It’s been said of poets that they go out into a perfectly good morning only to think of glum existential thoughts. When I read something like that and look at the pieces this Project does, reflection is called forth. That certainly calls out a lot of subject matter I deal with here.
There’s a rebuttal, songwriter Townes Van Zandt said “There’s only two kinds of music: the blues and zippety doo-dah.” Poetry of course is music’s sister muse, but despite Steve Earle’s cowboy boots,* Van Zandt isn’t likely to be recognized as the world’s best songwriter. A dialectic of “blues and zippety doo-dah” risks falsely reducing Blues to a synonym for “sad songs.” One reason that Van Zandt, who was an excellent songwriter, won’t get the World’s Best award is that his songs vary between sad, sadder, and saddest. Doesn’t make them less perfect for what they are, just makes them suitable for certain moods while other songwriters might portray a range of outlooks and characters. I like Townes Van Zandt, I think “Flyin’ Shoes” is as near a perfect song as ever written, but a playlist of 20 to 30 Van Zandt songs would not carry my attention as well as a similar-length selection of Bob Dylan, B. B. King, Joni Mitchell, or Mose Allison.
An Emily Dickinson playlist would be equally as varied as anyone in that latter quartet. There’s the goth-girl Dickinson, the satirist of religion Dickinson, the legalistic philosopher, the altered-states psychedelic Dickinson, the secret bisexual passion Dickinson, and then there’s the Dickinson I’ll perform today: the botany nerd Dickinson. Part of what makes Dickinson such a fascinating writer is that all those personas talk to each other, seem to know each other.
I’ll not go into thousand-words territory on today’s Dickinson piece — I’ve been too long-winded lately for that. I’m going to treat her poem as a simple delight in the oddities of fungi. I have every reason to estimate that that was Dickinson’s intent, and we can enjoy that intent’s achievement. Here’s a link to the full text of the poem if you’d like to read it. To briefly brag about my restraint, there’s a possible deeper, subconscious, reading of the sporocarp fruiting body — but let’s be done with that. All the other Dickinsons may have been there when this poem was written, but we can simply enjoy one of them today.
Apostate mushroom, pleased grass, surreptitious summer. Emily Dickinson not pictured.
Player gadget below for many of you to hear my performance of Dickinson’s “The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants” with acoustic guitar, piano, and cello. Backup link for those that can’t see the audio player below.
*A famous quote by fellow Texas songwriter Steve Earle was plastered on a Van Zandt album cover: “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Wikipedia reports Van Zandt had a comeback when asked about that blurb too.
I have a new audio piece today, combined with a continuation of my Parlando Project influences-as-episodic-memoir series. The audio piece uses text from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons — worthy in itself — but what suggested it was a question that reading about Stein brought to my mind during The Seventies when I started to look into her life and work a bit.
Despite being nothing like an expert on Stein, I could fill this post with stuff about what she did and how she went about doing it. I’m going to make a summary of that a footnote, though that’s worth reading if you know even less about her than I do.* There’s one detail from Stein’s life that hooks into my story as I entered The Seventies. I’ll come back to that. Watch for it.
In the last post I’d left college in 1970, disconnected in the aftermath of the political activism post Kent State and my failure as a young editor of my college’s student newspaper. I wrote of some musical and poetry experiences in the early Seventies there. Another thing was both continuous and changed at this point: I needed to find a job. This was continuous because I’d most always worked from my middle teens. I’d had paper routes, did odd jobs for the local bank, and besides my work in my second year with the school paper, I’d been what was called a “work-study” student working most days in the college cafeteria. Although it didn’t occur to me then, I suspect the more well-off students may have noticed that I was doing kitchen work while they were only concerned with regular college life, but this continuousness of work was ever more complete from the time I was 20 until I was past the age of 65. Another way to say that was that I worked full-time hours all those year with no more of a break than a worker’s vacation. After leaving college I worked frying hamburgers at a fast-food restaurant and on a factory floor making vertical blinds, but in 1971 I was back in my small Iowa college town looking for work. I went to a nursing home in the town, thinking they might have kitchen work. Instead, they asked if I wanted to work as an orderly/nurses aide.** I took that job.
So, if work was continuous for me, what was changed? In some expectations one is supposed to find one’s career in their 20s. I had decided earlier that I wanted to write. In some other lifetimes perhaps I would have found an entry-level writing job, in another I might have wandered into something with politics. I’m not sure however if those alternative livelihoods would have suited me, for reasons I may discuss later in this series.
My job in the nursing home was in the Extended Care Facility, the wing for those patients who needed more-or-less complete bodily care for the rest of their lives. Many were completely bedridden, and many of that portion also unable to communicate. I worked the overnight 11-7 shift with one RN. I’m guessing we had around 20 patients in the unit. Our night work was turning the incapacitated every four hours to prevent bed sores, to clean up the incontinent and their bed linen, and to occasionally minister to those who awakened, often with some level of anxiety and agitation. It was hard physical work, and I will confess that I let the physical work deaden me somewhat at first to the Sisyphean nature of their lives and my tasks with them.
If one has a lot of triangles to move from Iowa to New York…
I moved to New York state to stay after a few months of that, carrying everything my wife and I owned in the bed of a rusty 1960 Chevy pickup truck that I’d purchased for $200 from my wages. The truck was so rusty that I could see the tires through holes in its floorboard, but other than a hydraulic clutch that would reengage itself if depressed too long, it ran OK in its rattly way. Back in New York I was living in a poor, mostly Black section of Westchester, renting a room from an elderly Mrs. Whitted who had a framed life-time membership certificate to the NAACP on her living room wall. I worked there first in another nursing home, a much fancier one in upscale Westchester, on the day shift this time. There were more staff there, but some elements of the care bothered me.*** Being low on the care system org chart I chose not to try to remedy that, and left for a job working on a med-surg floor at a Catholic hospital on the overnight shift again. The regular charge nurse on my floor was Miss Watson, a young highly competent Black Anglo-Jamaican with an impeccable English accent that would match a Sidney Poitier. We worked along with an LPN and at least one female aid (usually one of several Afro-Americans with a Great Migration southern-American accent) to complement my coverage of the male side of the patient census. I fully enjoyed working with Miss Watson. The most peculiar absurdity of her life that I got to observe was when patient relatives came in around the change to the morning shift after talking on the phone with Miss Watson. They’d assumed a starched-white Englishwoman, and so the recognition scenes when they arrived and saw her dark black skin always had me stifling a laugh. How much humor Miss Watson could consistently find in this might be another matter.
These orderly/nurse’s aide jobs paid a dime or so over minimum wage. The work was physically hard and even at its most basic levels it involved deep responsibilities all out of proportion to what it paid. Around this time, I came to embrace this necessary and underpaid work. It provided an inescapable, palpable, meaning to my life, something that struggling over a poem or prose draft could not demonstrate objectively. It allowed me access to all kinds of people in a wide range of economic classes and backgrounds. Occasionally, I thought of the members of my generation who served in the military, some drafted, and I told myself this was my service.
Eventually I moved up to Newburgh, New York, which will need to be another post. I worked my last overnight shift at the hospital and then I hitchhiked up to Newburgh at the end of my shift. I’d already gotten a job at St. Luke’s Hospital there in the Emergency Room. I’d work the 3-11 shift there the next day.
Are you waiting for Gertrude Stein to return? Here’s the connection. I can remember reading about the little Paris apartment she and her partner, edibles pioneer Alice B. Toklas, shared with Stein’s brother and a wall-smothering collection of Modernist art bought directly from artists that she knew, and the world would know later. It was there Stein lived from 1903 after leaving Johns Hopkins Medical School short of a medical degree.
As a time-travel destination that place is five-star. Artists, writers, critics, composers who once needed only to travel geographically to go there, wrote of it in their memoirs. A famous place.
Gertrude Stein in front of some of the Modernist paintings collected in her Paris apartment.
