Even with its most popular and well-known poems, poetry works, works its impact, one reader, one listener, at a time.
Doing this project leads me to read a lot of poems. I’ll go through whole collections, entire anthologies, looking for things that I suspect I can create music for. That sense, “This could work with music” is hard to quantify. I’ve noticed repetition and refrain will often cause a second look. Longer poems will need to presently suggest selections as I’m seeking sub-5-minute pieces. Yes, graceful lines that sing on the page for whatever reason will suggest music. An image or an incident vividly depicted that grabs me will ask me to stop and consider it. Oh, I don’t really know, can’t say for sure, how I select things for this. I’m happy with it being a mystery, and I hope you, reader/listener are too.
Sometimes that attraction is strong though. The moment I finished my first reading of Jean Toomer’s “Her Lips are Copper Wire” I knew I had to write music for it and do my best to realize it in performance. Perhaps I can’t say why that is. Little matter. The pull, the attraction, was undeniable.
This Surrealist love poem, like E. E. Cummings poem from last time, was written before the first Surrealist Manifesto, and is proof Americans could use English in this mode early in the Modernist era. Long time readers here will know I sometimes like to mesh in Blues and Jazz flavors with my music,* but Toomer, an early Afro-American Modernist, seemed to have already suggested that with this poem, so that I didn’t have to underline the point. I suppose it just strongly communicated the wonder of desire to me.
This poem was placed into Toomer’s Modernist masterpiece, the book-length mixed-form “Cane.”
It’s National Poetry Month, the reason I’m going through early Parlando Project pieces to present a more rapid posting schedule here this April. NPM tries to increase interest in poetry, but it’s hard to get a read on how significantly it achieves that. Arrayed against it is every poem someone didn’t “get” for whatever reason. Every poem that says only “Care about what I’m saying, even though you won’t understand,” poems without the bridge to “Here’s how you connect to this.” Every poem that bores us keeps us from poetry, and we are so easily bored. How many poems does it take to put up a wall against poetry, and will putting a poster on that wall dissolve the wall?
Is this the fault of the poets, their poetry? Is that the fault of us, the readers/listeners? Are there social structures that surpass us in enforcing this distance from the art? That’s a mystery. I don’t know the answer. But I know that once in awhile I come upon a poem like “Her Lips are Copper Wire,” and like another Surrealist love poet Paul Éluard I’m left compelled “to speak without having anything to say” — anything to say other than the words of this poem. That limerent pleasure is likely why you’re here, reading this, and listening to the performance of Toomer’s poem. Thanks to that mystery and you.
No lyric video today, but you can hear my performance of Jean Toomer’s poem with a player gadget below. Don’t see that? Well, this highlighted link will also do the job.
Just suppose that back in the 1920s someone wanted to record a Blues song based on Emily Dickinson’s “A Soul selects her own Society,” and so they waxed a 78 rpm platter at Paramount records “New York Recording Laboratories,” located back then in, well, Wisconsin.*
If they did, it might sound a little like this.
We offer this sort of nonsense as part of our celebration of National Poetry Month. Then again, maybe it’s not nonsense. Dickinson’s poem does fit into “Old Weird America” and its music shockingly well. Why’s that?
As best as can be determined, Dickinson wrote “A Soul selects her own Society” during her highly-productive mid-19th century, but for a variety of reasons, this poem, like almost all the other poems that she wrote, wasn’t published until near the end of that century. Somewhat “regularized,” Dickinson’s poetry was bound then into book-length collections that sold well for poetry by an otherwise unknown author, partly due to the myth of her eccentric later-life used as hype for the verse, and because some of her poetry was disarmingly informal and approachable — at least on the surface.
Literary poetry gradually began to take notice of her. I presented Sandburg’s audacious mention of her in 1914 as an “Imagist” earlier this month, and over the course of the 20th century her work has eventually been judged as important as Whitman’s in presaging 20th century Modernism. Now, I daresay that if one was to survey living poets in 21st century America for what 19th century American poet they read, admire, and use as an influence, Dickinson would beat out Whitman — and those two would leave the rest of the field far arrears.
What else happened around the beginning of the 20th century, but took serious critics and culture a while to notice? Afro-American secular music — Blues and Jazz — which would come to significantly define American music internationally and become the dominant strain of our country’s music ever since. Americans were highly important in English language poetic Modernism.** Afro-Americans had their Modernist revolution to offer too, and a great deal was musical in this era.***
So, in another way, this unlikely pairing of Dickinson and Blues isn’t as odd as it seems.
Three ways to hear this performance of speculative fiction: a graphical player is below for a portion of you, but if your way of reading this blog doesn’t show that, this highlighted link will also do the job.And the new lyric videos we’re doing this month is the third way to hear “Soul Selector Blues.” Oh — it’s not your speakers or computer — it’s supposed to sound like a Paramount 78 RPM record!
*Port Washington Wisconsin to be exact. I’m not entirely sure why Paramount Records wanted to make it sound like it was in New York, perhaps for prestige, and despite the name they had no connection with the motion picture company Paramount either. What was a record company doing in Wisconsin anyway? Well, they made furniture (the upper Midwest was a timber source) and that led them to make cabinets for the new entertainment device, the phonograph. And if they made phonographs, why not seek another income stream from the “software,” the disks to be played on them?
If you choose to view today’s lyric video you’ll see a sampling of how they marketed to Black Americans variously (I can hear the meeting: “Who really knows what they like and will buy…”). High culture to gut-bucket, spirituals to sexual rebels (Ma Rainey’s “Prove It On Me” is about exactly what the illustration on its Paramount ad might lead you to think it was about). They had a pitch for your money and ears.
