Today’s audio piece is another simple arrangement, just acoustic guitar and voice, but the simplicity allowed me to move quickly from composition, to arrangement, and finally to recording an acceptable performance.
I only decided to record this text, by the English mystic, poet, and artist William Blake early this morning. This week was already scheduled for two important life transitions in my family by those older and younger, and this poem seemed to say something from that universal point in all lives when everything, when all, is change before us.
So, Blake cast this story as a lullaby, which is by design a calming song meant to accompany change from wakefulness and worry to sleep and the hallucinations, visions, or amorphous brain activity of dreams. The infant in his poem may not understand, may even dread this nightly change. It’s only a daily moment, but mysterious for one so new to experience, and so the poet-singer as parent is there to soothe the infant — and themselves. Here’s a link to the text of Blake’s poem that I used.
Is this only a story of an infant, or does the mystic Blake mean to say more about us? I believe he intends more. Infancy is only a starting point, an illustrative state before change. If we’ve been parents, we could recall our experiences in helping the infant journey from this beginning point. Blake wants to take us there to show us something.
And so it is this week. A grandmother is moving farther from memory and autonomy, graceful and befuddled, to a new care setting; and a teenager is moving too, earlier in life with more paths before them, yet more sure, and we don’t know how much to guide or understand. Yes, in-between are us middle-people who need to help both, and yet we’ve never been on exactly either’s path ourselves.
The lullaby is for the child and the parent. The parent and the child.
Typical “sandwich generation” work for women as illustrated by William Blake.
When I composed the music and performed “A Cradle Song” I thought it was from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. And it has been included in the Songs of Experience portion in some editions, but not by Blake himself. Blake even seems to have toyed with an additional stanza I didn’t sing or know, and the supposition is that today’s text may have been meant to be the Songs of Experience compliment to the other Blake Cradle Song that was engraved in Blake’s Songs of Innocence* — but that Blake changed his mind or was unable to complete the engraving for Songs of Experience. Both Blake cradle songs have been set to music: the Songs of Innocence one by Allen Ginsberg, the one I sing today by Benjamin Britten, but I have taken my own path and done my own music for today’s version of Blake’s “A Cradle Song.” You can hear it with a player gadget that some will see below, or with this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab window to play it.
*There are other contrasting, paired poems in the two books.
My wife remarked this morning that nature is often more beautiful than it needs to be—and if you need a testimonial to that, I present butterflies. What a marvelous structure their wings are, as if the most intricately colored flowers could fly. And fly they do—and unlike birds, they often seem to have no compunctions about flying near us oversized and under-winged creatures.
This is a prelude to today’s diversion from our usual practice here of using “Other People’s Stories,” other writer’s words, for these encounters and performances. Since I wrote the words this time, I’ll have less to say about what I’ve found out about the author and how I react to their experience. Not that creative writing doesn’t lead to that sort of thing—far from it—but in a way I’ve already chosen how to present those things inside the poem that is today’s text.
I will say this instead: the course of this project, though it takes energy that I might apply to my own writing, as helped my own poetry. As a chronic and justified self-doubter, finding the variety of strengths and weaknesses in a range of others’ work gives me hope in my own attempts—but more importantly, each time I figure out how to present and perform the variety of words (mostly poetry) for the Parlando Project, I must find what is worthwhile, what is valid, vivid, and engaging. It’s a commonplace that reading and studying poetry helps figure out how you may write it, but performing it helps you understand how to advocate for it, how to let its soul out.
In recent years I’ve increasingly watched other poets read their work. Regardless of the level of accomplishment I might recognize in their words, it’s not uncommon on all levels to hear them read it as if apologizing for the interruption, as if they themselves aren’t sure what to advocate for in what they wrote. Some do this because performance isn’t easy for many people (let me present another testimonial: my singing voice). I believe some do it because to fail with a level of over-florid reading, with too much Am-Dram-Ham, would be such an embarrassing failure. Even to purposefully aim for some anachronistic disinterested beatnik cool could be an unforgivable mistake.
Well that danger is there. I’ve heard poets read with an attitude that what they are reading is important that I don’t share.* That disconnect doesn’t make me like the poet or poetry in most cases either—but think of the automatic failure of not claiming the worthwhile nature of what we do. A danger of failure is not a license to aim for it. If performing your work as if it isn’t worthwhile is your defense, consider changing what you write so that you can more unabashedly attempt to claim an audience’s attention.
Yes, a great many poets (I’m one) are driven by doubts. Perhaps you are too. Poetry, like nature, like butterflies, is writing that is more beautiful than it needs to be. That beauty is there to illuminate those limits and doubts. Are they, limits and doubts, ugly? It depends, but illumination changes them.
