Some things others wrote this week brought to my mind an early post on this blog that has had thousands of web visits over the years: my presentation of William Butler Yeats’ “To A Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing.” Back in 2017 when I performed that Yeats’ poem I couldn’t help but wonder: who was the friend, what was the work that had come to nothing? I probably spent several hours researching that over a couple of days* and came up with the name of the man, the nature of his project, and the final fate of each. The man came to an abrupt end soon after Yeats wrote his poem, yet the project that was his aim eventually became partially successful. You can read that early Parlando Project post via this link.
When I looked back at that post, I found that I had spent the first half of it honestly dealing with the problematic nature of poetry as a method of communication. One can draw an auditable bottom line from those issues: most poets have few readers, many have nearly none. Furthermore, thoughtful, intelligent, deep engagement from those poetry readers would be from a subset of those small groups. That being so, the question of why do poets persist occurs, and that has no simple answer — but one element of that is that the act of writing has an ineffable magic. The very act of saying and recording, even what will rarely and barely be understood, has a power.**
Art & Nature: a Louis Sullivan building ornament with various fall fungi and lichens. Photos by Heidi Randen.
Around the time I performed Yeats’ poem and wrote about my encounter with it here, I wrote a poem of my own which was not successful in performance to the level that I could present publicly. Since the Parlando Project is primarily about presenting other people’s words not my own, it was easy to set this one aside. This past summer I found that old poem as I cleaned up the song-sheets in my studio space, and I considered a new performance of it. Given the way life is postponing my efforts still, finding out what a new performance would sound like took over a week, but I completed a version today. That poem, now song, “Write Me Down,” is about the challenges, duties, connections, and consolations of life. I fear “Write Me Down” is a confusing multi-faceted catalog of those things. The handful who read it years ago when new found it uncompelling and impenetrable, but I haven’t had heart or mind to revise it since. But here’s today’s point again: as the title might indicate, it says something too about the motivations to write things down, even poetry, to manifest them for an uncertain audience. We poets have great imagination! We can imagine an honest and merciful judge will read us, and we can do so even where our imagination retains other limits: where and while we don’t know how long we will work with our life, and we don’t know how close to nothing it will come to. We can only know the love in the work.
You can hear my performance of “Write Me Down” with a graphical player below if you see that, or with this backup highlighted link. Thanks, as always, for reading and listening.
*I was only able to find the significant details that Yeats left out of his poem to make it a more universal and general statement after work with Google’s index of published and not yet public domain books that was part of an ill-fated project that I understand was stopped due to copyright issues. I wish I had noted the book or books where I found that info, but the kind of in-between-life research that I found time to do, and my own general sloppiness, kept me from recording that. I regret that, and have tried later to make a point of linking others’ research that I’m grateful to have found.
**The direct inspiration for this piece’s words as I recall is a blessing associated with Rosh Hashanah new year’s celebration: “Shana Tova Tikateivu,” which means “May you be inscribed in the book of life for a good year.”
Last time I left you with some impressions I got reading a George Orwell essay, but I also came upon a documentary this week on things this project deals with — things that you, welcome reader or artist, may also want to consider in your art or life. That film was The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith.*
I had some minor grasp of the loft scene in the ‘70s to early ‘80s, and I figured it might be worth a watch. I got more than I expected, though not quite what I expected. This story is centered in the late 1950’s, a time of tremendous artistic momentum that underpinned much that occurred in the more famous ‘60s later. Oddly the man, Gene Smith, featured in the title isn’t a jazz figure at all, but a photographer who lived in part of a run-down and irregularly converted commercial loft in New York City. Smith gets his name in the title, not only because he’s interesting and because his artistic biography is well-covered in the documentary, but because he had a curious desire at this point in his life to document large portions of his everyday reality via still photos, movies, writing, and copious audio recordings.
This trailer for the film leads with the Jazz, underselling the compelling story about photography it contains.
Lofts are often prized by artists, who like a gas are likely to expand to fill any space — and Smith certainly did that. Whenever I pause to consider my own studio space where many of the recordings for this project were done, I am embarrassed by how messy and cluttered it is. Smith matches me in that clutter from what we see, and the documentary would support a viewer who sees obsessive-compulsive elements in Smith. But unlike myself, or the garden-variety hoarder, Smith was a very accomplished black & white photographer in a number of styles. And then, somewhat like me, the clutter didn’t seem to stop Smith’s productivity — or if it did hamper it, his drive to continue to produce art was strong enough to make that issue moot.
