conforming, and accepting of the post WWII social order; to not only oppose, but to make fun of racism and red-baiting, and to say all of this as if it could and should be said in poetry. This was no longer revolutionary to this teenage 2020 set of experience. There’s now a mix tape every day saying the same.
Revolutionary? I’m presenting this series for American Independence Day. “America” is Allen Ginsberg’s declaration of independence. Like the later parochial details in the July 4th document that no one now remembers, parts may have dated. And it’s no longer novel to say all men are created equal either. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
“America” is Allen Ginsberg’s declaration of independence.
So, I’m grateful for Ginsberg. I listened to that recording of his “America” several times in the tumult of this year. Some things he speaks about are not, alas, mooted points. My young viewer may at times overestimate our current state of accomplishment, just as I’m intimately aware of how far we’ve come from then.
I saw Ginsberg read a couple of times, but never this poem. However, I have an aged memory of it being read, not by him but by an Iowa rock band called the Emergency Broadcasting System in the late Sixties. They would open up their first set with the lead singer speaking sections of this poem while the band riffed behind him. I liked the combining of rock band energy with this then only teenaged poem, and maybe that’s part of why this project exists.
I’ll note that the sections I quote from “America” in today’s piece may be long enough that I could be breaching copyright on Ginsberg’s work here. Rights holders, if that’s the case, I won’t debate your point.
The player gadget for my performance of sections from Allen Ginsberg’s “America” is below. Is there more to say and perform as I look to poetry’s statements on July 4th? I plan at least one more as we approach Independence Day—one from yet another American time, and with another outlook different from McKay and Ginsberg.
*It’s only in this century that I became aware that a large percentage of the Confederate Civil War statues date from the early 20th century period, not to the years right after the war. There were no monuments being erected then to the enslaved people whose bondage was material to making that genteel and romanticized world of noble warriors however. Must have been an oversight.
McKay did have one example of revolutionary change in his experience-bank: the 1917 Russian Revolution. Like many of his era’s leftists he was hopeful, even inspired, by it for some time. Yes, he reevaluated that eventually. Revolutionary ideals do not equal the regimes that follow.
Perhaps today’s audio piece and what I came to write about it has an interesting path. In words it’s a medium-length journey—so I beg your patience—but the places it goes are vast. Eventually, we’ll answer a question you may not have asking: who’s buried in William Blake’s tomb?
It started with an illustration drawn by Sergio García Sánchez which I saw on Kenne Turner’s blog this month. Turner’s blog has a great deal of manipulated and beautiful nature photography, mixed in with things he notices in his desert region location and occasional poetry, so it was unusual to see a drawing at first, but his post correctly located the words in the drawing and let me recognize the white haired old man whose beard is a star’s journeywork in this cartoon. The man in the drawing, the words, was Walt Whitman.*
Perhaps because Whitman’s words were embedded inside a drawing, they seemed Blakean to me as I read of that grain of sand, a hinge in the hand across the starry dynamo machinery of night. The main effect was to grab my attention and bring thoughts of doing it for this project.
And so I composed a small orchestra piece of music to accompany my reading of this piece, taken from the 31st part of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” using the 1855 edition. I’d normally give you a link to the text, but the two links above to Turner’s blog or to Sánchez’s picture are the best way to see the 1855 text I used which includes a line that was dropped in later editions, the line with the farmer’s girl and her iron tea-kettle that reminds us back to earth and daily life. For many compositions I’d be done.
I know McClure best from a record album he made with ex-Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek and flautist Larry Kassen called The Piano Poems in 2012. This was nowhere near my introduction to the Beat-associated “jazz behind poetry reading” style, but it’s a very good one. Listening to that helped build my own convictions for this project back then.
One of the poems performed on this set is McClure’s “Action Philosophy.” Though he didn’t on Piano Poems as released, McClure would often introduce it by saying that his poem begins with words written by Henry David Thoreau. That led me to think about combining McClure’s incorporation of Thoreau with Whitman’s Blakean lines about the universe’s manifestation in everyday nature. After all, McClure extends Blake’s and Whitman’s vision, seeking to become the animals he sees, to inhabit them fully. That’s the animal meat of his poem, but it’s in a reality sandwich on this deli menu—those separated first and last lines present a vital dichotomy. Here’s the text of McClure’s “Action Philosophy.”