You know what I thought reading of that apartment? Yes, there was wonder. How did they figure which artists to collect? He, she, they, all of them were there, people before the pronouns. So and so met so and so there? Hemmingway finding part of his prose style in this small apartment — and from a woman? But my most nagging thought? Something else, another question: “Who paid the rent?”****
Many (most?) writers have the ability to be motivated by that experience, though in reading I can tell some are, and others are not. I myself am inconsistent. I have written and performed poems here that the richest and most comfortable person in my time might have written or could easily relate to. And then again, I may overselect poems whose speakers are in extremis.
Some take a commercial-first approach to their art, making sure it earns the rent money. My nursing work from age 20 to nearly 40 illustrated a variety of life to me, but it also allowed me (with worries) to pay the rent.***** Others take a cause-first approach, advocating with their art resolutely for remedies to what they see. Could my nursing work have reduced that aspect of my writing? That has just occurred to me. I’m not sure, though looking back I’m more at glad I didn’t have to point to my writing, and later my music, as what justified my life. And “Other People’s Stories?” Each day in the Emergency Room you’d meet up with other people’s stories. If your own were limited, or intractable, you could move their stories forward.
I had found a job that in those days allowed one to pay the rent. Inside that conceptual room, paid for by working with the sick and injured, I worked on the writing. And those years of unbroken work, of clock-in every working day, and rotating shifts? I suspect a habit retained as this Project approaches 700 pieces this year.
Today’s audio piece is from Gertrude Stein’s still controversial, still avant-garde, collection of “Cubist poems” Tender Buttons. That book is divided up into three sections: People, Objects, and Rooms. I performed the opening to the final section, Rooms today. Tender Buttons remains gnomic. Though the words themselves are plainspoken, a straightforward meaning is most often hard to make out. My performer’s working theory during the recording was that she’s making a statement about Modern Art and Cubism. Rather than a center and conventional panorama, Stein holds for more perspectives at once. She seems to be advocating for something not just decorative or the easy dessert of sentiment (“silver and sweet”). She sounds a “Life is real, Life is earnest” almost Longfellowean note when she says “A preparation is given to the ones preparing.” She perhaps compares a conventional painting with a center and a border to an empty dress, flat on a hanger. The final paragraph/stanza moves, synesthesia-wise, to music where the flowing facets of a Cubist painting may show a sequence of time.
Though printed as prose, the musical rhythm and rhyme of this poem arises with any earnest effort to read it aloud. If one was to modify it to conventional lineation, parts might almost pass as Emily Dickinson, albeit the more obscure and compressed Dickinson.
You can hear my performance with a drums, bass, piano, and electric guitar quartet with the player gadget below. No graphical gadget? This highlighted link is an alternative way to hear it.
*These footnotes are going to be long, and are for the more curious. They’re not necessary to enjoy the audio piece. Stein is easily classifiable as equal to Apollinaire and Ezra Pound (both of which she knew and interacted with) for influence on the emerging Modernist movement in the first quarter of the 20th century. Her influence on English language Modernist writing is not consistently admitted or admired, but her influence also extends to Modernist music — and along with her brother Leo, she’s absolutely central to the development and appreciation of Modern art.
The most amazing thing about her pre-Paris youth is that in a 19th century when women’s education and careers were constrained, she attended Radcliff (meeting, being mentored by, and admired by, William James) and then sought to become a medical doctor through graduate work at Johns Hopkins Medical School. Her center of interest was how the mind and its perceptions work, something she was studying at a time when Sigmund Freud had just started publishing. She dropped out of Johns Hopkins before graduating however.
**Job titles and even jobs listings were routinely gendered in 1970. Orderly was a male job, nurses’ aide the woman’s. Training for either was generally informal and on the job. Later in the Seventies I barely started an academic RN program, but affording the classes and especially the time and automotive costs of traveling to the nursing school put the brakes on that. Since I worked in teaching hospitals for over a decade after this as an aide hand-in-hand with nurses, interns, residents, and staff doctors, I learned a great deal of practical knowledge along the way. Administering medicine was not legally allowed, but I eventually did much of everything else the LPNs and RNs did. Afterwards, I always called what I did nursing, as it was a better description of my role for most of that decade-plus. In the middle 70s I helped in a small way to train early EMTs and given how much I liked the pace and variety of work in Emergency Rooms, I might have gotten into that line of work if I had come along a few years later.
The gendered job titles may have faded out as the Seventies progressed, but some of the work remained gendered. Despite having a poet’s level of athleticism and large muscle development, I was often called on to move or lift heavier patients, or to help restrain out-of-control people. Given how many stories there have been in recent years of people killed while being restrained (one in the news this month) I have wondered retrospectively if a different fate could have involved me in such a case. As things worked out, I never injured anyone while restraining them, though besides wear and tear I got a couple of minor injuries.
***I suspected a co-worker of patient abuse. I was new — they’d been there for some time. I had nothing concrete, and other longer-tenured coworkers thought they’d seen more, and that was part of my unease. A better person would have tried to organize a complaint and urge an investigation.
****Did you go to this footnote to find the answer? I’m not enough of a scholar to know all the details. Paris was dirt cheap then, there was some Stein family wealth, and the idea of artistically curious Americans of some means being gifted with broadening time abroad was common. Another Stein sibling, Michael, who also lived in Paris, has been cited as the man who handled the family finances there. The Stein bought-cheap-then paintings eventually became capital gains. At one later point someone noted a missing painting from the crowded apartment walls and Stein explained “We are eating the Cézanne.”
*****I’m no economist, but it’s my understanding that rent and housing costs have risen compared to the wages that of job earns now. It’s not my intent to engage in a walk-uphill-both-ways misery Olympics, just to explain some things that led to making this Project. Has any economist explained how jobs like the ones I held then, which are physically hard, unpleasant in some elements, demanding of all-shifts work, are at least mildly dangerous, have a chronic shortage of workers (much less good ones), and can have a life-and-death level of need and responsibility, yet pay less than much easier jobs for which there is a surplus of applicants? In my last few years of hospital work I moved to being a ward-clerk: typing, paperwork, general workflow organization and support (all of which I did as a nurses aide, as well as patient care) —and I then got a small raise.
There’s a saying, oft shared with a wink among my post-WWII generation, “If you remember The Sixties, you weren’t there.” In many cases I think this misses its mark. The forgotten decade should be The Seventies. And this is not true just of that generation’s personal stories — while objectively the Seventies has just as many years and minutes as the preceding decade, there’s much less romance to it.
Earlier this spring I indulged in writing in a condensed yet round-about way about some influences that led me into creating the Parlando Project. To remind readers, I’d decided as a teenager that there was something attractive, even exalted, about poetry and this was entwined with an eclectic appreciation for music as a listener. Let me also be clear in summary about this: this was instinctive on my part, mysterious in that no one encouraged these interests.
Now more than 50 years later, these things are still somewhat beyond my understanding. I believe I have some ability to create phrases that seem a good shape and use for language, but I did not understand poetry all that well. Nor was I particularly well read. Even now, if one goes beyond poetry to novels, nearly everyone interested in literature has read more than I have. And poetry? My reading of contemporary poets was not extensive. My observation was that this was not so unusual in my generation of young aspirational poets then. Sure, we knew the greatest hits in the anthologies. A City Lights Ferlinghetti or Ginsberg might be on our shelf of books, maybe an e. e. cummings or a selected or collected here and there.* But at least among the non-upper echelon college creative writing students I crossed paths with, there was less reading of our contemporaries than I believe one would find currently.
Yet, on these small bits of evidence, I had decided that I was a poet.
As my story now enters The Seventies, what had changed there? Rock music in the Sixties and The Seventies shared many overlapping musical stars, and for those of my age, a likely compiled survey of greatest records would roughly balance in numbers between the two decades. But, somewhere around 1973 something had changed in the music scene —and it wasn’t merely the “27 Club” deaths. My own summary analysis, informed by reading a great many first-hand accounts written by others, was there was a change in drug usage. Heroin addiction wasn’t even the worst of it. Cocaine seems to have inflated egos and tasked musicians with a need to accumulate working capital to keep being famous and high. **
So much framing to start my Seventies condensed memoir —and yet incidents of my life to extract to explain the eventual Parlando Project from the early Seventies are slim! After the post-Kent State flame-out of my short college career and the associated failed college paper editorship, I ended up moving to New York. I hung out at colleges with my peers sometimes, though college for credit was an Eden I was exiled from. I got married, another story too complex, and too peripheral to the eventual idea of the Parlando Project. Still, I can think of three things in the first half of The Seventies that connect somehow to the Project.
