Parlando Summer 2020 Top Ten, numbers 4-2

4. A Mien to Move a Queen by Emily Dickinson. My teenager, who suspects my musical output as being less than relevant, taunted me gently by asking as I started writing this post if I was presenting Winnie the Pooh. By “Pooh” we may decode: something simultaneously old and immature.

“No I said. I’ve never done any A. A. Milne.”

“Who’s A. A. Milne?”

“He wrote Winnie the Pooh—oh wait, I have  put Milne in a post. I was comparing an Emily Dickinson poem to Sixties psychedelic rock lyrics. I compared a poem of hers to a Milne/Pooh poem that was used by Jefferson Airplane in a song: ‘If I was a bird and flew very high…”

“Bored already.” He playfully rejoindered.

I can’t quite give you the flavor of this, but there’s a quicker wit in my house than mine even when my wife is out of town.

Well that post just happens to be the one that introduced the 4th most liked and listened to piece here this summer: Dickinson’s “A Mien to move a Queen.”  And yes, it is a strange poem, though it draws me in none-the-less. It may be one of Dickinson’s riddle poems, like “May-Flower”   though I can’t solve its riddle. Dickenson may be looking at another flower, or a bird or insect.

Well sometimes one can just let the mystery be.

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3. Long Island Sound by Emma Lazarus. One of the least-famous poets with one of the most-famous poems ever presented here, Lazarus is the author of a sonnet associated with the Statue of Liberty: the “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” one. That was a poem of hope, and I’d say to, so is this one that she also wrote. Therefore, I made “Long Island Sound”  into a happy little summer song.

Did a carefree song seem out of place in our 2020 summer? Or was it something we wanted to visit, if only for the minute and 46 seconds the performance lasts? Well, in any season there is happiness. Seething anger, somber reflection, these may seem to be the noble emotions this summer, but joy is not an ignoble emotion.

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Black Joy Lives Here crop

The American Midwest loves lawn signs. I ride by many each morning in my neighborhood: election candidates, Justice for George Floyd, roofing contractors, high-school sports teams, and a couple of these too.

2. The Poet’s Voice from speeches by William Faulkner and Bob Dylan.  Our current American age is suffering much from insufficiency of empathy. What kills or mutes empathy? Fear is one thing. One sentence in William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech struck me so strongly when I read it this year. Not the one I was quoted so often by teachers then my age now, back when I was nearly 20, the one that went: “Man will not merely endure: he will prevail”—this, somehow, they seemed to be saying would come from literature, of all things, stuff written largely by dead men. Thanks pops. Now let me return to being worried about which of us is going to run out of tuition money or the will to continue this hidebound education, and get drafted. No, that one was Faulkner’s hopeful future, a future we haven’t yet made obsolete. Instead, it was this sentence, earlier in the speech, the one that should make you sit up and take notice:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it.”

Old man Faulkner, though he may be as imperfect as the brightest and most perceptive person today, is really saying something there. In the context of his entire speech he appears to be referring to the particular fear of a nuclear war, but then how strange that he calls this “so long sustained” when nuclear arms were around the age of our current Presidency’s term when he gave this speech in 1949.

So, if fear mutes empathy, let us acknowledge that carrying someone else’s song in your ear, your mind, your mouth, is the pathway through which it can infect your heart with empathy.

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I’ll return soon with the post revealing the most popular piece here this past summer. That’s going to be a somewhat complicated story.

The Poet’s Voice

Stick with me here valued audience. I know awards speeches are not a popular genre. First off, everyone watching has just lost except for the speaker—not just the tuxedos in the hall, but anyone watching at home who aren’t important enough to be invited to the event. So maybe it’s safest to thank others effusively until your time is up and the music plays you off. A choice to make other points can be ineffective.

Yet, this isn’t the first time I’ve used an awards speech as the text for a piece, though the other two times they were speeches by actors, David Harbour and Viola Davis. Both of those speeches made claims about the value of dramatic art: Harbour making the claim that we may use make-believe heroes to inspire us to do necessary things, and Davis testifying that art, because it includes the illuminated communication of intense human experience, is the only complete way to explore humanity.

The Nobel Prize award requests an acceptance “lecture,” which sounds more high-falutin and boring than an acceptance speech. The literature winners often take the bait and tell us something about the value of their art—but it just so happens that I’m listening for that right now, because I’m not sure about the value of the arts of poetry or music, the things this project is made of, in the midst of this year’s multiple crises: a pandemic, an economic downturn that I fear we haven’t sounded the bottom of, a king of misrule, and a tragic occasion to consider remedies to racial oppression. When I talked about these things this week with friends, they reminded me, “And we haven’t even talked about global warming lately.”

The first section of today’s piece is taken from William Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Even a couple of decades later his statement was much loved in liberal arts departments as I was getting in touch with them in “The Sixties,” because we still hadn’t gotten over the fear we talk even less about: global atomic warfare destruction. Faulkner was a wordsmith to reckon with, even if he couldn’t figure out the plot of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.*  When I looked back at his speech this month, the line I open up with today grabbed me in 2020 as much or more than it would have back in the mid-20th century:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it.”

Don’t misread the end of that sentence. He is saying we can bear that fear (his contemporary fears, and ours) and go on writing. One may raise their hand before the Nobel-Dynamite-Prize winner Faulkner and ask: “Well, yes I suppose we could. But shouldn’t we be doing something else instead? A lot of people’s survival is at stake.”

The next section I quote from Faulkner’s speech tries to answer that. It’s a fine piece of writing too. If one abstracts the thought from the rhetoric, he’s saying that we have jobs in relationship to those that will be doing something else instead. This is akin to Viola Davis’ argument about art: no position paper, resolution, or negotiating point can fully connect one heart with another, and no struggle can see its way without full illumination of the human experience.

Is Faulkner right about that? I don’t know. It may not be right for you, but it’s a plausible idea for an old man like myself, one who lacks the social cohesion to build a barricade and the bravery to mount and advance over it.

Faulkner Stamp

An example of writers not being much good at other jobs, Faulkner was bad when given a job as a postmaster. His resignation letter read: “As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.” The Postal Service had its revenge in 1987. Faulkner’s price had risen by 20 cents.

 

The concluding statement in today’s piece is from another American Nobel Literature prize winner’s “lecture,” Bob Dylan’s. The inspiration for this came from a gift Dave Moore gave me this month, a small, handsome book containing Dylan’s lecture. When Dylan won the Literature prize there was a great deal of consternation that what he did wasn’t literature, possibly also not very good, but for sure not literature. Some commentators seemed to feel that poetry might not even qualify, wondering what novels he had written.** But never mind, song lyrics can’t be poetry can they?