**Curiously, almost exactly 50 years before the “English Invasion” brought British rock’n’roll bands to the U.S., a small but influential group of Americans were over in England evangelizing poetic Modernism. Were The Beatles payback for Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot?
***Even literary minded Afro-American writers, critics, and poets weren’t necessarily ahead of the curve in seeing Jazz music and Blues lyrics as an authentic Modernist revitalization of tired-out existing tropes at first. Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg were exceptions a century ago in seeing this.
It’s Black History Month, and I’m planning on presenting a series focusing on Langston Hughes’ first poetry collection: The Weary Blues — butbefore we get to today’s new Hughes’ piece, let me briefly set down a few reasons for why Langston Hughes.
This project presents early Modernist poets most often. From the American predecessors of Modernism (Whitman, Dickinson) we often jump to those of the 1905-1926 era who sought in various ways to “make it new.” While I continue to read and have interest in post-1926 work, less of that can be reused freely for this project. This reduces the Afro-American sources free to use, as the beginnings of the Harlem Renaissance have moved into Public Domain slowly, year by year, since this project began in 2016. My earlier Hughes’ pieces, even if they were eventually included in The Weary Blues, were published earlier and so had already moved into PD. It’s only on January 2022 that the whole book’s contents moved to public domain.
Our February focus: Langston Hughes’ first book.
A second reason: look at the title of Hughes’ first book, it includes “Blues.” As we celebrate Afro-American contributions and experience this month there’s an important parallel here. Americans, some of whom set up shop in England and France before WWI, are hugely important in establishing the Modernist break with the shopworn 19th century writing styles. At the same time, Afro-Americans were crucial in doing the same job for music. As I tried to briefly explain last Black History Month, a great deal of the American Black intelligentsia was caught flat-footed by this musical revolution happening around and by them.*
Let’s cut them some slack on that: cultural change is hard to understand while it’s happening, and the quick white adaptation of Afro-American musical ideas in The Jazz Age of the previous Twenties reflected back to the Black community some rough or even derogatory approximations of what was really going on.
Hughes was a young man when he wrote today’s poem. He’d crossed paths with Black intellectuals by then, but he wasn’t fully one of them. His father had cut a bargain for him to go to Columbia to become a professional. Langston skipped out, worked as a cook and at other restaurant jobs; and took to sea working on merchant ships. Hughes came quickly to an understanding of this new music, it’s complexities and its reflections.
Lastly, here’s one of the things I’ve come to understand about the beginning of Modernist poetry in English: there were substantial elements there that sought to strip back poetry, to simplify it to its essence, to make it immediate to an open heart and mind without pre-requisites. This mode was eventually superseded by a more academic and allusive poetry to the degree that some of the best of this early poetic Modernism was set aside or down-rated as simplistic and insufficient.
Over the years you’ve heard me sing the praises of Carl Sandburg, who seems to have been eventually excused away as cornball. But Sandburg was still vital to the young Langston Hughes in the 1920s, and Hughes took Sandburg’s Midwestern American Modernism and applied it to his own heritage and experience. The mainstream of Afro-American poetry retained more of the vitality and working-class connection that Sandburg expressed. Thank you, Afro-Americans.
Let’s move onto the poem I used as today’s text for the performance you’ll be able to hear below. “To Midnight Nan at Leroy’s” is not one of Hughes’ best-known works, though it deserves more attention. Here’s a link to the text. You could skim through it on the page and see the Blues connection, even if it’s not a Blues stanza as printed — though it could be refitted as one — but more importantly, it’s got a Blues sensibility. My reading of the poem says there may be a little playing going on, a little con and double consciousness which the whole of the work will show up. This will let the hip listener say on hearing it “Yeah, you and I know what that’s like.” That’s Blues sensibility.
I think the poem is a dialog. Nan of the title is performing at a club, and she’s expressing some eroticism in her performance. I think the poem’s other voice is hitting on Nan. The opening stanza is that other voice, the un-named man, who’s starts out teasingly acknowledging that he’s getting what she’s putting down.
The second stanza could be either voice. I performed it neutral, even as if it might be a narrator, a third voice. Note the loaded word “jungle” in it, one of the “primitive” adjectives used to describe this new Afro-American art. Primitive isn’t totally a derogatory or diminutive to the Modernists, who remember wanted to remove the cruft of a worn-out culture and get back to an essence; but in the context of a white-supremacist-soaked society it could surely slide over to being that. Black artists with intact self-respect did use labels such as “Jungle” in the 1920s, so it’s not simply an external white appellation, but it sure sounds like they’re partially reflecting with the white culture when they do. Pause at the last line: I hear Hughes’ “And the moon was white” with intent.
The third stanza is the man cheering on the singer/performer Nan, and I think also he’s suggesting that if “lovin’” is her object, he’s ready.
Fourth? Yes, the two get together. I perform this as Nan’s voice. Note Nan’s use of the diminutive “boy” for the man in this part of our dialog. He may have been acting the player in his earlier stanzas, but I think this is an intentional reveal that the male character is less than a fully actualized man. The white moon image returns, and their moments of Black joy contrast against it. One could write a moving essay on this poems white moon image, but I’ve already gone long.** You write it.
The poem concludes by refraining the entire first stanza. I perform in the man’s voice, now sour-grapes-ing the couples’ night. Who put one over on the other in this one-night? Maybe some of both, and maybe external social forces are part of the fate-mix too. Hughes chose to dedicate the poem to Nan, so I suspect his sympathies lie more with her. Another question: is Langston Hughes the unnamed male voice? Hughes’ sexuality is mysterious, and while that’s possible, my estimate is that he’s observing, not writing a poem as memoir here.
