Jazz Fantasia, a pioneering work of Jazz Poetry

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 If it was composed by an Afro-American it may have been unnoticed, unpublished, and unrecorded (save by the oral tradition and the folk process which didn’t keep their names).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.

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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.”


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*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.

Gwendolyn Bennett’s “Song”

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.

Gwendolyn Bennett at typewriter

Gwendolyn B. Bennett at the keys.

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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.

To hear Bennett’s poetic summary of the dues Afro-American music owes to Black History, and my attempted illumination of what non-Black America owes to that art —  however ignorantly —  use the player below. Or if you don’t see the player, this highlighted hyperlink will also play my performance. Want to see the poem’s text? Here’s a link to that

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*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…

I wake and feel the fell of dark

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.

Gerard Manley Hopkins 2

Hopkins, about to be pwned for complicity in colonial exploitation, before everyone realized: wait, 1885, no iPhones.

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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.

Here’s a link to the full text of the poem if you’d like to refer to it.

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 player gadget to hear my performance of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “I wake and feel the fell of dark” should appear below. Don’t see a player you can click on? Well, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to hear today’s audio piece.

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*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.

Corinna, Corinna Let’s Go a Maying

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.

Which is when I flashed on the idea for how to present “Corinna’s going a Maying.”  It’s easy to adapt rhyming couplets to the Blues Stanza (two repeated lines completed by a third rhyming one that often surprises in its completion). And then the name of the woman addressed by Herrick is the same addressed by an American folk song “Corinne, Corinna”  or “Corinna, Corinna”  that’s been recorded by dozens of blues, folk, country, and rock artists. I knew it mostly from Joe Turner’s blues version from the 50s and Bob Dylan’s mildly electric cover from his  Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan  LP.

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.

Hooker 'n' Herrick

“Let that girl go a Maying. It’s in her, and it’s gotta come out!”

 

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.’”

Wordsworth’s March

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.

NPM_2020_poster

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.

The player gadget to hear William Wordsworth’s “Written In August”  played as a slide guitar blues is below. To read the full text of Wordsworth’s original poem, it’s here.

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.

 

Winter 2020 Parlando Top Ten, numbers 10-8

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!

Hugo Ball in metal 1080

“Metal man has won his wings!” I worked this winter to make Hugo Ball The King of the Dada Blues Singers

 

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.

Arthur Rimbaud - the most famous photo

“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.

Young Marianne Moore

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.

Ghost Blues

The story this time is failure, diversion, randomness, and Dada. Some of it’s mine.

After the largely pleasant interruptions of the holidays, I’ve been finding it hard to concentrate extensively on new pieces. This hurts the more intricate musical compositions, research on the context of their original creation and reception, and my fresh translations of poetry not originally in English.

I’m fairly good at limiting one scourge of the modern artist: social media. I get behind on responding to comments here (bad form!), I usually put off reading the blogs I follow to once every week or so. I’ve never dived into Twitter much and have entirely avoided Facebook and the rest. Other artists have other types of engagement with these things, I wouldn’t call myself a model in that regard. Indeed, I’m sure I’ve done this project no favors with my avoidance of these things. I ascribe a great deal of the growth of this audience to random searches and the intentional work some of you have done spreading the word about the Parlando Project. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

So, I’ve carved out the precious time for this. And then, I get to work, a blessing many never get. And sometimes, it just doesn’t happen.

I’ve started and broken off three or four translations this month. I’m often drawn to the more hermetic poets with translation: the ones with wilder syntax, unusual metaphor, elusive meanings. I think what draws me is the same that causes one to open the most mysterious wrapped gift first. What could it be? Sure, it could turn out to be the wrong size or color, or a complete misreading of your interests, but that desire to jump into mysteries is undeniable.

But this predilection does lead to issues with my translations. My goal as a translator is to make vivid to a contemporary audience the images in the original poem. I will not usually make any attempt at carrying over the sound-music to English, but I do like to honor the thinking-music of it, the order and cadence of the original poet experiencing the matter of the poem. This intellectual melody is a great deal of the pleasure I get out of a poem that works for me: that the poet would think and express this first, then this, and finish with that. If each of those is a surprise that I can share, art has happened.

But when taking on a Surrealist or Dada poem, or a poem that claims to be based on disordered sensations,* how can I be sure enough that I grasp the metaphor, divided as always by time, language, culture, but in addition with an aesthetic that seeks to confuse or confound the reader, at least at first.

