Completing my National Poetry Month daily posting with two beautiful pieces

It’s been quite the job of work to do daily posts with new lyric videos here this April in celebration of National Poetry Month, and I haven’t taken the time yet to see what impact those extra efforts have had. Though I was re-releasing already recorded audio pieces from the earliest years of this six-year Project this month, even the fairly simple lyric videos took more time than you might think — and then there was the selection of which pieces to present, as well as writing a few hundred words on what I currently thought of each of them.

Well, not only is today the last day of National Poetry Month, it’s International Jazz Day, and I felt I needed to make a nod to that today. So, let’s play two!

The first piece is, I think, one of the prettiest of the more than 600 performances we’ve presented: Carl Sandburg’s “Autumn Movement.”   Sandburg gets tagged as an urban poet, and of course he broke into the scene with Chicago Poems in 1914. But he grew up in a more downstate Illinois town, and traveled around the less urban areas of the country before spending the majority of his “now you’re famous” years on a small goat farm. “Autumn Movement”  is from his 1918 Cornhuskers collection, which as you might expect from its title is not all city living.*

Here’s Sandburg with farmland not skyscrapers

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While “Autumn Movement”  is short in word-count, I did get to playing a bit as I tried my best to approximate in this piece the stylings of Bill Frisell with my Telecaster and fretless bass. Frisell, who can play more contexts more better than I can properly imagine, is usually labeled a Jazz guitarist. I’m not, labels or otherwise. I just have a lot of guts — but the result is  pretty.

As per our April thing, you have three ways to hear “Autumn Movement.”  You can use the player gadget just below. No gadget?  This highlighted hyperlink will do it too. And the lyric video is above.


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And the bonus second piece? “Sonny Rollins, The Bridge, 1959”  is not an early performance (I performed and presented it earlier this year) but for International Jazz Day I thought it’d be good to have another piece that not only uses Jazz musical flavorings but actually deals with being a Jazz artist — or by easy extension, an American artist in any medium. If I’m not a proper Jazz composer or musician, I take great strength just from considering their achievements, their dedication, their originality. Given that most of the giants are Afro-Americans who’ve had a whole ‘nother level of obstacles and expectations to get over as serious artists — well, the mind boggles and the heart swells considering them.

And one more chorus: three ways to hear it: the graphical player just below this, the backup highlighted hyperlink, and the lyric video just a bit lower down on the page.

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I hope this experiment has been enjoyable for the regulars here who may have joined the Parlando Project already in progress and who perhaps haven’t heard the earlier pieces — and it was my hope that it would also bring some new readers and listeners into the fold. If you’re one of those: welcome! I’m not predictable in what kind of poetry or music I’ll use, but I do consistently try to keep it interesting and varied, and I’d sure like to have you come along with me as I do that.

And here’s my ode to the inspiring Sonny Rollins in lyric video form

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*I’ve always enjoyed the story of Bob Dylan seeking out Sandburg as the younger singer was just starting to reach a level of national fame in 1964. While trying to locate Sandburg, Dylan was unable to get the locals to recognize a “Sandburg the poet” he was seeking, but then they asked back if he was looking instead for “Sandburg the goat farmer.”

Robert Frost wrote a lot of poems about rural life, including many of his best and best remembered, but his contemporary Sandburg, Mr. City of the Big Shoulders, probably spent more time around actual farms and farming.

Carl Sandburg’s “Back Yard” for National Poetry Month

Here’s a poem written by a second-generation immigrant about immigrants, and about Chicago in 1916, or my present city neighborhood of immigrants, or summer, summer nights — and it’s about love and affection, and about the moon that we’re all immigrants from when we fall in love.

The child of an immigrant who wrote this was Carl Sandburg, a man highly identified with the city of Chicago because he broke-out as a poet there and called his first collection, where this poem appeared, Chicago Poems.  Though Carl got around and had traveled before and after this time in his life, he’s settled here in this poem, happy in the poem that night in summer Chicago hearing the accordion, watching the courting, thinking of a neighbor thinking of cherries growing in their backyard.*

How much is different in my Minneapolis neighborhood now? It’s hard to say. I live a more separated life than Sandburg did then I suspect. Yet, I hear the Mexican music at night drifting down from a block north on summer weekends. A hajib-wearing African-born woman is shuffling her children into a minivan a few doors south as I ride by on my bicycle. A Central American refugee father would wait with me for the school bus to drop off our children when my teenager was in grade-school. The stuffed-muffled boom of car stereos has seemingly had its peak, but I still hear them occasionally. Sitting on my porch reading in the summer, the scattered parade on the sidewalks falls in with families, many accounting with babies in slings and front-packs, or strollers, and then they or their siblings go on to toddling, to walking, to scooting on bikes without pedals.