Attentive readers might connect this breakfast scene with this summer’s earlier piece “Breakfast in a Pandemic.” Yes, same outdoor seating. City Lights Books is welcome to contact me for a potential chapbook “Breakfast Poems.” This month I think of the woman in that earlier poem who stoppeth one of three to ask “If you had to choose between Trump and Covid, which would you choose?” Now? We don’t have to choose!
There’s little room left to talk about my poem, but hopefully it speaks for itself. The poem expects the reader to know two pieces of information: the proverbial “Butterfly Effect” where small things like the flapping of an insect wing can change complex systems, and the metamorphical life stages of butterflies where the lithe butterfly begins life as a devouring worm-like caterpillar. The player gadget to hear my performance is below.
*My teenager, a Douglas Adams reader, has asked when I’ll feature Vogon poetry here, but then they think most of what I present here is close enough to Vogon poetry in effect. Poetry audiences, or those that fear being press-ganged into being part of a poetry audience, often recall Adams satire—but yes, many of us writers of poetry think of it too.
Nostalgia may be cheap, but none-the-less, we feel it. Perhaps by “cheap,” we mean “common,” and if so, should artists always flee that, the common experience? Interrogating the common may verge on an obligation in many answers to that question. What is it in our mundane experience that we may share with others, that we can bring something else to?
Here’s an attempt I made a few years ago to do that, accompanied by some music I wrote and performed earlier this year. I think it’s an example of some principles and risks in this approach. What are they?
How common is your common? On one hand we often enjoy and seek out the exotic, and art can help us explore that too. I’ve spoken here before about how the exoticism of some of Keats attracted me as a teenager, and the strangeness of Surrealism and the gnomic statements of Wallace Stevens attracted me before I could understand all that they were on about. But just as well we may be attracted as readers and listeners to things that speak to our own parochial experiences. Why would we read or listen to work about ourselves? Are we hoping to learn something just beyond what we already know? Or is it, as it was once said about the readers of small-town newspapers, that they’re read by the townspeople to see what the editor missed?
In these ways you may be helped if your common is shared by a lot of people, who know they share that commonness, or it may be best if your experience is novel enough to not be very common at all, and where the attraction is that common human motivation: curiosity.
How important is your common? Some works spend a good deal of effort making the case that the reader or listener is wrong in not thinking that the common experience the creator is examining is important. Others have a lighter load to lift: those who’ve witnessed momentous events or taken part in widely recognized essential activities.
The degree of difficulty for the former is considerable. You may bore your reader or listener with making your case for the value of the seeming unimportant—or not make your case vividly enough and have them give up with a “who cares” shrug.
Why would one then choose to explore something generally considered unimportant? Well, a good deal of art doubts hierarchies of experience. Societies invest a lot in hierarchies, and artists like to overthrow them. Societies are often wrong, cruelly wrong sometimes, in those constructs. Artists aren’t always right in their alternatives, or completely right, but we are tempted by angels and devils to try.
Back in 1973 I hosted a visiting German artist in New York. The musical souvenir he was bringing home was a copy of Charlie Daniels’ “Uneasy Rider,” a novelty hit single about a long hair at a redneck bar.** German appreciation of American music was it’s own approximation. This picture: “Rules of the Game” is by Renée Robbins, taken in Iowa in 1977. The player in it seemed sort of Charlie Daniels-ish to me.
What do you bring to this common experience? Why does your expression, your examination of some common experience need to exist? As a matter of political and social persuasion, the second dozen or even the second hundred similar account of a similar experience and evaluation of it may add weight to the scales of attention or justice. An atrocity like George Floyd’s needless death gains some of its power and value not because it’s unique, but because it’s not. It’s not the first or the second, or the hundred and first. We ask, we view, in a way that it be considered as if it’s the first, as if it’s an only. We ask too, fervently, that it be considered as if it should be the last. But in the world of the arts, of chosen creation, we have a burden in making the same point over again worthwhile.
But of course, we do take up this challenge. How many poems, how many songs are about the flush of love and desire? How many works of art are about the absences of death? By some accounts, all of them that are any good. I think there’s a great middle range between love and death that is open too to artistic expression, the range of how we see, feel, hear experience between those two poles. It may seem trivial compared to the existential fact of death or the powerful urge of joined fertility—but great or small, your charge is to bring something else to this common experience large or small, call it beauty, call it a frame, call it music, call it a vibration that we can feel together.