That sort of thing takes a lot of attention, more than most close readings, even before the task of finding the new English words comes in. And this month, I get only partway in and then feel lost or discouraged—and something interrupts, or my energy flags, and the house of cards doesn’t necessarily fall down, it just remains a bunch of playing cards with no architectural reason to exist.

The closest I got to completing a new translation was this poem by Hugo Ball, one of the original Dadaists. It was the fifth in his series 7 Schizophrene Sonette.

Here’s the original:

Das Gespenst

Gewöhnlich kommt es, wenn die Lichter brennen.
Es poltert mit den Tellern und den Tassen.
Auf roten Schuhen schlurrt es in den nassen
Geschwenkten Nächten und man hört sein Flennen.

Von Zeit zu Zeit scheint es umherzurennen
Mit Trumpf, Atout und ausgespielten Assen.
Auf Seil und Räder scheint es aufzupassen
Und ist an seinem Lärmen zu erkennen.

Es ist beschäftigt in der Gängelschwemme
Und hochweis weht dann seine erzene Haube,
Auf seinen Fingern zittern Hahnenkämme,

Mit schrillen Glocken kugelt es im Staube.
Dann reißen plötzlich alle wehen Dämme
Und aus der Kuckucksuhr tritt eine Taube.

At the point I set aside the translation, here’s what I had tentatively and incompletely rendered in English:

The Ghost

It usually happens when the lights are on.
It rattles the plates and the cups.
On red shoes it slides in the damp
Swaying nights, and you hear its flames.

It seems to run around from time to time
With trumps, likely to play the ace.
It’s careful with the ropes and pulleys
And is recognizable by its noise.

It is busy in the Gängelschwemme
And then its white crown wavers in the wind,
Its tines tremble like cockscombs

With shrill bells it spins in the dust.
Sudden exploding dams are torn apart
And a dove emerges from the cuckoo clock.

Almost done, but I couldn’t figure out that word “Gängelschwemme.” Any reader here have a good solution for that?**  It seems a compound word, the start having some sense of walk or lane I’m thinking and the last part may have some water connection, but as it became hard to continue my focus, the meaning seemed to tumble further away.

And so there I was, days have past, and there’s no new audio piece to post here. It was then that it was like someone spread butter on all the fine points of the stars, and things started to slip.

The image of that exploding dam. I thought of Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks,”  a song about impending disaster. The Blues have their own Dadaist streak,*** but this song is one of those that has a fairly easy to follow plot: a singer who tells us that no matter what he (and others do) to hold back an impending flood, when it comes he will be driven from his home, child, and spouse. There’s an undercurrent to that story if you look at it a second time. He says he has a “happy home.” And surely this great flood (the song is likely a reference to a significant and damaging 1927 American flood) will be destructive. But why is he not taking his spouse and child and fleeing with them at the point when there is nothing else that can be done to stop the flood? Because he can’t? Is he an imprisoned worker forced to work on the last defenses against the flood, or is he racially or economically constrained to leave the area? Is it because even if he knows there’s little chance that his labor on the levees will keep the flood in check, he must try to his upmost anyway? Could it even be possible that he has absorbed the impending disaster in his soul and he’s ready to leave that all behind as the flood has “intended.” Maybe his happiness isn’t as certain as the awesome disaster is.

One could write a novel or short story from that song. In one’s imagination one might link that specific situation to other things. But let’s stay with the lyric impulse, the exultation of the moment.

My new diversion was to turn Ball’s sonnet into a blues. This freed me up to make some more audacious adaptations as I merged the feeling of the lyric of “When the Levee Breaks”  into another re-visioning of Ball’s poem. Doing this in a week of loud yet underexplained**** international explosions creeped into the resulting lyric too. Ball was writing his poem in 1924, but this week it seemed that a “a dove emerged from the cuckoo clock.”

Here’s the blues interpretation inspired by Ball’s sonnet:

Ghost Blues

The lights is on people, but it happens just the same.
The lights is on, happens just the same.
In the swaying nights, you can hear the flames.

Seems to run around, sometimes you see its face.
You see it time to time, see it face to face.
But when it’s got its trumps, likely to play the ace.

It’s careful with the ropes and pulleys, I can tell you boys.
It’s careful with those ropes and pulleys, I can tell you boys.
But no matter how careful, you can recognize it by its noise.

It’s busy at the spillway, white crown wavers in the wind.
It’s busy at the spillway, white crown wavers in the wind.
Peaks are trembling like a rooster’s comb when it begins.