I’m unsure how famous Smith is in art photography circles, but the film departs from its Jazz Loft focus to let us know that he was a very effective war photographer during WWII, one who was seriously wounded in the Pacific theater of that war. He worked for the large format magazines and photo services of the day as a photographer, with enough pull and force of personality to be allowed to create multipage photo essays he selected and laid out for publication himself. By the time of the Jazz Loft he seems to have been doing a lot of street photography, often shooting out of his window at the day to day people who had no sense they were being photographed.**
Even if, like me, you are not au fait with photography and photographers, it’s likely you know at least one or two of Smith’s photos. He’s the guy who shot the famous Harry Truman holding up the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline. And when I saw a print of another photo just pinned up somewhere off to the side in the clutter of his workspace early in the film, I wondered if he’s responsible for another image that I knew: the emotionally resonant “A Walk to the Paradise Garden” photo. If you watch the film you’ll get more context for that photo.
So, is there Jazz in this film called The Jazz Loft? Yes. The late ‘50s were a time when a great many magnificent Jazz records were made, and when high-quality live Jazz performance was still commercially viable. The NYC area was a center of both of those things. The Jazz Loft was apparently like some places I know from my youth just slightly later, it was an open scene, and folks just wandered in and out of some of the loft, including a number of musicians who used it as a place to workshop or jam for their own enjoyment. From Smith’s documentation, it was a somewhat integrated scene at the loft, but predominantly white.*** This may be secondary to the man who apparently owned the loft (he’s said to have been Smith’s landlord during the film) Hall Overton. Overton was a figure unknown to me who was active in what in that era was known as “Third Stream.” Third Stream was an effort to combine composed concert music, often with orchestral instruments, with Jazz. Many, but not all, of the proponents of Third Stream were white musicians crossing over from modern “classical music.” I don’t want to over-simplify this, but while some Afro-Americans coming from a jazz background were interested in such a fusion and contributed significantly, Black Jazz musicians were also involved heavily at that moment in trying to keep Jazz culturally and commercially relevant to their Afro-American peers (“Hard Bop” and “Soul Jazz”) and with the more spiritual and political Black Arts movement.
The film eventually gets to concentrate on Overton for a while, and he’s as interesting as Smith, particularly for someone like myself who’s interested in Jazz and composition. If he sounds like something you’d like to nerd over for a while, I can recommend this lengthy and detailed article by Jazz pianist and composer Ethan Iverson on Overton, but if you’re trying to finish a translation and eventual musical piece using words by Rimbaud, I’d suggest you don’t click on that link.
Other folks who drifted through the Jazz Loft have stories that are told in shorter segments, and I personally like the way the editing and flow of the film allowed the stories to emerge organically, like a good Jazz set. The use of the archival materials (largely from Smith’s posthumous archive) is done very well.
Jazz, “Third Stream,” late ’50 NYC bohemia, and black & white photography are all niche interests. You may need to be interested in at least two of those things to have the highly rewarding experience I had with this documentary. If not, you need to be open to adventure in these areas. No car chases, no who’s sleeping with who dish, no unfolding speculative universe, other than the one that the arts often live in inside everyone else’s: whale’s bellies and lofts.
What did watching The Jazz Loft bring me? An appreciation of Overton’s efforts, which were largely unsuccessful even within the limited expectations of his niche. In Smith’s story, I found a mirror of my own somewhat obsessive drive to make the elements of this project, and a warning of the possible side-effects of that.**** Recall as I concluded Part 1 of this, that one of my artistic maxims is: All Artists Fail. George Orwell was despairing in 1940 at the batting average of artists seeking to change things in his society, while I’m somewhat heartened that they keep trying. Same box score, just different outlooks. So, Smith succeeded, for a while, and then descended into a state that was productive but not healthy. Overton for all his not-even-a-footnote status in musical history, made an honorable effort. They chose their own adventure, followed its path, saw and felt and knew what they saw.