The moonlight though? Some of our silver lights now are downcast close-in little screens. Oh, we still see the moon — but streetlights and houselights, business lights and car lights, more-or-less wash out the moonlight.

But, but, we cannot wash away the moon.

How do we know love emigrates from the moon? Oh, because it’s above all of us, widely appreciated and sometimes almost touchable, other times slim and sliced and out of reach. Because it waxes and wanes yet is always there, even behind clouds. Because it speaks the language all of us speak when we’re speechless. Every person who falls in love is a new immigrant from the moon.


Even though I think this performance wants to slip away from 1916 Chicago, I couldn’t help but put a lot of period Chicago photos in the video.

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We’re still in our April National Poetry Month mode, so three ways to listen to my performance and music for Carl Sandburg’s poem “Back Yard:”  a player appears below for some, an alternative highlighted link is here for backup, and we have the new lyric video above. Oh, did Carl write all the words you’ll hear in my performance? Seems like a few others’ words crossed the border to join in the night. If you happen to have some headphones or earbuds handy, this song’s mix will make it worth getting those out.

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*The poem’s cherry tree in the backyard gives me reason for a thought, not knowing much about immigrant communities in pre-WWI Chicago. I know the tenement neighborhood of New York’s Lower East Side, and there aren’t likely trees or backyards there. Minneapolis might well have had trees in poorer working-class neighborhoods, even if the housing in some areas would be ramshackle. When Sandburg lived in Milwaukee before coming to Chicago, his wife raised urban chickens, and it’s just possible that this poem is a Milwaukee poem bound in a book named for Chicago.

Letters to Dead Imagists and A Pact for National Poetry Month

Within the limited time I can find for it, I’ve been informally surveying what others online are doing for National Poetry Month. I’ll make one casual observation, unbacked by rigor or focused study: a great deal I’ve seen this April is aimed solely at the supply side for poetry.

I’ve got nothing against urging more folks to write poetry. How could I? I’ve contributed additional verses to the Olympus of written —and albeit years ago — to the avalanche of published poetry. I’ve even advocated here for more poetry that isn’t judged as “great poetry,” or even intended as such, because I don’t believe in a poetic Gresham’s Law. Two others in my house have even started the “write a poem-a-day” challenge. If urging more poetry to be written is a crime, I’m part of a criminal syndicate.

But I find some things lacking. Some things that should be as large or larger but seem (on first glance at least) to be noticeably smaller this month: a profound and compelling case for the poetry already in existence, statements of its impact on us as poets or just people. I’d welcome testimony that folks are reading a poem a day on average, as a challenge if it must be, as a pleasure if possible.

Committed poets, like committed musicians, often talk freely about influences, while beginning or occassional poets seem to shrink from this. Are they afraid their individual expression will be blunted by reading others? Or that they will only find other poems lacking the particular thing they seek to write? I think most poets start by being compelled to write poetry. Should there be a time shortly after that when they see a need, as most musicians quickly find, to consider themselves as part of a continuum of poets?


In one moment in the video I Ken Burnsed it into trying to make it seem that Pound and Whitman were having a glare-off between each other.

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Today’s piece, re-released from the archives of our first two years of the Parlando Project with a new lyric video, is an example written long before the first National Poetry Month of two crucial poets speaking to influences. First off, one of my own influences, Carl Sandburg, speaks of how Emily Dickinson’s view of transcendental nature illuminated him. I should note, Sandburg was writing this only 25 years after the world first saw Emily Dickinson’s poetry and long before her stature had risen to current levels. Note too that few would think of Sandburg as a nature poet. This old guy reminds himself, that in his time Dickinson was fresher than “classic rock” to Sandburg. The next influence Sandburg testifies to might be more at a “guilty pleasure.” Stephen Crane’s The Black Riderswas a book of gnomic free verse that was directly influenced by Crane being given a freshly published copy of Emily Dickinson’s first collection. Caught between creative monuments like Dickinson and Whitman, Crane’s contribution to poetry seems slight to most then or now, but Sandburg says that he picked up imagistic honesty from it.

Ezra Pound, an indispensable promoter* of the Modernist English-language poetry revolution as well as a poet, gives us a more ambiguous note of influence. His “A Pact”   is an example of just how useful it may be to read poetry that you don’t care for, or that just misses the mark, as a way to find out what it is that you do care for.

By doing what the Parlando Project is doing, today and for six years, we’re trying to add to the demand side of the poetry table. Constrained by practicalities of copyright and respect for living writers, we use mostly older poems, but they are part of our continuum. You can hear my performance combining Carl Sandburg’s “Letters to Dead Imagists”  with Ezra Pound’s “A Pact”  three ways. There’s a player gadget below to hear it for most of you, a video picture link above for those who’d like to watch the new lyric video, and then this highlighted link as an alternative way to hear the performance.