In the concluding part of his speech Dylan cleverly concedes that point, and then collapses his wings around those objecting that performed oral poetry is not literature. That’s books, stuff written and read on paper. Suddenly they are surrounded with no retreat. Shakespeare*** wrote for voices and audiences in common. We only know his plays in page form from bootleg tapers. Songs, music, are like that too. They are alive, they live on the currents of breath. Literature is an artifact—a voice is the art, a song is the immediate fact of an experience. I, you, anyone, can doubt art in its absence, in silence—while fear likes that space just fine. But while a song is sounding in your breath and ear, doubt is beside the point. “Songs are alive in the land of the living” Dylan proclaims.

My performance mashing up these quotes from the two Nobel Prize speeches accompanied by my own music can be heard with the player below. If you’d like to read the entirety of these two speeches, Faulkner’s text is here, and Dylan’s is here (with a link to his own audio reading).

 

 

 

*A Hollywood anecdote had Faulkner, who was working as screenwriter for hire in the 1940s, getting stumped about the famously convoluted plot of Chandler’s detective novel he was adapting for a classic 1946 movie. A point about an early murder that deepens the plot was unclear. “Yes, but who killed General Sternwood’s chauffeur?” he queried. Chandler replied: “Dammit, I don’t know either.”

**I found it interesting that novelist Faulkner more than once refers to poets as he speaks about the writer’s task in his speech.

***And Dylan closes with Homer, the blind one in the silence of sight, who didn’t ask the muses for paper but the music to tell the story.

A Mien to Move a Queen

Ready to go on a roundabout trip with today’s blog post? Keep your hands inside the car, we’re going somewhere back to here on another wild-mouse ride.

A couple of things the foot-square vinyl LPs of my youth afforded us: liner notes to help guide us in appreciation of the grooves within, and more commonly as The Sixties progressed, lyric sheets.

Not every record had those lyric sheets. Some artists opposed them on principle—Bob Dylan was one—though to a large degree the reason we got them was due to that hold-out, Mr. Dylan. Dylan revolutionized song lyrics. Before Bob Dylan, no one wrote songs with lyrics like he did.*  After Dylan, a lot of everyones tried their hand at it. In the 21st century when we hear or see lyrics that use an accretion of rapidly changing metaphors and a kaleidoscope of dark-cylinder mental outlooks, we no longer notice that they are Dylanesque. It’s just a mode that songwriters can draw from the common.

Would that have happened if Dylan hadn’t happened? Possibly. And plausibly, only similarly, but distinctly different. Would Richard Farina (sans motorcycle accident) or Leonard Cohen have won a Nobel prize for reshaping a word form?

One argument that it would have still happened was the psychedelic phase of pop music that followed Dylan’s revolution. There, later in The Sixties, opaque and strange lyrics got another push, one that was largely ascribed to intoxicating chemicals which produced visual sequalae and baroque mental turns. Now of course the intoxicated or drug altered poet was already a thing in literary poetry, and the sober cold-water-army songwriter was likely a minority long before “The Sixties.” But Dylan had punctured the membrane that separated those two crowds, and so we got the Canyons of Your Mind school of songwriting too.

Cold Water Army

19th century straight-edge punks on dihydrogen monoxide, usually also anti-slavery and pro-women’s rights too. Comes with a lyric sheet!

Some of it was good, some of it bad—but then we might see lyric sheets to the wind like these:

Oh where are you now
Pussy willow that smiled on this leaf?
When I was alone
You promised the stone
From your heart….
Brandish her wand
With a feathery tongue

Or

A mien to move a queen
Half child—half heroine
An Orleans in the eye
That puts its manner by
For humbler company
When none are near
Even a tear
Its frequent visitor

Or

If you were a bird and lived very high
You leaned on the wind as the breeze came by
Say to the wind as it took you away
“That’s where I wanted to go today”

And

Bedouin tribes ascending
From the egg into the flower
Alpha information sending
States within the heaven shower
From disciples, the unending
Subtleties of river power

The chorus sings: “OK Boomer,” and you can ascribe all of these to chemical traces, wonder about their authors consequent mental damage, or coldly appreciate them as word music, but I’ll come at you from a minority report: the trip’s in your head, not in the drug. I gave up stuff you can smoke (mostly nicotine) around the time I passed the trustworthy border age of 30. I never spun the pill roulette wheel. Needles are for records or loose buttons.

Next stop for the psychedelic bus is some credit for those lyrics above. The first is from Syd Barrett’s post-Pink Floyd song “Dark Globe.”  The second is the beginning of an arresting if mysterious poem by Emily Dickinson. The third is by children’s writer, humorist, and WWI vet A. A. Milne quoted by songwriter Paul Kantner to begin the Jefferson Airplane’s “Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil.”  And the fourth is the start of “Slip Inside this House”  from the 13th Floor Elevators’ Tommy Hall and Roky Erickson.

A little day glo paint or patchouli and Emily Dickinson fits right in when she writes in this mode I think, even if she’s a century too soon, “The Eighteen-The-Sixties.” When I ran into that first stanza of her 1861 poem known by it’s first line “A Mien to Move a Queen”  earlier this month, I was immediately captured by its strange mystery, so much so that I worked out the music you hear today without even knowing that the poem was longer than that one stanza, and I was so entranced by it that the piece you hear today uses only the first and last parts of her poem because I think the middle parts break the mood that first stanza gave me. Want to see the entire poem? The link is here.

The omitted middle section seems playful to me—even as the British would say, twee, but I am of course editing a genius here. I still like my selection as I hope it adds some weight to the whimsey. What was Dickinson on about in this poem? Even living with it for a few days, I’m not entirely sure. The opening stanza is often read as connecting to Joan of Arc. Some read the poem as Emily reflecting on herself and constructing her own persona, and the middle section I omitted gives some evidence of that. Beside it’s general mysteriousness, there are to my mind two pieces of particular heightened sensitivity or even hallucinogenic imagery: the “Orleans in the Eye” line and the sensuous and heard quiet of the “Like Let of Snow” image.

So, we started with musty cardboard squares and moved through two steps of an era of wilder and wilder metaphors sung to music, and finished with Emily Dickinson, sewing 1861 fascicles by whale oil light while listening to Syd Barrett or A. A. Milne feedback on her record player long into the night. In between songs, the needle stops shimmying and she can hear the sound of snow moving across snow outside, filling, and not, summer’s empty room.

The player to hear my musical performance of a selection from Emily Dickinson’s “A Mien to Move a Queen”  is below. Thanks for reading and listening!

 

 

*Yes there are examples that made it into popular or semi-popular music pre-Dylan. Modernist poetry had already done all of these things earlier in the century, and  in addition, a big part of what Dylan used in creating his work were the un-acknowledged Modernists who created the Afro-American blues. None of that disproves the point that Bob Dylan showed that you could do that sort of thing in a proximate way that led to a revolution in the possibilities of song lyrics.