I performed “To Midnight Nan at Leroy’s” with my own one-man-band providing the trio accompaniment, and I hope your speakers can handle the bass part. Some of you will see a graphical player gadget below, but other ways of reading this blog won’t show it, so here too is a highlighted hyperlink to play it.
*Last years Black History Month book was 1925’s The New Negro , which included an essay worrying about the dilution of Black uplift and culture from the diversion of frivolous Jazz. Read my post on that essay here.
**As with Sandburg’s short poems, with Langston Hughes here it may help to imagine that you are translating this from Tang dynasty Chinese. The plain English words here could mislead us to think this a mere rote moon/June thing and that Hughes had nothing complex to say.
Life events are conspiring again to keep me out of my studio space to record new pieces — but it just so happens that I have this rocking Blues recorded back in 2007 with the LYL Band that’ll contrast with our pensive Frost meditation on work from last time. Today’s audio piece was made from Frost’s short poem titled “Fragmentary Blue,” now recast as “Fragmentary Blues.”
Unlike Carl Sandburg or Langston Hughes, I have no idea if the 1914 vintage Robert Frost had any experience or appreciation of this Afro-American musical form. A quick search found nothing, even though Frost’s lifetime overrode The Jazz Age, The Swing Era, and even early rock’n’roll.
But as poet Langston Hughes soon discovered, the lyrical expression of the Blues was a vital format worth picking up. A first draft of this post included a long aside about the importance of this Afro-American Modernist form, but on second thought I’m going to take less of our time today so that we can focus on how Frost’s poem can be expressed through that form.
JFK: When you wrote “Come on mama, to the edge of town/I know where there’s a bird nest, built down on the ground” were you talking about what I think you were talking about? (wink wink). Frost: No, you’ve got me confused with another bucolic poet, that’s Charlie Patton — but I believe that’s a philosophic statement about how erotic desire is both natural and elusive. Patton was tuned in open Spanish for that one.”
Blues lyrics often used a stanza format of three lines: one a statement, the second a restatement that may be the same, nearly the same, or subtly varied while still gathering intensity via repetition; and then a third line which can go in any direction the writer/poet/singer wants to take it, though it usually rhymes with the ending of the first two lines. It’s a variation of that ancient and simple poetic scheme the rhyming couplet, but with that repetition allowing for something extra in the balance. And there’s often an element of call and response in the lines: that choral rock, and roll back that Sophocles, Skip James, and Pops Staples could share.
So, let’s go back to our 1914 Robert Frost poem “Fragmentary Blue.”
Why make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,
When heaven presents in sheets the solid hue?
Since earth is earth, perhaps, not heaven (as yet) —
Though some savants make earth include the sky;
And blue so far above us comes so high,
It only gives our wish for blue a whet.
Not in Blues stanza form. Instead, ABBA, and I don’t mean the Swedish pop group.* But Frost has made the center two lines in each stanza a sort of parenthetical, so that lines one and four are natural couplets and the middle two lines are already couplets that can stand by themselves. This means it was easy to turn “Fragmentary Blue” into “Fragmentary Blues.”
Why make so much of those fragmentary blues?
Why make so much of those fragmentary blues —
When heaven presents us sheets of a solid hue.
Here and there a bird, or a butterfly.
Here and there’s a bird, or a butterfly,
Or a flower, or a wearing stone, or an open eye.
There’s some savants say the earth includes the sky.
Some say, some say, that the earth includes the sky —
And the blues so far above us, it comes on so high.
Since earth is earth, it isn’t heaven yet.
Earth is earth. It ain’t heaven yet.
It only gives a wish for blues a whet.
So there you go, via show not tell, we rock up Robert Frost in the Blues form. If you read the two sets of words closely, you’ll see something has changed. Frost’s “blue” on first reading seems a stand-in for beauty, while the Blues treats its namesake emotional dissatisfaction as something less than beauty. But, consider again. Frost’s poem says we miss the immensity of natural beauty in our all too earthward human act of trying to possess its emulations. That difference, that dissatisfaction — that’s the Blues. My adaptation only brings out that subtext more overtly. You can hear the LYL Band express Frost most blues-wailingly with the player gadget below, or with this highlighted hyperlink that will play the performance. Most of the better guitar notes here were played by Andy Schultz who played with the LYL Band for a few times, and Dave Moore will once more hear himself back when he could pound and roll on the (plastic) ivories.
*Is it too late in their career to suggest that they produce a trans-Atlantic Carl Sandburg tribute record? I’m available, and you need my audience of dozens to hundreds of listeners.
This Friday is International Jazz Day, and for a project that subtitles itself “Where Music and Words Meet,” it’s a little odd that I talk less about the musical half of what we do. My project assumes that poetry, even on the page, can be defined as words that want to sing. What manner of tune fulfills that desire? It varies.
Early in this project it became apparent that I was going to feature a lot of early 20th century verse as it was the newest poetry that was clearly available for reuse. This was the time when literary Modernism came to English language poetry, greatly expanding the tactics that could be applied to poetry, and it came in too with an idea that much of what had become expected of poetry was tired and worn out, inauthentic and false.
Almost simultaneously, a very similar movement was happening in music. Though largely segregated from European Modernist composers in person, Afro-Americans were developing at the turn of the century a twisted helix of musics that came to be called Blues and Jazz. Differentiating between those two things is a complex matter. Blues is a nearly inescapable element of Jazz, and Blues is more substantially a vocal music, and so Blues needed a poetry from the start. That means that Blues song lyrics are the Modernist revolution as originally expressed by American Black people, though because of their context and place in American culture this was not understood as such. Like Modernist poetry, Jazz and Blues too demonstrated freedom to use new tactics, and they too wanted to replace tired and false musical tropes.
