Following up on In Pursuit of Spring

I completed reading Edward Thomas’s In Pursuit of Spring  yesterday, the book about a bicycle tour across southern England published just before his transition from a self-described hack writer to a much loved English poet. I’ve already noted some surprises in a reply to a comment earlier, but now that I’ve finished I have more to say.

I at first thought the journey was more than a month long, as I read a quote from the book mentioning finding May at the end of his journey—but that was poetic license on Thomas’ part, his bicycle trip from London to the Bristol Channel took only a few days, it was only the vicissitudes of English climate that he was expressing. So, my supposition that the time on his bicycle on a country trip helped break the cycle of hack writing is likely wrong. And more than the time-span says this. The book internally shows evidence of work for hire. Parts of it are uninspired writing—prolix and tangled  writing at that—which is doubly surprising given that Thomas’ poems are usually so sharp and short, where every word tells. The book contains digressions which may or may not have been conventional in English travel books of the time, but they vary in quality and subject. At one point he simply begins to tell a folk tale about two sisters for no reason I can discern. Some of the digressions geek-out on detail. There’s a monolog on clay pipes that I quite enjoyed, which might still pass today as a post on a hipster blog. His shorter discussion of “waterproofs” (rain gear) for bicycling would gather likes in a post today too.

Edward Thomas 2

“I have discovered that sellers of waterproofs are among the worst of liars, and they communicate their vices with their goods.” Even today, many all-weather bicyclists would agree with Thomas.

 

Thomas’ hack work included literary reviews, and there are mini-essays on several English poets thrown in amidst the travelogue. The only living poet this 1913 book dealt with at any length is Hardy (Thomas approves of him) but the strange case he recounts of the 18th Century rural poet Stephen Duck lead me to look for more about him. Thomas was reviewing the contemporary early 20th Century Modernists at this time, and no doubt absorbing some of their tactics, but he does not speak of them in the book.

Over the course of the book he spends an inordinate amount of time in village churches and their graveyards, often cataloging the ordinary names of those buried there—not just the plaques enshrining local now-forgotten notables—and he recounts many epitaphs he finds. This seemed padded and tiresome to me at first, but as the book continued I just grew to accept it. Was this a conventional part of travel book writing then? Are the family names or ordinary people particularly redolent of a region in England? I don’t know. But as this practice continued at every town, I recalled again, this is less than two years before WWI changed England and four years before Thomas met his own Eastertide death in that war. Prophetically intended or not, the book’s catalog of graves does begin to tell.

Another Thomas tic, carried over somewhat into the poetry, is his naturalists-level knowledge of plants and birdsong. At one point early in the book he’s riding off in the morning and identifies a great number of the birds calling by their song, and he never seems to pass a plant without knowing it’s common name.  When I think of his much beloved “Adlestrop,”  a poem I much admire, written only a bit more than a year later.  I wonder if he had to restrain himself from cataloging for several stanzas the species that make up “all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.”

When Robert Frost saw the poetry in In Pursuit of Spring,  he performed a task of greater perception than I expected, even though there are lovely phrases, a keen intellect that pops in and out, and an odd charm to the whole thing.  Have you run across the current craze for creating poetry by redacting the greater part of large blocks of text so that found poetry emerges? Frost must have mentally done something like that.

How much of Thomas’ mode of prose expression was warped by the pay-by-the-word and deadlines/assigned topics of hack work I can’t say, but the poet Edward Thomas is all the more remarkable to me after reading this.

No new music today, but since I mentioned “Adlestrop,”  it would be good to remind newcomers that they can hear it. The player is below.

 

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In Memoriam Easter 1915

Here’s a story about a poem appropriate for this Memorial Day, though the story includes three Easter holidays.

First Easter: on Easter 1913 in March, a freelance writer, normally so pressed for a paycheck that he worked 15-hour days writing piece after piece, started off on a bike tour across Britain from his home near London to the south-western coast of England. Of course, there was a paycheck involved, a travel book was planned and resulted, which was called In Pursuit of Spring.