I heard those shrill bells, there was spinning in the dust.
When I heard those shrill bells, there was spinning in the dust.
When the levee breaks, the dams is torn apart.

When the levee breaks, the ghosts begin to walk.
When the levee breaks, and the ghosts begin to walk,
I dreamed a dove emerged from the cuckoo clock.

You can hear me take it on with a quick musical interpretation using the player gadget below. If you don’t see a player gadget (some readers don’t) you can use this highlighted hyperlink instead. In another week, it might be better performed, but it felt good to get it out during this one.

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*Yes, some of my translation failures this month have been with Rimbaud.

**Even though my draft had a tentative idea for “erzene Haube,” I really couldn’t figure that one out either, even if I had put something down in English that I could develop as a comprehensible image. But what comprehensibility did Dadaist Ball intend?

***Part of Bob Dylan’s genius was to not only borrow from Modernist page-poetry but from the Modernist Afro-Americans and some strange folk-songs to create his revolution in song lyrics. Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) also did this extensively.

If one wonders where are the Afro-Americans doing what Pound, Eliot, W. C. Williams, Sandburg, H. D. etc. were doing in the first part of the 20th century—well, the bards of Blues and the creators of Jazz were making their own revolution we are still incorporating and absorbing.

In terms of page-poetry, much of the Harlem Renaissance is still to come into public domain availability, but this insight was one I share and partially derive from them. Also, see literary figures like Fenton Johnson.

****Could it have been a poltergeist that Ball’s poem seems to be referencing?

Fall 2019 Parlando Top Ten, numbers 7-5

Continuing our review of the Top Ten most liked and listened to pieces this past season here at the Parlando Project, here are the next three.

My son likes to needle me by asking what old dead white men I’m presenting today on the blog. What could be my defense? I could respond that many of the poets whose texts I end up using were young when they wrote their poems—but he’s a teenager, and frankly the idea that Rilke wrote his poem “Autumn Day”  that seems to be about the restlessness at the onset of old age when Rilke was still in his 20s wouldn’t impress him. Someone in their 20s may not be ancient to him, but they aren’t exactly young in the way he is either.

And dead? That state is somewhat masked by literature. The writer, especially the poet, is always whispering in your ear. Perhaps we can tell by clues of language if they are ghosts or more present confidants, but they both whisper just the same. Will they lie pretty or tell the truth? Ghosts and the living do both. Are the living wiser, do they know all that the ghosts know and more besides? Only if they have listened to the ghosts.

Are they white today? Yes, plenty pale. I talked to my son this month about the arbitrariness of “Western Culture.” I asked him “Just how white was Socrates? Just how white was Homer?” This week the news announced some finds from a Mycenean grave dating from Homeric times, and the featured picture was a pendant engraved with an African goddess. Well, we don’t have Homer in the Top 10 today, though we do know—however misunderstood and thus transformed—that ancient Greek and Chinese poetry influenced our founding English language Modernists.

Hathor pendant from Pylos gravesite

An African goddess pendant found in an ancient grave in Greece.

 

And none of today’s trio are men today, which shouldn’t surprise long-time readers here.

7. Besides the autumn poets sing by Emily Dickinson. It’s remarkable how much Emily Dickinson, a woman born nearing 200 years ago can seem modern, maybe even more modern today than she seemed to her first readers at the turn of the 20th century. Back then she seemed the quaint and curious poetess, a little rough around the edges technique-wise, but bringing some charming homespun metaphors with just a bit of a gothic edge. Now we may read her as if she had time-traveled to read late 20th century European aestheticians and philosophers instead of Emerson.

I believe we’re more correct now. This old man has listened to the ghosts and they are often dunderheads regarding Dickinson. And besides, as I wrote in my original post about this piece, I think this poem is having some wicked fun with the old white male poets of her time.

As to the missing people of color, let me supply the answer to a clue in that original post. Though disguised by the acoustic music arrangement, I based the changes in my music for this around a cadence from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”

 

6. Song by Louise Bogan. Unlike Dickinson, I had nothing to reassess about Bogan when I first encountered her poetry while working on this project. Bogan’s song is as straightforward in its complexities and contradictions as Dickinson is sly. The stark emotional directness of Bogan’s poem challenged me as a singer. I decided to modify the text by using the classic Afro-American Blues line stanza form, repeating a line to add an opportunity for emphasis and shading.