Spring 2020 Parlando Top Ten, numbers 7-5

Today we continue on with our look at the most listened to and liked pieces last spring. It’s a mixed bag, because that’s what this project has done: one 19th century poem recast, one Modernist classic, and a song by Parlando Project alternate voice Dave Moore. Music? A keyboard heavy arrangement, an LYL Band performance with Dave on keys and my guitar accompanying, and a bit of power-chord rock. Birds, nightgowns, and multitudes. Just as before, the bold-face titles are links to the original post if you’d like to see what I said back then.

7. Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock by Wallace Stevens. This disrupted spring has brought a lot of odd dreams, sleepless and activist nights. Stevens’ poem is a dream of order and routine vs. imagination and dissipation. He, like I, may be a little bit of both. Stevens: an insurance company lawyer vs. a poet with a weakness for alcohol. I: a ragged musician, poet, and presenter of no particular style vs. the kind of guy who still got up at dawn and worked on the pieces you have seen here 2 or 3 times a week over the past four years.

I’m still not sure what’s up with Stevens’ negligee kink, but it’s a lovely poem isn’t it, and I hope I’ve done it justice.

 

 

 

6. Murmuration by Dave Moore. It might seem odd given that I write nearly all of these posts, the great majority of the music, and perform and record most of the musical parts myself, but I didn’t design this project to be all about me. In fact I once pitched an idea similar to this project where I’d play none of the music, but the musicians, like this project, would by necessity confront a variety of words and produce pieces on short notice reacting to them. I’d still like to hear how that would work.

“Murmuration”  is more of a continuation of the LYL Band, a group that Dave Moore and I have been the core of for 40 some years. Dave’s a braver poet than I am and a fine songwriter. “Murmuration”  is a meditation in song about the flock behavior of starlings which present a magical beauty. I, the stubborn reality-is-strange-enough guy, wanted to explain the mechanics of that beauty in my original post.

Later, as I monitored the non-congruous mix of crowds on the second night of street reaction to the George Floyd killing in my neighborhood, I once more fell back on murmuration as a metaphor in a later post here. On that night there seemed no discernable wisdom in crowds—yet by the next night, there was some wisdom, and much heart and soul force on the streets. Humans, we create our beauty too.

 

 

 

“A swallow will tell you without using misleading, heartrending, words: when we are inhuman, we’re one with the birds” Will Oldham and Eighth Blackbird do what I try to do, only better.

 

5. I Contain Multitudes from Song of Myself by Walt Whitman. I haven’t heard all of the Bob Dylan record due out this Friday, but if I wasn’t so modest for good reasons, I’d say Bob was trying to follow some of this project’s musical forms. The talk-singing. The cello lines. The spare keyboards and guitar. The eclectic references. Maybe to throw Bob off my tail, to celebrate Walt Whitman this spring I went the other way. Not a string quartet, but a rock band. And not a fancy one with sophisticated licks—my guiding light for this was “Walt Whitman as done by Iggy and the Stooges.”

I didn’t get all the way to my goal, but it was fun to try. A whole lot of fun. The last time we referenced Iggy Pop musically was when performing my translation of Apollinaire’s account of the outbreak of WWI last summer. If this project continues I may commit that sort of thing again—and string quartets too.

 

 

We’ll be back soon as the countdown to the most popular piece here this spring continues. Next time has some surprises.

Obviously Five Believers (Thoreau, McClure, Whitman, Blake, Ginsberg)

Perhaps today’s audio piece and what I came to write about it has an interesting path. In words it’s a medium-length journey—so I beg your patience—but the places it goes are vast. Eventually, we’ll answer a question you may not have asking: who’s buried in William Blake’s tomb?

It started with an illustration drawn by Sergio García Sánchez which I saw on Kenne Turner’s blog this month. Turner’s blog has a great deal of manipulated and beautiful nature photography, mixed in with things he notices in his desert region location and occasional poetry, so it was unusual to see a drawing at first, but his post correctly located the words in the drawing and let me recognize the white haired old man whose beard is a star’s journeywork in this cartoon. The man in the drawing, the words, was Walt Whitman.*

Perhaps because Whitman’s words were embedded inside a drawing, they seemed Blakean to me as I read of that grain of sand, a hinge in the hand across the starry dynamo machinery of night. The main effect was to grab my attention and bring thoughts of doing it for this project.

And so I composed a small orchestra piece of music to accompany my reading of this piece, taken from the 31st part of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,”  using the 1855 edition. I’d normally give you a link to the text, but the two links above to Turner’s blog or to Sánchez’s picture are the best way to see the 1855 text I used which includes a line that was dropped in later editions, the line with the farmer’s girl and her iron tea-kettle that reminds us back to earth and daily life. For many compositions I’d be done.

And then last week poet Michael McClure died. He’s a poet of many events,** he read at the “Human Be-In” in San Francisco at the beginning of 1967, he can be seen briefly in The Last Waltz  movie reading Chaucer to the rock glitterati—but he may be most famous for being an organizer of the famous Six Angels in the Same Performance  reading at the San Francisco Six Gallery in 1955***

I know McClure best from a record album he made with ex-Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek and flautist Larry Kassen called The Piano Poems  in 2012. This was nowhere near my introduction to the Beat-associated “jazz behind poetry reading” style, but it’s a very good one. Listening to that helped build my own convictions for this project back then.

One of the poems performed on this set is McClure’s “Action Philosophy.” Though he didn’t on Piano Poems  as released, McClure would often introduce it by saying that his poem begins with words written by Henry David Thoreau. That led me to think about combining McClure’s incorporation of Thoreau with Whitman’s Blakean lines about the universe’s manifestation in everyday nature. After all, McClure extends Blake’s and Whitman’s vision, seeking to become the animals he sees, to inhabit them fully. That’s the animal meat of his poem, but it’s in a reality sandwich on this deli menu—those separated first and last lines present a vital dichotomy. Here’s the text of McClure’s “Action Philosophy.”

Five Believers Six Angels

Fifteen jugglers, five believers, six angels in the same performance! Tell your mama not to worry, ‘cause they’re just my friends. Yes, learn to play the triangle and visionary poetic figures will flock to you.

 

That first line: “That government is best which governs least” is taken from Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience,”  an essay that soon became important to certain liberation movements. Thoreau himself was speaking about the Mexican-American War and slavery in his essay, oppressive evils that he felt he had to take action against. Gandhi and Martin Luther King made explicit reference to this work of Thoreau in their movements against colonialism and American racial subjugation. Lines from it had vital currency during the anti-Vietnam War movements of The Sixties.

But that’s not what I associated this line with from my life in the later 20th century, or where you may most likely hear it today. Now if you see this line quoted, (perhaps misattributed to Thomas Jefferson, not Thoreau) it may be used to buttress some form of conservatism, particularly conservatism that has a claim to libertarianism. Libertarianism is a complex subject, too long to explore here today, but on the other hand, elements at the foundation of the Beat literary movement were anarchists, an alignment that would have fitted Thoreau.