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*Sandburg, who probably even then was politically at separate poles from Pound, said as much. See this 1916 piece where Sandburg sings Pound’s praises.

Kicking off our celebration of National Poetry Month: Stars Songs Faces

Aha! I have a plan for National Poetry Month.

You might think we’d need do nothing but what we usually do — after all, we’re always celebrating poetry here. We have over 600 pieces you can find in our archives, performances that combine words (mostly poetry) with original music we compose and record ourselves. But here was my problem as April arrived: time to compose new pieces is inconsistently available.

So, I’m going to lean on that collection of pieces we’ve done and make this also a celebration of what the Parlando Project has done over this past 6 years. My plan is to regularly repost pieces from the first half of our history this April. For many of you who joined this Project already in progress these may well be pieces you haven’t heard, but an additional goal is to introduce new listeners to these audio performances.

Why do that? Readership of this blog, originally intended as brief “show notes” for the audio pieces, has grown tremendously over the past year, but the audience for the musical presentations has increased only by a small amount over the same time. I’m hoping to capture more ears for those performances and the poets whose work we interpret, sometimes in surprising ways.

To gather more ears I’m going to be making new low-budget YouTube videos for these classic pieces, mostly just “lyric videos” that display the poet’s words we are presenting. Most new people find us via search engines, and my wild guess is that putting things in front of YouTube searchers may bring more listeners and readers.

To begin this series? Why not use the first piece from this project’s official public launch in 2016: Carl Sandburg’s “Stars Songs Faces.”   Speaking of strange, The LYL Band performed this on January 11th 2016, the day after David Bowie died. Carl Sandburg didn’t have the opportunity to prepare a eulogy for Bowie, since that American poet died in 1967, but back in 1920 he wrote this short evocative poem that we used for the words in this performance. Spookily, Sandburg’s poem presented this way makes it seem like he did write a eulogy for Bowie. And to eerily evoke that short time when both Sandburg and Bowie were extant, the music makes use of one of The Sixties most distinctive sounds: the wobbly Mellotron that could sound like a string section whose batteries were running down.

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“What will I be believing, and who will connect me with love?” The young Swedish-American and the star with songs and faces.

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Here’s a link to that simple YouTube lyric video. And here’s a link to just the audio performance if you’d like to rest your eyes. And finally, some of you will see our traditional audio player gadget below, another way to just play the audio.

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To Midnight Nan at Leroy’s

It’s Black History Month, and I’m planning on presenting a series focusing on Langston Hughes’ first poetry collection: The Weary Blues — but before we get to today’s new Hughes’ piece, let me briefly set down a few reasons for why Langston Hughes.

This project presents early Modernist poets most often. From the American predecessors of Modernism (Whitman, Dickinson) we often jump to those of the 1905-1926 era who sought in various ways to “make it new.” While I continue to read and have interest in post-1926 work, less of that can be reused freely for this project. This reduces the Afro-American sources free to use, as the beginnings of the Harlem Renaissance have moved into Public Domain slowly, year by year, since this project began in 2016. My earlier Hughes’ pieces, even if they were eventually included in The Weary Blues,  were published earlier and so had already moved into PD. It’s only on January 2022 that the whole book’s contents moved to public domain.

The Weary Blues cover 1024

Our February focus: Langston Hughes’ first book.

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A second reason: look at the title of Hughes’ first book, it includes “Blues.”  As we celebrate Afro-American contributions and experience this month there’s an important parallel here. Americans, some of whom set up shop in England and France before WWI, are hugely important in establishing the Modernist break with the shopworn 19th century writing styles. At the same time, Afro-Americans were crucial in doing the same job for music. As I tried to briefly explain last Black History Month, a great deal of the American Black intelligentsia was caught flat-footed by this musical revolution happening around and by them.*

Let’s cut them some slack on that: cultural change is hard to understand while it’s happening, and the quick white adaptation of Afro-American musical ideas in The Jazz Age of the previous Twenties reflected back to the Black community some rough or even derogatory approximations of what was really going on.

Hughes was a young man when he wrote today’s poem. He’d crossed paths with Black intellectuals by then, but he wasn’t fully one of them. His father had cut a bargain for him to go to Columbia to become a professional. Langston skipped out, worked as a cook and at other restaurant jobs; and took to sea working on merchant ships. Hughes came quickly to an understanding of this new music, it’s complexities and its reflections.

