The Snow Is Deep on the Ground

Today’s piece is a winter poem for troubled lovers, but in the wandering tradition of this project, we’re going to go somewhere else on our way there.

Next week there is to be an inauguration of a new American President. It’ll be the 13th new President in my lifetime. Though I remember witnessing all these inaugurations in part through news reports, photographs and recorded footage; to the best of my recall, I have only watched two as they happened. Which ones? Most recently, I watched Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 while working in a place with a newsroom; and then, before that, as a schoolchild I watched John Kennedy’s inauguration.

I believe this is so because in our democracy we have a tradition of our Presidential terms ending and beginning uneventfully and with a comforting regularity. It’s not that we citizens ignore that there’s a new President, but the event itself happening is largely unremarkable.

Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 was contemporaneously recognized as a post-WWII milepost, the Presidency passing to a young former enlisted man in that war, moving us beyond a country ruled before by 19th century men. As I said, I was a schoolchild. My class watched it on a single gray TV set placed up high in front of our schoolroom instead of our usual lessons. I don’t think I was alone in the audience for that event in thinking it was important to pay attention to what was said, watching for news of a new era we knew was new.

Obama’s election and inauguration said something about America recognizing it had changed its evaluation of people of color.*  It’s become a mark of sophistication and analysis to say that was an illusion, disproven by everything wronged people and close examination brought forward then, and since then. I thought, and think, we’re in the midst of things. If more know that now, the marker post of Obama can still tell us where we’ve come from and where we can go.

Is it a coincidence that both of those Presidential Inaugurations had a poet read a poem as part of the ceremony? That’s not a common choice: Kennedy was the first President to ever do so, and only one other President, Clinton, did so besides Obama.

Now, as it happens, I hope to watch the Inauguration next Wednesday, because this one seems more precious to me, more extraordinary, something not to be taken for granted. I will not watch it expecting or requiring great words — no need anyway, because the event alone now has a greatness thrust upon it. Yet coincidence or not, there will be a poet, a particularly young one, reading next week: Amanda Gorman, all of 22 years old.

There are several videos of Gorman reading on the web, but I wanted to bring forward what she says here about her poem for Independence Day, which starts with Phillis Wheatley and mentions that she’s speaking in the Washington-Longfellow house that day. It occurs to me that Gorman seems to be essaying a kind of civic American poetry that Longfellow might recognize.

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So, now I’m ready to return to today’s piece, one using the words of American poet Kenneth Patchen’s poem “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground.”   If you’d like to follow along with the text, here’s a link to the poem. “The Snow is Deep on the Ground”  seems to fit my times, and perhaps it fits yours too, and so we may think of it as my unofficial poem for this January’s Presidential Inauguration.

What did Patchen intend with the repeated image here of deep snow? As a northerner I know one thing it portends, a restriction of movement, and it’s often too a trope of accumulated time. I read something now in the image that Patchen may not have intended, restricted as I am in movement by our current epidemic and having just endured a cloddish act of insurrection deep in whiteness. It seems, or we hope it is, that that “war has failed.”

Patchen says the snow is beautiful though — but specifically it’s beautiful in a fallen state,  something meteorologically and theologically true in Patchen’s poem.

The poem’s third stanza has muffled terrors. What a strange and yet strong line “Only a few go mad” is! And the whiteness “like the withered hand of an old king” undercuts any sense of simple winter landscape beauty. To say twice “God shall not forget us” implies this is in question, doesn’t it?

The poem has it what we know more than we know by faith: our love, our lovers. How beautiful it is to be loved, to love. And to know that after talking of politics in a world where lies and flags are used as shields and lances to beat each other with!

My performance of “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground”  can be heard with the player below, or if you don’t see that, with this highlighted hyperlink. The musical core today is my naïve piano playing, over some drums and small percussion instruments. To add some character to the string bass part I doubled it with a synth-bass. Thanks for reading and listening, particularly as my ability to produce new pieces is reduced right now.

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*There was something else about that Presidency. I’ve lived a long life, and yet in all those years Barack Obama is the only President I’ve ever had who was younger than me.

L’Amoureuse

I promise you, we will end up today very close to the love song of the last episode, though we will travel a ways before we get there.

I’ve not featured any French writers yet with the Parlando Project, but as this summer has used the words of many 20th Century English poets, we may be overdue for that, as the start of that century found some of them looking to the French for some new ways to write.

French poets started to go “modern” before the British poets, around the same time that Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were making their own breaks with past practice in America, so they had a head start, and their avant-garde was way past the supply lines of conventional narrative and sentiment by the time the 20th Century really got rolling.  The absurd casualties of WWI, largely fought in France and its neighboring countries, and so deadly to some of the generation of men doomed to fight in it, only accelerated the modernist direction away from the kind of meaning you might find in a political speech or battle plans.

This summer, 50 years ago, the Polish-French writer Guillaume Apollinaire coined a new word to describe a new way to approach the world in words: “Surrealism.” A few years later, his term was taken up by a group of artists who went about trying to practice a new idea, presented in 1924 as if it was a political manifesto, to write and create from:

“…The actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”

  The Surrealists went on from there, going in various directions, becoming less an idea and more of a brand—but stop and think for a moment, that original idea, isn’t it powerful? The idea that there is a reality that we agree not to apprehend, not to speak of, that we constantly reframe our thoughts to, isn’t that idea political as well as aesthetic?
 
You take the idea of Surrealism, add music to it, and later that century you get Bob Dylan. You take the idea of Surrealism, apply it to the current reality, and you are woke, not from the dream, but to the dream that should not be denied.

Today’s piece uses the words of one of the French Surrealists, Paul Éluard. Éluard, like many of the British poets of this era, was another veteran of WWI. One story of his war service was that, since he was a writer, his military superiors assigned him to the office tasked with writing the official letters to the relatives of the casualties, and such was the efficiency of modern war that he sometimes needed to write 150 of them a day. After a year of this, he asked to be sent to the frontline trenches.

Alphaville Capital of Pain book

Jean-Luc Godard’s film “Alphaville.”  “I love you” could be the ending.

 
I have exposed you several times this month to pieces about the horrors of war and slavery, but I also told you we must travel a ways to get to today’s piece. After the war, as a founding Surrealist, Éluard produced verse with strange images and seemingly arbitrary combinations—Surrealist tactics to break the conventions—but his great subject, against the night, pain, and suffering, was love. Perhaps after those 150-letters-a-day forced march, he too wanted to look to war’s opposite.

Paul Eluard and Gala 2

Paul Éluard and the beloved, Gala. Eyelids not visible in this picture.

“L’Amoureuse”  (The  Beloved) is one of Éluard’s most famous early works, and uses my English translation of his words. The LYL Band performance of it was recorded live several years ago. To hear it, use the player below.