Edward Thomas Easter Bike Trip 1913 crop

Can’t tell the model, but from the front it’s clear that Thomas was riding a classic English “roadster” on his tour.

 

This trip started in overwork and near the ending of a glum winter, and finished in May with true spring; and this bicycle journey allowed the harried writer to expend a bit more focus on his writing. In the book, his trip ends in Somerset England, but a packet of photos he took during the trip indicates that he must have somehow crossed the Bristol Channel to Wales, the homeland of his ancestors. A tell-tale photo with his handwriting on the back was discovered recently, saying it was taken near Tinkiswood, the site of a Welsh Neolithic stone burial chamber. A year later the site was excavated, and 920 human bones were located. Welsh legend has it that staying the night in the chamber will cause any surviving visitor to go raving mad or become a poet. That wasn’t included in the book.

The overworked freelancer who took this journey was Edward Thomas. Shortly after the journey completed, he met a then little-known American poet who’s work Thomas had reviewed perceptively. The poet was Robert Frost. Frost read In Pursuit of Spring  and suggested that Thomas should write poetry.

“How so?” asked Thomas.

Frost told him that Thomas had already shown close readings of the book of nature and the rhythm of verse in passages in In Pursuit of Spring.

So, at this time Thomas began writing poetry, extraordinary poetry that is little known in the United States, but which is much loved by poets and readers in the U.K. Some of it so concise and so infused with deep attention to the natural world’s calligraphy that it rivals classical Chinese and Japanese forms.

And World War I breaks out.

I’ve already written about Thomas’ dilemma in deciding if he should enlist in the war, and Frost’s part in Thomas’ ambivalence, so here I’ll just say that Thomas did enlist. The records say it was in a company called “The Artists’ Rifles.”

Can Americans of our time imagine such a military organization? Of course, artists of all kinds have served in America’s military services, but I can’t envision that sort of name being used here in place of something like “The Screaming Eagles.”

Edward Thomas' company in training with Thomas in rectangle

Thomas’ company in training camp

 

The second Easter: the somber name today’s poem was published under was not his. Thomas in his manuscript simply wrote down the Eastertide date in 1915 when he apparently wrote the first draft of this, two years after he’d started the trip that had indirectly formed him into a poet. That summer he was even stationed for a while on military training in one of the towns he’d passed through on the bicycle journey.

But never mind the name, what a poem. It’s four lines, a single quatrain. Nearly every word is telling, even ones you slide over in the first line. Decades later Pete Seeger wrote a song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,”  condensing an episode from a WWI novel expressing a similar idea to Thomas’ poem. Seeger’s song is not long as songs go, but it’s a good length for a room to sing along with. Thomas’ poem has only started when it comes to its fourth line. The previous line breaks abruptly, enjambed, with “should,” and its final line reveals itself as it unwinds in heartbreaking fashion.

And Thomas? A third Easter: another spring, 1917. His diary entry in France wonders if the enemy is unseen in the fields ahead of him, which he still must view with the precision of a nature poet. He pauses to light his pipe. A bullet pierces straight through his beating heart that, will, do, never, again.

To hear my performance of the poem eventually published as “In Memoriam (Easter 1915)”  use the player below.

 

 

 

Additional notes:  There’s a new paperback edition published a couple of years back of In Pursuit of Spring,  which includes for the first time the photographs Thomas took during his journey, and it’s available from booksellers. Yes, English people do take up the idea of trying to duplicate Thomas’ bicycle trip today, for example Kimberly Rew, the  guitarist alongside Robyn Hitchcock in The Soft Boys and songwriter and guitarist of Katrina and the Waves, and also the Nick Drake estate manager and vintage bike enthusiast  Cally Callomon, whose plans included riding the trip on a period-correct English roadster bike.

I recognize that Memorial Day is an American Holiday, directly derived from the post American Civil War Decoration Day. I know this blog has a large segment of U.K. readers, so to explain: in the U..S. we have two holidays celebrating the armed forces, Memorial Day, which retains some of it focus on honoring the dead who served, and Veterans Day, which is the U. S. holiday that coincides with Remembrance Day. For readers on either side of the Atlantic who’d like to hear the LYL Band present a performance of an American poet for Memorial Day, here’s Carl Sandburg’s “Grass.”