I hung out for a season with a college radio station at Westchester Community College. Though the “radio” part was limited to wired connections to audio speakers on the grounds, the students worked to do their best to portray the newly expanded playlists on FM radio. New promotional records came in constantly, expanding what music I would have been able to afford to hear. One young host I hung out with had an informed interest in and programmed contemporary Jazz records. Other students taught the student DJs how to slip cue vinyl LPs on the turntables, which I found fascinating. The hosts worked their own basic but serviceable board to mix in the records or their mics. I gained appreciation for the perfect segue or flow in a set of cuts. Once in a while since, I’ve thought of an alternative, hip-hop or club DJ infused life I might have developed. Didn’t happen, though I later got to watch radio on another level.
Here’s the second story: when I had enough money free, I enrolled in an American literature class at SUNY New Paltz and lucked into the classroom of H. R. Stoneback. I recall one class were Stoneback asked us what relationship music, and folk poetry and music, might have with literary poetry, the very question I deal with in this Project now. He continued examining some points while playing an acoustic guitar. He was also the person who first informed me that many Emily Dickinson poems could be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
This last one is a more peripheral story, but it connects. At another non-enrolled college situation I was ghostwriting a column and stories in the school newspaper ostensibly under the name of the woman I would marry, who was an enrolled student there. Now I’m not sure if the student newspaper editor was enthralled by the writing or his more carnal desires to sleep with the young woman, which he eventually did. He also edited the school’s student literary annual. I got the wild idea to see how many poems I could publish in it. I grabbed my portfolio of poems I had written at this point, retyped up some of those poems on a variety of typewriters attributing them to various assumed names, and submitted them. As I still do, I wrote in several styles, further establishing the numerous poets as plausibly different people. When the annual came out, I was around a third of the issues’ selected poems, and one was singled out for an award by an English department professor. He couldn’t find the student. “Did anyone know him?” he asked around.
That last story in itself, like many a good poem, has several facets to gleam or blind you. I could explore those — but perhaps I, the author of the scheme and the telling, has a distorted or glare-obscured view. What is it I draw from that tale, that might apply to this Project? I enjoy variety. I enjoy not being myself, and I often am most accepted when I am not myself.
I recall writing this sitting in a old college classroom building, not sure what it was to be about, but knowing the poor condition of the brick tuck pointing. 7 years later in the ‘70s,, I made it into the song the title says it could be.
I’ll continue later here with another post on how The Seventies developed for me — but let’s honor this Project with a musical piece. Today is the anniversary of Emily Dickinson’s death, so maybe I should honor her and Professor Stoneback? Shame, not enough time after so much writing about myself. How about an example of one of the kinds of poems I was writing then? I looked through old recordings digitized from cassette tapes, and found this one from the 1990s which is an example of one type of poem I wrote near the end of The Sixties and set to music in the later Seventies. It’s a different gothic sensibility from Dickinson, and I may have been starting to show an interest in French Symbolists, though I don’t recall reading them until later in The Seventies. It’s called “Branched Song.” Graphical player for many below. No player? This is an alternative link to open a tab with a player in it.
*Note these poets, while alive during The Sixties, were obviously much older than my cohort, but they were also for the most part post the textbox canon inclusion line. Frost, Eliot, Sandburg, Wallace Stevens made it under the wire for the tail-end of the canon in the Sixties, though all but Stevens were still living in The Sixties. Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, were special cases, maybe there or not, though I recall seeing them first in textbooks in that decade. I did read, as did some others of my generation, Richard Brautigan and Leonard Cohen, who like the Beats were not considered canonical then. But both of those “young” poets were born in The Thirties. I also read poets in the New York School, particularly Frank O’Hara (born in The Twenties!). Black Arts and Afro-American poets came into my ken later in The Seventies. Note also, how scarce-to-none were the women. Not even Millay, who my father knew and read.
**”Rock” was a tag that started to be used in later Sixties to separate “serious” popular music from what was felt then to be the merely commercial and only incidentally and accidently artistic “Rock’n’Roll.” This transition is a complex subject, and it can’t be reduced to a footnote. Rock was open to a variety of influences then, but it was also far whiter and therefore less American than Rock’n’Roll.
And here’s a question that could be debated at length. Would the music changes have happened without then-illegal drugs? And even if something like the Rock transition happened, would it have been as wide-ranging and open to altering expectations? But beyond the Sixties’ evidence on those questions, the Seventies says there’s a rat-train of pipers to be paid. Another imaginary question: if everyone magically went into rehab in 1972, how much better would later Seventies music and what followed on have been?
What I’ll write about today’s piece might be needlessly complex. I’ll try not to take too much of your time so you can get to the simple performance of the poem below and you can decide.
The usual job of a critical essay on a poem or other work of art is to explain how something works and doesn’t work, usually making use of, or in the context of, criteria for artistic value. Within these efforts, the spread of essays praising or condemning a poet, poem, or poems is maintained. There’s no contradiction here. How can there be good art if we don’t have bad art? Judgments, pointing out good and bad, are equally creative, just as when we are writing and revising ourselves.
Is this a critical essay? I’m not sure it is. Instead, I think of these pieces of prose as short notes about my experiences with the texts, nearly always literary poems, as I combine them with music and perform them. And in the case of today’s audio piece using Kenneth Patchen’s “Instructions for Angels” my experience so contradicts what criteria I believe I have that it calls into question that I have them or really believe in them.
What do I think are the things I look for in a successful poem? First, I think poetry is musical speech. “Instructions for Angels” is free verse, something formalists take as problematic. I doubt I’m a formalist. I admit the effects of rhyme and meter, but my musical sense admits also that the amount of symmetry and regularity can and should vary. There’s some underlying da DUM da DUM iambic back-beat feel here in Patchen’s poem, that King James version 17th century English thing that can itself now feel overused or overfamiliar. But familiarity is not always bad, no more than regularity in structure. “Instructions for Angels” does clearly use one musical feature: the refrain. Perhaps this is what drew me to it when skimming through a book-length selected poems looking for what would be good to set with music. I’m not alone in choosing this poem. I’ve found several other musical settings online.
Today’s piece is easy enough to play on guitar, so guitarists have at it.
I do think we too often confuse imagery with poetry’s essence, praising coded word-play rather than word-music. But imagery is a more abstract version of word music isn’t it? That this-is-like-that, or things arrayed in an as-above-so-below manner is an intellectual harmony. The intervals and combinations are pleasing as audible music is. “Instructions for Angels” is plainsong in this regard. Yes, I suppose angels and God have a certain majesty, but as a recent coronation reminds us, tired pomp can bore quickly. The rest of the poem is full of threadbare, generalized counters isn’t it? “pretty girl,” “red mouth,” “baby,” “beautiful,” “rain,” “snow,” “flowers,” “trees,” “winds,” and “fields.” If one looks for fresh and arresting imagery this poem doesn’t seem to have it. If I was revising this poem or it was being workshopped, it would be easy to imagine changing a few of those general terms to more specific ones. I can see someone asking “But Ken, what flower exactly do you like? Give us the name so we can see it.”
How about a poem’s message? Shouldn’t that count for something? Yes, I think it should, yet over the ages critics can worry that worthy messages are too common, too cheap — or that art for art’s sake has judged any meaning as secondary. Writing in the 1930s Patchen was often reacting to a Modernism that was too inhuman, too concerned with form, and too unconcerned with the fates of its readers. I sense the present pendulum has once more swung and we are now again asking poems to tell us worthy things, and for the poets to be worthy people. I should be happy, yet I’m not always happy with poems on the right side of the issues. I wouldn’t like it if that was all the poetry I read and sing. Am I just cursed with contrariness? Should I note here that Patchen’s pacifism continued throughout WWII? That was a contrary position and not helpful to his poetic career at the time.
