Summer 2021 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 7-5

Let’s continue or count-down to the most listened to and liked Parlando Project piece over the last summer. Today we move to the half-way point, numbers 7 through 5.

Wait, maybe you’re new here. Parlando Project — what’s that? Well, for a little over five years I’ve been presenting combinations of various words (mostly poetry) with original music. The words are mostly poetry not just because poetry has musical elements built into the form, but because I like compression of expression. Typical Parlando pieces are 2 to 5 minutes in length. You may notice that I’m generally not doing poetry written during your lifetime or even mine, and that’s not by choice. American copyright law puts up heavy barriers to reuse of copyrighted work; but on the good side I happen to like some of what went on in the first quarter of the 20th century, and so you’ll see a lot of work by the pioneering Modernists here. One of the benefits of this Project is that I’ve been rediscovering in public what they did to “make it new,” and finding some of their ideas worthy of being revived today.

What kind of music then? I like to think I vary that, composing and arranging for different instruments and sounds. Some pieces are just voice and acoustic guitar (my first instrument), some have fuller arrangements using orchestral instruments, and some pieces use an off-the-cuff rock band. And some pieces use instruments you don’t hear all that often in America, or synthesizer sounds created or modified for the composition.

7. Answer July by Emily Dickinson  We left off with Dickinson’s childhood classmate and “You should really publish your stuff Emily” friend Helen Hunt Jackson. So, it’s a natural segue to this piece that was a bit more popular last spring.

What was I saying about unusual instruments? The main motif in this one is played on a sitar, the South Asian instrument that had a short vogue in The Sixties. Some composers and musicians who encountered sitar took the rich musical heritage associated with it to heart and incorporated, and still incorporate, elements there into music played on other instruments, but unless one wants to invoke a “Don’t be late for the Human Be-In” soundtrack vibe, the sound of the sitar isn’t something Americans get to hear much now, but it’s still a beautiful sound.

I’ve never actually owned one of the complex and somewhat fiddly sitar instruments, though I’ve used more than one “electric sitar” approximation over the years. The practical compromise I’ve come to favor is to use MIDI “virtual instruments” where I can play my guitar with a MIDI pickup and the sounds that come out are decent approximations of the real acoustic instruments playing that note.

Dickinson’s poem I used here is one of my favorite expressions of the ineffability of the summer season, and it seems a lot of you agreed this summer. To hear it again, (or for the first time) you may see a player gadget below. No gadget? Then this highlighted hyperlink is another way to play it.

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6. Over the Roofs the Honey-Coloured Moon by Bliss Carman.  I had fun last month riffing on some late 19th/early 20th century poets’ names, but Canadian poet Bliss Carman’s name easily equals Algernon Charles Swinburne in promising the most in Yellow Book Aestheticism of that period. His audaciousness in the collection that introduced this piece Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics  was to “Imagine each lost lyric [of ancient Greek poet Sappho] as [if] discovered, and then to translate it.”  The first part of that description, which hints at mediumship is outrageous enough, but even the second clause reminds me of my own audacity in avidly translating work from cultures and languages I’m not native or intimate with.

His synthetic results still have their attractions. Sappho — however real and in what particulars she was, thought, and created in her reality — hardly exists. We have but two or three mostly complete poems, and a scattered field of quotes and fragments. We have thick books binding up Shakespeare’s works, and facsimile editions of Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts with every alternative and scratched out word, and yet we reinvent those authors and their work every generation or so, using such ample literary evidence and fresh insight. Carman was more cavalier with Sappho, and the best historical studies and literary scholarship can point out what are likely errors or mere imagining in this man’s early 20th century Canadian Sappho — but Sappho was a lyric poet, and lyric poetry exists in charged moments that seem as present. Lyric love poets may lie, may often prove untrue even if they are sincere during their moments, but isn’t it also so that we may accept those momentary lies if they are beautiful enough?

The player below will let you listen to my performance of one of Bliss Carman’s imaginings of Sappho’s lyrics, or if you don’t see that player, imagine this highlighted hyperlink which will also play it.  Beautiful enough? You decide.

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Dickinson-Carman-Millay Collars and Neckwear

Taken maybe 80 years apart, three poets, their collars and neckwear. Each have their mouths basically in a neutral state though Carman’s is somewhat downturned and Millay has just a hint of a knowing smile. Dickinson seems to be looking right into the colloidal silver on the plate and saying, “I know, I burn you.”

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5. Recuerdo by Edna St. Vincent Millay  Speaking of lyric poets able to interrogate romance, let’s move on to Millay. Each of the bolded listings in this Top Ten is a hyperlink back to the original post when I discussed the work in somewhat greater length, and with this one I compared Millay’s impact in her time to Joni Mitchell 50 years later.

I also wrote about the ambiguity I sensed in the tale of the infatuated young couple and their interaction with the old woman on the ferry. In that reading the old woman is meant to stand, imagistically, for economic and social inequality coexisting in the romantic night within the last time we called a decade “The Twenties.”