Lastly, here’s one of the things I’ve come to understand about the beginning of Modernist poetry in English: there were substantial elements there that sought to strip back poetry, to simplify it to its essence, to make it immediate to an open heart and mind without pre-requisites. This mode was eventually superseded by a more academic and allusive poetry to the degree that some of the best of this early poetic Modernism was set aside or down-rated as simplistic and insufficient.

Over the years you’ve heard me sing the praises of Carl Sandburg, who seems to have been eventually excused away as cornball. But Sandburg was still vital to the young Langston Hughes in the 1920s, and Hughes took Sandburg’s Midwestern American Modernism and applied it to his own heritage and experience. The mainstream of Afro-American poetry retained more of the vitality and working-class connection that Sandburg expressed. Thank you, Afro-Americans.

Let’s move onto the poem I used as today’s text for the performance you’ll be able to hear below. “To Midnight Nan at Leroy’s”  is not one of Hughes’ best-known works, though it deserves more attention. Here’s a link to the text. You could skim through it on the page and see the Blues connection, even if it’s not a Blues stanza as printed — though it could be refitted as one — but more importantly, it’s got a Blues sensibility. My reading of the poem says there may be a little playing going on, a little con and double consciousness which the whole of the work will show up. This will let the hip listener say on hearing it “Yeah, you and I know what that’s like.” That’s Blues sensibility.

I think the poem is a dialog. Nan of the title is performing at a club, and she’s expressing some eroticism in her performance. I think the poem’s other voice is hitting on Nan. The opening stanza is that other voice, the un-named man, who’s starts out teasingly acknowledging that he’s getting what she’s putting down.

The second stanza could be either voice. I performed it neutral, even as if it might be a narrator, a third voice. Note the loaded word “jungle” in it, one of the “primitive” adjectives used to describe this new Afro-American art. Primitive isn’t totally a derogatory or diminutive to the Modernists, who remember wanted to remove the cruft of a worn-out culture and get back to an essence; but in the context of a white-supremacist-soaked society it could surely slide over to being that. Black artists with intact self-respect did use labels such as “Jungle” in the 1920s, so it’s not simply an external white appellation, but it sure sounds like they’re partially reflecting with the white culture when they do. Pause at the last line: I hear Hughes’ “And the moon was white” with intent.

The third stanza is the man cheering on the singer/performer Nan, and I think also he’s suggesting that if “lovin’” is her object, he’s ready.

Fourth? Yes, the two get together. I perform this as Nan’s voice. Note Nan’s use of the diminutive “boy” for the man in this part of our dialog. He may have been acting the player in his earlier stanzas, but I think this is an intentional reveal that the male character is less than a fully actualized man. The white moon image returns, and their moments of Black joy contrast against it. One could write a moving essay on this poems white moon image, but I’ve already gone long.**  You write it.

The poem concludes by refraining the entire first stanza. I perform in the man’s voice, now sour-grapes-ing the couples’ night. Who put one over on the other in this one-night? Maybe some of both, and maybe external social forces are part of the fate-mix too. Hughes chose to dedicate the poem to Nan, so I suspect his sympathies lie more with her. Another question: is Langston Hughes the unnamed male voice? Hughes’ sexuality is mysterious, and while that’s possible, my estimate is that he’s observing, not writing a poem as memoir here.

I performed “To Midnight Nan at Leroy’s”  with my own one-man-band providing the trio accompaniment, and I hope your speakers can handle the bass part. Some of you will see a graphical player gadget below, but other ways of reading this blog won’t show it, so here too is a highlighted hyperlink  to play it.

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*Last years Black History Month book was 1925’s The New Negro , which included an essay worrying about the dilution of Black uplift and culture from the diversion of frivolous Jazz. Read my post on that essay here.

**As with Sandburg’s short poems, with Langston Hughes here it may help to imagine that you are translating this from Tang dynasty Chinese. The plain English words here could mislead us to think this a mere rote moon/June thing and that Hughes had nothing complex to say.

Fall 2021 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 10-8

It’s that time again when I present our quarterly countdown of the pieces most liked and listened to here at the Parlando Project during the past season. We’ll proceed from the 10th most popular and move up to number 1 in the next few posts. The bold-faced heading for each piece are links back to the original post that introduced the pieces here, in case you didn’t see them earlier this autumn.

10. Cobwebs, Steel, and Moonshine by Carl Sandburg.  Longtime readers here will know of my admiration for American poet Carl Sandburg, and so it may be no surprise that this is actually the second time I used parts of a single Carl Sandburg poem for a Parlando Project audio piece. The Sandburg poem is “Smoke and Steel,”  a poetic celebration of labor and laborers from a collection of the same name published in 1920. I used that whole poem’s title for the piece I created out of the beginning of it for May Day in 2019, but for this past American Labor Day I used the conclusion of “Smoke and Steel”  and gave the result this title. I dedicated it to another American poet, Kevin FitzPatrick, who was suffering from a serious and unexpected illness that killed him later this fall. This is the first of three poems in this fall’s Top Ten dedicated to poets Dave and I knew and exchanged work with who were suffering mortal illnesses.