If a poem’s message is important, shouldn’t it be as clear as prose about saying it? How obscure can or should poetry be? Again, poems and critics differ on this, but there’s a consensus that a poem shouldn’t be harder to understand than it has to be.
That “has to be” is a broad thing however. Proponents of exciting and fresh images and language will say beauty and skill allows indirection, ambiguity is true to life, a little, even a lot, of mystery can compel, and that irony combats blandness and tiresome cliché. The greatest benefit of workshopping poems, or at least second readers, is for a poet to find out they are sometimes unintentionally obscure.
One could say that “Instructions for Angels” is clear. But on first and later readings, even into my performance, there was one small thing that was less than clear and more at odd. We don’t have to wait long for it: the first sentence says “Take the usual events/For your tall.” “The usual events” is clear, it’s a statement of purpose for the everyday and common that Patchen will praise as the poem continues. But “tall?” It looks like a typo.* I could make more immediate sense if it was “tale,” “tail,” “toll” or “tell.” Is Patchen saying “Angels pass this info up (way up, like to heaven) the chain?” A phrase soon to come, “Blue weather,” is fine, and there is some nice ambiguity there: blues or blue skies? Patchen returns and expands that image with “The weather in the highest soul” indicating he intends that ambiguity.
So where does that leave me, all this applying of what I think and have been taught to understand might constitute a “good poem?” In my present, poems have two states: ones that interest me, often because I can see performing them; and then, the ones I skip over. It may not be the fault of the poet or their poem that I skip them — that poem just doesn’t exist with me in my moment. I’m not totally without criteria, some things I can predict, but this poem is an example of a poem that met me emotionally in my moment, the place where some poems live while others are undressed tombstones. Is Patchen’s poem technically perfect? Unlikely, but there’s a ruined recording take were I just started crying a bit as I tried to sing.
I don’t believe every poem needs to do that. Pleasure in the words, images, and music of some other poems will make them live for me. Amazement at virtuosities can compel at times. If every poem in the world was like “Instructions for Angels,” I’d be a rebel angel, and crawl into a John Ashbery volume and never come out. As it is, I’d instruct the angels to not poop on my head and to pass it up the line that I’m grateful for Kenneth Patchen.
You can hear my performance of “Instructions for Angels” with the graphical player below. No player? This highlighted link will open a new tab with one.
*I have a scanned pdf of the published collection presumably OK’d by Patchen, but the typo theory remains possible. Patchen was recorded reading some of his poems, sometimes with music. That would answer this doubt, but as far as search goes I haven’t found him reading this poem.
It’s usually of little use for an artist to apologize for their work, and this is so even though most have self-doubts. Perhaps more so, women artists will speak about “imposter syndrome,” but I’d guess that many/most male artists have the same feelings, they just don’t talk about it. The plain fact is that we’re all pretending to be what we want to be, to go to the place we want to go to. We maybe get there, we maybe don’t — but we’re all traveling, and we all get lost sometimes.
I even have trouble with the word “pretentious.” I say that, though I know the problem that word is describing: the embarrassing failure where something doesn’t achieve what it clearly wants to achieve. It’s just that most good, and nearly all great art, starts out with exactly that urge: to make something better, to make it new, to stretch and extend the maker’s talents, to make something over the horizon from what the artist knows. Since the same urge produces success and failure, it’s not the urge or the hubris that’s the problem. Don’t beat yourself up over that urge, don’t beat your breast over the failures. Reflexive humble-brag is exceedingly boring. If you must, get through any of that quickly. One of my animating maxims is “All Artists Fail.” As I’ve written about that maxim extensively here, that paradoxically comforts me.
I’m not an expert on Kenneth Patchen, but the general impression I get from him is like a 20th century American William Blake, that he self-invented himself and his credentials, and that’s easy for me to admire. I spent much of this week looking for a poem, a text, that would inspire me, and shake me out of some creative doldrums; and after striking out both swinging and looking during several at bats inside several books, I came upon this one. Since the text of this Kenneth Patchen poem doesn’t appear to be available to link, here it is:
One can think on the statement that “death is something which poems must be about.” That’s sort of true, and I laugh at it.
It doesn’t appear to have a title in the early Selected Poems volume I found it in, but the first line was used as such when Patchen was recorded reading it. The poem is read unaccompanied, but Patchen predated the Beats in doing the mid-century poetry with music thing that’s an inspiration to me. He reads it slowly, precisely. I hear it silent on the page as more anguished in its effect, and in trying to record a performance of it this week I first tried almost shouting out parts of it. After trying that I decided that wasn’t working, and tried a more understated take — only to find that my voice was horse from the earlier takes. I did my best in the time I had, and that’s the performance you can hear today.
“She had concealed him” seems to be using something of a collage of voices. Not so directly as a Patchen favorite of mine “Do the Dead Know What Time It Is,”but the opening seems like the start of a fairy tale, then there are bits of realistic daily speech, and then the fantastic metaphor of the poems final lines. As so often in Patchen poems, there’s a sense not so much that God is love, but that Love is god.
The music today makes use of some concepts of mine that are, to convention and many listeners, wrong. I like the rub of outside notes and grotesque melodic contours.* Rather than having a straightforward harmonic foundation below a singular or a mathematically related set of melody notes, I’m fond of twined melodic lines that respond or contrast in turns with each other. And as an electric guitar player accompanying singers or poetic readers, I clearly don’t know when to shut up and not play my guitar. This last one I might change, perhaps should change, but in the immediacy of the playing moment I’m believing that strong words, read with force, are able to stand toe-to-toe with electric guitar.
Frankly, I worry that the resulting musical performance may have too much of all of the above. Is that from a failure of nerve, or a failure of execution? Am I reflexively using old habits, not stretching out to something else? Well, I meant what I played, meant my reading performance of Patchen** — but meaning and intent didn’t allay my doubts. Yesterday I made four completed attempts to mix this. With my self-expected release schedule and time conflicts, it’s rare to go beyond two alternate mixes. I still decided to let the music continue for a bit more than an extra minute past the reading, because I liked the echoing musical conversation in the deep dark cave.
And there’s this perspective: all that is just one musical mode here. I have other pieces that are less cluttered, more accessible, and less contrary to expectations.
Returning to the thoughts of the opening of this post: the middle parts of what I write today are parenthetical and not something I want to take more of your time with. Non-paralyzing self-analysis is likely uninteresting to readers or listeners, but it can be effective as part of the journey of making art. I’m done trying to make this piece any better. I think the best moments that I hear in it and what Patchen wrote may be worth your time. My job with this Project is to move onto the next piece, to see what I can find and do with that. Thank you for reading and listening. The player gadget to hear the musical performance of Kenneth Patchen’s “She had concealed him” is below for many, and this highlighted link is there for the others.
*More than once, what I play has been characterized as out of tune or dissonant. Some of that is timbral, and some of it is wide vibrato, but often it is note choice and sequence. I don’t always hear it that way. I think harmony has rules, that can be broken or bent, but there’s propriety there. But melody? Melody is free. Yes, I’ll acknowledge that certain melodic contours generally cause admirable effects, but I myself am easily bored with stock moves. Two bands I admire, Television and the Velvet Underground, were each said to have banned playing Blues riffs that were part of the expected electric guitar vocabulary. I on the other hand, and in today’s piece for example, am playing Blues expression (stinky, funky notes and wide vibrato) without the expected sequence.
I think the opening electric guitar chord today was likely a subconscious attempt to refer to the chord at the opening of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac version of his “Black Magic Woman,” and Green’s Fleetwood Mac was another band like the combo I constructed for today’s piece that tried to find room for an overplus three-electric-guitar frontline. That band’s Live at the Boston Tea Party set is foundational to me.
**I felt my earlier more histrionic reading was less effective and my more resigned reading better and more true to the poem, not a retreat.