Now we take another side-step. Back in the 1990s I worked with Gary, a white database programmer from South Carolina. He aligned strongly (as do some technology people today) with libertarianism and the political right that was ascendant in parts of America at that time. He was a great fan of Thoreau’s line, though I think he’d attribute it to his fellow Southerner Jefferson, rather than the Yankee Thoreau. From talking with him I felt that his philosophical libertarianism might have protected him somewhat from the racism, acknowledged or unacknowledged, that can be found in a lot of American conservatism. When he would talk about his political opinions, I’d say “Well, that’s not me, but you know a lot of the folks I read are anarchists, and they sort of have the same feelings about the dangers of governments.”

Gary replied with a question that might take a long time to answer. “What’s the difference between libertarianism and anarchism?”

What an interesting question, and how long could that answer go on? I improvised my first thoughts, observational ones that day Gary asked it decades ago. “Well, some of it is just cultural associations. They dress differently, they listen to different music. And some of that is reflected from where they are moving from: Libertarians come largely from right-wing backgrounds and anarchists from left-wing ones, though each of them may be disenchanted with something from the Right or the Left respectively.”

McClure’s “Action Philosophy”  takes what might be a book-length examination and instead put a distinction into his poem’s first and last lines. The world of the Randian side of libertarianism is perfectly fine with hierarchies and a thought that the unfortunate are the unworthy, or if not that, the unavoidable. Most anarchists—and from McClure’s final line spoken here today, McClure himself—were not. So the first and last lines today are a meaningful combination.

That was my process, a path of liberties and syndication, from within which the piece emerged as the Whitman Blakean section enclosed in McClure’s poem which seemed so Whitmanesque. My performance and recording was done, and yet I went to bed last night with a question in my mind. “What did Whitman know of William Blake? Those lines seemed so Blakean to me.”

Those who read this blog know that when I’m reading a poem, performing, and experiencing it, there’s often one more question that comes from that process. I did a little research today, and found sources that say that at the time of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman probably didn’t know Blake’s work, but by later in the 19th century he certainly did; and that some of those reviving and extending attention on Blake also saw the strange connection between Blake and Whitman—I wasn’t the first. Here’s a link to a very fine summary written by Sarah Ferguson-Wagstaffe of what links are known and were noticed in the 19th century, and even a short bit from Whitman’s own private writings about how he felt he was different from Blake. Ferguson-Wagstaffe may be writing for a scholarly website, but she doesn’t bury the lede: Whitman designed his own burial tomb inspired by a drawing of Blake’s.

How did they come to similar forms of poetic expression? The translated Hebrew poetry of The Bible influenced both strongly. And the same political philosophies informed both men, Blake knew Thomas Paine, Whitman was reading Thoreau and Emerson. And maybe the muses, the angels, the wake-waves of ghosts from the last movements of the dead moving in our air pressed similar things into each poets’ ear. Right after Ginsberg read “Howl”  at the Gallery Six reading for the first time (and by some accounts it was the first public reading of any kind Ginsberg or McClure had ever given of any of their work), Lawrence Ferlinghetti contacted Ginsberg from out of the Gallery audience and said “I welcome you on the beginning of a great career.” Ferlinghetti no doubt knew he was echoing what Emerson had written to Whitman in response to that 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.

For those that note that I’ve borrowed a song-title from Bob Dylan, I point out one of my favorite investigations from this Project: my non-original, but still little-known, discovery that Bob Dylan was filmed doing the famous hand-drawn placard presentation of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with Ginsberg gesturing in the background in an alley at the very site that William Blake died. To warp the old joke: Who’s buried in Blake’s Tomb? Whitman. Who was illuminated at the site of Blake’s death? Bob Dylan. Is McClure, carrying his nesting twig of Thoreau, and angel or a condor now?

To hear a performance mixing in Thoreau, McClure, and Whitman with my music for a small orchestra, use the player below. Thanks for reading. Thanks for listening. Thanks for sharing these ghosts with me.

 

 

 

 

*Should I have used the more multitudinous verb “where” here?

**McClure didn’t even have to be there. In the summer of 1970, I was working frying hamburgers in Port Chester New York. Down the road was the Capitol Theater, one of those converted to rock concert venues of the age. At a bar in town Janis Joplin was drinking with Bob Neuwirth, and Joplin started riffing on a line from a McClure poem “Come on God, and buy me a Mercedes Benz.” Neuwirth scribbled the night’s journeywork on a paper napkin. Later that day she performed the resulting song at the Capitol Theater. Me? I just kept frying those burgers.

***True to their anarchist-hearts, the reading seems to have been blessed with several “organizers” but happened anyway. Kenneth Rexroth MC’d, Phillip Lamantia, Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen, Michael McClure, and Allen Ginsberg read. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, Ann Charters, and Jack Kerouac where in the audience. Since it was at this reading the Ginsberg premiered his long poem “Howl,”  that seems to have become the summary of the event, but the edges of the blast broke more windows. The 22-year-old McClure read a poem about the death of whales, showing that his “Mammal Patriotism” was already forming.

Song of Myself (I Contain Multitudes)

Is he joining me in celebrating National Poetry Month? Last week Bob Dylan released a new song called “I Contain Multitudes.” It’s pretty good, mixing the elegiac mood and the bittersweet blues. Like Dylan’s other new release, “Murder Most Foul”  from earlier in the month, folks quickly swept through the lyrics to collect and note the allusions. They found that “I Contain Multitudes”  has literary references mixed in with the musician and cultural touchstones. Poets William Blake and Edgar Allan Poe get name-checked.

But for some reason, the main poetic link Dylan seems to intend was missed in most of the early write-ups I read. The song’s refrain, which also supplies the title, is a line from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”  We’re going to fix that today.

Over the years of this project I probably haven’t presented enough Whitman. He’s the indispensable ice-breaker of poetic Modernism, even for those that didn’t attempt to closely follow his style. By writing in free verse with no set line length, irregular meter, and no need to make the rhyming word, he freed poetry to be infinitely expansive and did for poetic music what Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane did for instrumental music. Once this idea of freedom was demonstrated, any number of other Modernist approaches eventually developed, some of which don’t directly bring Whitman to mind as a model, though that doesn’t mean that they didn’t benefit from his revolution.*  And some subsequent writers did  show the influence of Whitman’s characteristic word-music: Carl Sandburg, John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Allen Ginsburg. Stop for a minute: all three of those writers—all examples where one can trace the lineage of Whitman easily—are influences on the language and expression of Bob Dylan. Whitman, like Dylan, loves the wide-ranging catalog, the linking of things plain and exotic, the workman’s comment and the sage’s koan.

So maybe it was time for Bob to give a nod to Walt—and for me to do so too.

I’ve chosen today to present the last two numbered poems in Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”  Besides the “I contain multitudes” line, this selection also includes some other of Whitman’s most famous proclamations: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself,” “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” and “Look for me under your boot-soles.”