I’m thankful that long-time reader of the blog rmichaelroman submitted a good guess as to what the steel might be in Sandburg’s short ode to workers and work: rebar.

Player gadget below for some of you, or this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

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9. Bond and Free by Robert Frost.  It’s been a while since I mentioned it, but Robert Frost bugged me when I was young. He was still alive, and omnipresent in anthologies one might find in school, which caused me to treat him like other 20th century poets and critics treated Longfellow: as a square preaching platitudes who stood in the way of younger and fresher voices who’d question all that with a more unruly poetry. I was misreading Frost of course, but through that error I did find others I thought in opposition to him that I found rewarding back then. Eventually I came around to love the word-music in his shorter lyric poems, and from that attraction found a starker and more divided meaning was there.

“Bond and Free”  is Frost in his more metaphysical and frankly philosophic mode, which isn’t my favorite Frost, setting out here a cosmic stage where Love and Free Thought conflict. He sounds more like Shelley or Keats in “Bond and Free”  than the more modern diction he was able to make sing in other poems, but sing the words do.

Player gadget below for some of you, or this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

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Three young poets at work. One played in the LYL Band.

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8. They’re All Dead Now by Dave Moore. One of the most popular of my Halloween series this year, even though it’s a longer ballad form story that put my singing strength to the test. Longtime listeners here will know Dave as the most common alternate voice here at the Parlando Project as well as the keyboard player you’ve heard in the LYL Band.

He’s also a fine writer of poetry and songs. For reasons too complicated to deal with now, I fairly often sing Dave’s songs here rather than having him sing them himself. There’s a factor when someone sings another writers’ song. While they may bring a different kind of talent and musical craft, they may also somewhat misunderstand the song — or misunderstand (maybe more at “re-understand”) it in a valuable mutational way. Though I’m not a great singer, I do try to bring something to Dave’s songs when I present them here.

Every song stands to gain much more than one more life when sung by someone else. From time to time I’ve encouraged others to sing some of the Parlando Project songs. Anyone have their own cover of one of our Parlando Project pieces you’d like me to hear?

Yup, player gadget below for some of you, or this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

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Cobwebs, Steel, and Moonshine

This is the weekend that ends in American Labor Day, and I’m going to see if I can put up at least a couple of pieces celebrating that.

The relationship between poetry and labor is complicated. On one hand, unlike entertainers, popular prose writers, or some other fields in the arts, almost no poet earns enough solely from poetry to escape a complete lifetime of some other everyday work. This could lead to the world of work and the concerns of those that do it being widely incorporated into poetry, but in my observation that’s not so. Why should that be? Well, as much or more than any other art, poetry, in self-image or in public image, sets itself apart from ordinary work.

Poets are seen as dallying with the muses, observing unsullied nature, being drawn to erotic passion, explaining the godhead and the nearly unreal, or engaging in an endless spree of derangement of the senses. None of this seems related to the world of work. Things like that may be a way to spend the weekend or a holiday, and so poetry may be attractive to those seeking to temporarily escape their workdays — but then not an art used to understand them, or to interrogate them.

Two Poetry Collections about Work

Thinking about poets who did write about work today. “Down on the Corner,”  Kevin FitzPatrick’s early career collection (cover pictured on the left) is still available.

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American Modernist poet Carl Sandburg conspicuously didn’t avoid work and workers as a subject. Some elements of Modernism liked to write about the products of early 20th Century industry — odes to locomotives and airplanes could stand in for birdsong or daffodils just fine for the make-it-new crowd — but the systems that built them and the human effort involved were largely not viewed as fit subjects. Satires of the management classes could be undertaken, and by damning their mundane concerns, the world of work could be dismissed as a fallen human state.

In variety and extent of opportunities to observe work the poet Sandburg may have had an advantage, and he didn’t squander it. Itinerant laborer, municipal government functionary, labor-union agitator, journalist, small-time farmer — Sandburg certainly had his perch to observe work. He wrote about all of those trades from inside and beside. Today’s piece is taken from the very last section of the long title poem in his 1920 poetry collection “Smoke and Steel.”   In the poem Sandburg concentrates on that backbone of American industry in his time, the smelting of iron ore into steel, and he does so by focusing on the laborers in that system. While he’s in a long-winded Whitmanesque mode, he brings to this task the miniatures of Imagism, and in this final section, if separated out as I did here, he presents an Imagist poem. Earlier in his poem we meet a lot of people and their tasks involved in the manual labor of steel making; and now in this Imagist ending we’re left with three or four objects. Once he violates the unity of the charged moment, but otherwise it follows Imagism’s rules. Here’s a link to “Smoke and Steel”,  and the section I adapted and used today is at the end of the opening poem.