Poets, even those who intend for their work to be published and read on the page, can’t help but be informed by the music they know and admire. Earlier this month I’ve speculated on Emily Dickinson’s use of 19th century hymn-song meter and a possible connection for her deviation from strict poetic forms informed by her own improvisations on piano. By 1920 we had a Modernist Jazz music coming to America’s attention, and literary Modernist verse, though not without its naysayers, had reached an American audience too. It’s like flame and gasoline, isn’t it? When are they going to meet?
I can’t say what the first Jazz Poem was, or who wrote it. If it was composed by an Afro-American it may have been unnoticed, unpublished, and unrecorded (save by the oral tradition and the folk process which didn’t keep their names). Some of the traditional folk-blues lyrics seem to date from the turn of the century, but they were not printed as poetry then — and even as vocal recordings, the oft-cited first blues record, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” dates from 1920.* The recording history of Jazz predates that a bit, with the all-white but still claiming “Original” Dixieland Jass Band’s broadly comic “Livery Stable Blues” coming out in 1917, and that’s sometimes cited as the earliest Jazz record. Two poems already featured here: Ray Dandridge’s “Zalka Peetruza” and Fenton Johnson’s“The Banjo Player”were available in 1922 for James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry.** The former’s “tom tom” beat and the later’s Modernist free verse could make them Jazz Poetry. Some articles cite Langston Hughes’ “The Weary Blues” of 1925 as the first Jazz Poem, and it is unquestionably a Jazz Poem, but even Langston Hughes had some issues to overcome with it. Back in our February focus on Locke’s The New Negro anthology of 1925, recall that the elders mentoring and gatekeeping The Harlem Renaissance weren’t yet welcoming Jazz into high culture and were unsure of its effect on their project to elevate America’s appreciation of their race.
No, not that Prince’s band. A 1915 example of proto-Jazz and Blues being integrated into society dance music.
Which brings us to the underrated Modernist figure of Carl Sandburg,*** the white Midwesterner who had won the Pulitzer prize for his free-verse poetry in 1919 while being based in Chicago. In 1920 he publishes a follow-up collection, Smoke and Steel containing today’s poem called “Jazz Fantasia.” This too is clearly Jazz Poetry. It appears to be portraying an instrumental performance, and while unlike Hughes’ poem it quotes no Blues lyrics, it’s clearly a Jazz performance with its imitation of horn sounds, the husha, husha, hush of brush work on the high hat, and their sandpaper swish on the snare, the tin can of cowbell, and the knocking pan-metal ring of stick hitting rim.
If not Blues form as such, two details from Sandburg’s 1920 words (here’s a link to the full text of the poem) stand out to me. Half-way in, there’s a car, a cop, and… “bang-bang!” Striking to hear a still modern pain in a 100-year-old poem isn’t it! And the poem’s conclusion makes a case for the breadth of Jazz expression infrequently made in the fad for Jazz during the Jazz Age: that it wasn’t only frantic music with comic musical effects suitable for careless youth further forgetting their cares, but that it could also portray some green night lanterns and the boats ceaselessly beating against the current.
It was imperative to me that today’s musical performance for International Jazz Day must use some approximation of Jazz. I play no brass instruments and I find them hard to approximate with virtual instruments articulated by keyboards, so you’ll hear an anachronistic, more modern, Jazz trio: drums as featured in Sandburg’s poem, guitar, and bass. The player gadget for this may appear below — and if it doesn’t, this highlighted hyperlink will also play my performance of Sandburg’s “Jazz Fantasia.”
*In 1903, Afro-American composer W. C. Handy encountered a Blues playing guitarist in Tutwiler Mississippi, noted he was singing a Blues song with recognizable Blues lyrics. He thought the music was “The weirdest thing he’d ever heard” but by smoothing it off and adopting it to the composed brass band and society dance music he was familiar with, he made use of those Blues elements.
**Other examples of Jazz Poetry influenced writers I’ve managed to sneak in here are Kenneth Patchen who read to Jazz music, Le Roi Jones/Amiri Baraka, a poet who also wrote widely about Jazz, and even words by Laurie Anderson who was influenced by fellow Chicagoan Ken Nordine who had released several LP records he called “Word Jazz.” The music on Laurie Anderson’s recordings doesn’t read as Jazz to most, but focus instead on her voice and you’ll hear that same ‘50s cool jazz phrasing.
***I often make the case here that Sandburg’s poetry contains some admirable examples of the compressed and spare Imagist aesthetic, but besides poetry he’s intimate with the rise of photography as an art via his wife’s brother Edward Steichen, he was reportedly the first daily newspaper cinema critic in Chicago, and he was an important popularizer of American folk music.
And speaking of Langston Hughes achievement, Hughes’ early poetry often sounds unmistakably to me like he had “heard” Sandburg and taken some of his riffs into his own heart to be further extended by Hughes’ personal familiarity with the Afro-American experience.
Continuing in my celebration of Black History Month, I’m going to return to the 1925 anthology that is often thought of as the launching point of the Harlem Renaissance, The New Negro. This book’s editor Alain Locke wanted to demonstrate the breadth of new expression by Afro-Americans in his time, and so concentrated on young and living artists for the most part. In traveling back to 1925 to visit this book, I have to readjust myself to the way Locke and his alternate presenters frames these young artists compared to how someone might do so today.
Each essay I’ve read so far in The New Negro is written in a careful and august style. Don’t get me wrong, the style is not overly academic, and the introductory essays don’t descend into esoteric terminology. It appears that Locke wanted this book to speak to any educated person, white or Black — and probably to non-American’s too. But there’s a focus on the fine arts and how Afro-American work may be measured favorably in those fields — and then some discomfort with the popular arts where Afro-Americans are also increasingly visible to white folks.