Now, let me exit the high falutin and get down to today’s piece and see how I dealt with an element of my common in “Small Iowa Town, after World War Two.”
I had my own mondegreen moment listing to this today. I heard myself saying in line 23-24 “Seeing the storefronts in their row inhaling silently the adults…” instead of what I wrote above. I may keep the unintended revision.
First off, the subject matter is problematic. The experience I speak of here is shared by few even of my age cohort, and every day by fewer, as older generations pass on. Yet, it also has little appeal of exoticism. In my grandfather’s time and before this culture, the small rural American town, was common, and a considerable amount of art (much of it not high-art, and much that was aimed at the cultured market was critical) dealt with it. As I said in starting this post, a sentimental or wistful nostalgia is considered cheap and if it’s also not even considered common to the reader/listener, there’s no path to success.
I will note that I consider the experiences I recount in this piece as exotic. I’ve spent over half a century away from it, it seems strange/familiar to me now, an unusual construction. I make in my defense a common plea of the artist being accused of trafficking in cheap nostalgia: I’m really talking about how memory, change and experience work.
Is it important? I’m not sure. That I’m writing this generalized essay says that I doubt you will think it so. I plowed this field early in this project with one of the least popular pieces ever presented here: “Homeopathic Hometown,” and this may not fare any better. I plead the audacity of the artist that wants to tilt at hierarchies of importance.
Right now there’s a good deal of mistrust in America between the generalized* remaining rural citizens and it’s urban and suburban centers. Even though I’ve been away from small-town Iowa for so long, I can understand loss and aggrievement.
So, what can I, what did I, bring to this problematic subject to make it worthwhile? I tried to talk about the strangeness of the change, that part I find exotic, that far-away world that assumed permanence of a kind. I leaned on the slowly evolving music a good deal today. As in “Homeopathic Hometown” there’s a linkage that I feel viscerally between a certain kind of German music of the late 1960s through about 1990 or so, a melding of the then new synthesizer sounds with a particular European interpretation of progressive rock music, and my experience of these changed small towns. When I listen to the Bowie Berlin trilogy I get nostalgic not for a Berlin I’ve never known, but for a rural Iowa I think I know. It’s one of those odd links I can’t quite explain, but feel. Long rolling songs about long rolling hills and valleys. Small as a palpable absence. Grant Wood as a German Expressionist.
The player gadget to hear “Small Iowa Town, after World War Two” is below. It’s a bit longer than most things here, but I had to give it some time so the music could expand. Perhaps the music will work even if the words don’t succeed.
*Well, there’s a good deal of mistrust, period. And the residents of country and remaining small towns are not monolithic stereotypes. They weren’t then, and they aren’t now—and nobody likes to be reduced to a type—but generalizations of a divide and a mutual dislike and attribution of bad motives aren’t baseless.
**At the conclusion of the song, singer Daniels states that he wishes he’d taken his misbegotten car trip west on a route (across Iowa) through Omaha instead of through Mississippi.
Today Emily Dickinson is going to show us how not to write a poem—and how to make it work anyway.
This piece combines two different poems she wrote: “Forever—is composed of Nows” and “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act” in a way that I hope lets each poem reflect on each other. Both speak about time and the universe’s track along it, and that’s part of Dickinson’s substantial task as the poet here: these things are abstract. The Modernist experiment, which Dickinson in many ways presages, would generally try to represent even the most abstract, contradictory, and elusive things as images, palpable things. When that tactic works, it lets us find a shape, a sensual feeling, a weight and color to things we otherwise cannot behold.
Dickenson can do that. Forgotten Imagist Carl Sandburg* even called her an Imagist, just as Imagism’s call to Modernism was emerging a few decades after Dickinson’s death and posthumous publication. But here, in these poems, she predominantly avoids that tactic.
I can think of a few reasons she might do what she does in these poems. If you’d like to follow along, here are links to the text of “Forever..” and to “Crumbling…”
First, she received a science education. This may seem odd, even though some time back we learned that Percy Bysshe Shelley, the uber-romantic poet knew how to calculate the distance between the Sun and the Earth, but Emily Dickinson was a woman as well as a poet in Shelley’s 19th century. Science? My 21st century child goes to a high school with a substantial STEM program. “It’s all guys, and they act like it too” is the report about the Engineering class here in 2020. But in Emily’s New England, science, the humble mechanics of the universe, was actually considered a safe subject for the hampered female brain. Politics, theology, fine arts would all be fields walled off from women anyway, but they were also considered inappropriate for the lady-brain.
