It Is Not Always May

I cannot start any presentation of a Longfellow poem here without noting his extraordinary fall from esteem and fame. Once, through a combination of the historical moment in the growth of the United States, his talents, and a desire to write earnestly meaningful poems, Longfellow seemed our national poet. Did it seem, when that was so, that this would be for all time—or at least for an age longer than a decade or two short of a century?

Any reading across this project’s nearly three years will show that I find worth in the less-well-known, the overlooked. But nothing that is honestly popular can be unworthy of examination—after all, even manifold problems and failures of art in that which drew a large audience tell us something about that audience, our fellow human beings. Which case now, overlooked or popular, is Longfellow?

Choice Thoughts from Longfellow

Imagine a current poet whose rep could generate a board game where one wins quotes from their poems (image from Maine Historical Society collection)

 

If Whitman, Dickinson and Frost—or their unseen ghosts in our zeitgeist—still motivate our inner singing muses, can we understand that trio—our current national poets—as reactions to Longfellow, making him still a prime-mover of some interest?

So, let’s listen to “It Is Not Always May”  today. Rhymed metrical English language lyric is not easy to do, and harder to do if you want it to sound easy, and this one is pretty good. Yes there’s a bit of “poetic diction” here, words and word-order that we’d never say in actual speech, and I suspect that would be true even in 1842 when this poem was published, but it doesn’t greatly harm the poem.

The imagery is largely conventional, though as a seasonal poem we may expect some of these ready-mades to be checked off: birds, bird-song, budding trees, the young, the frolic. Can one do a winter poem without snow and stasis, an autumn poem without colored falling leaves, and so on? Yes, this is possible, and originality can be a great strength—but there’s a certain resonance with the choir of poets to sing those ancient notes in one’s own song. Conventional and outdated it may be, but I rather liked the clouds as sailing vessels in a river-fed harbor awaiting a west wind to up-anchor from New England for the “Old World.” And the poem’s refrain: “There are no birds in last year’s nest,” which Longfellow identifies as a Spanish proverb, has its vividness too.

Oh in my soul, I think the Imagists were right, that too many poems use conventional images as mere counters, pro-forma symbols, not real vivid objects we can consider as existing outside the poetic line. But I could just see Longfellow and the sea-side clouds as an actual charged moment.

And how about this poem’s sentiment? Well many acceptable modern poems have opinions, outlooks, sentiments, and so the charge against Longfellow isn’t really that, rather it’s sentimentality, the idea that he has no original outlook, no fresh take. What would his readers in the days of his fame have thought? A feature, not a bug? Longfellow was the premier “Fireside Poet,” suitable for reading to the family, suitable for school-books and children’s illustrated early readers. Did they view this poem as a basic truth to be reminded of, or did they view this as sufficient in itself? I assume some thought each.

Yes, I want more than that from poetry. Reassurance and singular conventional answers aren’t even what children want and need exclusively. But this poem is balanced in a way that I can admire. It’s a carpe diem poem without a smarmy pickup line, a song of the life-death cycle that plays the undertones, a poem that asks subtly for youth to be irresponsible, or responsible to their youth not earned wisdom (“to some good angel leave the rest”).

Do we need a new Longfellow today? I’m not sure. I would be pleased if more people appreciated poetry more widely, and as I’ve argued elsewhere here, that “not great poetry” does no harm, and might even do some good for more unusual or challenging poetry. I think I forgot to say clearly enough in my recent series on “Are Song Lyrics Poetry” that to a large degree we’ve asked song-lyrics to fill this role of poetry in my lifetime. But I do believe we needed a Longfellow at least once to establish the ground on which our foundational modern poets erected their structures.

So, it’s fitting that I chose to sing this May poem of Longfellow’s, even given the limitations of my singing voice. Once more I was drawn to using the less and more than realistic Mellotron flute and cello sounds to signify a pastoral scene. Even with my limitations, “It Is Not Always May”  sings well and easily, and I urge you to hear it with the player below. The poem’s text is available here if you’d like to read along.