There are some complex reasons for that, more than today’s post will have time to go into in any depth. The simplest heading for a large concern there is “minstrelsy,” the long-standing and once highly popular American tactic of using Black characters to represent unvarnished and unrepentant foolish and clownish behavior,* extended often through the use of white actors or artists portraying Black characters. In the popular arts, some of the breakthrough “cross-over” artists of Locke’s time were working off the grounds of this comic and derogatory white approximation of Blackness, giving them back a Black reflection of a racist white reflection of Blackness. Tough way to work!
Midway through I’ve come to the book’s section on music, and in this case Locke himself leads off that section with an essay somewhat different from the main thrust of the book, a lengthy appreciation of “The Negro Spirituals,” a folk music form with almost entirely anonymous composers that came to cultural attention in the 19th century, not in his modern 20th. Locke deftly deals with the dialect of those lyrics, and even at times concedes a judgement of simplicity on the music, countering by pointing out the — well — spiritual concerns, and the evident depth of feeling. He points out that European composers had long been drawing on that continent’s folk music and orchestrating it for concert halls** and suggests the same may be a path for Spirituals going forward.
The next essay in the Music section of The New Negro does speak to a 20th century Afro-American form, one not yet considered a fine art: “Jazz At Home” by J. A. Rogers.*** Rogers has a lot to say in his essay, and for someone like me who many decades later became interested in Blues, Jazz and their descendant forms, it’s interesting to see how one intelligent Afro-American in the middle of the emergent “Jazz Decade” of the 1920s viewed this music. Here’s a few excerpts that will give you the flavor:
The Negroes who invented [Jazz] called their songs the ‘Blues,’ and they weren’t capable of satire or deception….[Jazz] is a release of all the suppressed emotions at once, a blowing off of the lid, as it were. It is hilarity expressing itself through pandemonium; musical fireworks…..in idiom — rhythmic, musical and pantomimic — thoroughly American Negro; it is his spiritual picture on that lighter comedy side, just as the spirituals are the picture on the tragedy side. The two are poles apart, but the former is by no means to be despised and it is just as characteristically the product of the peculiar and unique experience of the Negro in this country.
Jazz, it is needless to say, will remain a recreation for the industrious and a dissipater of energy for the frivolous, a tonic for the strong and a poison for the weak. For the Negro himself, jazz is both more and less dangerous than for the white — less, in that he is nervously more in tune with it; more, in that at his average level of economic development his amusement life is more open to the forces of social vice….Yet in spite of its present vices and vulgarizations, its sex informalities, its morally anarchic spirit, jazz has a popular mission to perform. Joy, after all, has a physical basis. Those who laugh and dance and sing are better off even in their vices than those who do not…. It has come to stay, and they are wise, who instead of protesting against it, try to lift and divert it into nobler channels.”
The “Um, actually…” annoying and opinionated pedant in me wants to correct him at times,**** which when you think about it, is presumptuous. I’ve got decades of scholarship and hindsight that I didn’t have to do myself to prop me up. Rogers couldn’t listen to Charlie Patton records anytime he wanted to in 1925, so if he thinks Blues was sorrowful and was “incapable of satire or deception” I can’t bring him my evidence back to his time. And if he views Jazz in 1925 as merely happy-go-lucky, is he a reliable first-hand witness to his time and place that I’m not — or is he reflecting the types of Jazz that found the quickest acceptance by broader audiences including whites? Rogers lived long enough that it’s possible he could have listened to “A Love Supreme” before he died, and if so he would have found there the spiritual jazz expression he predicted.
So here I am, some other kind of fool, writing this introduction to — what? — some introductory essays, because directly following Rogers essay in our 1925 book is today’s piece, a poem by another writer who was totally unknown to me: Gwendolyn B. Bennett. She gives us an example of how poetry differs from the typical essay, and it’s not hard to think that Locke consciously chose that position, because her poem extends his and Rogers’ essays, giving us a set of words that are aware of the ideas they wrote about, but Bennett is telling sharply how those ideas feel.
Bennett’s poem, which she called just “Song” is too good to be overlooked, and so despite my current limitations with creating musical pieces I felt I had to present it. One choice I had to make in inhabiting it was just what was Bennett’s overriding stance on the dialectic between Black musical expression — even sincerely joyful Black expression — within an ignorant majority white culture. As in Rogers’ essay, Bennett’s poem seems to be balancing, recognizing the salve of joyful music, and the grace of Black joy and art against Black sorrow. I cannot ask Bennett, but I decided this piece’s performance needed to bring forward the white culture not quite grasping the Black performers’ balancing act, keying off things like the compressed eloquence of lines like “Breaking heart/To the time of laughter/Clinking chains and minstrelsy/Are welded fast with melody.”
In so doing maybe I bring a little white history to Black History Month. After all, it is presumptuous for a white guy to perform a Black woman’s poem, but I can bring my experience of ignorance.
*My cultural curiosity causes me to note that the trope of finding some outsider group to assign the most unalloyed foolishness to for what will be read by the insider group as humor is widespread. See the Rude Mechanicals in Shakespeare, dumb Polish/Irish/Scandinavian/Italian, etc. immigrant jokes, and hillbilly plays. Of course in America, the ways these ready-mades were employed using Black faces on top of the outrages of slavery was extraordinarily cruel.
**Locke also points out the historical link between Spirituals and educated culture in that many of the pioneering Black colleges had raised funds by touring Afro-American choirs presenting arrangements of these songs.
***Oh man, there is nowhere near enough time to discuss Rogers! He doesn’t seem to have been a music writer, but is instead a self-educated and often self-published crusading polymath with an unquenchable interest in every unlit corner of Black history. His books helped inspire a young Henry Louis Gates Jr.