The second is that she grew up in a household steeped in the legal profession. Her father, her grandfather, and her brother were all prominent lawyers. Though I’m not a full-fledged Dickinson scholar by a long-ways, I’m not aware that this substantial fact is much discussed as potentially formative in how Dickinson saw and thought about things. Yet, here by her poetry we can see that she was possessed of a mighty intellectual engine, one whose genetic blueprints and environment would be tailored to express things as lawyers might: in sharply defined abstract legalities.
Lastly, 19th century poetry was comfortable with abstraction of the sort she exhibits here, though few could match her compression of expression. We still use much abstract rhetoric in general discussion, but our poets generally recognize the danger of taking the specific vividness out of verse.
In the first piece of our dual Dickinson presentation today, she makes a statement about the nature of time: that it cannot be experienced relatively other than as an infinite series of nows. She cannot find a physical image for this, and so uses abstract scientific and legal language to describe this mystery: “Composed…Infiniteness…latitude…remove…dates…dissolve…exhale,” and the near-enough Latin of “Anno Dominies.” This, the language of a contract or scientific paper. That said, a phrase like “Years—exhale in Years” is palpable.
The second piece, “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act,” could be read as a tiny summary lecture on entropy. In the middle stanza of this three-stanza poem (‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul…An Elemental Rust,”) Dickinson moves from abstract summary to imagery, but even here, her knowledge of botany, both empirical and academic, is deployed. “Cuticle” is not some chat over a manicure—it’s a distinct feature of plants. “Borers” and “rust” likewise would be familiar to Emily as the dedicated gardener of the Dickinson household.
Emily Dickinson, science nerd:. Hosta’s cuticle protects it from dust, Dickinson’s self-made herbarium scientifically categorized a host of plants, and Rudolf Clausius considers entropy and whether to grow a mustache or not
The concept of entropy was only first posited in 1850, and I don’t know if Dickinson had any access to discussions of what would have been a fresh scientific concept. Some read “Crumbling is not an instant’s act” as a reaction to medical or psychological issues Dickinson was personally facing rather than musings on the formal structure of ruin and the universe’s law of return to equilibrium. That reading works too. This old guy may not study thermodynamics, but I can personally recognize the states in this poem without measuring instruments or a blackboard of equations.
If you or I were to try to write either of these poems, we’d risk failure. Our abstractions might seem enervated, while the compressed energy of Emily Dickinson carries me through her argument, even where one cannot follow its intellectual thrust easily. In the middle of these abstract arguments, in the second stanza of each three-stanza poem, Dickinson lets in enough imagery to pull us in.
It may seem odd, now, in this month, as the nation stands at a crossroads to present these two poems today. Frankly, as I looked for any poem in the public domain that wouldn’t seem beside the point or merely pander to it, I failed.
Dickinson wrote in the midst of the greatest crisis, moral and physical, that our nation ever faced. In 1963, in a critical year of struggle against Afro-American civic oppression, John Coltrane released four records. In 1863, in the midst of the turning point year of the American Civil War, Emily Dickinson wrote 295 poems. Coltrane was a musician, not a poet or singer. I can’t fault him for not giving us words when he gave us “Alabama” and “A Love Supreme.” Emily Dickinson’s poet’s words don’t address the Civil War directly, we can even doubt that she understood the situation of Afro-Americans and slavery’s advocates significantly, however sharp and searching her mind was. So, check your privilege Emily? Sure. But her poetry is about—no not just about, is —freedom, a searching, seeing mind. Our caring hearts take us partway there. Our minds must journey too.
In combining these two poems I wanted to put them in a context that rings for me, in our present moment, however abstractly. We are in our forever nows, as we always are. Ruin is not a now, but a formal process, consecutive and slow.
Thank you for reading and listening. The player to hear my performance of two poems by Emily Dickinson should appear below.
*In looking for the next piece here I must have read or re-read over a hundred Carl Sandburg poems this past week. He’s often remembered as the 20th century’s first great inheritor of Walt Whitman, with great spanning catalogs of Americana in rambling free verse. But early Carl Sandburg is full of attempts and successes at concise Imagist poems that work like his contemporary pre-High Modernism Imagists’ poems did.
Often when I present Robert Frost poems here, I ask your indulgence to point out that what is often drawn from them doesn’t represent what Frost seems to be trying to impart. “The Road Not Taken” isn’t about the critical importance of taking the “road less traveled,” but about the irrelevance of choice and dangers of “analysis paralysis.” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” isn’t about tarrying by a beautiful winter scene instead of getting on with life’s duty, but about someone lost in rural darkness. Even this month’s “Acquainted with the Night” —while, yes, frankly dealing with despair—is about living with depression rather than dying from it.
