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.

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A few updates, and why fewer new audio pieces so far this summer

Between revising my recording setup and spaces and some travel, I’ve been away from being able to create new audio pieces for much of the past month. I’ve missed that, and I hope you have too, though I have  been able to put together a few new things in the midst of this.

I was hoping to bridge this gap by presenting some things I have from older recording sessions featuring writing still in copyright, but so far I have received no response from those that seem to be the contact points for that—the usual when I seek to gain permissions. I assume this is just the inevitable result of a publishing industry focused on those business and revenue things they may need for survival. In an ideal world there’d be another me busy banging on the door of rights-holding publishers until they at least told me no or “Go away, we don’t want any.”

For you constant readers, in place of new audio pieces, I’ll leave you with just two brief follow-ups.

I’m reading a couple more Emily Dickinson books so that I won’t be so embarrassingly blank on certain questions. One is Aife Murray’s Maid as Muse,  it’s fascinating premise to look at the lives and possible influence of the Dickinson family’s Afro-American and Irish servants. The book also doesn’t overlook the basic fact that it was the presence of servants exchanging their focus and time that allowed Dickinson to produce poetry that valorized independent thought.

If by chance you read that last sentence and think, well there’s your white privilege and base economic exploitation that I’m too aware of or otherwise inoculated to by family heritage or economic class to engage in, think (as I do) that it’s some Asian factory that allows me a cheap computer* to write this and to create and/or record the Parlando Project audio pieces and someone in another place built the inexpensive electric guitar you hear.

The other Dickinson book is Lives Like Loaded Guns by Lyndall Gordon. Gordon seems to have a more polemical mood so far than Murray, though her wars are mostly laid in books. The book promises to help me understand the complicated way that Emily Dickinson’s almost entirely unpublished work managed to get published and find a considerable audience shortly after her death. Even early on in the book Gordon is presenting an understandable portrait of Mabel Loomis Todd, one of the producers of the first posthumous edition of Dickinson poems. Todd is often painted on cardboard: Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin’s mistress and nemesis of her brother’s wife, Emily’s intimate friend and often interpreted as lover Susan Gilbert Dickinson. A social climbing no-talent who glommed onto a real talent? Todd might be all that, but I’m already finding Gordon’s portrait of her illuminating.

As it seems it always is with Dickinson books I’m frustrated by a lack of chronological clarity. Murray’s book has a great deal on the life and influence of Maggie Maher, an Irish born servant who worked with Emily in the Dickinson house kitchen in the post American Civil War years just after Dickinson had already written the majority of her poems; and the admittedly juicy details of the Emily/Susan/Austin/Mable love rhombus are no doubt material to the way Dickinson’s poems emerged after her death, but the events of her brother’s “betrayal” of her friend/possible lover’s wife happened in the last years of Emily Dickinson’s life when she doesn’t appear to be writing or even collating her poetry.

Dr John Emily D

This is the place were you see pictures of these two together.

 

One last note: one of my personal favorite pieces over the past three years was “Blues Summit in Chicago 1974”  a short narrative of my reaction to watching a video a couple of years ago of a concert combining some pioneering “Great Migration” Afro-American blues musicians with some more likely white “Blues Revival” guys in front of an audience redolent of that titular year. In it I note that both the young guys and the old masters are all dead, and that some of the “young guys” died before their elders—well, except for one guy, Dr. John (stage name of Mac Rebennack) who was still living. “Can’t be the clean living” I remind listeners to that piece, as Mac had a long dance with heroin and other drugs. This year Dr. John in effect asked for a revision of that piece when life finally claimed him for death.

If you haven’t heard that piece, here it is as performed with the LYL Band a few years back, it’s available with the player below. And I’ve just got some good news on another piece that you’ll see here soon!

 

 

*I am moving to a new Macintosh computer for those “in-the-box” musical elements this summer as I want to use more of those tempting virtual instruments that allow me to work up to orchestral levels of scoring. My old computer was still working with occasional needs to account for its capacities, but it’s now nearly nine years old and eventually it won’t work. My hope is the new one will work as long as I do, but alas the “Apple Tax” is real and a few things about the new computer are frustrating despite its considerable cost. Still, I’m privileged to be able to afford it, and it’s so hard to find good help these days….

Emily Bronte’s Hope

If Emily Dickinson had no real models for the revolutionary poetry she developed, she did have other poets she could look to. We know from her letters that one of them was Emily Bronte.