We first meet cobwebs, called “pearly” to indicate a beauty in them, and they’ve caught and held raindrops. Just a “flicker” of wind tears them away from the scene. Moonshine, golden and so also portrayed as beautiful, perhaps in a pool of rainwater, is likewise shivered and dispersed by the wind. Finally, a bar of steel is presented, and there’s contrast. It’s not so transient. Violating the unity of the moment, the poem says it’ll last a million years, even if nature will coat it with a “coat of rust, a “vest of moths” and “a shirt” of earth, images that seem to me to connotate the grave when we are also told the steel bar will “sleep.”

I’ll admit that while I could visualize the cobwebs with pearly rain drops and the moonshine rippling in short-lived puddles, just exactly what the steel bar was as an image to be visualized was puzzling to me. A railroad track? We don’t usually call rail tracks bars. A fence, or even a jail cell (“steel bars” as shorthand for jail)? Nothing earlier in the poem prepares us for that reading in this section. Some steel ingot stockpiled and stored outside? But destined to be forgotten and left for a million years? Other than that “million years” permanence we’re told only one other thing about the steel bar: that it looks “slant-eyed” on the cobwebs and pools of moonshine. I understood this as “side-eye” and that reading seems pretty solid to me. The steel bar knows it’s going to be there longer than the cobwebs and moonshine, so it can dismiss them as ephemeral.

Then looking to confirm if a slant-eye look would have been understood to Sandburg as side-eye, I could only run into the use of, and disparagement toward “slant-eye” as an ethnic slur. Though that slur wasn’t news to me, it hadn’t occurred to me as I don’t think it’s what Sandburg intends.* Realizing this after I’d completed recording today’s performance, I considered that it might harm the ability of some listeners to receive the poem’s intention, and if I was to perform the poem again, I might take my privilege with a work in the Public Domain and sing it as “side-eye.”

Coming as it does at the conclusion of Sandburg’s longer poem “Smoke and Steel”  what do I think the cobwebs, steel and moonshine mean as they are met by the wind of time and change? We may abide by the convention that poetry and work are separate things, but as Sandburg has just written a long poem about work, we know he wants these things to be combined. The things we do everyday for pay, the work we do in arts like poetry — are the later the cobwebs and moonshine, beautiful, transitory, little noticed; and the former the steel, the solid, useful things that will last? Or is the steel the “real” that is buried, and the cobwebs and moonshine it distains the eternal now that returns fresh?

And then, can either be both?

The player gadget to hear my performance of an excerpt from Sandburg’s longer poem that I’ve titled “Cobwebs, Steel, and Moonshine”  will appear below for many of you. Don’t see a player? Then this highlighted hyperlink is another way to play it.

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*Sandburg is too comfortable with ethnic slurs for many modern tastes in his poetry, and “Smoke and Steel”  contains a handful of them earlier in the poem. The unabashed way he uses them in his way argues against this ethnic-Asian slur being a 1920’s dog-whistle.

Spring 2021 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 10-8

It’s time for our every-quarter look back at what pieces you, my valued and appreciated listeners and readers listened to and liked most during the past Spring. This one turned out to be a tight bunch over the past three months, with only a little over a dozen listens and likes between the 1st and 10th position. Given the range of musics I’ll use and the variety of poetry presented, that means that there are a lot of different “yous” out there in this project’s audience, or that some of you don’t mind my jumping around a bit.

We’ll progress in the countdown format, starting with number 10 and over the next few days getting to the most listened to and liked one from this past springtime. If you missed what I wrote about each piece when it was first presented, the bold-faced titles are also hyperlinks to the original post where you can read more about my encounter with it.

10 The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes  One of my favorite pieces I’ve done this year. It’s been rare lately that I get to create, record and present an out-and-out electric guitar centered piece like this. This one would place higher except that it was released last winter and its February listens aren’t counted in the Spring Top Ten. As it happens, a great audio piece for Juneteeth though!

Here’s the player gadget to hear my performance of it, or for those who don’t see the player, a highlighted hyperlink that’ll open a new tab window to play it.

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9 Branches by Carl Sandburg   Sandburg set his poem specifically in April, but as much of the United States has current drought issues it might also serve as an invocation for some summer rain too. Nice to have this one next to the one above — Sandburg was one of Langston Hughes’ models when the younger poet created his own poetic voice.

Limits on recording time this year have led me to present more pieces as simpler and more immediate acoustic guitar and voice arrangements, some of which, like this one, seem to work pretty well.