 

There is another sunshine Part 2

As I warned everyone yesterday, I seem to like Daze & Weekes Sunshine Blogger questions a little too much. Longest post ever…

1. What inspired you to start blogging?

The Parlando Project started out as a podcast, which I wanted to be just the short audio pieces combining various words (mostly poetry) with as varied music as Dave and I could produce, presenting just the piece itself, without chit chat. The Parlando Project is available on all the leading podcast sources, it still can be consumed that way, even though it’s not a podcast as the form is now expected to be. In contrast, I loved how pop music radio operated in my youth, when bang bang you’d hear 3 minute records by Aretha Franklin, The Zombies, Slim Harpo, The Beatles, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, James Brown and Bob Dylan all jumbled together without any defenses of their value other than the glorious, various, numerous sound that came out of the speaker grill.

But, some folks will want to know something about the pieces, and rather than rambling on mic about them, the “show notes”/ blog entries began to get more elaborate as the project went on. Last summer I started to think of the blog as the main thing instead of the adjunct thing.

2. What is your favourite post on your blog?

My favorite (losing u, and crossing the ocean—which sounds like the germ of a might-be-too-half-clever song)? The blog post is one of my shortest, and the audio piece doesn’t even have my voice, but The Garden of Trust  is the Parlando Project piece that moves me the most. I’d tear up when I was mixing it.

By far the most popular piece has been George Washington’s teenage love poem, “Frances.”  Why? Illuminati web-bots boosting Washington’s hits? Angsty teenagers? Xerxes fans looking for a break from Purim?

3. Who are the top 3 bands/musicians that most inspire and influence you as a musician?

Oh, this is so painful. The list should be more like 300. Even though the blog is about “Where Music and Words Meet,” I must rein back from talking about music on the blog or I’d wear a reader out. Doesn’t everyone understand that the book and movie “High Fidelity”  is a documentary and has no funny parts whatsoever?

Artists—just as important in some regard to me—will be left off! You ask three, so I’ll focus on musicians associated with words that motivated me most generally, and not singer-songwriters.

Frank Zappa. I met him and talked with him for a bit more than an hour in 1970. Reformed me artistically from a romantic to something else in that short of a time. I don’t completely share Zappa’s Dadaist sensibility, which is something like Dave Moore’s, but I need that to buffer my tragicomedy, even when it offends me. Here was a guy who didn’t separate R&B, rock, jazz, and “classical”/serious composed music. There was nobody who did that before him, and there’s nobody that’s done it since, so I try to do it at a lower level.

The Patti Smith Group. I could fill a list somewhere between 50 and 100, of artists who combined music with spoken/chanted word and poetry, therefore influencing the Parlando Project in doing the same; but if I had to pick one, it’d be the PSG. I’d read Patti Smith on the page before the PSG, and so I was already primed, but their first single and LP galvanized me when they came out. Taken together they are predominately spoken/chanted word records with co-equal music that’s not just a background sound bed. Obviously, there’s a sensibility there that comes from Patti Smith, but I’m saying the Patti Smith Group not just Patti Smith. Lenny Kaye from the first poetry readings with just Smith and Kaye on electric guitar had to invent something new with whatever musical chops he had on hand. I still think “What would Lenny Kaye do?” when working with a poet, and the younger Smith’s ecstatic vocal style, along with the other modes she added since then, is something I still aspire to.

John Coltrane. In regard to musical chops on any instrument, I’m not John Coltrane’s left pinky. I even have trouble faking saxophone lines. I like his later free jazz recordings in small doses, and appreciate the concept, but I can’t listen to it for hours, but when I’m most troubled or down on myself, listening to prime era John Coltrane just sets me vibrating with him on a molecular level. If I had to suggest a syllabus for a course on being an artist (any field) I’d suggest a John Coltrane biography or two. To me they’re like reading the life and sermons of the Buddha must be to Buddhists. It’s this, and his uncanny ability to speak wordlessly on his instrument, that makes me include him as a music/words influence.