Walt and Iggy

Barbaric Yawp in action: “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Well, maybe if you take off the hat and remove your shirt Walt.

 

Although I approach Dylan’s age, yet somewhat in arrears, I’m not going for the old-man lope of Dylan’s recent songs today.** No. It’s time to rawk!   My personal index-thought as I composed, arranged, and started to perform this was “Whitman as if done by Iggy*** and the Stooges.” As with many of my index-thoughts in this project, I missed the mark, but that’s OK, maybe I came close to the bulls-eye of another target nearby. Since I long for the sound of a loose and loud rock band in these days of social distance, I tried to make one myself for this piece, even attempting to duplicate the kind of thing my LYL Band partner Dave Moore might have played on piano when that was possible. My shelter in place partner Heidi Randen kicked in some backing vocals on the chorus. It took me to this morning to get a time when I could crank a guitar amp to get the feedback and speaker interaction for the Ron Ashton-style guitar solo, which I scheduled between my high-schooler’s interactive telelearning sessions.

As always, the next audio piece will likely be different than this one, so check back (or hit “follow”) to see what the Parlando Project does next during National Poetry Month.

The full text of the long poetic series “Song of Myself”  is available here, the sections I perform are the last two, numbered 51 and 52. The player gadget to hear the performance is below. Turn it up!

 

 

 

 

*I believe that even poets who chose to write in rhymed and metrical forms after Whitman can benefit from his break. Formalism became a choice not an obligation.

**I do that in other pieces here anyway.

***I note that secret reader Iggy is taking part in an all-star group performance of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”  this month. You can check out the readings as they are posted starting at the beginning here.

Brancusi’s Golden Bird

It’s perhaps my favorite scene in D. A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back.  Pennebaker has setup this narrative as Dylan tours England in 1965, introduced with shots of British music newspapers touting the teen-aged Donovan as Dylan’s rival. My well-remembered scene is shot in Dylan’s Savoy hotel room, where boffins can pick out various UK music figures sitting about and talking. In the background, there’s Donovan himself, tuning an acoustic guitar as Dylan asks if there’s anyone in the British Isles that is a poet like unto Allen Ginsberg. Dominic Behan is offered. Dylan says nah. Donovan has tuned up and launches into his “I’ll Sing a Song for You.”

“That’s a good song” Dylan chimes in as Donovan sings, and though eyes behind Ray-Ban shades he still seems to be paying respectful attention. Someone says “He plays like Jack man,” not a slur, but referring to Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, the legendary folkie and predecessor to Dylan in the Woody-Guthrie-continuation field.

Dylan takes the guitar from Donovan and launches into “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”  The guitar has gathered a capo and Dylan has lost the shades. Donovan lights another filter cigarette and chews on his nails, figures how to be cool.

Now, “rating” Dylan songs is subjective and subject to mood, even for any one person. For this one person, It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”  gets a lot of respect: a song about love using politics as a metaphor or a song about politics using love as a metaphor? The best metaphors are like that, the thing and the representation can flip places.

So besides the people-watching and the music in a movie about a songwriter that actually has little music in it,* the gist that’s often drawn from this scene is an unhelpful but crucial tip: if you’re ever in a song pull, don’t sing your song just before 1965-vintage Bob Dylan if you can help it.

OK, so I’ve already drifted back to 1965, let’s keep drifting backwards to 1922, and you’re a Modernist poet, not a singer-songwriter. You’re about to be published in The Dial,  the sort-of-successor to the mid-19th century American Transcendentalist house organ, now publishing the cream of Modernism in art and literature. Let’s get specific, the “you” you’re playing as you travel back in time is Mina Loy, a woman who’s au fait with the avant garde and whose poetry remains strikingly original even today. Yes, the Modernist movement is going to have its problems with women as artists, but Loy seems fierce.

Brancusis own photo of The Golden Bird

There are lovely color pictures of Brâncuși’s sculpture, but this is the artist’s own photo, which has a certain monochromatic mystery to it

 

And the Mina Loy poem that goes into that issue of The Dial is a glorious ode to a visual Modernist: one of Constantin Brâncuși’s series of bird sculptures “The Golden Bird.”  Loy’s poem has something the pre-WWI Modernists often had, a joy at the new way of looking and expression.**

The lesson of the Dylan’s Savoy Hotel room is true but unhelpful here. The November 1922 issue of the Dial leads off with a new publication of a poem called The Waste Land”  by T. S. Eliot. You might have heard of it.

The Dial November 1922
Antiquities dealers ask for more than $1,000 for this back issue

 

Art of course isn’t a competition. “Rating” art is a silly pastime that gets sillier the thinner you try to slice it. The emotional/intellectual transfer happens between art and audience or it doesn’t. Still the unhelpful rule would hold that if you’re trying to make an impression as a Modernist poet, holding up your “read me” sign next to what gets rated a masterpiece isn’t the way to go.

Now, almost a hundred years later, readers and critics are starting to look again at Loy, whose entire career was overshadowed compared to others she worked beside. How successful was her art? There’s no fixed record, because that assay happens every time it’s read or listened to. I think this tribute to Brâncuși stands up, even though it no longer benefits from the early 20th century shock of the new.***

Musically, today’s performance marks my annual tribute on the anniversary of the unfortunate death of the American musician and composer Jimi Hendrix. Each year for September 18th I plug in a Stratocaster electric guitar and try to channel a little of Hendrix’s bird in flight. Hendrix was enormously interested in the electric guitar’s timbral possibilities, so I tried to make my guitar part reflective, chirping with bird song, and gong-like in turn. You might easily think: this is my Savoy hotel room moment. You could be right, but I persist. My performance of Loy’s piece praising Brâncuși’s sculpture is available with the player below.  The text of her poem is here if you want to follow along.

If you ever find yourself, regardless of the unhelpful rule and your careful plans, as a Donovan next to someone as a Bob Dylan, one choice is: go ahead anyway. I’m glad Loy did.

 

 

 

 

*Yup, it’s true. The movie is forever showing Dylan about to go on stage and then it cuts to another backstage scene. This may have been necessary for music-rights issues, but the movie Pennebaker got was all the more unique because of this.

**RaulDukeBlog has sagely commented here about the gloomy-gus nature of so much of 20th century High Modernism. T. S. Eliot’s poem helped turn it that way, even if it was a personal expiation to break out of that. Two World Wars and surrounding atrocities certainly didn’t help cheer up the arts, and our present state is damp with sodden things that can only be dried with some fire that joy sparks. Another reason to go back earlier in Modernism, and to look at the kindling of artists like Loy and their pure enthusiasm for breaking out of entrenched tropes.

***A famous anecdote about Brâncuși’s work has it that at one point when the statue was being transported to the U.S. the customs officials refused to believe the abstract form was a sculpture at all, and it was instead classified as a metal ingot.