Player gadget below, and here the alternative highlighted hyperlink.

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On electric guitar: Langston Hughes, acoustic guitar: Carl Sandburg, and on whistling bats with baby faces: T. S. Eliot.

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8 What the Thunder Said Part 3 by T. S. Eliot   Each April this project has presented a part of the landmark Modernist poem “The Waste Land.”  This April I completed that long task with the final section of the poem “What the Thunder Said.”  One of the few pieces this Spring where I got to deploy my orchestral instruments forcefully. Player below, alternatively this highlighted hyperlink.

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Jazz Fantasia, a pioneering work of Jazz Poetry

This Friday is International Jazz Day, and for a project that subtitles itself “Where Music and Words Meet,” it’s a little odd that I talk less about the musical half of what we do. My project assumes that poetry, even on the page, can be defined as words that want to sing. What manner of tune fulfills that desire? It varies.

Early in this project it became apparent that I was going to feature a lot of early 20th century verse as it was the newest poetry that was clearly available for reuse. This was the time when literary Modernism came to English language poetry, greatly expanding the tactics that could be applied to poetry, and it came in too with an idea that much of what had become expected of poetry was tired and worn out, inauthentic and false.

Almost simultaneously, a very similar movement was happening in music. Though largely segregated from European Modernist composers in person, Afro-Americans were developing at the turn of the century a twisted helix of musics that came to be called Blues and Jazz. Differentiating between those two things is a complex matter. Blues is a nearly inescapable element of Jazz, and Blues is more substantially a vocal music, and so Blues needed a poetry from the start. That means that Blues song lyrics are the Modernist revolution as originally expressed by American Black people, though because of their context and place in American culture this was not understood as such. Like Modernist poetry, Jazz and Blues too demonstrated freedom to use new tactics, and they too wanted to replace tired and false musical tropes.

Poets, even those who intend for their work to be published and read on the page, can’t help but be informed by the music they know and admire. Earlier this month I’ve speculated on Emily Dickinson’s use of 19th century hymn-song meter and a possible connection for her deviation from strict poetic forms informed by her own improvisations on piano. By 1920 we had a Modernist Jazz music coming to America’s attention, and literary Modernist verse, though not without its naysayers, had reached an American audience too. It’s like flame and gasoline, isn’t it? When are they going to meet?

I can’t say what the first Jazz Poem was, or who wrote it. If it was composed by an Afro-American it may have been unnoticed, unpublished, and unrecorded (save by the oral tradition and the folk process which didn’t keep their names). Some of the traditional folk-blues lyrics seem to date from the turn of the century, but they were not printed as poetry then — and even as vocal recordings, the oft-cited first blues record, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,”  dates from 1920.*  The recording history of Jazz predates that a bit, with the all-white but still claiming “Original” Dixieland Jass Band’s broadly comic “Livery Stable Blues”  coming out in 1917, and that’s sometimes cited as the earliest Jazz record. Two poems already featured here: Ray Dandridge’s “Zalka Peetruza”  and Fenton Johnson’s The Banjo Player”  were available in 1922 for James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry.**   The former’s “tom tom” beat and the later’s Modernist free verse could make them Jazz Poetry. Some articles cite Langston Hughes’ “The Weary Blues”  of 1925 as the first Jazz Poem, and it is unquestionably a Jazz Poem, but even Langston Hughes had some issues to overcome with it. Back in our February focus on Locke’s The New Negro  anthology of 1925, recall that the elders mentoring and gatekeeping The Harlem Renaissance weren’t yet welcoming Jazz into high culture and were unsure of its effect on their project to elevate America’s appreciation of their race.



No, not that Prince’s band. A 1915 example of proto-Jazz and Blues being integrated into society dance music.

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Which brings us to the underrated Modernist figure of Carl Sandburg,***  the white Midwesterner who had won the Pulitzer prize for his free-verse poetry in 1919 while being based in Chicago. In 1920 he publishes a follow-up collection, Smoke and Steel containing today’s poem called “Jazz Fantasia.”   This too is clearly Jazz Poetry. It appears to be portraying an instrumental performance, and while unlike Hughes’ poem it quotes no Blues lyrics, it’s clearly a Jazz performance with its imitation of horn sounds, the husha, husha, hush of brush work on the high hat, and their sandpaper swish on the snare, the tin can of cowbell, and the knocking pan-metal ring of stick hitting rim.

If not Blues form as such, two details from Sandburg’s 1920 words (here’s a link to the full text of the poem) stand out to me. Half-way in, there’s a car, a cop, and… “bang-bang!” Striking to hear a still modern pain in a 100-year-old poem isn’t it! And the poem’s conclusion makes a case for the breadth of Jazz expression infrequently made in the fad for Jazz during the Jazz Age: that it wasn’t only frantic music with comic musical effects suitable for careless youth further forgetting their cares, but that it could also portray some green night lanterns and the boats ceaselessly beating against the current.