English author Emily Bronte and her two sisters Charlotte and Anne all wrote poetry and then novels, but Emily seems to have been the most avid poet of the trio. Starting in childhood Emily Bronte created along with her sister Anne a fantasy world they named Gondal in which they spun tales of adventure. At least some of Emily’s poetry was connected to that world, and so it’s possible that today’s hopeless piece titled “Hope”  is part of some fully imagined plot and isn’t autobiographical.

Emily Bronte

Emily Bronte. Plotting what to do to that useless hope when she’s uncaged?

 

One of America’s great contributions, an Afro-American contribution in large part, is The Blues. The Blues reaction to misfortune is almost inevitably to battle that misfortune in some way: to mock it, to hip others to it, to talk back to it and tell it that the speaker knows the score and may even settle that score with it some day. Most American Blues aren’t “woe is me, I’ve got it bad, and I’d rather be dead” it’s “I can tell you how much trouble I’ve encountered, but I’m still here.”

Emily Bronte is mocking too, but she’s mocking hope itself, not the unspecified troubles that have figuratively imprisoned the poem’s speaker. Hope is portrayed throughout as an external character, and that character is a pious creep, totally uninterested in easing the pain of the imprisoned speaker.

Still you have to hand it to Emily Bronte here. This is a rather impious poem from a preacher’s kid, even if it’s a character from her imagined world and this is only a momentary lament. Perhaps that’s part of what attracted Emily Dickinson to this fellow Emily. Dickinson is also a great mocker.

Does today’s Emily Bronte poem remind you of a well-known Emily Dickinson poem? Check back later this week and we’ll try to follow up on that—but until then, here’s today’s audio piece Emily Bronte’s “Hope.”  The player gadget is below. Full text of Bronte’s poem for those who would like to read along is here.

 

 

 

Sweet Thames

Was I being audacious when I compared Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  to a modern hip hop/rap production sampling various parts and levels of the world’s culture? I don’t think so (though maybe I should be worried). I’m not going to get into a rap battle between T. S. Eliot vs. Missy Elliot, or a discussion about “Kendrick Lamar, is he a ‘real poet?” like my generation used to discuss Bob Dylan. My aging generational knowledge isn’t deep enough to discuss Lamar or Elliot as intelligently as I should. I’m more comfortable discussing folks who were born long before I was, but someone like Charley Patton is too O. G. to bring up here often. After all, T. S. Eliot and Charley Patton are my grandfather’s generation, born in the 19th century. People like me can be pretty good in figuring out what lessons our grandparent’s completed lives impart, not so good at what lessons our children should learn from us, and terrible at what lessons our children could teach us.

Charley Patton and T. S. Eliot

Charlie Patton and T. S. Eliot: two young swells put their best foot forward beside different rivers in the 1920s.

 

Eliot may have thought he was copying cubist paintings or cinema montage or some French poetry, but he chose this sampling tactic or he would have done something else. Who was Charlie Patton copying? I don’t know exactly. Maybe he made it up. Maybe some griot or indigenous shaman whispered it in his ear.

T. S. Eliot was his own kind of odd guy, odd to his contemporaries, even if he eventually became enormously influential in the Modernist literary movement that had taken over poetry education by the time I was a student. When I first introduced “The Waste Land”  here I said there’s two things you need to know to approach it, and they aren’t esoteric at all: first that it’s musical and intended to be, and second that it’s written by a person suffering from depression, a common human malady that colors and filters perception profoundly. Now, following my grappling with it in the past few years, I’ll add two more things, neither of which require reading about Grail legends or From Ritual to Romance  either: it’s written by a man writing for a culture coming out of a tremendous wartime trauma and it’s written by a man struggling to come to terms with human sexuality, it’s sins, pleasures, and disappointments.

On the war issues, Eliot is guiltily living, not dead, in a world where many others weren’t so lucky. Estimates vary, but somewhere between 15 and 19 million people were killed in WWI, the majority from the European theater that had become Eliot’s home. Given this level of death, it’s not surprising that Eliot personally knew people killed in the war. Most of his British literary contemporaries served in the war, he didn’t. Indeed, while WWI raged, he tried to disengage from the war, to continue to focus only on scholarly issues and his literary writing.*

Eliot’s an American from St. Louis in a foreign country and he’s gotta figure out how to trans-Atlantic code-switch. He goes in full-force, becoming so completely English that he eventually was able to style himself as an authority on what was appropriately British. After the conclusion of the war, as a literary critic he can write about “objective corelative” and all that, but he can no longer ignore the trauma his adopted country and the rest of Europe has suffered.