 

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See Emily Play: May-Flower

The great thing about Emily Dickinson and her around 2000 poems is that there’s always one you haven’t experienced yet—and just this week over at the Interesting Literature blog I saw this Dickinson spring poem. “May-Flower”  has Dickinson doing her most subtle music to accompany her most Blakean attention. Just like it says itself: it’s a “bold little beauty.”

It’s short and compressed, and if you read it quickly and silently it may seem slight and slide right by you. Spring, May, flowers, check. Robins. Yup, spring. Its abrupt ending might stop you for just a moment. It ends: “Nature forswears/Antiquity.”

Oh, I get it, the flowers in early May are new, there isn’t such a thing as antique flowers. Easy enough to see that—but the undercurrent is deeper, because this is another carpe diem poem, though this time without much bombast and no overt hey-baby-what-about… pickup lines. Yes, there are no old flowers, and so this flower will come and go with May.

Not many words in this poetry-machine, but without choosing any esoteric ones, Dickinson has made some choices that may arrest you the second time you read it. “Punctual,” the flowers know right when to be there. “Covert” those early signs of spring, like some advance spies. “Candid” for May, and spring fully here, no need to hide as a generic bud. Even “Dear” in “Dear to the moss” is a choice I wonder about. I’ve even read it incorrectly as “Near to the moss” once or twice, and sound-wise “near” works very well and is clear in meaning.  Does Dickinson want to pun on deer, another spring poem perennial? Does she want to pickup and connect that D sound from “Candid” in the line before it rather than predict the upcoming N sounds of “Known,” “knoll” and “Next?”

Which brings me to this: if you listen to the poem, or plant it in your own mouth, the sound is exquisite. Rhymes and near-rhymes abound without locking down to a scheme: “small/punctual/low/April/knoll/soul” and “every/beauty/thee/Antiquity,” and consonants and vowels are echoing each other too.

See Emily Play Games for May HD

Foreswears antiquity: I’m not sure if anyone who reads this will remember the poster I’m referencing here.

 

To perform “May-Flower”  I made some choices. First, to slow the listener down, and to give extra chances to hear that echoing sound-play, I repeated each line. And to emphasize the moment rather than its passing, I interleaved the first and second stanzas as responses to each other. In the last stanza, the responses are just additional echoes of that stanza’s lines.

For the music, I decided to refer to The Pink Floyd. No, not the auditorium and eventually stadium-filling rock band, but the original 1967 Syd Barrett-fronted line up, which was based more around the sound of that era’s electric organs with a taste of Barrett’s unique take on slide guitar. So, time to dabble and wobble organs and break out the Telecaster and a finger wrapped in a vase of glass.

Emily’s poetry-machine obliviates the need for dodgy recreational chemicals. Attention is the drug. This is not the first time I’ve referred to Emily Dickinson’s visionary side here. I see it coexisting with her skeptical wit. And this poem, for all it’s Blakean a heaven in a wild-flower aspect was also intended by the botanically knowledgeable Dickinson as a riddle, the correct answer is a particular New England wild-flower, the trailing arbutus.  See Emily play. There is no other day. Free games for May….

Here’s the text of Emily Dickinson’s May-Flower if you’d like to read along.

May-Flower text

This is the regularized version with conventional punctuation. Emily’s own was full of her dashes.

And here’s my performance of it with original music. Use the player below.

 

To His Coy Mistress

I can’t remember exactly when I first encountered Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,”  but it was far enough back that I earnestly identified with the poem’s narrator and his desires to find or convince a romantic partner.

That poem I read then is not the poem I read today, but even back in my misty youth I probably appreciated the wit of it along with the point of its argument. When I took a quick look at how “To His Coy Mistress”  is currently viewed, I see that appreciation for the poem’s wit and artifice has increased in the past few decades. It may not be possible to determine just how invested Marvell was in convincing the lady in question versus showing off his poetic chops, or even how sincere he was in his variation on the classic “carpe diem” argument that if you don’t go to bed with me, now!,  that you (currently comely love object) clearly  don’t realize that you’ll be a rotting corpse soon.