I’m taking a break today from telling some stories of discovering my own influences, and through them the possibility of this project combining words (mostly poetry) with original music. Instead, let’s return to one of this Project’s themes “Other People’s Stories.” Today’s piece is by William Carlos Williams, and it tells a story of a morning for a 30-something young father. The mood this poem is coming from is ambiguous on the page: it could be read as joyful, even if gently self-mocking, or it could be seen as an earnest Whitmanesque celebration. Since the poems here are performed — and more so, performed in the emotional environment of music — I had to make a choice of mood. I think it’s wistful, and I took that choice largely from the short song the poem tells us the poem’s speaker sings in the midst of it.
Parenthood, particularly first parenthood, is often a very significant life event. The urge to have a child, to reproduce in the emotionless language of biology, can be partly an expression of the parents seeking to extend and duplicate themselves. The reality of the child and child-rearing, conversely, is to reign in one’s autonomous self. Depending on one’s personality and role in the household, it may mean to act as a caretaker to the helpless and needy infant, or to find much of the home’s attention is now on the newcomer. The romance of the ideal baby can be immanently real some moments, and the endless labor and new roles just as real other times.
If the mood is ambiguous, the story Williams’ “Danse Russe” tells is told directly. It’s morning, the rest of the household is still asleep. Three others are mentioned as the sleepers: “my” wife, “the” baby, and someone named Kathleen, who has been identified biographically as a nanny the Williams’ family employed. Let’s be honest about the slight tells of the “my” and “the.” My is possessive, the isn’t. Kathleen’s named presence means there’s one other caretaker here. However privileged* we may view what was, in biographic fact, the presence of child-care, I’ll note that the speaker, the father, is plausibly then even more separated from the child. He is obligated and estranged in mixed degrees.
As the poem opens, he’s inside, physically in the household, but not with the others, and the house in his image has a sense of the outside world in morning mists and a cosmic sun. What does he do in this quiet early-morning time?
“To dance beneath the diamond sky, with one hand waving free.” Yes Bob ‘n’ Bill, but then the baby wakes up.**
He dances and sings, though one hopes it is a large house and he’s sotto voice and light on his feet. We’re told he’s naked and before a mirror. He indulges in a short Whitman’s sampler catalog of his unencumbered body,*** fully himself, able to bask in himself. Is he having a full-on Robert Bly drum circle moment here? Maybe. Let’s give Bly the poet his due here, he was often able to see a layer below the simple image — and Williams has chosen to show us this, even if we don’t know for sure why he makes this choice, and he doesn’t direct us to all his feelings, save for one, the one the dancer sings: loneliness. He concludes from the song that it’s best to be lonely, it’s his fate from birth (for being male?) From Williams’ own life I can assay he was certainly willing to be lonely, proudly stubborn in his self, but his story here, his image, is not without wistfulness mixed with self-justification. He, the poet, can help us see this. Who knows how much he, or we, can do with that knowledge? I tried to emphasize in performance that there’s a small refrained phrase in this short poem. Do you notice it when you read the text, linked here, or listen to the performance below? Three times the poem begins “If I….” What do we know of the I? What shall the I be?
Williams ends with his own “who knows?” Is he self-evidently, or by his own claim, “The happy genius of my household?” “Genius” here I think is meant in the mode of creator and progenitor, not in the IQ test sense.
I choose to think this is not a rhetorical question, that it’s truly at issue. He’s asking to cheer himself on: I’ve made the purchase of this house, I am the father of this child, I’m half the choice of its life — even if I’m also separated from this household and baby, and I feel that separation as loneliness. So many first-time parents feel in thought, bound and estranged, in all their variety of roles, partners, resources, and situations: “Am I happy?” And their best answers are “Halfway.” And then, “Shouldn’t it be all the way?” Who shall say? Well, William Carlos Williams dances and sings, and he says the distance from halfway is loneliness.
Today’s musical portion to go with Williams’ words I jokingly told my wife this morning is “shoegaze,” the genre named not just for the lack of audience eye-contact but for the number of floor-stationed effects pedals to be employed. You can hear that performance of “Danse Russe” while waving your shirt in the air with the graphical audio player below. What, there’s no player to be seen? Now you’ve got to rebutton that shirt? No, you can use this highlighted alternative link that will open a new tab with an audio player.
*Live-in childcare was more common at unexceptional levels of income in the early 20th century. A substantial number of young immigrant women worked in this role.
**I slightly modified this image generated from a text prompt using the test version of a new Adobe product, Firefly. Adobe promises that it uses only licensed art from it’s stock library to “train” the algorithm. Much controversy these days about AI, but of course poets have been using words to invoke images for some time.
***The contrast here between childbirth and breastfeeding roles and their intimate demonstration of bodily connectiveness strikes me. Did Williams intend this? I don’t know, but it’s there for me to sense. As a family physician, Williams would have certainly known intellectually of those differences.
A break in the influences as memoir series here, that theme that I’ve fallen into doing for National Poetry Month? Maybe. I’m going to present a new performance of a Carl Sandburg poem — but before that I’m going to talk about another writer, Rod Serling. Serling wrote a variety of things, but he’s best known for creating and hosting, often presenting his own scripts, the mid-century TV show The Twilight Zone.
I’m doubtful young people watch the old gray half-hour Twilight Zone episodes anymore, though they are still available in various ways — but people younger than me certainly did, and to some degree still do. That generation between today’s youth and my old age has sought to revive it under its original title or in spirit, and they still talk between themselves about the original episodes and their hard to reproduce sensibility. I remember being in a creative writing class back in The Seventies, with folks maybe five years younger than me, and I was surprised at how often they might refer to some TZ episode instead of a Greek myth or some piece of literary poetry. SF/Fantasy fandom has grown a hundredfold since, it’s the backbone of popular narrative culture now. The SF/Fantasy memory-hole village that was Twilight Zone’s once, has become a crowded inner-ring suburb, neither new-hot nor charmingly old-fashioned.
One episode of that series, one that came early in the show’s 156 episode run from 1959 to 1964, appears on some of the middle-generation’s “best of” lists, though I think there’s a strangeness that it does. Titled “Walking Distance” it’s tied very clearly to Serling’s own Greatest Generation memories, not as much to my generation who might have watched it on its first run, and I’d expect not-at-all to those younger than me. To summarize the plot without spoilers I’ll say the story is that an overworked and worried 1960 advertising man ends up walking in the countryside and enters his old hometown, the allegorically named “Homewood,” where he grew up before he left for New York City. He finds it not the present town in 1960, but the town of the 1920s.Given the number of time-fantasy stories written since then, not that unique a setup.*
Well, is a poem about a poet hearing a bird sing, or mourning a dead intimate, or finding themselves awash in desire all that unique? “Walking Distance” works, if it works, on performance and from the strength of the slightly wordy** but emotionally resonant script. A feeling of nostalgia — more than that, the feeling of wanting to be able to walk one’s childhood places in dimensions more palpable than memory is something easy to evoke in us. Serling’s script wants to draw a bit more than just all the feels in this situation — but let’s face it, all the feels, the range of edges soft and sharp of them, is the powerful engine here. That engine is strong and universal enough that I can feel the lost 1920s that Serling evokes, even if I never lived them.
Which brings me to Carl Sandburg and today’s poem for performance, “Band Concert.” Published in 1918, it presents itself in a poetic collection of contemporary portraits of American places and people that Sandburg has observed in his travels. The night of the band concert in this poem — while in Nebraska instead of upstate New York — is closely contemporary to Serling’s Homewood. Poet Sandburg is roughly 40, so while the scene in his poem is set in the now, the poem views the kids half his age re-enacting things that are already past for our storyteller.