But “Nothing Gold Can Stay” does seem to be saying what most everyone draws from it—and so, unlike these other Frost poems, it’s loved for exactly what it is saying: that certain kinds of beauty and states of grace are transitory; and then by implicated extension, that to hold them inside a memory or a memorable poem is our consolation. So, what’s left for me to say then?
Well, maybe there’s this element: that a catch phrase drawn from it, “Stay Gold,” is not in Frost’s poem, and his poem indicates that will not happen even if wished; but I’m willing—as was Carl Sandburg in our last post “Monotone” —to cut humanity a little slack here. Sandburg in his middle stanza of “Monotone” tells the same story as Frost’s more famous poem, though more of us remember Frost’s expression of the idea, which may be testament of the power of Frost’s rhyme in memorability. Sandburg’s point however, the one I subscribe to, is that there’s something to be admired that is left after the loss of moments of perfection or passion in both memory and the continuing changed moments.
One other thing I’ll admit I hadn’t noticed until preparing this piece this month: “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is a spring poem about tree blossoms as much as it’s an autumn poem about falling leaves: “Early leaf’s a flower.” The tree blossoms on my bike rides this spring are, it seems to me, more numerous, fragrant, and beautiful. Is this a side-effect of the closed in spring of our current epidemic? I think too, not only of Sandburg’s “Monotone,” but of Meng Haoran’s “Spring Morning,” and my own “Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street.”
Early one morning this month, I rode my bike down 40th street to the now closed schoolhouse, the route I rode a few years back with my child in “Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street.” I remembered one fine tree full of blossoms there a block before a bicycle bridge that crosses the then busy freeway, and the flowers’ smell that day that told me the tree was louder to my nose than the traffic under the bridge. This morning, this month, I was surprised to see not one, but a whole row of trees, all in bloom.
Blossoms revisited. The other side of the street from the rusty camper was a tattered car with blankets blocking all it’s window glass, evidence that some of the cardboard sign beggars at the nearby freeway entrance may have slept there the previous night.
A few words on the music before I ask you to listen to my performance of Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” The music I created for this is based on my appreciation of South Asian music, a style that I refer to sometimes here. This is a complex musical tradition of which I have little knowledge of other than as a listener, yet like some others I’ve been drawn to its tactics from the first time I heard it.* Oddly, the top line musical instrument I used for this is a uniquely American one: the mountain dulcimer, a small, fretted, plucked string instrument.** And the percussion instruments here do not include the tabla drum sets used in South Asian music because I don’t have access to them, but are instead approximated with a mix of “Latin Percussion” drums and rhythm instruments, like congas, bongos, and small rattles, bells, and such. I do have good tampura and harmonium virtual instruments that I can play with my MIDI guitar and little plastic keyboard, so I did use those traditional South Asian sounds.
I like how this turned out. Why this music for Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay?” There’s no harmonic progression to it. I don’t notate this sort of composition with chord symbols the way I might a rock music piece. If I did it would be sort of Dsus4, D, D5, Dsus2—so really it’s just about the drone center of D and how one steps out and back to the D note in a rhythmic/melodic dance. Nothing gold can stay, but the D drone reminds us musically that change is return, that return is change.
Here’s the player gadget to hear the performance.
*Like many Americans it was Ravi Shankar LPs on the World Pacific label, reinforced by his appearance in rock concert films like Monterey Pop and Woodstock, and other audacious appreciators who (like me) started to drop in things they drew from these performances into their own work.
In the early 70s in New York I worked in an E. R. with an Indian surgeon who would sing melodies acapella while suturing away. Those melodies would keep us going during long nights.
**The mountain dulcimer has a mysterious past. It’s like and then not like a lot of other instruments from around the world. It seems to have been played by rural Appalachian mountain country settlers, often from Celtic backgrounds where harp instruments and drone wind instruments were common, but it’s not a harp. What it is though is an instrument that was relatively easy to make at home without complex tools or fixtures. In quiet times in those night-time hospital E.R.s I would sometimes quickly construct a rough fretless one out of a cast-plaster box and rubber bands.
The Parlando Project is mostly about presenting other people’s words. I like that. It adds variety and it lets me write about what encounters with those words bring forth. We’ve done that over 400 times since this thing kicked off publicly in 2016
So, we’re always ready to celebrate National Poetry Month. Any month is poetry month here! But every once in awhile I slip in one of my own poems. Sometimes it’s just because I have something I want to say to this adventuresome audience, but it’s often because I’ve read something someone else wrote and I think of something I wrote (or should write, and then write) that relates to it.