How romantic that! Here’s a box of candy too—by the way, do you know that such foods high in sugar and fat will likely lead to cardiovascular and other diseases—not to mention tooth decay and gum disease? No? Well, let me tell you….

I’m not sure how often throughout history that real and actionable knickers came flying off at this idea—but poets love it. If love, death, and beauty are the  poetic stuff, any chance to mix all three is impossible to resist.

I normally feel I have to come up with some supposition to perform one of these pieces, and what I decided here was that as a polemic, Marvell’s poetic swain means it. Which doesn’t mean he isn’t going to have some fun talking about it. Even my teenager/reader could smile at that exaggeration of the delay of traveling to India to look for jewels first,*   but did I appreciate then the auction-like absurdity bidding up the hotness of his sweetie? Do I hear a hundred years? Two-thousand! Do I hear a-three…a-three…a-three—thirty-thousand,  sold!!

Andrew Marvell and Mick Ronson-two chaps from Hull

Random blokes from Hull: Andrew Marvell and Mick Ronson. Ronson looks like he just saw the cartoon below; Marvell, like he just burped.

 

But I think he’s serious with the unforgettable and oddly accented “At my back I always hear/Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near.” And deflowering worms and cremated dusty lust may be over the top, but he’s not beneath crypt-keeper humor in this.

Carp Breathalyzers!

Carpe Diem! I think this is taken from a Dick Guindon cartoon. There are those who think that Dick Guindon was one of the greatest one-panel newspaper cartoonists ever. We call some of them Minnesotans.

 

As the poem rushes to its conclusion, I think some of the urgency passes beyond the bar of exaggeration for humorous effect. The poem’s last two couplets, which I think sincere, are as strong in my estimation as the more famous and remembered ones earlier in the poem.

For all of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”  “poetry’s greatest hits” status, isn’t it odd that we don’t remember what I think are the poem’s four strongest lines, the ones that the poem ends with? Is it all about the chase and not what happens when we catch?

Here’s the player to hear my performance of Marvell’s poem with the LYL Band:

 

 

 

*It wasn’t until this month as I worked on this that I found out what the poem’s companion to the Indian Ganges trip,  “by the tide of Humber,” was on about. Turns out that the Humber is an estuary/river near Hull in northeastern England. It happens to be where Andrew Marvell was from, as well as (a few centuries later) Mick Ronson, the guitarist/arranger for David Bowie.

There is Always Time

It’s a new year, and here’s a piece that is not representative of most of what we do here. First off, it’s a piece where I wrote the words, when one of the Parlando Project principles is “Other People’s Stories.” So, the words we use here are normally from others, often originally written as page poems by their authors. The Parlando Project adapts, recasts, and performs these pieces with various combinations of original music. Today’s audio, “There is Always Time”  was conceived as a song to be sung from the start.

It’s been a busy last couple of weeks for me, so my ability to work on new pieces has been slightly curtailed. I’ve had this one done for a month, saved for just such an occasion when I’ve fallen behind in the work that goes into this project—and well, it does seem like a good piece for the day of New Year’s Resolutions.

Woody Guthrie's 1942 NY Resolutions

Woody Guthrie’s 1942 NY Resolutions. He didn’t keep all of them—still glad we had a Woody Guthrie.

 

“There is Always Time”  is a “carpe diem” song about dreams and desires deferred, so it’s perhaps the precursor to those lists of “shoulds” for the coming year.

Goals and focus are good things. Approximately three years ago I set out on just such a goal, to create and present 100 or so audio pieces combining various words and various music. I needed to learn a bit about how to syndicate these pieces via podcasting as well as how to stream them from a blog. Once I started this, I soon found there was even more to learn, more things that will ask to be needed by the work. Since the Parlando Project was launched in August 2016, we’ve exceeded the original goal, and we now near 170 audio pieces published.