Maybe I’m reading too much in this, but it’s as if a great portion of the whole of the novel The Great Gatsby  was condensed into this poem that I can sing in four minutes. Well perhaps the 20th century cared more for novelists than lyric poets, but both Fitzgerald and Millay went through a period before their deaths when they were down-rated and thought too tied to now irrelevant past decades. Fitzgerald got reassessed in the second half of the 20th century while Millay’s examination of society and literary value continued to languish. Now our own Twenties can find its own reading of that previous Twenties. Reading, or listening? Here’s my performance of Millay’s “Recuerdo”  available with the player gadget where present, or with this highlighted hyperlink where it isn’t.

Sappho LXXXII “Over the roofs the honey-coloured moon”

For not the first time here, I need to travel in a roundabout way in time and place to get to today’s piece. Last post, I discussed how little survives of the work of the ancient Greek poet Sappho: only a small handful of more-or-less complete poems, the rest fragments (some as small as a single word).

What caused us to then remember her at all, to collect and care about these fragments? I think it’s largely because the legends that grew up about her combined with the short verses that survive are intriguing. Yes, the ancient Greeks praised her formal poetic achievements highly, but what survives of her writing and biographic legends testify to a poet who lived and writes about love and desire. The compression of the lyric form mixes with the intensity of the erotic themes and the peak-a-boo of their historic fragmentation — the poems flirt with us.

And now for the time-jump. We move to the beginning of the 20th century, from an exotic 7th century BCE Aegean island dweller to a Canadian, a poet with the name of Bliss Carman.* In 1894, Carman and a college friend published a collection of poems extolling the romantic carefree life: Songs of Vagabondia.  Not quite as ecstatic as Whitman or Jack Kerouac, it none-the-less found a public and launched two sequels. Carmen followed this series up in 1907 with what became his most highly praised poetry collection, the audacious Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics.  How’s that? We’ve established there’s only a handful of somewhat complete poems.

Bliss Carman and a depiction of Sappho

Bliss Carman audaciously invented his own extension of Sappho. Sappho is here depicted as being the first poet to chew on the cap of her pen while thinking.

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Carman’s cousin, and fellow worker to establish a Canadian poetry, Charles G. D. Roberts, explained what Carmen did altogether briefly in an introduction to the book:

Mr. Carman’s method, apparently, has been to imagine each lost lyric as discovered, and then to translate it; for the indefinable flavour of the translation is maintained throughout, though accompanied by the fluidity and freedom of purely original work.”

One wishes for more explanation. Roberts’ account reads to me like one of those occultists who receive texts through spirit guides or translate ancient inscriptions by telepathic laying on of hands. However, in reading the entire book I get a sense of a different tactic with the same strategic goal that I’ve admitted in some of my translations and presentations with music: an attempt to make the old text in an old language uniquely accessible to some contemporary readers.

Yes, yes there are dangers in inauthenticity and willful anachronism. Um Actually historical scholarship illuminates things too, but last time I said I understand and find value in those current readers of Sappho who wish to encounter her as if she was a modern gay woman. Carmen wanted his readers back then to get some sense of Sappho’s expression of unboundaried love that the fragments hint at if assembled just so.

His re-animated Sappho is more of a circa 1900 Pre-Raphaelite to Pre-Modernist** one. He eschews rhyme and doesn’t go all out for florid poetic diction. Most of the lines are his, not Sappho’s by any actual sense of translation, and perhaps they are best appreciated in the same way that dialog is in a historical novel. In research this week I understand there were some notes where Carman at least connected a portion of the poems with the corresponding cataloged Sappho fragments, but nothing like this was contained in the published book.

At it’s best, like today’s piece, you get a poem that wears its intent of patinaed timelessness lightly. Here’s a link to the poem’s text if you want to read along.  I particularly like the image of the coupled lovers watching from the bedroom window unknowable ships whose ventures are now safe in port.***

For music today, I’ve turned not to the ancient lyre and flutes of Sappho’s time, but perversely to try for that timeless illusion using synthesizers along with my fretless electric bass. The player gadget may appear below to hear my performance of Bliss Carman’s “LXXXII Over the roofs the honey-coloured moon”  poem. Some blog viewers will not show the player gadget, but then this highlighted hyperlink will play the audio piece if you click on it.

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*I’ll admit it: the moment I read this name, I smiled. I couldn’t tell what gender. To modern ears “Bliss Carman” sounds like a florid pen name on a romance novel, or even a drag queen’s persona, but some reading and research staunched my snickering. In Real Life, he helped establish Canadian literary poetry and his career stretched from the establishment of the Canadian Confederation to the Modernism of the 1920s.

**Look to the youth of not a few Modernists and you’ll find William Morris and Pre-Raphaelite influences, and sometimes well-thumbed Algernon Swinburne poetry collections too. This Wikipedia article on Carman’s Sappho  says it was admired by Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens. Though I have no cite, I could see H.D. and Amy Lowell drawing from Carmen’s version of Sappho too.

***Reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights”  poem with lovers “Futile — the winds — To a Heart in port — Done with the Compass — Done with the Chart!”  Dickinson’s poem would have been somewhat freshly published when Carmen was working, and I wonder if he knew it?