A blog I read regularly by Paul Deaton has ranged over various subjects in the past couple of years, but lately he’s been writing some about the past, including lives that range back into his parents and grandparents generations. I’m not going to go back that far, I’m only going to go back to when I was a young man. Given my age, this is “Boomer” territory that’s been already over-farmed—but bear with me. This isn’t really a poem about the past, it’s about someone in my generation who has a past, but presently. For those Gen X and Millennials who find this insufferable, I remind you that I’ve been priming my High Schooler who isn’t a Millennial to blame Gen X and Millennials for ruining things for the current and subsequent generation. I urge other geezers, crones and wise-ass elders to do the same. As our aged, but still very stable emperor demonstrates, the best thing to do to deflect blame is be proactive in shoveling it elsewhere. I don’t know why that should work, but it does!
Anyway, I’ve presented quite a few poems this year by younger-than-mid-life poets whose poems speak as if they are aged.
Besides National Poetry Month, April is supposed to bring us Record Store Day. It would have been last Saturday, an annual celebration of those venerable little stores that once again were selling dark flat petroleum circles that sing when you poke them with a needle. Our current crisis has canceled that.
Now back in my day…Oh man, having a past and dragging it around does make one insufferable doesn’t it…this sort of thing was serious business for me. I had little spending money, but I would hope to have it in order to buy one of those foot-square pieces of art with the circles inside. Something cool. Something that represented my generation.
I can remember a particular spring afternoon. Somehow my girlfriend and I had caged a ride in a keyboard player’s new AMC Javelin to travel to Iowa’s capital city where there was a “head shop” (which is where the best new records were sold, along with, well, “smoking accessories.”) On the way we listened to an 8 Track tape of the Moody Blues To our Children’s Children’s Children. When we got there, I could merely marvel, as I had barely enough for one record album, and couldn’t decide which one to get or if I might need the money for something else. So, the only thing I bought was a pinned badge: a smaller, paler circle, containing a bit of the cover art to the Cream’s Wheels of Fire record.
A circle from “The Sixties.”
Recalling this day 50 years ago or so, says paradoxically to me what music and recordings meant to me then. A record was a precious clue to take me through days or weeks. Foolishness? It’s always been partly that.
But of course something else was on my mind, and the mind of some of my generation on that non-official, just another record store day. War. Justice. The cutting edge of the then gap between generations and elders that had been through WWI, WWII and the Korean War, and were often sure we were ducking our war turn. Our best thoughts of ourselves were that there were more important battles, and of course some of us didn’t succeed in avoiding the war they wanted us to fight. And some of us went off looking for Eden, a place you can sort of find, and then lose track of again.
What else does that memory mean? What does it mean presently? That’s what today’s short piece is about. The player gadget is below to hear it.
It should have been just a throw-away line in Modernist novelist Ernest Hemingway’s first novel. A character describes how he went bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.”
That line, or the concept of it: gradually, then all at once, has persisted because it encapsulates something that occurs more broadly than the accumulation of debt obligations. Economics, politics, artistic movements all work socially in ways that may be tied to some very deep concepts, deeper than mere humanity.
Earlier this winter I presented William Butler Yeats “The Stare’s Nest at my Window.” It’s Yeats musing on his country, which had so recently achieved colonial independence and yet had then fallen so soon into sectarian civil war. The “stare” is an archaic word for the common starling, and despite its presence in the title, this bird doesn’t really appear in the poem. Instead, Yeats’ poem is asking for honeybees, rather than starlings, to build in the nesting cracks in the deteriorating masonry of his home.
In talking about how I experienced the poem, I felt that Yeats may have been speaking to an understanding of starlings as a harmful, invasive species. European starlings are obnoxious, capable of displacing other birds, and they are artless, bereft of any sort of lovely birdsong or plumage. Their large flocks can damage crops, eating grain, fruit, young plants, and even the very seeds before the crops have become anything. Honeybees, as I read Yeats’ wish, are some better, more directly constructive creatures.
When a country is in turmoil, acting against its own as well as humanity’s best interests, doesn’t it seem as if such is evidence of base and selfish forces that are natural and therefore incapable of change? Evil, greed, and self-dealing seem ingrained, the result of some gradual deteriorating evolution toward greater and greater failures of heart and mind.
As it turns out, starlings, those deplorable birds, do have something marvelous that they can do. In flight, flying near to each other so as to seem to be grains in a sand painting or facets in a mosaic, by the hundreds and by the thousands, they can shift and change direction in such an amazing way—gradually, then suddenly.