Goals, focus, drive, desire to learn, audacity mixed with humility—all were necessary. However, I think today, as I present this piece, of Karen Horney, the innovative early psychoanalyst, who developed a concept as she looked at personalities and the goals they set. She called it “The Tyranny of the Shoulds.”

Karen Horney

Karen Horney. Beavis and Butthead’s favorite Adlerian psychoanalyst?

 

Who was the tyrant, the oppressor, who is in this phrase? Parents? Society? Government? Natural Law? Racism, sexism, ageism, gender roles? Well, they all could contribute to the tyrant’s powers, but in her formulation the mad dictator is specifically “The Ideal Self.”

Wait—what? The Ideal Self is what is going to get me out of those old-year patterns, get me doing those things that I need to do. The Ideal Self will make sure I commit to my art. The Ideal Self will fix those things about myself that keep failing. The Ideal Self will make me a better person, a better co-worker, a better partner, a better parent, a better son or daughter, and so on.

What’s wrong with that? Look again at Horney’s formulation: “The Tyranny of the Shoulds.” What if that Ideal Self behaves as a tyrant does? What if instead of being the loving, supportive partner, parent, boss, or teacher that we may or may not have had, the Ideal Self acts as a dictator would: the executions, the inquisitions, the scape-goating, the banishments, the wars of aggression, all waged by the Ideal Self against the poor Real Self, who beaten-down will eventually fail the tyrant or overthrow it.

So yes, seize the day, seize the year. Do more and better art this year. Love your partners and your families and your friends while they are here. Repair the world, slowly and little-by-little if you can be patient and brave. Clean out the closet. Ride your bike more. Learn a new instrument. Read more. But be the loving partner to that struggling Real Self. It knows it’s limitations, it’s failures, it’s shames, but it is only your Real Self that can do these things.

To hear “There is Always Time,”  use the player below. If you like it, go ahead and click the like button, and it’s very helpful if you share the audio pieces or this blog on your own site, or on social media. We’ll be back with more pieces using words by other authors soon.

Because I Could Not Stop for Death

One of the harder things to do when performing a song or a poem—or in talking about what either means—is to tackle a well-known piece. As far as American poetry goes, Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” qualifies as such a case. It’s one of those “most anthologized” poems. I’m certain I ran into it in high school, and it is like a lot of great and popular poems: it can be about three-quarters understood by a schoolchild being introduced to poetry scholastically.

Is there anything new and fresh that can be brought to it? And what may still be there in that other quarter of the poem beyond what one first understood as a teenager?

When I write and play the music or perform the words here I need to make choices. One of the most important of those choices is what is the mood? What is the overall outlook of the poem’s speaker? You can use educated guesses to what the author intended, or you can just make a wild guess, even a perverse one. For example, you take most any song that was written as a party anthem, and then slow it down and sing it with some doubt in one’s voice, you will completely undercut the swagger and good times vibe (as Aztec Camera’s cover of Van Halen’s “Jump”  proved years ago).

With “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”  I decided the mode I would use is sardonic. This is a good ground choice for any Dickinson poem in my mind. This is a poem about death, sure, but it’s a poem mocking death, or rather our appreciation of that subject.

That starts from the start: like death is a social appointment we don’t have time to schedule, but then also, a slow passage of the entire trip of life at a fine and boring pace is appropriate too, as it’s a trip to the graveyard in the metaphor of the 3rd verse.

In the sublime 4th stanza, when the speaker has passed the days of her life (the slow carriage ride of life so stately that the sun transit of a day outraces it) she finds herself unprepared for the cold weather of death, dressed only in useless, ladylike garments that may reference a bridal dress, a burial shroud or a nightgown.

The afterlife presented in the last two stanzas is not any heaven, but an eternity of nothingness. As a final irony, the speaker says the centuries of eternity seem like less of an experience than even a day of a slow life.