****This is one of my worst personal characteristics. Hopefully I keep it away from you dear reader. Rogers is so concerned with uplifting the race, that he seems to have internalized (from white critics?) a fear that Jazz and Jazz lovers are backwards and that their effects were achieved naively. And many of the most popular jazz records of the 20s were fast numbers that stressed novelty effects, like this one by “The Original Dixieland Jazz Band.” White guys. Um, actually…
Once more let us look at winter-come darkness and see what we see there, this time through Gerard Manley Hopkins and one of his “Terrible Sonnets.”
The name “Terrible Sonnets” is not a review, though I’ll confess that on first hearing of them, that between Hopkins oh-so-British sounding triple name with an extra schoolboy snicker due for the middle name on top of that, that I too wondered what meaning I’d assign to that word “Terrible”. No, my teachers assured me, terrible in the same way that wonderful and awful can be synonyms in strict derivation English.
No, these are poems that have a good scholarly reputation, and some general readership yet today. If there is disagreement about them, it’s not about their worth or poetic quality, but rather if they show Hopkins in a profound spiritual crisis or in a clinical depression. One can find a number of essays online and elsewhere that argue for either, or perhaps both. Either way, this is the night darkness as we often think of it. Yesterday we had Joseph Campbell making a case for a mysterious outward darkness, the exact nature of which is just out of our understanding. Hopkins darkness in contrast is totally intimate. I find it interesting that both of them were writing in Ireland, then still a colonial possession. Campbell may be expressing his country’s subjugation and its ancestors’ sorrow at that in his poem. Hopkins, in turn, was a patriotic citizen of the empire that ruled over Campbell’s country. That’s not a frame I’ll follow up on today due to space, and because Hopkins wrote these poems in the late 19th century and there’s no way to start a Tweetstorm that he can read back then.
Hopkins, about to be pwned for complicity in colonial exploitation, before everyone realized: wait, 1885, no iPhones.
Here’s another frame, another one with roots in colonialism and subjugation. In America we have a form, the Afro-American Modernist form forged around the same time that some white Americans were over in London helping create and popularize Imagism. That form was called “The Blues,*” and to some degree that indigo name has let it be casually and incorrectly considered a sorrowful song. And yes, a lot of bad and sad things are spoken of in The Blues, but it’s generally from a stance of: “Look what’s happened to me, what’s been done to me, the absurdity of it—but I’m still here to tell you about it.”
Today’s piece, using Hopkins’ Terrible Sonnet “I wake and feel the fell of dark,” is not a Blues. But despite the harrowing statement of the inside of this poem’s speaker’s experience, it shares one thing with The Blues that makes it outstanding: “I wake and feel the fell of dark” is full of energy. The description of the state inside the poem is cascading and vivid, coming at you so fast that it seems all at once. If this is depression being described, it’s not the mode of depression that is numbed beyond caring, but the depression that actively calls out and hates the depressive portion of the speaker’s mind. In this way, it shares something with The Blues, it can be cathartic. And indeed, some sufferers of depression (like too, some religious seekers) find the Terrible Sonnets worthwhile as a voice in darkness that can remind them that there are others who’ve felt and seen the same things.
I’ll risk trivializing Hopkins’ revered poem by pointing out two trivial things I noted in looking at the text, as few commentators on Hopkins’ work choose to sink to mundane levels. The section “I am gall, I am heartburn…bitter would have me taste: my taste was me” seems to me to me to be on one level a symptomatic report of the experience of nighttime gastric reflux. And in these days of 2020, with lots of long nights this year before this day of Winter Solstice, Hopkins back in 1885 was prophet enough to speak specifically of our popular pandemic baking fad of homemade sourdough bread in this poem’s line 12!
*The Blues of course is a varied and mutating form whose essence exists beyond the bins carrying that label in record stores or playlist names on your phone. I use it as a name because it’s one that coalesced for the art form at the time it emerged around 1900 in America. I stand to be corrected by my betters in these matters, but I believe the Blues essence remains a vital part of Afro-American expression, and from that, American expression in general. I’m an American musician, and the notes are mostly black.
Robert Herrick wrote in the awkward 17th and 18th century era in English poetry where if you aren’t Milton you get tabbed in the minor poet folder. That didn’t stop Herrick, as he wrote a couple thousand of poems without ever achieving widespread cultural impact. There’s likely some overriding reasons why the gap between the inventiveness of Shakespeare, other Elizabethan poets and John Donne; and then Blake, Wordsworth and the Romantic movement was a fallow period for innovation in English language verse.
What poetry of Herrick’s I recall from my youth had a chaste lustfulness about it—a difficult combination to make work. I haven’t thought much since then about refreshing my experience of his work until I came upon this May Day poem looking for material this spring: “Corinna’s going a Maying.” It’s yet another carpe diem poem, a genre that can’t escape the imprint of the patriarchy on it.* But Herrick doesn’t really launch into the hard-core let’s get it on before we die argument until after a fair number of stanzas that are so much “Spring! Time to get outside and enjoy that frostbite is no longer the charm that nature has on offer.”
And yet this May, a springtime carpe diem poem has a different cast. We didn’t really folk-dance around maypoles much in our century, but this May we know we can not do what we didn’t do. Even the poem’s warning that our days may run out before we know our liberty, dark as that thought may be, is more present.
And yet this May, a springtime carpe diem poem has a different cast. We didn’t really folk-dance around maypoles much in our century, but this May we know we can not do what we didn’t do.
So mopey guy that I can be** I zeroed in on the final stanza, which seemed to have by far the sharpest lines, and if performed alone wouldn’t tax my listener’s patience. Herrick’s “Corinna” is written in rhyming couplets, which was in fashion in his age (as it is for Hip Hop now). Since carpe diem tropes go back to Roman poets, Herrick adopted to his English poetry some verbal riffs from Latin.