Fifteen jugglers, five believers, six angels in the same performance! Tell your mama not to worry, ‘cause they’re just my friends. Yes, learn to play the triangle and visionary poetic figures will flock to you.
That first line: “That government is best which governs least” is taken from Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience,” an essay that soon became important to certain liberation movements. Thoreau himself was speaking about the Mexican-American War and slavery in his essay, oppressive evils that he felt he had to take action against. Gandhi and Martin Luther King made explicit reference to this work of Thoreau in their movements against colonialism and American racial subjugation. Lines from it had vital currency during the anti-Vietnam War movements of The Sixties.
But that’s not what I associated this line with from my life in the later 20th century, or where you may most likely hear it today. Now if you see this line quoted, (perhaps misattributed to Thomas Jefferson, not Thoreau) it may be used to buttress some form of conservatism, particularly conservatism that has a claim to libertarianism. Libertarianism is a complex subject, too long to explore here today, but on the other hand, elements at the foundation of the Beat literary movement were anarchists, an alignment that would have fitted Thoreau.
Now we take another side-step. Back in the 1990s I worked with Gary, a white database programmer from South Carolina. He aligned strongly (as do some technology people today) with libertarianism and the political right that was ascendant in parts of America at that time. He was a great fan of Thoreau’s line, though I think he’d attribute it to his fellow Southerner Jefferson, rather than the Yankee Thoreau. From talking with him I felt that his philosophical libertarianism might have protected him somewhat from the racism, acknowledged or unacknowledged, that can be found in a lot of American conservatism. When he would talk about his political opinions, I’d say “Well, that’s not me, but you know a lot of the folks I read are anarchists, and they sort of have the same feelings about the dangers of governments.”
Gary replied with a question that might take a long time to answer. “What’s the difference between libertarianism and anarchism?”
What an interesting question, and how long could that answer go on? I improvised my first thoughts, observational ones that day Gary asked it decades ago. “Well, some of it is just cultural associations. They dress differently, they listen to different music. And some of that is reflected from where they are moving from: Libertarians come largely from right-wing backgrounds and anarchists from left-wing ones, though each of them may be disenchanted with something from the Right or the Left respectively.”
McClure’s “Action Philosophy” takes what might be a book-length examination and instead put a distinction into his poem’s first and last lines. The world of the Randian side of libertarianism is perfectly fine with hierarchies and a thought that the unfortunate are the unworthy, or if not that, the unavoidable. Most anarchists—and from McClure’s final line spoken here today, McClure himself—were not. So the first and last lines today are a meaningful combination.
That was my process, a path of liberties and syndication, from within which the piece emerged as the Whitman Blakean section enclosed in McClure’s poem which seemed so Whitmanesque. My performance and recording was done, and yet I went to bed last night with a question in my mind. “What did Whitman know of William Blake? Those lines seemed so Blakean to me.”
How did they come to similar forms of poetic expression? The translated Hebrew poetry of The Bible influenced both strongly. And the same political philosophies informed both men, Blake knew Thomas Paine, Whitman was reading Thoreau and Emerson. And maybe the muses, the angels, the wake-waves of ghosts from the last movements of the dead moving in our air pressed similar things into each poets’ ear. Right after Ginsberg read “Howl” at the Gallery Six reading for the first time (and by some accounts it was the first public reading of any kind Ginsberg or McClure had ever given of any of their work), Lawrence Ferlinghetti contacted Ginsberg from out of the Gallery audience and said “I welcome you on the beginning of a great career.” Ferlinghetti no doubt knew he was echoing what Emerson had written to Whitman in response to that 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.
To hear a performance mixing in Thoreau, McClure, and Whitman with my music for a small orchestra, use the player below. Thanks for reading. Thanks for listening. Thanks for sharing these ghosts with me.
*Should I have used the more multitudinous verb “where” here?
**McClure didn’t even have to be there. In the summer of 1970, I was working frying hamburgers in Port Chester New York. Down the road was the Capitol Theater, one of those converted to rock concert venues of the age. At a bar in town Janis Joplin was drinking with Bob Neuwirth, and Joplin started riffing on a line from a McClure poem “Come on God, and buy me a Mercedes Benz.” Neuwirth scribbled the night’s journeywork on a paper napkin. Later that day she performed the resulting song at the Capitol Theater. Me? I just kept frying those burgers.