If one knows the history of American music, Sandburg can be decoded as knowing that the Nebraska city is a few decades behind Chicago or New York. The band seems to be playing rags, the craze of the turn of the century, not of 1918. A small-town kid who had long left for the biggest cities in America, Sandburg can compare the giggles of the kids to the “Livery Stable Blues,” a landmark early Jazz recording where white musicians produced outrageous instrumental sounds imitating farm animals. “Livery Stable Blues” was released in 1917, and Sandburg was an early Jazz-bug — but he’s not knocking the Nebraskans for their music. He’s celebrating it, and them. And after all, cowboy rags and Negro*** rags, would be in the repertoire of Carl Sandburg the folk musician who would be including a set of guitar-accompanied songs in his poetry readings.
Homewood’s park and our 1960 visitor, dressed much as script writer & host Serling would be. Town square park and bandstand from my grandmother’s town. Bandstands in towns were common enough in my Midwest, so I forgot this elegant one, but I did remember the alligator.
In time-space, I’ve never visited Serling’s Homewood, nor the Nebraska place Sandburg is reporting from. Those are my grandparents’ times. In my own midcentury I’ve been to their outskirts close enough to see the band pavilion in the park or square, the full summer dresses, farm boys when that was a common occupation rather than employees of feed lots, and I’ve walked the sidewalks past the lattice shadows decorating porches. I can translate some from their writing. Serling, Sandburg, my grandparents, they know “more of the story.” Which is us — time, space, placental barriers away.
You can hear me perform Carl Sandburg’s “Band Concert” with a rock quintet which has no tubas nor cornets in this concert. Audio player gadget below, alternative link here for those who don’t see a graphical gadget.
*Twilight Zone itself did another well-loved episode later with a very similar setup: “Next Stop Willoughby.”
**As if poets have standing to complain about the use of words to portray things, rather than filming a chase, fight scenes, or calling in a CGI render farm.
***Those who go to the original text linked here will note that Sandburg uses the n-word in this poem as he does elsewhere in his early poetry. I’ve “translated” it. Sandburg also uses the general range of derogatory ethnic names of an era where “white” by the conventions of today wasn’t then a monolithic block, but instead was segmented into many othered creatures to be devalued with rude names and determinatory stereotypes. I’m not a Sandburg expert, nor am I the one to rule on what’s racist and what’s documentary, but what I’ve read of Sandburg says to me that he was intentionally anti-racist.
OK, it’s time for my Frank Zappa story. I’ve told this story a few times, but it’s appropriate that I tell it here as part of this series where I discuss the ways the Parlando Project’s meshing of poetry and music became an idea, and an idea I could implement. This post will be exactly as short as I can make it in order to move the story from Francis Poulenc to Frank Zappa.
Last time in this series you met Dave Moore and Jim Scanlon. During the year the three of us were all at this small college south of Des Moines in Iowa, we worked on an “underground newspaper” called The Gadfly that Dave and his partner ran. The content consisted of a mix of things, often with a strong satirical streak, commenting on politics, culture, and music. The capsule overview younger people of later generations get of The Sixties* is that every white young American was a hippie, everyone had long hair, and we all lived in bohemian haze coincidentally stoned and angry at political situations and injustices. The reality, as I saw it in Iowa then, was that 1968 was not that different from 1961. One common complaint reflected in The Gadfly was that the problem wasn’t just The Establishment, it was also our own cohort (at least the ones we were living among) who seemed mired in apathy. We thought new ideas and some ridicule of the old order might change that. Were we, and others like us elsewhere, slowly changing things? Observations differ.
Then came the spring of 1970, when for a brief moment the political activism spirit seemed to change in the matter of a couple of days.
My friends Dave Moore and Jim Scanlon had left for another college in the fall of 1969, Beloit in Wisconsin, where they hoped they would get a better education and find a more responsive group of students. I remained at the small college in Iowa where I had become the editor of the official school newspaper at a premature age. Over the school year, that responsibility slowly spiraled out of my control. I had no idea how to lead a group of people (still don’t). My working theory was to let them exercise their talents and see what happens.
Here’s what often happens under that scheme: many people will valorize what they think is their talent, then not actually exercise it. What will some conclude from that? That they must be restricted yet, somehow — that the actuality that they can’t deliver must be due to outside forces. For those, any extra degree of freedom doesn’t free them, it exposes them.
If you’re considering that carefully, you may wonder, is that what I was suffering from as well? I’d been given this opportunity/responsibility after all. Was I ducking it? Was I not taking advantage of it? I will say this: I wasn’t blaming outside forces, I was blaming myself. The romantic me wanted to see others blossom. The romantic me thought that blossoming was a natural process. Like an inconstant gardener, I was looking at a lot of failed plantings.
Then the spring of 1970 arrived, and with it the shootings at Kent State University, shortly followed by further deaths at Jackson State in the context of the now official expansion** of the Vietnam war into neighboring countries. This led to an extraordinary expansion of activism on college campuses around the country. I was frankly surprised at the speed and the rapid spread of the college student response, even after the shootings. There had been for at least a couple of years an eminent fear among the young men regarding the draft risk, which while it had helped fuel the anti-Vietnam War efforts, it hadn’t engendered this level of response. Tens of thousands of Americans, our generational contemporaries, had died in the combat, and that’s just considering “our side.” Activists being shot or killed wasn’t new either. Activists knew all this. I knew this. What had I discounted was that the Kent State shootings were at a very ordinary midwestern university, that dead included non-activists who just happened to be between classes, and that the dead included women.*** Across the country hundreds of colleges were shut down by a fast-rising wave of student activism, including my little Iowa college.
As quickly as the tide of activism rose up, the wave subsided. Our college-based headquarters and its plans for increasing political pressure to end the war depopulated as students returned to home or summer jobs. Eventually it was a few people in an apartment on the town square, lieutenants without any troops.**** I left for New York in an adventure I don’t have time to recount today.
Returning that fall, I was living in a sort-of-commune in the college town, without any funds to attend college, trying to figure out what I should do. Not only didn’t I know that, I didn’t have any idea how I would know that. That’s when I heard that Frank Zappa was going to play at Beloit, at the college my friends had left for over a year before.
I probably heard this news by reading it in a letter. Yes, younger readers today, there was no other way. There was no Internet. There wasn’t even timely press coverage of national tour dates, everything being done through local promoters and short-lived rock concert halls. Phone calls beyond your city were “long distance,” charged by the minute and too costly to use for entertainment gossip. I found out in 1970 the same way as someone would have exchanged this information in 1870.
My interest in Zappa had grown over the two years since I’d first heard Zappa’s Mothers of Invention on recordings. I didn’t realize it fully, but wider music listening and observing Don Williams’ ability to construct music on the fly was mixed with another rare thing my small college supplied me. This little college 20 miles south of Des Moines, with enrollment of barely a thousand students, had a burgeoning opera program. Opera of course is — what does it say up at the top of this blog? — a place where music and words meet. The opera curriculum would grow over the years, but at this time the program was still emerging. The theater used for performances (also the site of some of my classes) was a small old building, with seating for a few hundred. I’ll summarize one part of my experience in this: to see opera sung in a grand opera hall, with elaborate sets and pricey tickets, with a complete orchestra, is a very, well, operatic way to view the realization of that art. All art is artifice, sure, but the human connection to me in those situations is stilted. Not so, opera sitting a few yards away from another person singing it, perhaps even a person your own young age who you might see in your classes or on campus. That’s another experience, far rarer.
You have not likely seen that impact reflected on my adult life, or on the Parlando Project that you know here. For one thing, my voice is not operatic, it’s barely a singing voice. Yet I can write this today, that I remember seeing for one exact example, a performance of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, and being carried away about what performed music, voice, and words could do in that small space. It may have helped that this opera makes an extensive use of recitative.
Listening to Rock music in my daily life then in The Sixties, it occurred to me, who in Rock could bring something to opera? Besides the differences in the use of the voice, or the nature of projecting character as opposed to ones seemingly authentic personal voice, there was the problem of extending the instrumental colors. My thought-answers then? Jim Morrison, who had performed a bit of Brecht/Weill on the first Doors album, and Frank Zappa, who claimed the ability to be “a composer,” and was even allowed to demonstrate that he could compose for larger ensembles including orchestral instruments.*****
That I could consider that was consistent with Zappa’s brand then. In those early, heady days of Rock Criticism, it was a given that Zappa was a genius. He wasn’t the sort of musical act that many people listened to with addictive, ear-worm pleasure, sure, but still a genius. Well, there were those smutty lyrics, and an assumed swimming pool of contributory drugs, but still a genius. It was The Sixties, we assumed impossible things could happen, but we still felt genius was rare and worthy of note.