Last year’s segment “A Game of Chess”  rolled-up into one audio file in our last post, portrays marriage darkly and introduces rape and sexual coercion as one of the underlying themes in “The Waste Land.”  Here we know little about Eliot’s own experience, other than his marriage to an English woman was dysfunctional. As we move further into our section for this year, “The Fire Sermon,”  sexuality is further brought forward in an unflattering light.

As the section begins in the segment I call “Sweet Thames”  we’re back in a ruined landscape, the titular “Waste Land.”  The scene seems post a debauched party season, missing even the messy vitality of that. Eliot, a man who grew up near the banks of the southern Mississippi is now on the banks of London’s Thames river.

And then he, or some incarnation of the poem’s speaker, the many voices in Eliot’s head, is fishing. Following the literary and critical references, this is the Fisher King, and we could look to a trail of ancient myths, but I chose to keep it immediate and funky in performance. This is a dirty, river-rat frequented urban river. He wants us to know that he’s fishing next to a gashouse, which I take to be one of those now obsolete processing furnaces that turned coal into coal gas, a smelly and polluting process usually relegated to the worst part of town. The anachronistic pendant in me found this amusing, as a decade after ex-St. Louis boy Eliot wrote “The Waste Land”  his home-town Cardinals baseball team used to intimidate their opponents by wearing stinky unwashed uniforms and were given the nickname “The Gashouse Gang”  for their smell and general lack of decorum. There’s no known connection for this coincidence, but it’s good that they didn’t wait until later in “The Fire Sermon”  and to then become the World Series winners dubbed “The Young Men Carbuncular.”

As the section nears an end point another song-sample break is dropped,** the Mrs. Porter section. Eliot noted that it was an Australian army folk song, and further research indicates that the Mrs. Porter may have been a Cairo brothel keeper known to the ANZAC troops heading for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, where a dear friend of Eliot, Jean Verdenal was killed in battle. Depending on how salty the soldier-singer may have felt, the body parts being reported as washed varied.

I like to think that Charley Patton, further down the Mississippi river, might have known that tune, but since neither he nor T. S. Eliot are here to sing this, you can hear my performance using the gadget below. If you’d like to look at the text of “The Waste Land”  while you listen, the full text is here.

 

 

*Like Ezra Pound his overseas American citizenship status complicated things, and like Pound there are some stories that he made an effort to serve. Eliot did teach night-school literature classes to working-class English women during the war however, and it’s easy to speculate that he may have picked up things later incorporated into “The Waste Land”  from that experience.

**And for all you carpe diem fans, did you note the sample from Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress”  here, when just before Mrs. Porter soda-washing-song he says “But at my back from time to time I hear…” and instead of a winged chariot, it’s motorcar horns. If given the choice of grave or sex, I think Eliot would have held out for a third choice.

3D Blues

Man Ray was sort of Man Ray’s real name. His family immigrated to the U. S. in the 19th Century and like many families they changed their name along with their country, and so Radnitzky became Ray. His birth first-name was Emmanuel, which would be conventionally shortened to Manny, and with just a bit more compression you arrive at Man.

I think I’ve mentioned in passing that in my 20s I developed an interest in Dada and Surrealism. I’d never pass myself off as a scholar of these subjects, it was more a matter of feeling that some of their ideas resonated with ones I had already been using. As evidence of my lack of scholarship, I’ll mention that I had always assumed Man Ray was French. Well, no. He grew up and began his career in Brooklyn and moved to Paris in his early 30s, before he could speak any French, That must have increased the Dada potential of the move!

Man Ray always felt free to range about in media and approaches. He was creating Dada assemblages and “ready-mades” by 1920 and Andre Breton called him one of the “pre-Surrealists” who had been creating art in harmony with that movement before it was officially a movement. Man Ray pioneered the idea that photography could be non-representational, made short experimental films, but also shot portrait photographs. And, luckily for this Project, he also wrote poetry. Ray once said that his artistic credo was seeking pleasure and liberty. “I simply try to be as free as possible, in my manner of working and in my choice of subject. No one can dictate to me or guide me.”

His short poem “Three Dimensions”  was published in Alfred Kreymborg’s NYC-based Modernist magazine Others  in 1915. As I understand Ray’s poem he’s looking at houses at night, not a city but outer borough or suburban scene. They’re lit up, representing the lives within. I suspect he’s punning when he says the luminous houses, walled off and oh so separate, should not be viewed “as masses.” They seem weightless, but in their separations the are as well not “The Masses.” The dark spaces between the houses, the hedges and walls, are then compared to shawl-covered heads as would’ve been worn by old women in his day. Ray concludes, still recognizing the separateness of the houses and the lives within, but perhaps with a hint of their potential. Mystery and curiosity are separated when we know that if they were to be combined they would combust!