***True to their anarchist-hearts, the reading seems to have been blessed with several “organizers” but happened anyway. Kenneth Rexroth MC’d, Phillip Lamantia, Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen, Michael McClure, and Allen Ginsberg read. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, Ann Charters, and Jack Kerouac where in the audience. Since it was at this reading the Ginsberg premiered his long poem “Howl,” that seems to have become the summary of the event, but the edges of the blast broke more windows. The 22-year-old McClure read a poem about the death of whales, showing that his “Mammal Patriotism” was already forming.
This is Parlando Project alternate reader Dave Moore’s birthday month, and so I thought it’d be a good time to interrupt the autumn poetry with his presentation of a short passage from detective novelist Ross MacDonald’s The Galton Case first published in 1959.
Dave did this live performance that I recorded a few years back, and when I asked him earlier this fall about it, he wasn’t sure exactly what went into its choice. It may have been that some of the formative influences on the Parlando Project date to the era depicted in this scene in the novel, the “Beatnik*” phase where a certain kind of post WWII bohemia reached general public attention.
I’d characterize most of that general attention then as somewhere between comic amusement and pearl-clutching concern. The “beatnik” as a comic character became a stock item, and it’s easy to see the derivation from earlier foolish artist characters like Don Marquis’ Fothergil Finch.** The world doesn’t understand their pure art, but in the comic context, the world is entirely right. And then the concern-faction folks were writing that standards were surely slipping as free verse, free jazz, free-style prose myths, and free love were celebrated in the demimonde.
Explosive ivory towers! The Beatnik id of the Fifties.
Fiction writers, even writers of detective fiction, have the choice of walking fine-borderlines on such things. Characters and voices can hit the comic notes, show the raggedness of the coloring outside the lines and the amputations when sharp lines cut, while allowing their readers the ability to vicariously experience those parts of town they would never visit. Attracted to the Beat but find it out of reach? Repelled by it? Find it phony? It’s possible to write a novel and hold the interest of readers who have one or more of those opinions of “Beatniks.”
This passage from Ross MacDonald is a good example. I’ve not read the book, I don’t know how it comes out, and what additional framing and information we might have if we did. Listening to the section Dave reads I wonder: does the narrator dislike the modern jazz playing behind the poet, or just dislike its incarnation that night? Is the poet reading to music a beatnik fool speaking useless nonsense, or a fool speaking the truth because they no longer care not to? What level of imposture is everyone portraying, and how can we know or find out?
We don’t know. We’ll turn pages so the detective can find out.
It occurs to me that detective fiction is allied on some essential level with literary criticism. Sherlock Holmes foretold the New Criticism; Edgar Allen Poe, one of the Fugitives before their time.
If last time Emily Dickinson was getting meta with autumn and poets who wrote about autumn, today we have Dave reading in front of the LYL Band this short, mysterious passage from The Galton Case which describes—someone reading before a band.
Happy birthday Dave! The player is below…
*Beatnik was created by newspaper columnist Herb Caen who combined the term “Beat” used by some writers in the scene with the Russian suffix used for the tiny artificial earth satellite Sputnik launched in 1957. Many members of the “beat generation” didn’t like the term, which after all was a diminutive. People breaking molds don’t generally like labels anyway.
The successor term “Hippie” was similarly made by adding a diminutive suffix to an existing term “hip” that was used within the subculture. Both Hippie and Beatnik had connotations of a vague aspiration to bohemianism, particularly by those who might be too young to really understand.
**”The Poet of Revolt” as he self-branded. Furthermore in Marquis’ Hermoine and Her Little Group of Serious Thinkers from 1916, we can find other characters like Voke Easeley the Modernist composer who “Doesn’t know a thing about music. He tried for years to learn and couldn’t. The only way he knows when you strike a chord on the piano is because he doesn’t like chords near as well as he does discords.”
When we last left-off Kenneth Patchen he was beginning his career as a proletarian poet in the 1930s, writing a strikingly prophetic (in both senses of the word) poem about what the middle of the 20th century was holding in store. I’ll leave it to you to decide if that poem also speaks of our 21st century’s future.
I didn’t have time to discuss that Patchen’s 1952 Wikipedia picture looks like Thurston Howell from Gilligan’s Island.