So, a chance to see this genius in a live concert, this artist whose recordings had opened up other considerations for me, couldn’t be missed. I drove there, 300 miles, with other share-the-gas people in a Fiat 1100D.
Cost of the concert? $3. An amount similar to my portion of the share-the-gas cost too.
The concert? Not life-changing. The acoustics in the fieldhouse hall were atrocious, and our seats were in the galleries far from the stage. The music was good, but with the sound bouncing around and the typical poor vocal PA of the time, the result was a mixed pleasure.
We got back in the little car to head back to Iowa. Finding our way through the unfamiliar streets we saw another car occupied with hair as long as ours inside. That car contained some young women. For some reason they wanted to share with the fellow freaky-looking folks that they knew the hotel where Frank Zappa was staying and that they’d been invited to visit him.
Of course we believed them. Of course we followed them. What did we assume was to happen there? Some sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll orgy? I’d just turned 20. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, or how I’d figure that out. So, why would I worry about might happen for the rest of some single night in October?
When we arrived, the bunch of us from the two cars, maybe 8 or 9 people, spread out around the non-descript motel room. A couple members of the band were checking in with Zappa. There was a short discussion at the doorway between Zappa and George Duke about what Duke had played at the concert, which got approval from Zappa. The band that night, though billed as the Mothers, was new, containing vocalists who had once been part of the pop band The Turtles, now billed as “Flo and Eddie.” One of the young women from the other car bounced on one of the beds. Most of us seemed like me, passive, waiting for something to happen. Zappa turned his attention to us, asked us what we’d thought about the concert. There was some short discussion. I think I may have mentioned that a lot of the material seemed new. Best as I can remember, that was accurate. Zappa replied that they were doing some of the old stuff too. Memories fail, but I believe “Concentration Moon” was replied as one of the veteran numbers. The male part of the room had some hard-core Zappa fans, who started to geekout on questions about the band’s history. I recall one asking about Doug Moon who had played with early versions of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. Were they trying to impress the genius with their knowledge, even in the midwest, of the places Zappa had come from? Zappa replied Doug was some guy who’d worked at a gas station. Zappa was patient about the questions, however trivial. At one point he took out a movie camera and filmed us in the room. I remember he moved in close to my face as I was missing one bow on my eyeglasses after that part had broken, and I had no funds to fix or replace the frames yet.
Here’s a few things Zappa conveyed to us in the roughly hour that I, and maybe others in the room, didn’t know before meeting him.
When asked about his doo-wop music parodies, including the Cruising with Rueben and the Jets LP, he corrected us that he liked that music. He spoke about Fifties R&B records he was inspired by. Since the lyrics in those songs were satiric, I’d assumed the music was also something he held in contempt. Far from it, he lit up talking about this. In The Sixties there was a widespread critical assumption that good music was “progressive,” meaning that we were to drive our plows over the bones of the dead, so this was news to us.
He nonchalantly corrected any impression that he was inspired by drugs. How he did this without sounding like a “Listen kids…” PSA I can’t exactly recall.
He seemed genuinely interested in us, and what we thought about the music — though at times, such as when he wielded the camera, the idea that we were natives and Zappa was an anthropologist occurred.
For me, the important thing happened near the end of our time in the room with this “…But, a genius” guy. I asked him how much of the show was improvised and how much was composed. He went over to the side of the room and picked up an oversized portfolio. Opening it, he showed it to me. Multiple staves of music, a rather full score as I recall. Dialogue written out, seemingly informal and back and forth, as if the band members were speaking off the cuff. In retrospect, I believe I was looking at scores for 200 Motels which would be filmed a few months later with a full orchestra. As he showed me this, he talked briefly about the effort he put into it, which the score showed. I was immediately impressed with the formality of the effort to achieve what seemed like chance informality. There must have been some serious seat-time in getting that done. The intent of it!
Imagine instead if I had somehow visited the hotel room of Jim Morrison in 1970. Perhaps my romantic notions of the creation of art would have gathered more poète maudit forces. Did something in my subconscious connect what Frank Zappa conveyed that night with William Blake, who when not out talking with the visions of angels, was innovating printmaking techniques and making books with his own skills?
After that significant side-trip, we left the room and returned to Iowa. If you’d asked me that day, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life — not a whit more — but what I did have was a piece of information, and an outlook. From that night I could remember that doing was a large part of doing something with your life.
This is already a double-length post, so enough for today. To tip my hat to Mr. Zappa, here’s the LYL Band roughly approximating one of his later tunes in a we’ll-give-it-a-go live performance.
We flattened Zappa’s music and arrangement here, but as the video points out, if Zappa were performing this song today he’d be sure to include more screens than just TV.
*This oversimplification is more accurate about youth in The Seventies than the Sixties, even the final three years of The Sixties. In terms of clothes and hair, look at a range of contemporary photographs and film from the actual Sixties. Beards and long hair will be sparse on the young men, not movie wardrobe department common. Yes, use of marijuana and other drugs increased during the last half of The Sixties from a very in-group secrecy thing to a sizable minority, but in doing so it lost a bit of its bohemian rhapsodic connotations and became just another illegal high like drinking alcohol before the age of 21 had previously been. Real “counter-culture” bohemianism in an artistic sense had grown from the beatnik Fifties — maybe even doubled or tripled — but was still something a single digit percentage of people engaged in with any seriousness.
**In reality, this regional expansion of the conflict had been going on by proxy and by secrecy for a long time — but in the run up to the Kent State shootings it had become stated policy, driving hard-to-escape fears that there were now going to be additional para-Vietnam Wars.
***This is a complex point, one I need to leave off too briefly. Women of course were involved in anti-war activity before Kent State, but it occurs to me that this small factor may have been more important than recognized in adding to the explosion of activism in the spring of 1970. In case you’re wondering: yes, the anti-Vietnam war organizations, like the counter-culture, weren’t significantly less patriarchal than the rest of Sixties society — and though it may rankle some, I’ll add this as well: the victims at Kent State were also white.
****Any reading this who participated in Occupy Wall Street or the Black Lives Matter activism of this century may have a moment of recognition here. The emotional high of sensing that something is finally being said loud enough, that mass pressure is finally being brought by an unprecedented number of people is shared from this time. The emotions following, when such movements crest and seem to dissipate, need to be considered too. Here’s one piece of wisdom from someone else from this time worth listening to.
*****Will some Classic Rock oldster reading this think “Well, Rock Opera, what about the Who’s Tommy?” Tommy had yet to be released.
While continuing my observance of National Poetry Month, I must apologize for resorting to regular blogging form and writing about myself today. That sort of thing works for many, but I tend to run on a bit when I do it. It must take a long time to bore myself.
Why, when, did I decide to do the Parlando Project, this odd little idea to combine words, mostly literary poetry, with not-exactly commercial music? It wasn’t something I toddled off to grade school knowing I wanted to do. I had no great early childhood connection to poetry. I was exposed to the children’s poetry in my mid-west, mid-century tastes: Longfellow appeared, illustrated. The D. Seuss of my time then was Dr. Seuss, not Diane. My interest in music was greater, despite having no discernible musical talent or outlet. The wife of my little town’s school superintendent taught a music class, which was mostly music appreciation, little samplings from records of the orchestral repertoire. My peers found this impenetrable and boring. Since I was something of an outcast I decided to listen to what was so outré in their just-teenage world. Around the time I myself entered teenagerhood I got a gift of the mid-century handheld device, the transistor radio. I would bike around my town and outskirts with its faux leather case strap wrapped around my bicycle handle-grips, twisting the little plastic radio’s orientation with my fingers so that the stations from far-off towns aligned with its antenna. Was I listening to rock’n’roll, that mid-century strain? No. At first I was listening to an AM station that was one of the pioneers of what later became public radio, and this station programmed classical music.