Apologetically, I’ve just realized that none of these are musicians who are invariably easy to listen to; that they all have more detractors and “does nothing for me” listeners than fans. Two out of the three even offend on purpose when they wish too. That’s not representative of the whole of my musical influences, or how I want art to always work—but these are three who moved me to do work. If you want to stream a musician you haven’t heard of until you read it on a blog, then I suggest Bill Frisell, Steve Tibbetts, or Dean Magraw, all of whom have a breadth and beauty to their work I try to emulate, both as a guitarist and in my use of percussion.

Mason Zappa Cale Patti Smith Television bill
That last show in particular sure looks worth $9.50

 

4. If you could have a drink with any poet (alive or dead), who would it be?

Once more my love of variety makes for a hard choice. Often if asked, it would be the poet I’m trying to interpret with performance and music on that day! That said, I’ll say Emily Dickinson. I’d so want to tell her “You’re going to win! You and the immoral Mr. Whitman are going to be the founders of American poetry. Every single day, people are going to read and be pleasantly puzzled by your little verses, and esteemed writers will look at what you did and wonder how you could invent such a new way to speak poetically.” I’d want her to answer all the Sunshine Blogger questions and more, and finally, though we’d be challenging bladder capacity by then, I’d want her to dish.

sunshine

Alas, Emily Dickinson has no blog and can’t  be nominated

 

5. If you could go back in time, when and where would you travel?

Easy first part. I’d target the first two decades of the 20th Century. I’ve always been drawn there for some reason, even though it’s not a period that gets much attention generally. That feeling has only intensified from my need to draw largely on works in the Public Domain (pre-1923) for the Parlando Project. Modernism in a lot of delicious flavors was breaking out all over, and in every art. Politically, a challenging time of vast inequality, but also a time of great hope that change was at hand. So, like time-travelers everywhere I’m going to expect to be reasonably well-off—but where to land?

If New York City, a chance to observe the melting pot at its most brimming. Visit the 1913 Armory Show to watch the onlookers’ new eyes seeing for the first time the paintings by the new eyes? Hobnob with the political, social and artistic radicals, some of them recently emigrated from my own family’s base in south-eastern Iowa like my “cousin” Susan Glaspell. Maybe fake a letter of introduction from my grandparents and ask Susan to show me around the Provincetown Playhouse and Greenwich Village? Meet Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Or Chicago? Meet Carl Sandburg and his young family. Swing by the offices of Poetry magazine and suggest to Harriet Monroe that she should read my blog (grin) for tips on hot new writers. Ride with Fenton Johnson in his electric motor car, and refrain from telling him he isn’t going to win and that there’s nothing I can tell him with my extra century of knowledge that can change the racial ignorance and prejudice of America between his time and now.

Or Paris. Meet Apollinaire, Reverdy, Picasso, Satie, and—oops! my French speaking skills are non-existent. OK, next.

London. That’s it! Frost! Pound! Yeats! HD! Florence Farr! George Bernard Shaw! Crash the Poets Club to meet T. E. Hulme and hope I don’t get on his bad side. Sit close to F. S. Flint as a cover and act like I know him. Ask Flint about Herbert Read. Learn to play the Yeats’ psaltery and find out exactly what the Yeats-desired music “chanted, not sung” style sounded like. Slip Rupert Brooke a can of Deep Woods Off and suggest he look up Pound. Visit with Rabindranath Tagore in Hampstead. And the clincher for London? Buy a Raleigh bicycle with a Sturmey Archer 3 spd hub and a kerosene headlamp and ride around town. Why is that the clincher? I’m an introvert. Sadly, I might never make those social connections, even after traveling through time, but the bike ride would be worth it.

1910_Raleigh
Yeats, Pound, HD, Frost, & Flint…tally ho and toodle pip!

Next up, my Sunshine Blogger questions and nominations.

The Return of the Exiles

It’s been too long since we featured one of the looser live performances of the LYL Band here at the Parlando Project, and with the interval, it’s also been too long since alternate voice Dave Moore has been featured. Given that we’re running up to Halloween, and that Dave has a long-standing interest in fantasy and scifi, it’s time to redress that.