Are Song Lyrics Poetry? Part Three

In the first two parts I’ve tried as briefly as I can to outline two things surrounding this issue. In part one, I surveyed how poetry moved from an ancient form performed with music to a modern form most typically associated with printed text on a page. In part two I looked at the surprising result of a political decision made in the 1930s that led to a rich cultural mix being encouraged to compose music for non-commercial purposes linked to folk music. 25 years after this decision, a singular singer-songwriter linked that idea with many of the discoveries of Modernist poetry and revolutionized what song lyrics could do.

These two things, the move of poetry away from music and performance in general and the move of song lyrics to utilize all the elements pioneered by the Modernist poets naturally bring this question of “Are these lyrics poetry?” to the fore.

I’m going to try (again as briefly as I can) to deal with the issues brought up by this question. Before I do, I’ll spoil the suspense: I believe song lyrics are poetry, even though I agree to some level with the objections to that idea. On one level, a matter of definition, it ought to be simple to agree: the argument isn’t really that song lyrics aren’t poetry (or that various kinds of performed poetry aren’t poetry) it’s an argument that those things aren’t (or aren’t very often) any good as poetry. As I argued here a couple of years back, “not so great poetry” isn’t worthless, and I doubt the arguments that not so great poetry harms those poems we feel are greater or more accomplished.

What are those objections?

Without music or when printed silently on the page many song lyrics, even effective ones, seem much less effective. It may be 20th century comedian Steve Allen who originated the gag where a pop music lyric is intoned as if it’s a deathless ode.  Laughs ensue. Allen liked to remind us that he was a songwriter and the author of serious books, but here, for the bit’s sake he’s showing us his skills as a performer. The unintended air of seriousness is incongruous to the material, he leans hard on the choral repetitions—which are used in poetry, but are used much more often in sung lyrics—and any infelicities in songwriter Gene Vincent’s words that we might ignore in the flow of Vincent’s performance get a raised eyebrow in Allen’s. A performer could do the same to “The Waste Land”  or Emily Dickinson and make it ludicrous. And Bullwinkle J. Moose could present the once worthy Longfellow for laughs too.


“Drink in the simple beauty and the profundity of the sentiment…Skitch…”

 

 

Context is important in art. “The Waste Land”  gained part of its launch velocity because of the trauma of WWI and because the Modernist movement was primed for a weighty masterpiece. But context is even more important in performed work, “Be Bop a-Lula”  is designed to be heard sung with music.

Allen was taking a jazz-snob swipe at rock’n’roll. Here he is providing appropriate context for Jack Kerouac. “In Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry.”

 

That if considered as poetry, using the same criteria a critic would apply to poems, many song lyrics fail to meet those criteria. Well, a great many poems that have never heard a note sounded beside them probably fail those criteria too. There are arguments that complex song lyrics fail because  they are performed which I deal with below, but I ask: how sure are you your criteria are universal? When folks argue that Kendrick Lamar or Bob Dylan are bad poetry they are almost never arguing “Well, they just don’t work for me.” Instead they maintain that those who feel they do work have been duped or lack the intelligence and skills to appreciate something they posit as more worthy. How many Modernist, now cannon-resident poems, met the criteria of 19th century poetry? Did the Modernists forget how to be modernists? What part of “Make it new” did we forget?

The more I look at poetry, the more I’m surprised that a great many ways of “making poetry” seem to work. I’m pleased by that discovery, while I suspect the criteria people coming across the same discovery would be somewhere between puzzled and disappointed.

When folks answer this question by pointing out ways that song lyrics (generalized in some way) are different from poetry (generalized as well), I often wonder just how narrow their generalized view of poetry is. Poetry expresses itself in so many different ways even without leaving the page. The differences between how Du Fu’s “Spring View”  and Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  allow us to feel somewhat similar responses to similar situations are immense, larger than the differences between “The Waste Land”  and Dylan’s “Desolation Row.”

Complex poetry cannot be appreciated in performance, much less with the distraction of music. I’ve dealt with this briefly elsewhere in this series, but we also need to ask: is complex, analytic, response always called for? In every other art-form I can think of, we allow for various levels of involvement with the art. Because complex poetry can reward deep examination, must it always be approached in all times and places by all people in that way? Audiences differ in their need to understand immediately. “Be Bop a-Lula”  is designed to be absorbed with immediacy as expression and as a series of pleasing sounds. Donald Glover’s “This Is America”  isn’t, and indeed it’s designed to make you question your pleasure in a text that works like “Be Bob a-Lula.”  What the Bob Dylan revolution proved (regardless of how you rate Dylan) is that audiences will accept complex and unconventional expression in song lyrics. Not every hit song has complex lyrics, but complex lyrics can be a hit song.

If lyrics were good in the way complex poetry is good, that’s immaterial or it may even detract from the music which is the main thing an audience wants from a song. Yes, audiences come to songs for various reasons. Have you never loved a song for evolving reasons? With page-poetry I have certainly been attracted to a poem because of the way it sounded, and that pleasure indicated I might want to stick with it a bit (or re-experience that sound-pleasure) to see what else it might be expressing.

Sure, the ancients performed poetry with music, but that was a primitive solution. Literacy and mass-distributed printed matter is a better medium for poetry. I’m not sure about this. I agree that printed poetry allows for a different experience of the text. Alternate reader here Dave Moore has reminded me that it’s helpful if I provide access to the text of what is performed here. Good point! But the Parlando Project is in part a big experiment to see what works if various kinds of poetry are performed along with various music in various ways. I expect to fail, and I expect to succeed.

Speaking of success and failure, if you’re still here, I appreciate the time and attention you have given to read this. I’m both apologetic for its length and its brevity. Here’s a short audio piece, my translation (with a slight 21st century American adaptation I couldn’t resist) of that four-stanza poem that Du Fu wrote about the trauma of a broken country in springtime, the “Spring View”  I mentioned above. Here’s a more literal translation of the text. The player for my performance is below.

 

Are Song Lyrics Poetry? Part Two

Last post I rapidly traced poetry from the era of Homer and Sappho and the Confucian Odes,  jumped to English language poetry and finally ended with early 20th century Americans. I traveled fast, and simplified much, but it wouldn’t be out of line to say this is a progression from poetry that was expected to be performed with music to a poetry that wasn’t. Widespread literacy and the printing press, and by the Modernist era, a desire to include complex allusions and layers of ambiguity all helped this progression along.

Today let’s start in the 20th Century in America and follow the songwriter’s side of things. Popular songwriting had become industrialized. Composers and lyricists churned out uncountable numbers—and first by sheet music and then by recordings, film, and broadcasts, these productions could be distributed widely. Barriers to entry were low in this business, but rewards for popular success were high. Lyricists came from a wide range of backgrounds—some were middle class, even college educated, but many were immigrants or descendants of recent immigrants for whom English was a fresh language.

As with any mass art or market, much of what they produced was forgettable, a job of work, their ears may have sometimes bent to the muse, but their hands were looking for a paycheck.