Patchen never left his concerns with society’s dangers and constraints, it remained part of his poetry throughout his career until his death in 1972, but that’s not all or even much of what he became known for. Here are some of those things:
He was a significant influence on the post-WWII independent, largely non-academic Beat explosion. The bohemian aspects of his life and outlook, as well as the ways his writing expressed itself was a key living American model for the Beats.
And speaking of the Beats, he and his friend and fellow Kenneth, Kenneth Rexroth, were enthusiastic pioneers in the tradition of performing their poetry with musical accompaniment. Though many Beat Generation poems still live on the page, I’m not alone in hearing many of them, even when read in silence, as spoken voices, a jazz group cooling it behind. Patchen was more committed to this combination than most he influenced, touring his “Poetry-Jazz” in the late ‘50s.
Obviously, that style is part of what’s led to the Parlando Project, though I wish to expand on it. Patchen too seemed open to other musical genres with his writing: for example, a longer piece for radio performance with a musique concretescore by John Cage, “The City Wears a Slouch Hat.”
American bohemian arts flowed out from the Beat era, and Beat’s immediate predecessors like Patchen, in a series of connections and mutations. Diverted poet Jim Morrison used his psychedelic ballroom singer money to help Patchen publish one of his final books. And a figure as singular-seeming as Leonard Cohen has links in his expression that seem to connect closely with some of Patchen.*
It wasn’t just music that Patchen combined his poetry with, but visual art—drawing and painting pages that were as much pictures as poems. While this has precedent in medieval illuminated manuscripts, the painter/poet/engraver William Blake, and some of Dada’s work, Patchen’s style of combining his own naïve art with epigrammatic text connects with some of the poster art of the Sixties.
Closer to Pedro Bell than William Blake? Art by Kenneth Patchen.
One of the reasons I so like presenting figures like Patchen or Blake is their “get in the van” indie spirit. Art does not need to ask permission, it perpetrates itself anyway, figuring out a way to use the resources it can scrounge together.
And lastly, another thing Patchen became known for, even if it wasn’t as widely imitated in the Beat era, was his love poetry. It would be restrictive to think of him as just a love poet, but it was a substantial part of his writing and audience. As the billboards changed from “The Beat Generation” to “The Love Generation,” Patchen was already there with his poetry. A case in point, today’s poem “O My Darling Troubles Heaven” performed here by Dave Moore and the LYL Band.
So, enough talking without a band. Go ahead and click on the player below to hear Dave’s performance of Patchen’s poem.
*Like what? The love poetry combined with the prophetic social dread is a recognizable Patchen trope. The combinations of art and writing, such as in Cohen’s Book of Longing can be similar. And while Cohen’s typical poetry plus music style isn’t often reminiscent of Patchen’s, the two obviously didn’t mind mixing those arts.
I live in one of the northernmost states in the U.S., a place where winter cannot be denied, and so we must make our treaty with cold and snow. Some will even claim it makes us better persons—hardier, accepting of the Zen of difficulties. Still, if Minnesota has inherent Buddhist elements, it doesn’t lessen my attachment to a shelf of warm clothes.
When I think of Buddhism I do not think first of ancient and overseas masters, but instead of the Beat Generation writers of my youth, the mostly men who reacted to the growing abstractions and high-mindedness of High Modernism with a return to immediacy and intimacy. The Beats could be seen as beaten-down by something, past the chance of winning a warm success, but they also asked that the word be understood as short for “beatific.” Allen Ginsberg explained: “The point of Beat is that you get beat down to a certain nakedness where you actually are able to see the world in a visionary way.*”
Like many things that meet America, Beat got absorbed and its rule-breaking became a style, a fad, a fashion, a look, a required attitude received with only enough meaning to make the accessory match the outfit. Every time I read to music here, I fear I’m seen as wearing a costume, playing a role.
So, what’s this got to do with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—the square’s square—the man who wrote poetry that poets of the last 100 years find worthless?
Let me put Longfellow in a laboratory and see what we find. My lab: it’s a jazz club, probably downstairs, past the gray concrete curb turning winter white. It’s darkened enough inside the room that it’s sometime, night—but what year? The crowd is burbling, so’s the coffee machine. Wait staff are delivering and clearing tables, setting a tray on the bar for a moment to let another pass, talking of nights-off. A couple in the darker corner are nearly making out and can’t hear the band for the sight and breath of each other. A writer at a table closes a notebook, nothing more is in it today. The room is small but fairly full, about half talking their own talk and about half looking at the low bandstand, the quartet.**
The bass and drums begin, the guitar comments and the piano-player chords on the side. The bearded man steps to the mic, sheaf of paper in his hand.