It was imperative to me that today’s musical performance for International Jazz Day must use some approximation of Jazz. I play no brass instruments and I find them hard to approximate with virtual instruments articulated by keyboards, so you’ll hear an anachronistic, more modern, Jazz trio: drums as featured in Sandburg’s poem, guitar, and bass. The player gadget for this may appear below — and if it doesn’t, this highlighted hyperlink will also play my performance of Sandburg’s “Jazz Fantasia.”


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*In 1903, Afro-American composer W. C. Handy encountered a Blues playing guitarist in Tutwiler Mississippi, noted he was singing a Blues song with recognizable Blues lyrics. He thought the music was “The weirdest thing he’d ever heard” but by smoothing it off and adopting it to the composed brass band and society dance music he was familiar with, he made use of those Blues elements.

**Other examples of Jazz Poetry influenced writers I’ve managed to sneak in here are Kenneth Patchen who read to Jazz music, Le Roi Jones/Amiri Baraka, a poet who also wrote widely about Jazz, and even words by Laurie Anderson who was influenced by fellow Chicagoan Ken Nordine who had released several LP records he called “Word Jazz.” The music on Laurie Anderson’s recordings doesn’t read as Jazz to most, but focus instead on her voice and you’ll hear that same ‘50s cool jazz phrasing.

***I often make the case here that Sandburg’s poetry contains some admirable examples of the compressed and spare Imagist aesthetic, but besides poetry he’s intimate with the rise of photography as an art via his wife’s brother Edward Steichen, he was reportedly the first daily newspaper cinema critic in Chicago, and he was an important popularizer of American folk music.

And speaking of Langston Hughes achievement, Hughes’ early poetry often sounds unmistakably to me like he had “heard” Sandburg and taken some of his riffs into his own heart to be further extended by Hughes’ personal familiarity with the Afro-American experience.

Branches

This project’s subtitle Where Music and Words Meet  portrays its interest in the ways words, mostly poetry, might interact with music. How that works varies. I use different kinds of poetry, and different ways to combine those words with the music written for this project.

Song lyric writers, who intend their words to be sung from the git-go usually rhyme their lines, and most song lyrics are at least roughly metrical. That practice has continued even as free-verse without regular rhyme and strict rhythm became a substantial portion of literary poetry written for the page.

None-the-less, I find it’s often easier than you might think to sing free-verse. Here’s the text of today’s piece for our celebration of #NationalPoetryMonth: “Branches,”  by one of this project’s favorites, Carl Sandburg:

The long beautiful night of the wind and rain in April,
The long night hanging down from the drooping branches of the top of a birch tree,
Swinging, swaying, to the wind for a partner, to the rain for a partner.
What is the humming, swishing thing they sing in the morning now?
The rain, the wind, the swishing whispers of the long slim curve so little and so dark on the western morning sky … these dancing girls here on an April early morning …
They have had a long cool beautiful night of it with their partners learning this year’s song of April.

One thing I notice right away that lets this take to singing: it’s ecstatic. Some of the sections of what has been our April National Poetry Month staple for the past few years, Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  are hard to cast into singing — even though that poem as a whole is very musical with its repetition and its outright references to musical pieces. Parts of “The Waste Land”  use mundane dialog purposefully, and it’s difficult to sing that sort of thing without transforming its nature. “Branches” too uses repetition, along with sound-tricks like words that sound like what they are describing (swishing sounds like the word “swishing” for example). Repetition can stand-in for rhyme to some degree. Free-verse irregularity of lines is less of a problem than it might seem. Music is fully capable of filling in spaces where syllables aren’t, and it can be made comfortable too with melodic lines of various lengths.

Carl Sandburg himself is an interesting combination of words and music. Besides his early and vital contributions to American Modernist poetry, he was also an important collector and popularizer of American folk song both by playing and singing those songs himself, and by the 1927 publication of his significant early anthology of them The American Songbag.  I haven’t quite nailed down just how important he was in those matters, but I think it’s possible that without Carl Sandburg there’d be no Woody Guthrie as he was, and going forward from that, no Bob Dylan as he was and is.

Sandburg_with_guitar

When performing them, Sandburg accompanied those folk songs himself with guitar

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I’m not alone in liking to set Sandburg to music, though I’m not aware that Sandburg himself ever did, oddly enough. I perform his “Branches”  today with just acoustic guitar, nothing fancy, just as Sandburg himself could have. The player gadget to hear me perform it is below, or if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlink will play it too.

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