Rock’n’roll was the music of those that distained that music appreciation teacher and distained me. If many then and now read the sneer or assertion in rock’n’roll as the music of when-in-the-course-of-human-events independence and freedom, I heard it as the music of those that didn’t care much for me. But I eventually relented. I wanted to look at the music the rest of the teenage world was hearing, thinking it might be a window into their interiors. Maybe it was a bit of survivor’s reconnaissance.
I found some of what the Top 40 station played interesting. This was in the era which the American pop music histories sum up as post-Elvis, pre-Beatles, describing it as dire and worthless. Were the teenagers of that Ike to Kennedy time, even if subconsciously, wanting more, wanting better? I dunno. For myself, I didn’t know any better. It was a mix of Brill Building girl groups, Black R&B, folk music/country and western* crossovers, late period crooners, and novelty records that would shame a modern TikTok sensation in their silly sensationalism.** Unlike my peers who were closed-off to me, there were voices there speaking secrets, their moods and moments.
Want to know why the Parlando Project musical pieces are all over the map in terms of musical flavor? This is the child-is-the-father-of-the-man reason.
Poetry? I admire the knowledge and deep interests of academics, while somehow worrying that poetry is seen as having an academic requirement for reading or writing it. You didn’t need to go to school to listen to the radio. There was no MFA for the Brill Building, Motown, or Slim Harpo, at least not then. Still, I have to be honest, like many who continue to read poetry that they won’t be graded on, it was a teacher again, Terry Brennan, a recent St. John’s of Collegeville grad, who taught an English literature class in my little 100-person high school who introduced me to poetry as possibility. Did I understand poetry? Does one need to understand what one is drawn too? I don’t think so — a little mystery may even help. Much of it was beautifully inarticulate to me, phrases that said with inevitability, descriptions that were exotic, situations that I hadn’t lived, or lived in any understanding whatsoever. I loved Keats and Blake. I found out Blake was the original DIY Indie, who wrote, illustrated, engraved, and published his work, mastering what technical, logistical, and creative work was needed to realize his art. I loved a capsule description of Blake I found in the back of one of my parents’ old textbooks that they had saved. It went something like this: “He wrote early charming lyrics showing real talent, but later descended into incomprehensible writing suggestive of madness.” Writing without limits! I was ready to sign up.
On the day after Christmas, riding in a Dodge station wagon filled with my sisters and parents, rolling between Minnesota and Iowa, I wrote my first poem. I was 16. I thought it rather marvelous that I could write such a magical thing. A year later, the last Christmas I was to spend in my childhood home, I got enough money to buy a cheap record player and three LPs. These inscribed, foot-square, vinyl circles were the adult music, the things that could contain the igneous something that was starting to get called “rock.” Rock as a name seemed solid, monumental, permanent. I suppose in much of my cohort it still is — childhood transition music sticks with you. These are the three LPs I bought with the leftover money: The Doors “The Doors,” Bob Dylan “John Wesley Harding,” and The Rolling Stones “Their Satanic Majesties Request.” In reverse order they imprinted me with love for Mellotron and ramshackle pretension, spare acoustic guitar arrangements and one-room songs without bridges or choruses, and poets who wanted to front a rock band that had listened to some Jazz and Blues records.
Of those 3 LPs, maybe only the Dylan retains current esteem, yet all were considered significant in their time. Blake & Keats? Well, it’s poetry, so the answer is complicated, particularly in the United States.
Music, various, and words, mostly poetry, exploring other people’s stories — yes, I can still see the damage there. While we’re not to the Parlando Project yet, this is enough for one post. Let me leave you with a Parlando Project audio piece, words from another poet recalling that era, Ethna McKeirnan’s poem of “Stones” that seemed permanent as she moved through her life. Player below for most, backup link for the others. McKiernan’s final new & selected collection including this poem is available here.
*Little known fact: C&W and folk music were often thought of as the same or aligned genres then. The 21st century Americana thing was how things were considered circa 1960 as well.
**Look up “Ahab the Arab” for one such example. Can I call it transgressive? Can you call it cultural appropriation? Fatima has less agency in this tale than Clyde (the girl-group Brill Building songwriters might have made her the main character.) If you’re on the borderline of acceptance, I’ll tell you that Jimmy Saville had the UK cover-version hit with this.
In the nearing 7 years since the Parlando Project launched we’ve normally celebrated the US National Poetry Month with increased activity. This year that celebration is conflicting with some other factors which are keeping me from a focused plan for NPM. That said, one goal of the #NationalPoetryMonth activity here has been to draw new readers and listeners to what we do. So, it’s probably a good idea to let new eyeballs and ears onto what to expect if they visit our archives of over 650 audio pieces released, pieces featured and expanded on with the nearly 900 posts since we kicked things off in 2016.
You see one motto up in the header of this blog and elsewhere: “The Place Where Music and Words Meet.” I take words — usually not my words, but words their authors likely intended as literary poetry — and combine them with various original music — music that I generally compose, and increasingly often play myself in one-man-band ways.
Sometimes what we mean takes time to discover. How do we relate to something else, the differences, the things similar? That’s a metaphor. Make the metaphor musical, however you do it, and that’s poetry.
A few readers may figure — perhaps even a listener of a stray Parlando piece they see linked somewhere — that there’s a convention, a style I follow when I do this. I hope they’re mistaken. I’ve always intended to not do that. The people that have influenced, or unintentionally given me permission to do what I do, made music and word combinations in different ways.* I try to use all those ways, and hope to stumble on some others. I will sing the words, but just as often chant them, talk-sing them, or resort to a freer, spoken word cadence — thus the origin of my Project’s name.
I try to keep the audio pieces short, almost always less than 5 minutes. I try to keep these blog posts shortish too, less than 1,000 words — and though I sometime fail in keeping those goals, I try to keep my failures in check. And not all the realizations of the words with my music and performance work for everyone, or most, or perhaps anyone. Some of them are even embarrassing to me, but I leave them up in our archives you can see separated into months to the right of this post.
Why do I do this? Manyfold reasons. Some of them? I like the challenge, the variety of verse, the variety of music. I think poetry is musical speech, and making even more of the musical component offers a different way to enter the words for the listener. Consider how you might enter into a song you grow close to, over listens, over time. At first it might be a phrase, riff, or refrain that catches you, or a general tone you feel, but then some new nuance may come to the fore. Or how a song you thought an abstract construction of words can from new experiences, experiences inside or outside of the song, somehow become more realized and concrete.**
This is how poetry lives, it’s the only poetry. Poetry does not live on reputations or silent copies printed, it lives inside you, a single reader or listener, as sound that may eventually saunter up closer in sense. This is what I celebrate all year, and some more so during National Poetry Month.
*Perhaps I’ll write more about, and thank more, those possibility creators this month? To name some of the models for Parlando: Beat poets and their immediate predecessors Rexroth and Patchen reading to music, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, The Fugs, those English lute composers like Campion and Dowland, Tom Rapp, whatever William Butler Yeats planned to do with his bespoke psaltery, Rabindranath Tagore, what alternative hymnal Emily Dickinson was internalizing when she played her Homestead piano, Frank Zappa, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, the American blues poets from Charlie Patton to Gil Scott Heron, Anne Sexton and her rock band, Laurie Anderson and her expansion of Ken Nordine and his “word jazz.” I’m also aware of “art song” — and appreciate both the achievements and the limitations for my purposes of that long established form of combining literary poetry with complex musical settings and melodies using orchestral instruments.
**One of the reasons I trust that you may find these experiences when the poem is carried to you inside a musical environment, and buffered there, is that I very often have had that experience composing and recording the Parlando musical pieces. I start out not sure what a lyric means or thinking I know something of what it means, only to find that there’s an entire other something or somethings there the 5th, 10th, or 20th time through it. The very act of putting the poems words into my mouth illuminates things, the exact question of how to utter them throws light from out of my dark throat.