“Snow-Flakes***” he announces. Is this beatific? Is this visionary? Maybe it is, he looks that way. He is a strange cat: saying words “doth” and “bosoms”—like Lord Buckley perhaps. If he was translated into Chinese and then back to English, the Beat element would be clear; but even as it is, the words are beautiful, and he lets them slowly stay there that way, “This is the poem of the air.”
The drummer is still slapping the snare with his brushes, as the bearded man at the microphone gestures onward to the band, with a slight roll of his hand. His face changes. The vision’s past, is there a resolution? “Psalm of Life****” he says.
This other poem is confrontation to everything we’d expect in this club for those who listen here and think about what they heard. “Mournful numbers,” are told on this stage every night, and he’s dissing them right off, and he ceases to pause his words now. The dance of the snowflakes becomes a march of “Let us, then, be up and doing.” What is this? The must be shoveling and stuck car after the beautiful, sorrowful snowfall?
He ambles off as the band riffs for another couple of minutes. What does this strange combination of poems mean? A snow-flake satori in a field, and then a command to earnestly strive. Yes, this Longfellow is a strange cat, even here.
My performance of Longfellow’s “Snow-Flakes” and part of “A Psalm of Life,” is available with the gadget below. Of if you are using a reader that doesn’t show the player gadget, this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.
*In the course of the long influences that led me to doing this project, a local Iowa rock band of the late Sixties, “Emergency Broadcast System,” would open their 1968 sets with the singer speaking a good portion of Ginsberg’s “America” over the band riffing.
**I recorded this on Christmas afternoon, first laying down the drum track and playing my Bass VI, an odd instrument that adds two higher pitched strings to the conventional four-string bass, instead of adding lower strings, the more common variation. I used this higher range to play the repeating, descending riff that occurs throughout the song. I played guitar around this rhythm section and then played the block piano chords. As a last step, I figured if I’m going to impersonate a jazz quartet I might as well go all-in and put in some fake club ambience. Maybe this did come from binging The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel this month with my wife—or from nights at the old Artists Quarter in St. Paul and listening to Sunday at the Village Vanguard by the Bill Evans Trio too many times.
***This one goes out to Mary Grace McGeehan of My Year in 1918, who thought of this poem when she thought of Longfellow. It’s one I’d overlooked until she brought it up, and what a graceful lyric it is!
****I performed only about half of this once well-known poem of Longfellow’s here. Several phrases in it were mottos for my grandparents’ generation, and my parent’s generation passed them on to me in occasional speech under a thin varnish of irony to preserve them. As a result, both the poem’s claim that “Life is real! Life is earnest!” and it’s command to “Let us, then, be up and doing” have remained with me.
Today’s selection was also recorded a few years back, and is more conventionally in that “poet reading beat poetry while a band backs the poet up” school of performance. While that’s one of the influences that has led to the Parlando Project, I didn’t want to confine myself to that style, and if you’ve been following along here with what we’ve done over the past year, you’ve heard some of the other approaches we’ve taken.
As I’m in a busy end of August, I don’t have time for much commentary on this piece, but I don’t think it needs it either, which is part of why it’s here today. This is a story set distinctly in South Minneapolis and the early 21st Century, and it talks obliquely about the time of falling in love with my wife. The Riverview Theater mentioned in the poem is still a going concern, a neighborhood single-screen movie house that shows movies near the end of their theatrical release without concentrating on any one cinema genre, leading to marquee billings like the one the poem mentions, a series of titles that often seem like little Dada poems to me.
Minneapolis’ Riverview Theater: Dada poem generator or movie house marquee?
Outside of the localism of the poem, the main obscurity in it is the title: “Like John A Dreams.” That’s a reference to one of my favorite speeches in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the play’s Act II, the hero Hamlet is asking why he cannot take action on the death of his father, and he rebukes himself as “Like John A Dreams, unpregnant of my cause, and I can say nothing…” John A Dreams was apparently a stock folk character in Shakespeare’s time, a foolish character who lived in his imagination and ignored more pressing reality—a character flaw all writers should be able to appreciate.