*This assumes you are giving evidence by reading and listening here that you care about some less-mainstream things, and worse yet, a variety of them. “The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith” is available most places you can rent or buy movies on computers, smart TVs, or tablets. There’s also a podcast-series which I have yet to sample.
**It’s apparent that many folks either didn’t know or didn’t care that they were being recorded by Smith either. The general reaction of those interviewed was that Smith was fairly overt about his documenting everything he could figure out how to capture, but other stories have him placing microphones all over the place. In terms of his photography within the loft, he had the advantage of “always being there” so that the people drifting in and out didn’t strike a pose for the camera.
***No, I’m not getting all woke on the people portrayed in this film. Just stating what I noticed that ran counter to my initial expectations of what I’d see in the Jazz milieu, even in the late ‘50s when de jure Jim Crow was still a thing. Indeed, the folks in the center of this film were probably significantly more cross-racial than their general society, and for that matter probably more than I am in this other century. Afro-American Jazz giant Thelonious Monk does have a sizable part in a story of one project workshopped at the Jazz Loft depicted in the film.
****I hope not that more dangerous take-away trope: well, I’m not that obsessed, or chemically dependent, etc. as that person.
I’ve just spent much of a day with Emily Dickinson. I’ll tell you it was enjoyable, not the least because there is a factor in many of her poems: they grow when you spend time with them.
It started late last night. I noted that I had been looking at early examples of “jazz poetry,” poetry from the previous Twenties that celebrated jazz music and jazz musicians. A thought occurred to me: I’ve gone too far into #NationalPoetryMonth without a Dickinson poem. Which of her poems might deal with music?
“Musicians Wrestle Everywhere” came up in searches, though it was not a Dickinson poem I’d seen before.* Here’s a link to the full text, and here’s another to a manuscript of it in Dickinson’s own hand. After my first reading of it, my reaction was, “I don’t know if I can fit this with the jazz poetry. While ‘Musicians’ is the first word, the musicians largely go away and we’re off into Dickinson’s headspace.” Well, my second thought was, “This could work some other way and time, disconnected from the Jazz poetry stuff. Let me see what I can do about making it a song for later use.”
I didn’t want to go toe to toe with Carter. My mood today was to make this somewhat foggy poem more immediately understandable on first listen, while Carter emphasized the poem’s more abstract thought-music. Wrestling with Dickinson’s words and my desire today as I tried singing it and working out my music, I decided to make some minor changes to the words*** and to add a refraining line. The former tactic is generally frowned upon, and many a living author will forbid it. The later, repeating a line or section, is generally allowed. One of the reasons that page poetry often seems less effective as song is that we have a strong desire for repetition in song. I think if even when silently listening we are “singing along,” and we desire to know when some part is recognized as coming around again. Refrains bring us into the song, even on first listen.
So, what is the poem’s point that I hope to make clearer in my song and performance? I believe that Dickinson is saying that musicians, and herself, extract from the time and vibrations of crowded reality our new tunes, rhythms, timbres, and harmonies. Those composing ears aren’t merely transcribing. They might refine melodies within the strife of conflicting environmental sounds, but to some larger degree they are hearing the unheard music that does not exist, though founded or surrounded, in observable reality or philosophy. In the final verse she mentions some think what inspires composers is the pagan “music of the spheres” or some choir of angels, or the departed in heaven — the later a place the skeptical Dickinson is not sure of.
So where does new music come from, if not just imitation, transcription, a cosmic mechanism or ancestral angels? This is the reason for my refrain, to make more adamant what I think Dickinson may be saying. Why are our April trees budding? Why is there new life in our spring without our trying or thought — and in notion of our stewardship of the Earth, despite our neglect? “I think it’s that new life” the now refraining line repeats. Life, creation, poetry, music, it wants to happen.
I would be ahistorical to suspect that Emily Dickinson’s piano improvisations were anything like Elmo Hope. On the other hand, if my lame joke tempts you to listen to some of Hope’s recordings…
By the time I’d worked out a meaning to Dickinson’s poem I’ve come to think that it is a compliment to the Jazz poetry I was looking at before after all. The Jazz poems of the previous Twenties I’d seen mostly observed the musicians and provided a listener’s appreciation of what they were putting down. In Dickinson’s poem, she’s the musician, the composer themselves.