So, the die was cast. I would try to perform Herrick’s closing section as a set of blues stanza adaptions. The feel I fell into was my approximation of the Vee-Jay*** records of my youth that featured Jimmy Reed or John Lee Hooker. Unlike ex-big band blues shouter Joe Tuner, Hooker made his early mesmerizing recordings with just voice and electric guitar, but by the time he was recording for Vee Jay they often added drums and sometimes a second guitar to make the records more palatable to the R&B audiences of the late 50s and the early 60s. Which leads to a remarkable thing about Hooker’s Vee-Jay recordings: the singer/guitarist at the center of those recording dates wasn’t the most regular in his song structures. Rather he was steeped in the drifting Delta style where the little breaks and asides were thrown in at various times depending on the feeling he was building in any one take.**** This meant the drummer had their work cut out for themselves in those days before everyone would be asked to sync to a click track and verses are expected to snap to a fixed grid. That “backwards” style where the drummer follows the guitarist has a certain charm to it, and you can see its rock’n’roll descendants in the Rolling Stones and The White Stripes.
All that is to say that it took some precise work to do the loosey-goosey May Day take of what I call “Corinna, Corinna Let’s Go a Maying” even if I don’t sound much like Reed or Hooker. I doubt Herrick would mind too much, after all he was adapting Catullus and Ben Johnson for his times, just as John Lee Hooker was adopting his style to the space and tail-fin age. The player to hear my performance of the final section of Herrick’s poem is below. The full text of the Herrick poem is here. Just jump to the final stanza if you want to read along to my performance.
*Are there any poems written to men from a woman’s perspective that make the argument that they need to get busy with the woman poet because, well, you’re aging and death awaits all? There are male to male poems that fit this genre (some of Shakespeare’s sonnets are examples), but I can’t think of an example by a woman off hand.
**Sometimes I wonder if I hold with songwriter Townes Van Zandt who famously stated, “There’s only two kinds of music: the blues and zippety do-dah.”
***Chicago-based Vee-Jay preceded even Motown as a black-owned record company, and besides recording R&B, jazz and gospel they were the American label that cut a deal in early 1963 to release records by The Beatles. You’d think that would be the beginning of a great success story. That’s not how the record business works.
****Lightnin’ Hopkins was another. Jas Obrecht in his book Rollin’ and Tumblin’ quotes ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons with this tale of a recording session: “We were playing a traditional blues and we all went to the second change, but Lightnin’ was still in the first change. He stopped and looked at us. Our bass player said, ‘Well, Lightnin’, that’s where the second change is supposed to be, isn’t it?’ Lightnin’ looked back and said, ‘Lightnin’ change when Lightnin’ want to change.’”
Let’s launch the Parlando Project’s celebration of National Poetry Month with one more poem about march, about spring, and about joy. And oh, could I use some joy in this uncertain pandemic plagued spring! You too?
I’ve chosen to use this poem, “Written In March,” by British poet William Wordsworth today. National Poetry Month is a U.S. thing—but that’s OK, because I’m going to make him an American for the day by combining his original English rural scene with some American music: the blues.
Lots of folks will think of ways to celebrate poetry this April. The Parlando Project has been doing our odd part for several years now.
This is not so wild a thought as you might think. While Wordsworth is not the kind of early 20th century Modernist that I often feature here, a century before them he helped make a statement for plainer speaking and broader subject matter in his landmark Preface to the Lyrical Ballads in 1801. He famously stated there that poetry is simply “Emotion recollected in tranquility.” Among the things that he and his fellow English Romantic movement poets looked to for influences were folk music and ballads.
American blues was created by the uncrowned Afro-American Modernists of the early 20th century. Since there was very little authentically American “serious music” in 1900, and what there was they weren’t exactly welcomed in it, they created a Modernist form of their own device. We could call it a folk music, but then Louis Armstrong was fairly sure “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.” Musically it used all kinds of things, some of it was from African nations their forebears had been abducted from, some of it was from native American soil, some of it was from other immigrants, some too may have been from indigenous Americans, and some of it had to have been the creation of their own minds, needs, and creativity. Musically it has many descendants, and its core is the greater part of what makes something musical distinctly recognized as American around the world.
That this form could be called “The Blues” was a problematic branding, because the term then and now can be confused with a long-existing synonym for sadness or depression. While there are sad and pitiful blues songs, the typical stance of a blues to trouble is to say that it’s wise to the situation, that even if the singer is beaten down by something, that they’re still here. And many Blues songs are also perfectly happy to be joyous, and that’s the mode I went for today.
So, I maintain that this is a reasonably natural combination. Wordsworth wants to tell us a rural tale of winter’s end arriving, of fields and livestock thriving, of an outdoors that welcomes us again with open arms. In this year’s troubled spring we may not have a full measure of spring’s blessings, but we are still given a portion. Let’s devour the portion we’re given all the more joyously even if the serving may be smaller this year.
I played acoustic slide guitar for this one, using a favorite guitar variety used by early American blues musicians: the resonator guitar invented by Slovakian immigrant John Dopyera. It’s essentially a big pie-plate-sized metal speaker cone driven by the strings of an otherwise more-or-less conventional guitar that houses it. The guitar is retuned to a non-standard tuning that many blues players called “Spanish” and some think may have been learned from Mexican laborers that crossed paths with the Afro-Americans in the southern U.S. I wear a ceramic tube on a finger of my fretting hand to stop the notes, and this sliding tube on top of the strings gives legato note transitions and microtones. Many players can use this slide guitar technique fluidly, giving the guitar a smooth legato note envelope as the only artifact of using the slide, but I also enjoy letting other possible artifacts stand out more, putting a mic near to the fretboard so I can hear the heavy slide strike against the strings or even slap the fretboard wood at times.