Parlando influence Jack Kerouac. “Beat poetry while a band backs the poet up”
Allen Ginsberg once recalled Jack Kerouac reading Hamlet aloud, and in particular this speech, with special emphasis in his voice when he landed on the “John A Dreams” charge.
So, if you’re a writer or other artist, Hamlet’s speech is for you. Your life is quite possibly bifurcated between that artistic thing you do and the life you press aside to do it. Art is often about making “and” choices. Life is often about making “or” choices.
To hear the LYL Band perform “Like John A Dreams,” use the player below.
Imagine a world where what you thought was poetry was entirely different. A world where short poems could be as celebrated as longer literary works. A world where the most admired poems could be clear as can be about what is happening in the poem (the poem’s plot) with no elaborate obfuscation in the language; and yet the meaning, the thought and feelings the author means to convey, may remain allusive enough that the poem’s meaning seems to change over time as your experience grows. Imagine a world where poems can seem to have no metaphors at all, poems that don’t so much interpret the book of nature, but seem to be a page from that book itself.
That’s what Chinese poetry seems like to me.
It’s a refreshing change from the Western canon. I can see why a grumpy modernist like Ezra Pound, who wanted to sweep away the rot of his culture, would find it influential. Or why the forefathers of the “beat generation” in the western United States looked further west than California for a way to apprehend reality on the page.
I’m no scholar of Chinese poetry. These are the feelings of someone who likes what he reads and finds lessons in translating it.
For today’s post, I’m going to go over how I work on these translations with the aim of stripping away the mystery. I’ll use a short poem by Tang Dynasty poet Meng Haoran “A Spring Morning.” It seems to be a good first task for Chinese translation, and the original poem is apparently known almost to the level of a nursery rhyme in Chinese.
Texas guitarist Billy Gibbons…whoops, no, this is Meng Haoran
I do not read Chinese, however, it’s now possible to find glosses of many poems literally translated from the original ideograms. Here’s what “A Spring Morning” looks like when each of its lines five characters is translated into an English word :
Spring sleep not wake dawn
Everywhere hear cry bird
Night come wind rain sound
Flower fall know how many
The first problem is there is no punctuation, nor anything like English syntax. Still that’s an interesting way to approach a poem, where in English we are often trying to find the word to fit our flow of thoughts and music, but in working from this gloss we have the words, or at least “a word,” but need to find the flow instead.
I decided to render the first line as: “I slept late this spring morning, awaking just after dawn.” keeping the season (spring) and the more specific time of past the daybreak moment. I added late, which is not in the glosses’ words, because I thought the poem needed some reason why past the dawn was significant when I connect it with the third line.
The second line required less thought: “From everywhere I hear birds calling out.” The main choice here was the word I’d use for the sound of the birds. “Cry” used in the gloss has connotations of sorrow in English (not always, for example “war cry”) and I didn’t want to tip my hand toward sorrow in this line. And in Spring I know these bird calls, they are in fact just that: birds calling out for potential mates, birds setting up their territories, birds that want to say something to other birds.
The third line I write as: “Last night I tossed and turned in the sound of the wind and the rain.” This gives a reason for why the poet slept late, adds a note of drama and, in a particularly personal choice I made, alludes to a traditional English song refrain “Oh no, the wind and the rain.”
Now the final line: “Who knows how many petals have fallen?” Here seeing other people’s English translations helped, as it otherwise might not be clear that this is a question. In a vacuum one might render this as “I know how many flowers fell.” And that ending has validity, essentially saying “(in such a storm as last night) I know for sure how much my lovely spring blooms are going to be damaged.” Others who know more about Chinese idiom have chosen to make this a question, so I’ll trust that, and this makes the concluding thought more like “(I’m worried about the damage of Spring storms. but it was night and I was asleep) and no one can change the way Spring does this, blooming and storming, so it’s a mystery to you and me.”
Overall, notice how this modest four-line poem, suitable for children, encapsulates a sophisticated thought, one that young children wouldn’t need to understand yet. It shows us Spring, as a sleeper sleeps past the now earlier dawn, through a rain storm that grows and destroys (compare our nursery rhyme “April showers bring may flowers” meaning “you might get wet, but it’s good for flowers” vs. this Chinese storm), alludes subtlety to the love and war of birds, and concludes with a wise line that says our ability to comprehend this cycle of growth and destruction, change and renewal, is limited. To a child, that last line may mean no more than the thrust vectors that allow that “a cow jumped over the moon;” but to an older adult, it reminds us more, that we will never know.