By late this afternoon I’d completed the music and recorded the acoustic guitar, bass guitar, cello and violin parts for my song setting of “Musicians Wrestle Everywhere.” The player gadget to hear my performance is below for many of you, but if you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab to play it too.
*She wrote over 1800 poems, so another fine thing about exploring Dickinson is that there can easily be a new poem to experience. Which reminds me to point out that this project has over 500 pieces to experience here too.
**Yes, I know the bit about how you can sing many Dickinson poems to the “Gilligan’s Island Theme,” or “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” or as this post reminds us, many hymn tunes. The post also has a short summary of what’s known about Dickinson’s musical involvement. The author notes that Dickinson was familiar with mid-19th century string-based dance music as well as having some ability to improvise on piano. I wonder at the Celtic and African strains that might have crept into Amherst by the 1860s. The only instrument Dickinson mentions in her poem is the tamborin, which appears to be an African derived hand-held drum instrument.
***I wanted to modernize the syntax and usage a bit to add to the clarity for the contemporary listener. A line in the third verse uses one of the few archaic terms in this poem “Dames” which has largely fallen out of American usage even as a faux-genteel slang term for women. By expanding the following term from “Men” to gentlemen I echo a somewhat outdated formality and may have helped make clearer that the “bright Majority” of “vanished Dames and Gentlemen” are the dead of the past.
What age are we when we write poetry? What age should we be?
Poet Donald Hall while writing memoir in essay form after age 80 said that part of why he turned to prose was that after a certain age he no longer felt he had the urge to, or could, write poetry. I’m not that old yet, but after so many decades of writing poems I’m more likely to ask myself why this poem needs to exist.
This never occurred to me as a younger writer. It was enough that the urge was there, that the work of shaping it was rewarding, that the existence of some new set of words in some novel order representing a moment of experience had occurred. There are times when we may suppose this always is—at least approximately. We’re all our own first reader. For some of us, some of the time, our only readers. Even if we believe we’re writing a poem for someone else, that first audience is still inevitably connected with the poem’s creator.
I don’t know that there’s any pattern in that first audience disliking its own poem at times. Does one get better at crafting poems or observing experience with time? Does one get better at staying out of the way of the poem when that’s necessary? Does one get more preceptive at the ways the poem fails to meet, or cannot meet, some more perfect state? Does one just realize that some days you eat the bear, and other days the bear eats you?
One thing surprised me. About half of these poems, the ones that are presumed to reflect the author’s masterpieces, were written in the author’s 40s. Six more were written in the author’s 30s. Just one was written by a writer past 50 (Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” published when the writer was 65). Only two were written by writer’s in their 20s (the list’s youngster was T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock”, completed when the author was 27.)
But how old were these poets in their souls of experience, the place from where they wrote these poems? It’s not unusual for younger poets to take on the air of more experienced people in their poems. This past fall we presented a couple of well-known and liked poems considered to be about old age: Rilke’s “Autumn Day” and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 “Bare Ruined Choirs.” Rilke wrote his autumn of one’s years poem in his 20s, Shakespeare’s was penned in his 30s.
Yet neither sounds false to this older reader.
Similarly, there are times when I’m writing that I feel younger than my years. It’s a commonplace that there’s a sense of play in the arts, something that past a certain age is increasingly rare to find in off-hand physical activity.
So perhaps you, like I, may feel unstuck in time when writing. Our writing may not be objectively timeless, but our mental flight seems so.
While thinking about these things this winter, I came upon this poem* that seemed to me to be a fine expression of the experience of old age experiencing the unsettledness of sense of age.
There’s not much here today about the author, American Edith M. Thomas, who published “Winter Sleep” in 1896, when she was just in her 40s. I don’t know that much about her yet. It’s strictly metrical and all rhymed up, but once or twice it seems to strain natural speech to make its rhyme and meter.
What’s impressive about it is that it strikingly presents not just old age, but the approach of death as an unstable state, the dream of life. This isn’t an “autumn of my years” poem—it’s a “winter of my years poem.” I immediately sought to set it to music for performance. To hear what I came up with, use the player gadget below.