So, what can I do with Man Ray’s poem?

Glover Ray and Ray

Glover, Ray and Ray. Tony Glover on blues harp, Dave Ray on 12-string guitar, and a Man Ray self portrait

 

Dave Ray* was a singer and guitar player. In the early ‘60s he was part of Koerner Ray and Glover. I guess you could call Koerner Ray and Glover a group, though they themselves didn’t.** Dave Ray was 20 years old when KR&G released their first LP***, half-a-decade younger than when Robert Johnson first recorded a side, and much, much younger than Leadbelly was by the time John and Alan Lomax recorded him. Ray kept up playing his whole life until it ended while he was still too young in 2002.

KR&G formed in Minneapolis and were part of the early days of the West Bank and other folk music scenes here. I can’t say for sure (I’m a late arrival), but Dave Ray was probably one of the reasons that the Twin Cities area has a higher percentage of 12-string guitar players than anywhere else.**** Shortly after I moved to the Twin Cities in the ‘70s I bought a cheap 12-string at a record store on Hennepin Ave. It seemed mandatory, like learning the snow-emergency parking rules.

Cortez 12 string 1080

Why yes I can prove I’m a Twin Cities guitarist: here’s my 12-string.

 

Today I made a Dada assemblage. I’ve recast Man Ray’s “Three Dimensions”  as “3D Blues”  and I played it on that still surviving 12-string—not as well as Dave Ray could have done it, but then it wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t done it. The old 12-string has a soundhole pickup which I played through a little combo amp. KR&G started all acoustic, but Dave Ray often played plugged in later in his career. I rearranged some lines and phrases in Man Ray’s poem to fit it into a blues form. You can read Man Ray’s original here. You can hear my revision with the player gadget below.

 

 

 

*As far as I know, Man and Dave aren’t related. Dave Ray’s youngest brother, the equally well-named Max Ray, played the saxophone with the Wallets and still plays around town. If I was to Kevin-Bacon-game Man Ray and Dave Ray, Max Ray and the Wallets would be my move.

**Koerner Ray and Glover never broke up because they never joined up, performing solo or in various combinations from the first to the last. Dave Ray claimed they should have been truthfully billed as “Koerner and/or Ray and/or Glover.” Koerner made a record with Willie Murphy back in the 60s. Tony Glover wrote an important early instructional book on how to play blues harmonica as well as writing about the new Rock music that emerged later in the 60s.

***That first LP was called Blues, Rags and Hollers  and just like it says on the cover, they played a wider-range of material than what was labeled “Blues” as time went on.

****Both Koerner and Ray played 12-string guitar, in the tradition of Leadbelly and Blind Willie McTell. As time passed, the blues 12-string tradition became forgotten in many places, and I’d encounter people online who thought acoustic-guitar blues must be played on small-bodied 6-strings or resonator guitars.

Willie Murphy (Is Always Playing on the West Bank)

A couple of weeks back a local music legend Willie Murphy died. I’m going to ask indulgence from this blog’s overseas audience, because unless you were around Minnesota in the last 50 years or so, you’ll likely have no idea who Murphy was—no, it’s even more location specific than that—I believe you need to have memories pinned within a few blocks of the intersection of Cedar and Riverside avenues, in a Minneapolis neighborhood near the Mississippi river known as The West Bank.

Many years ago the West Bank was a Scandinavian immigrant enclave, and it is now the home to Minnesota’s largest Somali community. But my story today is in-between, in the second half of the 20th century, when it was home to a thriving bohemian culture, immigrants of a slightly different sort.

Shortly after I moved to Minnesota, I got work at a hospital there, and when I had enough money saved up, I took classes at the University of Minnesota which spans the two banks of the river. I came late to the West Bank scene, but I absorbed the stories of those nonconformist young immigrants who were homesteading something that was called “the counter-culture.” The counter-culture was Willie Murphy’s job, as much as musician: putting together bands, recording other musicians, inaugurating live music venues, working and networking the scene.*

Willie and the Bees photo by Dave Ray

Willie and the Bees getting down somewhere in the past

 

But he was a musician too. Sang, played bass, guitar, and piano. Interpreted a lot of great R&B and wrote some good songs himself.

He was never the businessman. He engendered some of the things that entrepreneurs like to claim they do, but he never got the cash rewards. It’s a complicated story and I don’t know all the details—but I do know that he was an artist making art on his own terms right up until his last months of his 75th year. In one trope of musician’s slang, musicians “make the gig” or “make the scene.” Murphy lived that literally: he made a lot of gigs, helped make a scene.