I partially apologized for my voice needing to be the singer to get this song out as part of the Parlando Project in my original post. I try to not apologize for my musical limitations (doing so helps no one) but this is one of those pieces that I’ve composed for this project that I hope someone who is a better singer will take up.

 

 

5. November by Amy Lowell.  Speaking of the blues, this piece by the born rich and died much too young promoter of concise Imagist poetry Amy Lowell uses bottleneck* slide guitar, a playing method associated with blues musicians.

Which brings me to another side point: American music is American music substantially because it has had Afro-American music to anneal its soul. Strange that: the colonizers’ sin driven by not having enough healthy indigenous people to exploit brought forth upon this continent a new music which is its leading artistic glory. I can’t write a poem much less a sentence to properly express that.

As I wrote in my original post on this piece, I’m still coming to grips with Amy Lowell. I suspect those bohemians who disrespected her were right and wrong, but I have no idea of the proportions. This poem of hers is  quite good I think.

 

 

*I’d read about blues slide guitar, but I can still recall the first time I saw it played (in “The Sixties”) when a teenaged kid from the Twin Cities area named Don Williams removed from his authentic folk-scare Levi’s denim jacket pocket an actual severed bottle’s neck, tuned his guitar I think to open D, and played a John Fahey-ish rendition of Poor Boy (a long way from home).”  Reconstructing that moment, Don (like Amy Lowell) probably had access to material and cultural resources that I a poorer kid from a tiny town didn’t have—what a strange way for the blues to work!—but I remain grateful to this day for the introduction.

Amy Lowell’s November

To my knowledge, there’s no situation, no case, in the Modernist revolution of English poetry quite like that of Amy Lowell, who for around a decade from 1915 to 1925 made herself a significant force in the popularization and dissemination of short free verse,*  yet was often derided by others writing in this style, and whose own concise verse was largely forgotten until this century.

That her name and place in Modernism survived at all, it was largely because of her brief connection with the original Imagists in London which led to a running feud with Ezra Pound. Pound said that Lowell’s promotion of the same poetic principles that he had been propounding was a descent into “Amygism.” It wasn’t just Pound, D. H. Lawrence said of her work “In everything she did she was a good amateur.” Witter Bynner, the literary-hoaxster who wanted to mock this form of Modernism tagged the overweight Lowell as the “hippopoetess.”

Young Amy Lowell

The young Amy Lowell. “Does this hat make my…oh, forget it…”

 

What was their beef? Was it that she was a woman and she was generally considered a lesbian? Even though the early-20th century Modernists often fail contemporary standards for wokeness, the Modernist movement included other women** and gay artists. Likewise, Lowell was eccentric, but that too was no mark of uniqueness in their artistic world.

I should make it clear, that even though I often write here of encountering writers from this era as I present their work, I’m not an expert or scholar on the era, and there’s a great deal I don’t know. But my quick read of the situation is that Lowell was seen by Pound and many of his cohort as a wanna-be. She came from a wealthy and prestigious family.*** She seems to have bought her way into some of her influence—but once again, wealthy arts patronage can’t be what makes Lowell unique. That was common then as it is now.

What made her unique is that she wasn’t content with being a patron, she believed herself a poet and a critic, and worked extraordinarily hard in her short career at exercising herself in those roles. Controversy may be good for short-term fame, but some of the most lauded poets of her time didn’t think much of her work as hierarchies and canons were being formed by those that outlived her death in 1925. Did they make their judgements cavalierly because they didn’t like her as a person or by reputation?

Let me cut to the chase: I don’t know. I’ve probably encountered a few Amy Lowell poems over the years, and none of them left an impression on me. But transient mood and expectation and the randomness of anthologized selections could account for that. As this project has come to use a lot of poetry from Amy Lowell’s contemporaries, I’ve figured that someday I should tackle one of hers if I found something I thought I could do something with. And this fall, her poem called “November”  was brought to my attention.****

November

I can’t find any good Internet links to this poem, so here it is.

 

What did I notice about it? “November”  follows the style of the early Imagists, including the one thing that I’ve come to recognize about early Imagist writing that later Modernism came to reject: the modesty and directness of its statements. You could knock Lowell and say that when she wrote this she had Pound, T. E. Hulme, F. S. Flint, H. D., and so on to model this poem on. But if you believe, as I’ve come to, that this mode of poetry was abandoned too soon for longer, more elaborate and esoteric statements, then continuing to use those valid methods is no crime.