Poets and literary critics occasionally paid a little bit of attention to that work in their time. Lively arts and all, some notice was taken.* With the music inspired by Jazz, the cultural force of the music could not be denied, even if the words that came along with it might be condescended to.

Then, in the mid-1930s, a decision was made, outside of music and poetry—a political decision—that eventually changed the course of popular music lyrics. For political reasons both international and U. S. national, the Soviet Union-dominated international Comintern and the U. S. Communist Party decided to switch tactics from a more purist “only the Communist Party is the solution” stance to a popular front position, where anyone to the left of the then rising Fascist forces were considered valid allies.**

In the U. S. this led to such slogans as “Communism is the Americanism of the 20th Century.” On a political level this meant that the Roosevelt New Deal wouldn’t be portrayed as capitalists pushing insufficient reforms to stave off the inevitable revolution, and that actual “card-carrying Communists” would be mixing more generally with socialists, liberals and centrists. But for our purposes, we need to look at how this played out in the cultural sector.

Popular arts, which could have been perceived as hopelessly compromised tools of the capitalist system, became more acceptable; but a more pure, folk expression that was seen as coming directly from and for the workers and the exploited, a music existing outside of the commercial infrastructure of entertainment, was even more ideal.

So here, twenty years before the “Great Folk Scare” of the 1950s were the roots of the folk revival.*** It’s in this pre-WWII period that Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie came of age and shaped their songwriting. Seeger was a Harvard drop-out and son of two musicologists.**** Guthrie was none of those things. The Popular Front meant that the likes of those two, and many others with high to low culture backgrounds, would mix it up.



My apologies to my Christian readers for posting this example of extraordinary Popular Front songwriting on Easter when it’s more a Good Friday kind of thing. Billie Holiday sings the harrowing “Strange Fruit.”

 

As songwriters this could have meant dour issue-of-the-month songs cleared by some central committee. And to be honest, each of them sang and wrote some of those, but both of them had Emersonian Individualist streaks.*****

And they listened too, had big ears. Afro-American music and musicians, isolated southern U. S. musicians who songs and styles were time-capsules of old British Isles tunes. Blues and “Hillbilly” music benefited somewhat from being a source and occasional fellow-traveler with this movement.

The Afro-American Harlem Renaissance is shaped by the gravitational pull of this political decision too. Civil Rights before the ‘30s was often aspirational, and though the folk traditions were honored before, this new emphasis on embracing popular and folk arts increased the interest and respect for them among an emerging new Afro-American cultural consensus.

Now we jump ahead again, it’s that un-named but important straddle decade of the late ‘50s to early 60s. Communist connections are poison. Illness had made Guthrie bedridden. Seeger is persevering outside of any first-tier commercial structure as a road-dog performer. “Folk Music” is now a commercial genre with a still bohemian/left-wing underground. Into this we inject the man who will expand the idea of what song lyrics will be allowed to do: Bob Dylan.

You don’t have to like Bob Dylan as a person, performer or songwriter to accept this truth: there are song lyrics before Dylan’s 1963-66 period and there are song lyrics afterward, but song lyrics are a completely different field after the change he proved was possible. This is why an artist as strong in his own right as Leonard Cohen can say in one of his last public statements: “Giving a Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan is like pinning a medal on Mt. Everest for being the highest mountain.”

But a Bob Dylan has causes, has a context in which he can happen. That choice Communist bureaucrats made for pragmatic political reasons in the mid-1930s led to a folk music scene 20 years later in which Afro-American blues and weird old folk music mixes with poetic Modernism inside the mind of one songwriter, and what comes out is strange and compelling.

Song lyrics don’t have to be a piece of work aiming for an established commercial target. Song lyrics don’t have to make clear front-to-back sense the first or the fifteenth time you hear them, they can mystify you and still have listeners. Songs with narrative elements don’t have to progress in a linear manner. Song lyrics can be about anything, can use any kind of imagery. Love songs can be ambiguous. Political points can be made metaphorically. You can combine different kinds of diction, even sample and reference various existing sources, and it doesn’t have to seem out of place or from the lack of original things to say.

One can point to song lyrics that did one or two of these things before Dylan, but after Dylan used many of them together and repeated that demonstration often, many songwriters wanted to try using any and all of these things, and their attempts caused other songwriters to do the same. A chain-reaction occurred.

Modernist poetry had done all these things already, and often—but Modernist poets didn’t write songs, and for the most part they didn’t read and perform their poetry charismatically. Some Beat poets, that faction of the Modernist movement that had vowed to remain resolutely bohemian, who had read their poems in front of jazz combos, recognized this was a different level of music combined with words. Allen Ginsberg heard a copy of Bob Dylan’s second LP in 1963. As the first side of that record moved inward toward the ouroboros groove in its middle, as “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”  played, he says he wept. Did he weep, feeling he was now displaced? Did he weep because this not yet 40-year-old poet might be replaced by this just over 20 singer-songwriter? No.

He wept, with an outlook of gratitude, because “There’s a saying among the Buddhists. If the student is not greater than the teacher, then the teacher is a failure.”


A long excerpt from “A Hard Rain Is a-Gonna Fall” with Ginsberg’s statement cut in.

 

Good story. But this was far from the end of the matter. A great many important poets and critics didn’t feel Ginsberg, or any of his Beat cohort, were very good poets. Therefore, Ginsberg’s say-so didn’t make Dylan a “real poet.”

You can’t say songwriting accepted or didn’t accept Bob Dylan, because acceptance is too meager a word for what happened—he changed how songwriting worked. The question of poetry “accepting” Bob Dylan, or songwriters in general, is still open.

Will I ever answer the question in the title? I beg your patience. This is by far the longest piece ever published here, even though I’m skimming over a lot of things. In Part Three I’ll finally get down to the answer that makes the most sense to me.

For an audio piece today I’ll suggest this one, one of the rare times here that I perform my own writing, a live version of “On First Hearing Blonde on Blonde”  by the LYL Band. The audio player is below. Thank you for reading and listening! Part Three, that should be the conclusion, comes soon.

 

 

 

 

 

*Decades after this era in 1990 literature professor Phillip Furia published his book The Poets of Tin Pan Alley  which helped convince this fan of more “authentic” songwriters that these commercial lyricists were not without considerable art.

**As in the case I’ll make later regarding Dylan, please don’t let any personal feelings or judgements you may have regarding Communism or the Comintern blind you to the historical connections here.

***I can’t not mention one poet and musician who jumped the gun on this, Carl Sandburg, who published his important folk song collection American Songbag  in 1927. And for length reasons, I’ve largely left out the 20th century development of Afro-American blues and jazz. Charlie Patton didn’t wait for the Comintern to get in touch with him to forge his new alloy of styles.

****One of his father’s prize students was Modernist composer Henry Cowell. His step-mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger was in some opinions the most significant female American Modernist composer of the first half of the 20th century.