Though this video has some cutesy elements, it’s one I could find that both shows the murmuration behavior and a theory of its mechanism.
These birds, certainly those individual birds in the flock, cannot know that this is beautiful, yet they do it anyway. Human observers may think they have seen a miracle, a sign of the divine, or at least some unprecedented event—but what they have really seen is just as ingrained in nature: a physics of change and of glorious new shapes.
In a comment on “The Stare’s Nest at My Window,” alternative voice here at the Parlando Project Dave Moore remembered that he too had done a starling piece, so we’re overdue to present it to you today. His song is called “Murmuration,” and it’s about this startling flight behavior of starlings. You can hear it performed by the LYL Band with the player below.
New Year’s is a time to look at where one’s been and to look anew, to make resolutions and changes. So, let’s look anew at a 110-year-old work by Rainer Maria Rilke.
That’s appropriate, because Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” is about looking at something old, something that many others have looked at. And Rilke’s poem too has been read and listened to by many, both in it’s original German and in several translations into English. Each translation differs from the others as there are several problems of understanding and reconstruction into a new language that each translator had to solve. So I started by doing my own English translation, working with Rilke’s German words and trying to understand what he’s getting at.
What’s the over-riding observation about the statue that is Rilke’s subject? That it’s broken and incomplete. This is past obvious, but because Rilke spends some time in this brief poem talking about how drawn he is to it, I think it’s possible to misunderstand this point. He says wonder-filled things about it, and this leads many translators and readers to believe that he’s making a case that it’s artistically perfect in some talismanic way.
Worst New Year’s party ever. Woke up without head, arms, legs…
My reading is that he’s making a contrasting case. This is a legless and headless statue. Rilke makes us see right off that the head is missing. Describing that missing head Rilke uses the German word “unerhörtes,” unheard—which we take in the sense of “unheard of.” Translators have translated it into “fabulous”, “legendary”, and so on. There are certainly good German words for those things, but Rilke chose otherwise. Does he want the double meaning that this statue of the Greek god of poetry and music is missing its ability to hear?
What do I make of the remarkable, surrealist-sounding image near the start of the poem that the missing head is surmised to have eyes ripened like apples? Everyone is struck by the audacity of it, but what does it mean? I don’t think Rilke means this in a René Magritte way, as even a small apple is too large for an eye socket. My wife had a suggestion: ripened apples eventually fall and rot, just as the head has been harvested or fallen from neglect.
Eyes ripened like apples, René Magritte’s way.
Another hard to translate line is the poems eighth, which dips down to the naked statue’s beltline and makes reference to genitals that should be there if we were to continue in the path of the gaze. I suspect the statue has been fractured above them. My translation breaks with most others on the following “beast’s pelt” reference. Some translate that fur as a wonderous quality of the entire remaining stone torso, which seems to make no sense imaginative or otherwise when referring to Greek statues of Apollo*. My translation reads the German as saying that the wild beast’s pelt is missing, that is to say that the statue ends above the pubic hair. So blind, deaf, headless, and also without his sex organs.**
What’s left after these amputations, this incompleteness? First, Rilke is drawn to this torso. He is a poet, and Apollo’s the god of poetry. He’s also spent a couple years working as a young assistant to the great French sculptor Rodin, so statuary is an interest. I think what he sees as still there is the soul, the heart, the essence, which he portrays as that mysterious flame-like glow in the marble and the remaining curves that smile at the damage.
Which brings us to the poem’s notable surprise ending, which I won’t spoil in my explanatory text if you don’t know it already. I think Rilke is drawn to this torso because he senses this soul, that which eternally remains, that which is without borders and broken places, can heal or transcend this: the lack of fulfilled desire, vision, mind, and music. Perhaps he is drawn to this broken statue so intensely because he feels he and his art are broken and incomplete too.
To hear my performance of a new translation of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” with its conclusion that many readers/listeners find unexpected, use the player gadget below. And to all the brave readers and flexible listeners here: an exploring and improving New Year!
*Rilke may not have known it, but something else was missing on that statue. We have become accustomed to viewing classical Greek statues as glowing white marble, aesthetically we may have even absorbed the idea that this monochromatic paleness is the timeless ideal. However, the Greeks painted their statues, even the nudes got skin tones and hair color. Oh, and they were Southeast Mediterranean people with interchange with Africa and the Middle East, those skin tones weren’t pasty white, as examination of pigment remnants on classical Greek statues reveal.
**Of course, I must be modest. My knowledge of German (like my knowledge of French and classical Chinese which I’ve also translated here) is lacking, which can lead to translation errors. The only skill I can bring to this is that I read, perform and write poetry.