The trick of this kind of compressed poem is how to be simple and subtle at the same time in some way that the reader will find a working expression of beautiful. After finding “November”  worthwhile, I quickly looked at a few other shorter Lowell poems and I’m not sure she consistently manages that, but I believe this one does. Even famous and much anthologized poems in the Imagist style can be read quickly as superficial “Is that all there is?” poems. Their simplicity asks for a engaged reader, not one blown-over by some kind of surface filigree.

As with our other autumn poems, this one touches some common tropes: leaves, bare branches, dark, rain. But Lowell keeps this fresh, where many other poems would seem to just be checking off the boxes. The leaves’ color is secondary, we are subtly asked instead to hear the sound of the crisp leaves rattling against the walls of the poet’s house. Yes, there are fallen leaves too, but they gather under the evergreen pines, sheltered there. The lilac bushes sound-move with the rich word “sweep” against the overhead starlight.

And that translates then to an interior scene where the sheltered poet is too under the lights, a lamp, writing, perhaps handwriting with a sweep of the hand. And another unshowy, but well-chosen, phrase says what the subject is: “The emptiness of my heart.”

Let’s pause there for a moment. Is that a simple epithet for longing? Yes it is, but there are others for that too that weren’t chosen, and “The emptiness of my heart” is more ambiguous than most, for it may indicate a feeling of unworthiness and unreciprocity too—but then to think to explore that, to write of it, to experience it in an autumn moment, is a self-reflection that a callused always cold and empty heart will never do.

The poem’s closing image, following up on that, gives us one more sheltered, or barely sheltered thing: the cat who “will not stay with me” and is huddled in a window casement.

In summary, there is considerable complexity of feeling encoded in these images without the emotions being explicitly named and listed, but rather invoked in the Imagist manner. And the poem hides its craft so that one may not notice it reading quickly, particularly the subtle repetitions in the three scenes. I chose in my performance to repeat the writer under the lamp scene once more at the end to emphasize that I heard that key point the other two scenes turn around.

Musically, I worked on this performance yesterday which was Joni Mitchell’s birthday, so I wanted to try something in an unfamiliar alternate tuning. And today is Bonnie Raitt’s birthday, so it was good that the one I settled on (G minor DGDGBbD) worked well when played with a bottleneck slide. You can hear how Amy Lowell worked with that music using the player below.

 

 

 

 

*A year after her death in 1925 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and besides editing and helping to publish several anthologies of Modernist verse, she promoted it by popular lectures and articles in mainstream publications. Louis Untermeyer in his summarizing American Poetry Since 1900  published in 1923 says that “No poet living in America has been more fought for, fought against and generally fought about than Amy Lowell.” But to speak about her poetry (which he does praise) he writes first about her work as promoter and provocateur: “Her verve is almost as remarkable as her verse” indicating that the element of celebrity and controversy was already masking her actual poetry.

**Oddly, the path in the 20th century seems to have been to increasingly under-rate, value, and remember women poets of the Modernist era as the century went on. By the time I came along to encounter Modernism in school 50 years later it was a sausage-fest—but the 21st century is working to re-evaluate that. Canons and reputations are one thing, but every poem and its poet lives or dies each time a reader encounters it. That’s always a present act.

***Some of the Modernists came from what appear to be upper middle-class families, though of those, some had broken family ties and their financial support in some way. How much richer was Amy Lowell? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect noticeably so. Wealthy and gay poet Bynner had to reach for the body-shaming to find something to ridicule Lowell.

****Once more, I first saw this poem at the Interesting Literature blog.

Don’t Die (Max Ochs’ Prayer)

It’s second-hand and my fingers misunderstand it, but I’m somewhat musically indebted to a few guys who grew up in Maryland back in the mid-20th century. Depending on where you sit in the culture most of them, probably all of them, won’t be familiar to you. That’s OK.

Who are these guys that I’m saying you probably don’t know? One was named John Fahey, and two others slightly younger were named Max Ochs and Robbie Robinson (who eventually changed his name to Robbie Basho). There was also a fourth, named Ed Denson (who eventually changed his name to ED Denson).

Readers here of my age may remember there was this music called “The Blues” back in the Sixties, a charmingly obsolete Afro-American folk-art form* that had been revived so that British rock stars could be paid enough they could afford their hotel damage deposits. The Maryland guys were part of the early crew that went around finding the old 78 RPM records** that represented the earliest extant examples of that. Mind you that music was only about 30 years old back in the 50s and early 60s, but it could seem pretty cool and mysterious.