Now we’re nearing the topper-most of the top in our tip-top count-down of the most liked and listened to pieces this spring. Wait—did I just turn into a mid-20th century radio host? Out! Out! Commercial spirit! Timeless poetry knows no acne creams, Yardley scents, Thom McAn Beatle boots or white Levis. Well, maybe some of the music knows them—but honestly, it interrogates those pop intentions and asks us to re-evaluate that intent in the context of greater artistic accidents consciously or unconsciously evolved from the Modernist revolts of the last century.
No, no. Not that either. I mostly just want to make things that haven’t existed before, mix the known and the unknown, like and contrast the unlike, let poetry talk to music, and let music not shut up but talk back. As I do this, I look at things you and I and many others have looked at before and see if they’ve changed. And then sometimes I look at those poets whose names and poetry were writ in water.
It just so happens that our next three pieces in our count-down are from such writers, poets unknown to me, many literature students, and likely to you.
4. They Say Life is Precious. One of the principles of the Parlando Project is “Other Peoples’ Stories.” I don’t dislike memoir, self-narrative, words intended to establish or confess one’s selfhood. I couldn’t, or I’d have much less poetry to choose from to present here. But I feel that’s well served elsewhere, not just in literature but in blogs, podcasts, and social media. So, if and when we want that, we can find it. In the words of a wise boss I once had, it’s “ubiquitous everywhere.*”
What I do instead here is to encounter some other person’s words, see how they sound in my mouth, and ask myself what I hear, feel, and think when they are enthroned there.
I could suppose it’s a failure of a kind that a performance of one of my own poems is in this Spring Top Ten then. And indeed, I usually fall to using my own words when I find I’m behind in getting things posted because the research into the other writers adds to the tasks of writing, playing, and recording the music. “Well” I say to myself “At least I know that writer already.”
An unsafe assumption. We don’t really know ourselves effortlessly.
My favorite part of the music I did for this was the combination of bowed contra-bass with an upper register fretless electric bass part. What does that sound like? Listen below.
3. Everyday Alchemy. One of the things I love about this project is when I go crate-digging after poets I’ve never read and that I expect you haven’t either. Coming across this poem by Genevieve Taggard was one of those moments.
This is such a poem of sorrowful balance, yet it’s 11 lines contain a piercing analysis of society and its arrangements of obligations that are increasingly out of balance the farther down the chain one goes.
I’ve often spoken about the Confucian Odes here, designated by the Chinese sage and his school as required instructional material for government functionaries. The Odes are not, as educational poetry aids today might be, mnemonics of components, checklists or causes; but like “Everyday Alchemy” they are mostly accounts of daily life near the bottom on the pyramid, a pyramid where the giant blocks of limestone are not lifted by alien magic.
If I were Confucius again, I’d select this poem as required reading. Anthology editors now, or of the future: include this poem! And in the meantime, you can listen to my performance of it with the following gadget.
EX ARBOR, now dead with its ghost-pale sheets under a bookplate
2. Poppies on the Wheat.I reviewed the latest attempt at making Emily Dickinson cinematic this spring. TL;DNR: a mixed bag. The film had a consultant who’s a Dickinson scholar, something I’m not, and it’s likely they’ve read more and know more detail about Dickinson that I do. I wanted to cheer them on (forza Dickinson!) and there were moments in the film where I could. But there were also moments, some of the funnier moments viewed (as intended) as comic bits, that made me feel like they were leading the viewers to misunderstand some of the characters I’ve covered in “The Roots of Emily Dickinson.”
I imagine the film creator’s response: “It’s a movie! Dramatic license! Evenhandedness isn’t entertaining!” Yup. Still felt unfair. It’s only after the movie that I’ve read more about and from Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the literary-connected “Preceptor” sought out by Dickinson who is thought to have misunderstood and underappreciated her genius. He’s used in the movie as a comic personification of The Patriarchy and White Privilege. The author of the second most popular piece this Spring, Helen Hunt Jackson gets one scene in the movie, where she’s portrayed as a vapid sentimental sort who Higginson prefers to the artistic rebel Dickinson.
