O My Darling Troubles Heaven

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.

Kenneth_Patchen_1952

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 concrete score 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.

I Am the Ghost art by Kenneth Patchen

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.

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Longfellow Goes Beat

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.

Gaslight Poetry Cafe

Not quite as portrayed on the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the legendary New York Gaslight coffee shop

 

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.

 

*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 wifeor 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.

Like John A Dreams

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.

Riverview Theater 1

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.

Blues and Haikus Jack Kerouac record cover

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.

A Spring Morning

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.

Meng Haoran

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.

On First Hearing Blonde On Blonde

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.