Partly for the reason of sadness and disappointment with my country, and partly for disappointment with myself, it’s been difficult to focus on combining words and music recently. This is a value of one of the Parlando Project’s principles: Other Peoples’ Stories. When I cannot put the words together, I can listen and absorb someone else’s.
Yesterday, feeling particularly sad and angry, and holding it in so as to not harm with it, I went looking for someone else expressing what I could not express myself.
I looked first at Carl Sandburg, who after all was a committed political radical as well as a too-often overlooked Modernist. But with Sandburg’s expression love was almost always present—a good thing, but not in tune with my feelings. Sandburg may have been the right medicine, and I took some of him in on Friday for my health, but I didn’t want only medicine.
And then I found my howl, and strangely at that. I knew Edna St. Vincent Millay had written political poems, that in fact they had harmed her artistic reputation. The witty line I recall was that Millay’s anti-fascist poems did more to harm her artistic standing than Pound’s pro-fascist ones. Today’s words are from one of her early political poems: “Justice Denied in Massachusetts.”
I can see where the Olympian “New Critics” docked Millay on the basis of this one. It’s chock-full of that awkward backwards and inside out “poetic” syntax that reads like a stiff translation from another language. The early Modernists, even as they translated, were dead set against this—and they have a good point. Millay’s words here were hard to read with emotion, so stilted and undirect as they are as sentences. However, that could well be part of Millay’s point here (consciously or unconsciously), as the poem’s speaker is not speaking clearly; and for my benefit—however difficult it is to perform—she is speaking precisely in a confused mixture of disgust and disappointment. All the reverse/”poetic” syntax just makes it more twisted in at itself. A poet today might make this matter even more obscure with modern poetic syntax that also abjures plain speaking in the service of art, but in our current context we’d be expected to accept this as the way art talks.
One problem with political poems is that to the extent they speak to an issue they can become museum pieces tied to forgotten events. If they were to be effective, they could even be seeking that fate. Millay is writing here in the immediate aftermath of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti—a particular cause—but for my purposes, this has little bearing on the matter. She is speaking to women and domestic and domesticated people such as myself. Only the title is tied to then current events—the feeling and her point, ties to our own.
“Let us go home, and sit in the sitting room.” New Critic Cleanth Brooks placed his entry in the contest for most bone-head review of all time by reading this refrain line and Millay’s poem as a straightforward resignation at the course of events, rather than the ironic statement of disgust that it is. I can only hope that the savvy observers of our country are similarly wrong, similarly misreading.
Mr. Brooks, you may notice that I’m not sitting, but standing for something.
My music for this is based around a G suspended chord, where the third of the chord, which would dictate if it’s minor or major, is omitted. This gives the chord a feeling of awaiting change, awaiting formation. At times the replaced note to the defining third is a tangy second, other times a more consonant fourth. Risking grandiloquence, but I feel our country is similarly suspended now, and the cadence is to be ours.
Here’s my performance of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Justice Denied in Massachusetts.”
A couple of mornings ago, I awoke after a night’s sleep, and as I took my bicycle out to the alley to ride off for breakfast, I was surprised to see the road dusted in torn blossoms and several small tree branches cast about on the wet ground.
While I had been still and sleeping, a storm must have come up.
That contrast, the stillness and the broken change is at the heart of today’s poem by William Carlos Williams, “The Hunter.” Williams opens his poem with an allusive image. “In the flashes and black shadows of July.” Is this the lightning of a summer storm? I thought so at first. But it might be just what one sees lying on summer grass and looking up through the boughs of a tree. The whims of a breeze or the caprices of squirrels and birds on the thin branches will flutter the leaves’ fan of shade revealing the sun in a flash.
Yet, summer “seems still.” The animals of summer appear “at ease.” But what if there is danger in the world, as in the unmet character in the poem’s title, the hunter?
In a last-ditch attempt to increase readership of his poetry, William Carlos Williams decided to try that Internet staple: cute kittens.
In Williams’ poem, the hunter does not appear, ready to shoot the game. The hunter is invisible, as the hunter is time, the hunter is change.
For today’s music I combined an orchestral ensemble and electric guitar with an appearance of a harpsichord. The player gadget to hear my performance of “The Hunter” is at the bottom of this post.
I’ve noted that there has been a steady listenership for the other William Carlos Williams poems posted in the archives lately, and that helped inspire me to look for more of his work to present. As we move into summer, I remind visitors that there are over 220 pieces available here. Use the search box or just wander through the monthly links on the right.