The Maryland guys were learning off these records and even from the surviving original artists who made them. But they decided to do something you might not expect with that music. They started to mix in other stuff. Stuff like South Asian music. Stuff like modern orchestral music. They used flat-topped, steel string acoustic guitars, like the pre-war Blues artists usually did, and they used techniques learned from these 78 RPM era Blues artists.*** They saw hidden or potential connections in what these mostly rural Afro-Americans were doing with Ravi Shankar and centuries-old Indian music, with what Erik Satie and Claude Debussy had done with the traditions of classical European music.

Max Ochs 60s

Max Ochs somewhere in “The Sixties”

 

Can you see now why I might have been influenced by that? I love the unusual combination and what it can illuminate. Also like myself and this project, there was next to no recognized commercial potential in this startling combination. So, this Maryland group started a musician led/curated Indie record label. Sixty years ago, some of these guys were doing what people who produce non-commercial music today do. They didn’t ask permission or wait to accumulate the right resumé, they just did it.

Their adventurous acoustic guitar instrumental music never became a big thing, but eventually it became a  thing. Art doesn’t always ask to be big. It doesn’t ask for everyone or large numbers of people to remember it. It asks for some to remember it, and then for some of those to remember the experience of it deeply.

Which brings me back to one of those guys I said you probably haven’t heard of: Max Ochs—but this is a place Where Music and Words  Meet, so I can focus on some of Ochs’ words today. I ran into “Don’t Die”  on the Tompkins Square label’s web site 10 years ago. Perhaps Ochs’ words will strike you as they did me when I first read them.

Sometimes when you come upon words (like these of Ochs) by accident the connection is immediate, more so than ones you have searched for intentionally. These were words I needed, as deep and unpretending as those worn grooves on a 78 RPM record cut into solidified South Asian bug juice. A few days later I pulled them out and sprung them on Dave Moore and the LYL Band in an impromptu performance you can hear today.

Lately I’ve been presenting words from a fair number of poets who self-harmed themselves. Does self-harm make despair more authentic? Nope. Not only is that way too simple, it’s obviously a self-limiting tactic. When the world tells an artist they aren’t important and your art’s not worth it, the world’s in some way right—and it’s your art that tells the world it’s wrong. It’s a strange conversation that. I think some of the best art makes the argument that the world’s first assertion doesn’t prove its second one. The world’s objective argument that it’s not worth it is one of art’s arguments for why it must exist.

That objective argument, the number of listeners and readers, the level of fame, the amount of money exchanged for it all has integers to count for it. Against it I ask you to array that singular connection, often counted as one, between the artist and reader/listener/observer.

Max Ochs 21st century

Max Ochs somewhere in the 21st century.

 

This past week, pedaling my bike on Highway 61 just south of the US/Canada border, I thought again of those words of Ochs I had performed nearly 10 years ago. I found a possible email for Max Ochs online, sent an email asking permission to present the words here and got a reply from Ochs. The Department of Synchronicity (where there are no schedules, but folks show up on time anyway) reported also via that email that someone else, Douglas Seidel, had just done a version this July of a spoken word piece of Ochs on Soundcloud. Seidel’s piece is pretty good too. Max said in his email that he had written music for“Don’t Die,”  but that he’s never recorded it. You’ll have to settle today for what the LYL Band and I came up with.

Thanks to Max Ochs for his words and his permission to present them here. To hear “Don’t Die (Max Ochs Prayer)”  performed by the LYL Band, use the player gadget below.

 

 

 

 

*I kid, I kid. Afro-American music and the Blues which was a 20th century expression of it, is the largest single component of American music, and some of those British guys understood that. A lot of Americans got introduced to other American blues artists by those UK musicians.

**These precious records were made of shellac, a resin secreted by bugs in South Asia. Therefore, if one listened to old Skip James or Charlie Patton records and then started trying to mix that with Indian ragas, you’d literally be digging deep into the histories of the records as objects.

***What techniques? Open or altered tunings, where the conventional EADGBE tuning of the guitar is changed to allow different resonant and harmonic effects. Finger-style plucking which allows for independent melodic lines to be played simultaneously. Slide guitar, where the strings are not fretted with the fingers, but stopped with an object like a metal tube or glass bottleneck. String-bending vibrato. The last two allow not only for vocal like effects but for microtones that exist outside of the standard chromatic and tempered scales used in most Western music since Bach’s day.