For the music to accompany “A Spring View”, I used some drums playing an odd rhythmic figure, fretless electric bass, electric guitar, and two soft synthesizer voices: a washed out horn and another which is supposed to suggest a Chinese flute, which unlike Bob Dylan I did not take from a dancing child. Today’s audio piece is very short, and to play it use the gadget below.
Earlier here you’ve heard me proclaim that Bob Dylan changed how folks wrote songs. Before Bob Dylan circa 1964, no one wrote songs like Bob Dylan. Afterward, the things he did (portrayal of fragmented personal experience, florid and unlimited imagery, a questioning attitude toward accepted beliefs) were everywhere, until by today we may have forgotten (or for younger generations, never knew) that these things were once “Dylanesque.” And because songs with lyrics were the primary way late 20th century people experienced poetry, that revolution impacted the culture generally.
Of course, page-poets had already done those things. Some European poets worked with these concepts decades before Bob Dylan. American modernists of the first part of the 20th century did these things too, and in American English. And the Beats, Dylan’s slightly older siblings, knew those achievements and applied them to the post WWII American landscape.
So, take away the Nobel prize! Dylan had influences! And his revolution was maybe the fourth time around!
No. First off, the page-poets did not generally ally their words with music. Yes, I know there were exceptions to this “generally” statement—and I think those exceptions deserve more notice and listening—but that’s my point, those exceptions didn’t get much of an audience. As the Parlando project seeks to demonstrate, poetry gains resonance when paired with music. The inherent abstractness of music allows listeners to more easily accept abstractness and difficulty in words, so those producing the more difficult, abstract or hermetic writing needed music even more. Add to that music’s ability to amplify and re-cast emotions, and Dylan’s linking of those page-poet concepts to music meant his was a new force.
So, I say the very thing that causes some to say Dylan should not be considered a literary hero: that he is a songwriter, is one very good reason he is just such an authentic hero.
And here’s another reason. We sometimes like to pride ourselves in finding what we believe are the first movers of things. In songwriting, Dylan is just such a first mover, but if we take his words or his music in separation, he is not the first mover. However, as to impact, it makes less difference who did something first compared to who got the experience to the audience, the listener, and/or the reader at the time and way they were primed to hear it. So, if we artificially separate Dylan’s words and music we can say they weren’t the first, we can even believe they were not the “best,” however we figure that out, but that combination of words and sound was a revolution that succeeded in ways that previous efforts didn’t. It’s romantic to mourn failed revolutionaries, but let’s not let our mourning obscure the power of successful ones.
While I wrote this post’s audio piece “On First Hearing Blonde on Blonde,” it is not the sort of work I usually put here. It’s a recounting of personal experience, something that is already over-represented in poetry and particularly in spoken word poetry. That can be a valid kind of poetic expression, but there’s no lack of it elsewhere, and as a creator I’m instructed by my experience as a reader that most poems about the writer’s personal experience fail for several iatrogenic reasons, such as the writer’s inability to fully see and question their own assumptions, an approach to individualization that can cut the writer off from their connection to and balance with the rest of the world, or even the simple ability to judge what another person will be interested in.
If I work out getting permissions for more current work by other authors, there will be more poems spoken in a personal voice here, but I believe they will gain from being selected by someone else, and spoken by someone else, not by the poet themselves. That’s one of my Parlando principles: “Other People’s Stories.”
“On First Hearing Blonde on Blonde” is published here, not because it’s a tale about myself, but because it tries to convey that listener experience that occurs when the listener is primed to hear something. Will someone who listens to Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” record album, as suggested by the Nobel Secretary last week, hear a different album than I heard nearly 50 years ago? On one hand, surely they will. Every ear in every time is always its own. On the other hand, I could give you answers—I just typed and erased some now—but instead I leave you with wishes for more, and perhaps better, questions.
Next post we move on from Bob Dylan. Which is about right. After all, even Bob Dylan got tired of being Bob Dylan, several times in fact.
To hear the LYL Band and the audio spoken word piece “On First Hearing Blonde on Blonde,” click on the gadget that should appear below. We recorded the basic tracks the afternoon the Nobel Prize for Dylan was announced. Yes, the Dave Moore mentioned in the piece is the same Dave Moore whose voice and keyboard playing has been heard here.