Emily Dickinson Gravestone
Emily’s family held more conventional views of heaven reflected on her gravestone

So, on one hand this is a mock solemn poem about death, spoken in a mode not that far from what Maila Nurmi/Vampira might have vamped on TV a century later. But it’s also a carpe diem poem, written this time by a woman, one whose artistic life is not giving her time to stop for death, nor the daily deaths of an unexamined, uncreative life. When Thomas Higginson was editing the first collection of Dickinson poems, he may have appreciated that aspect when he added the title “The Chariot”  to it. “The Chariot” as in “Time’s wingèd chariot” in Marvell’s poem.

At least that’s what I think is there. I could be wrong. You have to make choices.

Dickinson poems, which are largely written with her internalized Protestant hymn tune rhythms, can be set to music easily. And the basic track in my performance would have demonstrated that, as played on just a 12-string guitar, even though I undercut its simple three chord progression with some chord alterations. The piano part brings the strangeness in by playing simple arpeggiated chords, but in an insistent cross-rhythm.

So hop in the carriage, we’ve got the clip-clop of the hooves and the jangle of the harness to accompany us when you use the player below to listen to my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.”


Let Us Live and Love

A while back here there were several episodes where we discussed songwriters as literary figures, using the springboard of Bob Dylan getting the Nobel Prize for Literature. Dylan was the third songwriter to receive this award, preceded by William Butler Yeats and Rabindranath Tagore. But the Nobel prize is not really all that old, and the idea of the singer-songwriter is older. We know little about how the ancient Greeks performed their poetry, but accounts consistently say that it was accompanied by music, and in the case of at least Sappho of Lesbos, it’s specified that the lyricist played the lyre as well. Similarly in ancient Hebrew, David and his harp, or the west African griots and their Koras, and so on.

So, despite the idea that lyrics sung to music mark an inferior art, or that performing poetry to music is an affectation hardly to be endured, history says this was not always so. Of course, the way it’s done can please or not please, and it’s still possible that such performances are an obsolete form that we’ve now superseded with hugely popular and culturally significant poetry chapbooks and small press poetry collections—I kid! I kid!

Today’s piece is by just such a singer-songwriter, an Englishman born in 1567, Thomas Campion. He wrote his lyrics, wrote music for them, and was an accomplished lutenist, so the chances are that he was discovered by John Hammond and played the authentic Elizabethan blues music he misheard from 78 r.p.m. discs of Catullus. Well no, doubting Thomas, once more I Kyd.

Thomas Campion with Lute

Poetic Campions compose. Thomas Campion with his lute.
If he looks glum it’s because it’s two centuries until Martin Guitars is established, and 350 years until the Telecaster.

He did write lovely songs, in a style I can’t come up with a way to present. “Let Us Live and Love”  was one. You can hear it sung beautifully to his tune here. So instead of exploring my counter-tenor range, I’m going to go with a sort of loose skiffley blues in my performance.

I’m going to lean on my blues audacity hard here, because the poem is addressed to the singer’s lover, Lesbia. Beavis and Butthead style giggles are breaking out in the back, I can hear you.  Turns out Campion took the lover’s name and the idea for his first verse of his lyric from a Latin poem by classic Roman poet Catullus, before taking off on his own thoughts on the matter. Classics scholars explain this by saying the Sappho of Lesbos’ association in classical times was more at a widely experienced lover, not necessarily a lesbian one.

Catullus Comforting Lesbia over the Death of Her Pet Sparrow and Writing an Ode

OK, OK, forget the one about you might as well have sex with me.
How about this, we’re all going to die, just like that bird, and…

 

Another category “Let Me Live and Love”  could be put in would be a “Carpe Diem” poem, which is not the Department of Natural Resources limit on the number of bullheads you can catch, but is more Latin meaning: “seize the day,” which in the case of poems usually doesn’t mean seize the day for fishing. Instead, Carpe Diem poems usually offer this proposition: “We’re all going to die, so you might as well have sex with me.” Seriously. Poets have actually made that seem like a smooth line.

The twist Campion puts on Carpe Diem is to bend it around a bit. His song has it that you already love me, and that makes the idea that we’re all going to die bearable. That’s at least a little more flattering.

To hear my performance of Campion’s “Let Us Live and Love”  use the player below.