Willie Murphy Angel Headed Hipster

Angel headed hipster. Murphy in his later years, still keepin’ on.

 

Mine’s a complicated story too. I eventually fell in love at the same time with two people who lived on the West Bank. There was music most nights and every weekend at a couple of coffee houses, a short-lived jazz club, a music school, and several bars, all of them within four or five blocks. And for my literary side, besides the University, there was Savran’s bookstore, which was well stocked with small press publications and poetry in several languages. In one’s Twenties many are imprinted on the culture encountered then, but the West Bank in the ‘70s seems an especially strong tattoo—and nostalgia fades in reverse.

Most change happens slowly enough that you never see it happening. One day you look over your shoulder and you see everything behind you isn’t there anymore.

Or you pick up a paper and see that Willie Murphy has died.

Most change happens slowly enough that you never see it happening. One day you look over your shoulder and you see everything behind you isn’t there anymore.

Or you pick up a paper and see that Willie Murphy has died.

I felt I needed to write about this, regardless of how well I could do it. The song I wrote “Willie Murphy (Is Always Playing on the West Bank)”  has in-jokes and puns that only West Bank habitués will understand. In the first verse I twisted a line from Ginsberg’s “Howl”  that also supplied the name of Murphy’s last band. Punned-in the name of some West Bank bars in the second verse, gave a shout-out to Koerner Ray and Glover in the bridge, and got in a sideways nod to the West Bank’s Mixed Blood Theater before I finished.

A week ago, I sprung it on the LYL Band and we gave it a go, with Dave Moore supplying his piano part off-the-cuff. You can hear it with the player below.

 

 

 

 

*Murphy recorded an LP with “Spider” John Koerner back in the 60s, and produced Bonnie Raitt’s first LP in the early 70s. Willie and the Bees was an integrated R&B band that mixed funky jazz and danceable grooves for a decade or so from the mid-70s into the early ‘80s.

The Poet to Death

Here’s a short piece using a poem by a person who started out as a poet but who spent the greater part of her life working for her country, India’s, independence: Sarojini Naidu.

Sarojini Naidu, like Edna St. Vincent Millay around the same time in the U. S., impressed people as a capable poet while still a teenager. Her talents lead to her being sent abroad to England for college, and eventually she connected with the Rhymer’s Club, the turn of the century London organization that was the last stop in the 19th Century for some of the poets who would launch the poetry of the 20th century.

Today’s piece, “The Poet to Death”  was first published in England as part of Naidu’s initial collection of poetry The Golden Threshold  in 1905. Fluent in several languages, the pieces in The Golden Threshold  are in Naidu’s own English. Some accounts say that the young Sarojini was modest about her poetry at the time, worried that her work was less-substantial because it is lyrical and song-like; and retroactively English-language Modernism did discount that sort of poetic gift. So, while her poetic work is still remembered in her homeland, where Wikipedia says she’s called the “Nightingale of India,” Sarojini Naidu will be a new name to most of our reader/listeners.

During the WWI years Naidu transferred her focus from poetry to working for Indian independence, a cause in which she became a principal, alongside Gandhi and the other independence leaders.

Did the world loose a poet for India to gain its independence? Perhaps. I do not know enough to say. In her English poetry, I can see the influence of the earlier 19th Century English romantics, but her language is less extravagant. She can remind me at times of Christina Rossetti (readers here will know I consider that a good thing), and “The Poet to Death”  is a concise version of a trope Keats used as well.

Sarojini Naidu Real Folk Blues

India gave us chess. Chicago gave us Muddy Waters on Chess records.

 

Today’s music employs a polyrhythmic blues. Perhaps I was subconsciously moved by the “till I am satisfied” line in Naidu’s poem to think of Muddy Waters and his “I can’t be satisfied,” though what I ended up playing has some elements of Skip James’ guitar style too. At a conscious level, I was working on this while thinking of poet Donald Hall, having read a review of his new collection of essays coming out this month, and then hearing later in the same day that he had died at age 89. In his last couple of decades, Hall has often written of what continues until it ends in the course of aging.

Donald Hall
Donald Hall. His book of essays “A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety” drops in July.

 

For some reason the version of the text I worked with did not have Naidu’s first stanza, which specifically speaks, as a younger poet, for death to stay his hand. In the remaining two stanzas, the age of the speaker is less determined, and so the situation is joined whether it is a young poet or old. The blossoms are always there a short time, at any age.

To hear my performance of Sarojini Naidu’s “The Poet to Death,”  use the player below.