Yes, that’s one of the reasons we so admire Dickinson, who is never sentimental, even if the 19th century seems to want and need sentimentality so badly. But that charge, of sentimentality, was also a sledgehammer used against most women writers of the age. The same slack I’d expect the film-makers would ask for in presenting their matter in the way present-day movie audiences might absorb it, is what I’d ask them to apply to Helen Hunt Jackson negotiating with her audience in her time.
Jackson’s “Poppies on the Wheat” is a Wordsworthian sonnet whose argument in itself is a debate between practical commerce and the sentiments of memory and semi-wild beauty. Musically, it reflects a mood on my part this spring to put more focus on acoustic guitar. You can hear the result with the player below.
Hard to tell personality from a picture, but those eyes and the start of a smile make Jackson look like she’s about to dispute something or share a delicious secret.
That’s all but the most liked and listened to piece this spring, and I can tell you it was a run-away winner. Words from a famous poet or unknown one? Well, it’s sort of both. I’ll be back soon with that announcement.
*He laughed right after he said it, thinking it a fit pronouncement from the Department of Tautology Department.
Creativity is escape and sticking-with-it, avoidance and attention. Routine can take you to your place reserved for freedom, you may believe you’re going to the same place, and then something else happens.
Every so often I present a set of words I wrote here rather than following my usual practice of using other people’s words and “other people’s stories.” I didn’t plan to do a piece of mine here, though I did plan to revise this poem from 2016 yesterday. Sticking-with-it.
But first, I thought I should take the opportunity to play a little acoustic guitar in a quiet house on a cold grey day. Avoidance.
This is one of the good things about my multisided creative life. If I put off or am outright avoiding one side, for example, writing or rewriting my own poetry, I may flee to my music side, to the shear tactile pleasure of playing an instrument. Or to the poetry written by others and this project. Escape.
So there I was at the guitar. I tuned it to “double drop D,” and because the guitar that was at hand has too narrow a neck width at the nut to suit my less flexible older fingers, I capoed up to the second fret which gave me a little more room. From there, by ear I started to work on some chord forms that sounded interesting together in this alternate tuning. This is one of the virtues of altered tunings on the guitar. I have some understanding of the guitar’s conventional tuning, but an altered tuning requires new exploration.
None of the chords I ended up playing would have been difficult to find or fret in standard tuning, but the altered tuning I was using has three strings tuned to the same note (though one’s an octave lower than the other two) and that not only makes it easy to get a drone going while playing other notes on top, but that trio of strings resonates sympathetically.*
I was quite receptive to the sound that was developing, and next to me as I played was the manuscript of the poem I planned to revise. Could the resonating chords be fit to it? Yes, it looked like they could. Attention.
Performing a written piece can be an aid to revision. As I worked on the music I was cycling through sections of the poem, and some lines began to volunteer themselves for deletion. The poem lost five lines, and it was the better for it. The ending wasn’t strong enough, so I added a couple of sensuous verbs which I think made it better. The line deletions happened almost without attention. I was years separated from when I thought they were a good idea to be included, and the repetition while thinking mostly about the music and its flow simply made them seem unimportant. The revision of the ending was a more literary endeavor, but by that point the music was coming together, and I came up with choices sharply focused on getting that ending “fixed” so I could record a finished version.
That piece I ended up working on, today’s piece “They Say Life is Precious,” was intended as a page poem, but the process I went through with it on Thursday made me think it works better as a performance piece—but even on the page I think it works better now because of the time I spent performing it as I composed and recorded the music.
We pay for life by filling it’s container, time, with attention. You can put money in there, but it can’t read what’s on the currency.
The acoustic guitar part didn’t turn out to be difficult. I recorded it and my vocal. The chords of the piece are E5, E minor 7, and two voicings of Bsus4.** To fill out the sound I added Mellotron violins and flute, a simple contra-bass part, and an upper-register fretless electric bass line.
Escape and sticking-with-it, avoidance and attention. By avoiding the revision and choosing to play guitar first, I accomplished the revision—and when I thought I was just going to play guitar, my composition routine refused to relinquish itself and drew my attention.
To hear my piece “They Say Life is Precious” use the player gadget below.
*Many musical cultures have instruments that use drones or sympathetic vibrations. South Asian music is full of them, but so to are Celtic pipes, Norwegian hardanger and any number of African stringed instruments. Even something as common as the piano when played undampened pulls up resonances.