Today’s piece is Dave’s adaptation of a short story by Anglo-Irish writer Lord Dunsay from Dunsay’s fantasy collection “The Book of Wonder”. The story is called “The Return of the Exiles.”

Avebury stone circle

Yes, it’s Avebury, not Stonehenge. Poetic license applied for.

 

Lord Dunsay is one of those writers who had a long successful career during the first half of the 20th Century, but who now gets mentioned more as an inspiration than read as a writer. His Wikipedia entry has one of the longest lists of writers who’ve acknowledged him as an influence that I’ve run across. Everyone from Tolkien to Gaiman has tipped their hat to Dunsay.

Lord Dunsay

Dunsay served in both World Wars and the Boer War.

 

Besides writing, Dunsay appears to have served in three wars. One hopes that future soldier-writers will be able to avoid reaching that achievement.

Dave adapted the short story to make it more musical, but his telling is generally faithful to the original. One detail retained, that I personally liked, is that our narrator is on a bicycle journey as the story begins.

To hear “The Return of the Exiles” use the player that should appear below.

Biking on the Greenway with My Son and Bob Stinson

Minnesota goes wild in spring when it finally gets warm, and so today, which promises to touch 70 degrees, will surely display this. Like the day described in today’s episode, I’ll probably go for a bike ride with my young son, and we’ll ride on The Greenway, a several mile reclaimed railroad cut that runs, as time does, east and west through the middle of Minneapolis.

Raising a child as a musician, writer, and sometime bohemian brings extra questions. Do you want your child to follow the most conventional and unquestioning path? Certainly not. You encourage him to question things, even allowing that this will encourage him to question you. You look at your own life backwards as you look at his coming forward, and wish him adventures, but only so much. You know there will be hardships and wrong choices, but you hope only enough to be instructive. As an artist you may worship art, but you’re not sure you’re comfortable with him adopting all the tenants of that religion.

Today’s piece “Biking on the Greenway with My Son and Bob Stinson”  speaks of this from the seat of a bicycle.

Bob Stinson was the animating force in The Replacements, an ‘80s punk band that never tried to split the difference between insouciance and not giving a @#*&. As a guitarist he was an anarchist, and the band accidentally worked like the NY Dolls, the Kinks, or the Rolling Stones, with a great front man who had the lyrical wit and the staggering lead guitarist who embodied the music’s soul.

replacements on the greenway

The Replacements sit and wait for The Greenway bike path to come through. Bob Stinson, middle left.
The guy on the left is an artist. The guy on the right played in Guns and Roses. The guy on the middle right, writes songs.

The Replacements’ front man, Paul Westerberg, was quickly indicted as a fine rock’n’roll songwriter, which damaged the band because songwriting implies loitering with intent to commit James Taylor. The band rebelled by making sure that a regimented presentation of a set of songs was not the aim. On any given night, this could be inspiring or a shambles: Dada or do-do. Being blotto on stage to the point you couldn’t hide it was almost a requirement, and for no member of the Replacements more than for Bob Stinson.

Eventually the dichotomy demanded an ostomy, and Bob Stinson was asked to leave the band he founded. Things did not go well for Bob without his artistic outlet, and chemical dependency played out its run until he died, his body worn out at 35.

Self-destruction aside, you can see that as path of purity. Chasing after success and an ego-driven desire to rise above others can harm too. The addict and the monk believe they have two different gods, but they have the same scourge. Negation and creativity; the not this, so this can emerge, is part of the religion of art.

Music, Minneapolis, and life are different now 30 years later, and that’s the place my son now lives in. Somewhere 30 years on from today will be the place he will live in, no longer young, if he survives rebellion and conformity, if he finds the balance between the worship of the self and self-destruction.

This is National Poetry Month, so in the spirit of the Replacements, this is a post more about music, and the music in “Biking on the Greenway with My Son and Bob Stinson”  is not all that polished, tossed off by the LYL Band in one take. Still you might enjoy clicking on the player below and listening to it.