Join us over April’s National Poetry Month to see what else we can come up with to surprise you with. If you want to sample the range of different things we do immediately, our archives here have over 400 other examples of words (mostly poetry) combined with original music.
For those that have been following our look at English poet Frances Cornford, we’ll have at least one more example coming of her stuff soon. But now is the time when we count-down the ten most liked and listened to pieces from this past winter.
It’s been a slightly difficult season for this project for me personally. It’s frankly been hard to keep up the level of posting, research, composition, recording, and playing that goes into it. What has been encouraging is the increase in listenership for the audio pieces and your continued readership here on the blog. December set a new record for monthly listens with increases coming significantly from those who hear only the audio pieces from the places where you might get podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, PlayerFM etc.)* During February the number of listens passed the milepost of 50,000 all-time downloads. This is small by the scale of Internet sensations (typically measured in millions) but to me that’s satisfying in the larger, but sparser crowd of those interested in poetic expression.
Readers here on the Parlando Project blog know that besides the same audio pieces the podcast listeners get, you get more information here about the writers and my reaction to what they’re doing. You might think of the blog as a kind of an “insiders ring” in that way. Blog traffic took off last fall, which made my heart leap up, and it’s continued at a similar level over the winter.
Given that I mostly keep with the older pre-1924 Public Domain stuff that is unrestricted in reuse, and because I wander about various musical genres in a way that’d tempt many old car radio listeners to “push the button” and current playlist streamers to tap play next, I especially appreciate those who stick with this project and it’s eclectic tastes!
Let’s go to the countdown. Today we’ll cover numbers 10 through 8 as calculated from listens on all platforms and likes here on the blog. The title of each piece will be hyperlinked to the original post, so you can click and check on what I said about it then.
10. Rimbaud’s “Eternity.” This winter I decided to make things more difficult for me by doing more translations of non-English poetry, adding translation to the whole compose/record the music, play most of the musical parts, research the context of the text, and then write about those tasks. And Rimbaud may have caused me more trouble in translation that anyone other than maybe Mallarmé. I labored to some kind of reasonable draft on two or three Rimbaud poems, but the results just didn’t grab me in English. Knowing that some other poets who I admire think highly of his work, I couldn’t figure out if I was picking the wrong poems, or what.
“Go Rimbaud, Go Rimbaud….” The most famous photo of the teenaged poet.
Then with his “Eternity” I realized—this poem’s impact in French comes from its invocatory power. This is why someone as unafraid of going over the top as the young Patti Smith could be drawn to his writing. Free verse can reach that level, but loosening my translation so that I could (uncharacteristically) render it as a rhyming verse made this one more compelling.
9. “The Labors of Hercules” by Marianne Moore. Marianne Moore writes in English, but her expression is so unusual that I feel like I need to translate her to get to the heart of her poems. Unlike Moore’s contemporary Gertrude Stein, whose verse is even harder to draw denotative meaning from, the task of performing Moore to music is challenged by her conversational rhythms which sound like someone talking.** Not only does this make it harder to fit in regularized music (I didn’t) it tends to lure the listener into thinking that they should be able to comprehend what Moore is getting at. With Stein you’re quickly aware that words are being used in a musical way, so you can just enjoy them for sound value. With Moore you sometimes think that the speaker herself or you the listener are in early days as English as a second language.
A lesser-known photo of Marianne Moore. Like Frost and William Carlos Williams, I always visualize her as if she was born at that advanced age that she was at when I started to encounter poetry, not as this young woman
I’m doing the back-patting here, but I think I helped Moore’s gist come across a bit better by my performance than the poem left sitting mute on the page.
8. “Ghost Blues” by Hugo Ball. Another case where I decided to go with a looser translation in order to vivify the original work for the modern English language user. The original post shows some of the intermediate steps I went through in translating this Dadaist poem from German. One thing that I think I’ve figured out after the original post is that a word that I couldn’t find in any of my accessible German dictionaries, “Gängelschwemme,” is probably a place name. My performance uses “spillway” for it, and still I have no way to know for sure (if it is a place name) if it references something along those lines.
I decided to make this a Dada Blues as it might be loosely rendered by electric players in the blues revival of the Sixties. Unlike a lot of pieces here, this one isn’t really composed. I had setup a loop to see if my translated text might fit to a groove like that. As I sung, I felt moved to plug in an electric guitar as I tried the lyrics.
“Hey, this works pretty good” I thought. I hit record. And one take later this is what you get.
If you’re new here you may notice that all of these are electric guitar pieces in a rock’n’roll context (though “The Labors of Hercules” is more irregular and somewhere in-between post-rock and free-jazz in my mind). Long time listeners here know that’s not what we consistently do. Stick around, the next three of the Winter 2020 Top Ten is coming up soon.
*Just to clarify expectations: the Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet podcast is only the audio pieces themselves, unadorned. While I suppose I could chat about the poems and my music in the discursive and wandering way most audio podcasts do, I don’t do that.
**Back in the 1960s when I first got a little plastic cassette recorder, I took to recording people having casual conversations and then transcribing the words literally. Here’s what shocked me in this practice: the words on the page made little grammatical or syntactical sense. The transcriptions didn’t even match “natural, realistic” dialog in fiction. Our daily conversation is often more avant-garde than we realize; and we are comprehensible to each other orally in ways that we would not be if our speech was turned into page text, through things like timbre, expression, non-regularized conjunctions and connections.
I suspect Stein and Moore were both more exacting mental transcribers of what we actually say aloud than conventional literature expected, and as two women aware of the modernist movement in general (not just literature, but music and visual art) they combined this objective phenomenon with their own aesthetic techniques.