*****We can think of songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Bells of Rhymey,” “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,”  or “This Land is Your Land”  as exceeding requirements for that kind of song. Abel Meerpool’s “Strange Fruit”  is an excellent example of a lyric, written as a song, that would stand alongside poetry intended for the page.

Are Song Lyrics Poetry? Part One

Today, somewhere, someone probably asked this question for the first time, and yet I’ve been aware of this question for my entire adult life. So, before I try to address the question, let me ask first, how long have we been asking this?

The ancients didn’t ask it. It seems clear that if one goes far enough back in most cultures it was taken for granted that poetry would be sung or accompanied by music. It seemed to make little difference if it was an epic story or a condensed lyric expression, music was assumed as appropriate bordering on required.

Was there a progression away from music being expected with poetry in those times? I wish I could say I was scholar enough to answer that question here. As literacy became widespread, as the collecting of libraries increased, I assume more people may have read Homer or Sappho* on the page than heard their works performed. And similarly, when Confucius and his school collected The Book of Songs  they may not have assumed that each student would learn to sing and accompany each of them. Still it would have been absurd then for someone to judge that these works could not be poetry because musical accompaniment and performance had been associated with them.

Plectra and Sappho

Let’s see, one of these ought to work….And Sappho holding her plectrum in right hand

 

If we stay with English language and move on, we know that the Elizabethans recognized some poetry as destined for the printing press’s page, some for performance on the stage, and some for musical settings as songs. Poetry could be associated with music, but it wasn’t the default.

Continuing to sweep forward quickly, a few Romantics like Robert Burns wrote songs and Blake was reported to sing some of his work as well. Some of the prime British Isles romantics wrote literary ballads or the like, works that referred to song forms but without associated music, meant to be seen on the page.

Likewise, there seem to be only a scattered few in the late-Romantic/Victorian era and onto the early English language Modernists who were musical composers and poets or who assumed musical performance for their chief works. Long-time readers here will know that I like to point to Yeats as an exceptional example to this. For a time he pushed for poetry as performance with music and may even have composed or aided in the composition of some of the accompanying tunes. Little of his crusade survives, though it’s possible that one of the tunes to which his poem “The Song of the Wandering Aengus”  aka “The Golden Apples of the Sun”  is sometimes sung might be his, or personally approved by him.

That Yeats was closely associated with drama and theater may have something to do with this. Newly composed poetic drama is an uncommon form in the modern era, but drama normally presumes performance. Although readings by poets are common in the 20th and 21st century, the nature of the performances vary considerably, and it became common for poets to give dry readings that by the writer/reader’s nature or intent drained dramatic and performance elements from the reading.

Let’s stop for a moment and consider two unlike American poets who emerged in the early 20th century: Vachel Lindsay and T. S. Eliot. Lindsay, who came and went well before the first Beat poet stepped in front of a jazz combo can easily be seen as the original slam performance poet.

He wrote his poetry expecting to perform it. Associated with that expectation, his writing is designed to impact the back row of the auditorium immediately, and if he ever wrote a poem with layers of meaning or intentional ambiguity, I’ve never come upon it.

Eliot on the other hand, read somberly in public, but as much (or more) as Lindsay he seemed to inform his poetry with music. As I return to my serialized performance of his masterwork “The Waste Land”  this month I’m reminded of music’s considerable presence in it. He samples music in his great poem just as a modern hip hop composer might, dropping in scurrilous barracks ballads, pop songs, Wagner opera, and birdsong. He didn’t perform it as floridly as he wrote it, and so even if “The Waste Land”  bore an original working title of “He Do the Police in Different Voices”  Eliot does not do the voices when reading it, nor does he sing the music he’s decidedly referencing. It can  be performed however, and while the poem’s detailed layers and references won’t come through in one sitting, a performance like Fiona Shaw’s illuminates the emotional and character range in it better than anyone’s silent first (or probably tenth) reading of it will.

My performance of “The Waste Land,”  now about half complete, attempts to bring the abstracted music back to life in the poem, even if I reserve the right to select genres and modes of expression that Eliot might not expect.

When I perform a poem like Vachel Lindsay’s “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight”  I expect you’ll get as much, or perhaps even more, from hearing it once as you would reading it on a page.

One of the knocks on poetry with music, or performing poetry in general, has been that it doesn’t help subtle and complex thoughts in poetry come through the way that slow reading on a page where one can look up and down the page at will does. I’ll agree there’s a non-linearity in reading poetry on the page that is difficult to translate into performance. But does musical performance of words prevent “re-reading”?

Music rejoices in repetition. Words used with music often take on refrains and repeated sections. I will sometimes create such refrains even if the original page poem doesn’t include them. Gospel and other ecstatic performance styles have been known to drill down to word or syllable level in repetition, again, somewhat compensating for that weakness of performed poetry vs. its non-linear presence on the page.

Particularly with recordings (although repeated performances have the same virtue) you can re-experience the poetic text for comprehension of different levels or different vectors of observation.

When I’m attending a poetry reading, I’m often worried that I will not be able to keep up the level of attention on the poet’s words as they read them throughout an entire night. This is irrespective of the value or quality of the poetry. A good poet is quite likely to cause my mind to explode with exploration engendered by a line, and I’ll find on my return that I have missed the rest of the poem! And a really good poem can blank out the next several poems.

On the other hand, a simple text like Otis Redding’s song “Respect”  as performed by Aretha Franklin and band can bear (for me) hundreds of listens. I will notice new things each time, or given the decades over which I’ve heard it, I may re-notice things I’ve forgotten I’ve noticed before. These revisits will also reach favorite moments where I wait for pleasures to return. A knottier text like Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman”  once seemed like a way to vicariously experience a certain kind of demimonde I was only peripherally experienced in. Listening to it over my life tested it against theories that it was about gender fluidity, or that it was a patriarchal endorsement of the male gaze and privilege, and now I usually hear it more as an expression of two addicts negotiating their other relationship besides the one to the chemicals and the situation that obtains them. It may be none of those things, or it may not always be one of those things. It may be something different the next time I listen to it.

Why shouldn’t Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is a thing with feathers”  or Wallace Stevens’ “To the Roaring Wind”  get the same chance? Of course we can re-read a page poem, or read it and double back to check some connection, but particularly with short poems, might not music encourage repeat play?

In this first part we’ve talked more about poetry and the perception that it has become increasingly separate from music. In the second part we’ll come from the other direction, and talk about song lyrics and that old, but not ageless, question about if they are poetry. I’ll leave you with my performance of Yeats’ “Wandering Aengus.” We don’t know exactly how Yeats would have wanted it performed, but his writing on poetry with music indicates he didn’t want the performer to sing it in an art-song manner. Perhaps I’m complying with his wishes, but then I can’t really pull off full-voiced art song.

 

 

 

*My favorite Sappho legend—as a guitar player that must have the right flat pick to approach the instrument—is that she invented the plectrum.