Archaic Torso of Apollo

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.

Torso of Apollo

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.

Magritte Son of Man

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.

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Justice Denied in Massachusetts

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.

Millay stands for something

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.”

The Hunter

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?

William Carlos Williams with Kittens2

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.

 

I Did Not Go and See the Perseids

Here’s a something of a bonus episode based on a sonnet I wrote a few years back. I’m tired tonight, and not feeling particularly useful, and I recalled that this is the time of year when one of the better regular meteor showers happens.

perseids meteor shower

Meteors are supposed to herald change, but the sky cannot change us

 

I recorded this piece tonight, to try to assuage that useless feeling. I started with the bass part, as the sound of the bass always seems to comfort me. I fit the drums to that bass part, did the vocal, and added a couple of guitar parts. It’s a short piece, and it was soon done.

Meteors are fabled to be meaningful from those times before our modern highly illuminated age erased them from the view of our cities, such as the city where I am stuck tonight. In the poem, I had played with the idea that making the trip to the countryside to see the Perseid meteor shower could indeed change someone’s life.

I did some extreme enjambment, breaking words in half, in a few lines in the poem to try to show how the sharp streaking line of a meteor trail might change us in an instant, because of course we are not changed in an instant, ever, though love and good fortune make us think at times that we have changed.

If change was instant, it would not be hard as it is, nor as easy to avoid.

I wish you all a good night tonight, with or without visible stars or knowable fates.  And I thank you again for reading and listening over this chattering yet silent Internet.

To hear the performance of “I Did Not Go and See the Perseids,”  use the player gadget below.

 

This One’s for David Jones

Names are funny things. I was recently watching an old TV show from 1969 where Janis Joplin sat on the talk-show couch with a young British-accented rock critic named Michael Thomas. A Platonic dialog of sorts broke out on that show. Janis, the more intellectual than she liked to pretend singer, proposed that rock critics fundamentally obfuscated the experience of music. Thomas, self-evidently aware that he was a member of said tribe, tried to counter that all he was doing was presenting in words the same subjective experiences that Joplin said were the essence of music.

He could have said more, said that he was providing meaning and context for those experiences. She could have replied that meaning was beside the point, or at least meaning was beyond the point of the approximate trivialities that he writes. They could have agreed that experience was the greater part of the meaning of art, but that something remains, and can be changed and reflected upon after the experience and in doing so they could come to the conclusion of poet William Wordsworth, that it’s “Emotion reflected in tranquility.”

But they didn’t say that—commercial breaks stopped the dialog just as it was getting interesting, but I wondered about that guy, Michael Thomas. What had he written? Did he evolve a unique understanding of music as he developed as a critic? There he was, young and good looking, a member of the generation that was going to, like most generations, reform and reconstruct our culture. How did his individual story turn out?

I found a couple of magazine articles online he had written by the time of this TV appearance. Elaborate little hip-bourgeois celebrity profiles of no great import—but then most magazine articles are like that. And he was fairly early in writing about “Rock,” that more serious outgrowth of rock’n’roll that was still new in 1968. There as a lot everybody had to learn then. So, what did he learn?

Turns out there’s no way to tell. Wikipedia has over two dozen Michael Thomases listed on its disambiguation landing page, and none of them are him. Rolling Stone’s archives list a few articles by Michael Thomas, the earliest written in 1970 seem to be by the same man, while the last under the byline are about buying stereo equipment at the end of the same decade.  After that? More than 35 years of nothing I can find on the web. If I want to catch up on what, for example, Jaan Uhelszki did after writing about music in the Seventies, it’s pretty easy. Michael Thomas—not so much.

Like I say, names are funny things. My name is shared by several. There’s a Frank Hudson with some elaborately decorated big-rig trucks. There’s a hand-made English furniture-making firm with my given name. If I narrow it down to music and poetry, I’m still not unique. There’s a jingoist Australian poet, and a  fine Travis-picking Kentuckian guitar player. I’d like to think I might be related to that last one, after all I have some family tree roots from around there, and we both seem to play Seagull guitars at times.

Frequent keyboardist and alternate voice here, Dave Moore has his own eponymous issues, but let’s cut to another name issue.

In 1964 a young English guy wanted to get into the performing business as a singer. Lots of folks did in those days. His first recording, a single with his teenage blues band Davie Jones and King Bees came out that year. He kept plugging away at English pop-blues to no great success, until 1967, when he had a problem.

Davie Jones and the King Bees unlabeled

Davie Jones is the teenager in the middle

 

Well, he had a couple of problems. First, no one was buying any of this records; but secondly, his performing name Davie Jones, the informal diminutive of his given name David Jones, was more-or-less the same name as the performing and birth name of much more successful performer and teen heart-throb: Davy Jones of the Monkees. So, he changed his performing name to David Bowie and remained unsuccessful for a couple more years without being confused with the Monkee or the roughly 100 other David Joneses on the Wikipedia disambiguation page.

Eventually, he got his first hit. Eventually he started changing more than his name. Eventually he helped change our culture, making some dazzling records along the way. There was an immediate experience, and then something remained to be reflected on over time.

A year ago, he died. The official launch post of the Parlando Project here last August was the tribute I choose for Bowie, my setting of Carl Sandburg’s “Stars Songs Faces” that the LYL Band recorded the day after Bowie died. Now for our 41st official Parlando Project post, here’s Dave Moore’s self-written tribute “This One’s for David Jones.” Dave recorded this the same session as we did “Stars Songs Faces.”  It’s a rockin’ little number, because it seems like it’s been a bit since we rocked out. Click on the gadget below to hear it.