The Spring 2017 Top 10

Since this is National Poetry Month in the US I’m hoping that I can exceed the usual 7 to 8 posts a month pace I’ve kept up here since the Parlando project began last August. The next audio piece should be up this weekend. For those who haven’t read the early posts here about what the Parlando project is, I usually summarize it as:

The Parlando Project is words (mostly, but not always poetry) accompanied by music (various kinds).

The Parlando audio pieces have been downloaded by podcast subscribers since launch almost 4,000 times. Given that we are now past the halfway point, I thought it might interesting to let you know what the “Top Ten” downloads have been so far. In Casey Kasem form, we’ll count it down upwards from 10 to 1. There are links in the list if you missed one of these audio pieces and the posts about them.

10. The Spring of Dead Things. One of the 3 pieces in the top 10 where I wrote the words. That’s OK with me, but one of the Parlando Project aims is “Other People’s Stories” which leads me to feature other people’s words more often than not. There’s lots of folks reading their own poetry out there, which is good in itself—but there’s lots of people reading their own poetry, so think there’s an unmet need for reading others work.

9. The Garden of Trust. One of my personal favorites. Weston Noble’s thoughts on the power of music, hard-won thoughts he expressed after a lifetime of work, touched me the moment I first read them, and my feeling only deepened when I found I was able to hear him express those beautiful thoughts in a recording made before his death. My thanks again to Luther College for allowing me to use this recording in my piece. If you want to sample one thing that the Parlando Project represents, and it really doesn’t represent one thing, start here.

8. I Felt A Funeral in My Brain. Writing the Parlando music and considering the words for performance has deepened my appreciation for Emily Dickinson, whose words we’ve featured more than any other writer, and I rather like my music for this one as well.

7. For John Renbourn Dying Alone. I hope some of the listeners to this piece who like acoustic guitar music find this a gateway to Renbourn’s music.

6. Arthur Koestler’s Death Song.  Although we’ve featured Dave Moore reading and singing his own work here, and there will be more of that to come later this year, his Top 10 appearance is for a piece where he wrote the words and music, though I performed it.

5. Eros. I sometimes wonder if this one gets a bonus from those searching for or intrigued by its title. Another one where I’m happy with how the recording and the music turned out. I remind myself that I should learn more about Emerson’s Transcendentalist revolution.

4. 2ebruary. There’s no telling what the “bonus” may be that’s lead more people to this piece. It could be the discussion of the movie “Patterson”  in the notes, or it could be the connection to bicycling. Or perhaps it’s the connection to Frank O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” poems that I treasure and try to emulate. If you like this, I have another bicycle ride poem coming up later this spring.

3. Boris Pasternak’s February. We’re into the top 3 now.  I was remarking to Dave Moore during a break in our recording session yesterday, that February rather than April should have been picked as National Poetry Month, as the deep dark end of winter engenders more cruel monthly poetry. Pasternak gets to help prove that point here. One regret I have with what we’ve done so far with the Parlando Project is that I have not received permission to post our version of Margaret Atwood’s “February”  here.

2. Hymn To Evening. Speaking of things I treasure, hearing Phillis Wheatley’s story on the Freedom Trail in Boston is another one. Art is this thing that, unlike even persons, no one can own. Colonialism is a system that crosses oceans to take things from other lands for profit. Art is the system that sends out messages that can crisscross time and oceans with the information inside our breasts.

dollar-bill

we’re offering pictures of our #1 Parlando Project author for only one dollar

 

1. Frances. Interesting that two pieces from the colonial United States are 1 and 2, and that a piece with words by an young amateur poet tops the list. Maybe this is a tribute to the Pixies/Nirvana loud/soft arrangement trick in the music? Or that when it comes to subjects, love conquers all? Or that acrostics are about to become a thing?

Please continue to read and listen this month. I have a lot of planned pieces I’ll think you’ll like coming up here. Remember that the Parlando Project seeks variety in music and words, so you may hear things you like as well as not like as we go along, but stick with us as we want to continue to surprise you. I also want to thank those that have hit the like buttons on their favorite posts, and those who have hit the RSS button to follow this blog.