**If there are any guitarists who want to try to play this, it’s a good introduction to altered tunes as the fingerings are easy. First drop your high and low E strings one whole step to D. To match the recording, capo the guitar at the second fret. The following fret-hand fingering positions are used: Chord E5 = 3rd string at 4th fret, 2nd string at 5th fret. Chord Em7 = 4th string at 5th fret, 3rd string at 4th fret and 2nd string at 3rd fret. The higher sounding Bsus4 = 4th string at 11th fret, 3rd string at 11th fret. The lower sounding Bsus4 = 4th string at 4th fret, 3rd string at 4th fret. Technically this Bsus4 also has the C# that makes it a Bsus2 as well.
What did Emily Dickinson think about the American Civil War, that great national trauma that occurred during her most productive time as a poet? And what did she think about the great national sin that was the cause of that war, slavery?
Emily Dickinson often writes puzzling poems, compressed like a set of speaker’s reminder notes on an index card. Despite occasional antique words and references to obsolete technology, Dickinson’s poems don’t really seem to dwell in a particular time or have any anchors in a time’s signature events. Instead we are left with the multiple capitalized idealized concepts that in the hands of most poets would doom a poem to vapid incorporeality—but the speed and brio of a Dickinson poem seems like the rush of thoughts, and that and they carry us along. All of this lets us see a remarkable mind thinking, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us the conclusions, only the methods by which it tries to reach them.
With many other American poets of her day we can tell what they thought of the Civil War and where they stood on the issues of slavery. Of course, we no longer read most of them, and we continue to read Dickinson. Even though my curiosity about these matters is personal, and in the end it doesn’t significantly change the originality and attraction of Dickinson’s work, I’ve still looked to see what I could find.
Dickinson’s father, Edward, was a politician, a member of the short-lived Whig party, and so there are political stands associated with him. The American Whig party, particularly for northern Whigs, was a “free soil” party. This meant that they did not stand for the abolition of existing slavery but wished to limit any expansion of the practice. Southern slaveholder interests were not content with that as a compromise. In an era when new territories and states were being added to the Union, they feared that they would eventually be too small a minority in a growing United States. In the 19th century before the Civil War, time and again these interests would come into conflict, and it was generally the Whigs who worked out some compromise that put off the Civil War. Edward Dickinson seems to have been an orthodox Whig, he supported those compromises, including voting for one of the last and most fateful of them, the Compromise of 1850 that gave the slave holders a Federal Fugitive Slave Act, giving license for bounty hunters of dubious ethics to haul escaped slaves back to the South (and financial rewards if they over-reached and just grabbed a free black person “by mistake”) and requiring local state authorities to assist in their efforts.
The injustices of the Fugitive Slave Act enraged Afro-Americans and energized abolitionist sentiments. And in the slave states who would secede at the start of the Civil War one of their chief complaints was that the Federal Government wasn’t doing enough to enforce this Fugitive Slave law against individual states that were hampering rather than aiding these “slave catcher” bounty hunters.
The Whig parties balancing act fell off the high wire shortly after that. It essentially split into two parties, the new Republican Party which was more adamant about free soil with no compromises, and eventually became the “party of Lincoln” and slavery’s abolition. The other part was the Constitutional Unionist Party which wanted to continue the Whig-style balancing act. Edward Dickinson seems to have aligned with the Constitutional Unionist faction, which completed the rapidly increasing progression to irrelevance for the Whigs.
On the other hand, both Edward and Emily Dickinson were on friendly terms with those who went the Republican route and even the more radical abolitionist bent. If yesterday’s story of Angeline Palmer might lead you to see a 19th century Massachusetts casting of To Kill a Mockingbird with Edward as Atticus Finch and the young Emily as Scout, the reality of the Dickinsons is much more ambiguous.
I’ve found various critics and commentators who have sought to answer my questions about what Emily Dickinson thought on these things. Some point to Dickinson poems and have suggested readings of them, but these are most often unconvincing to me. She does have poems mentioning warrior courage, duty and loss, but none of them seem to say anything about the causes or necessity of the pressing war in her time. Even more rare are references to slavery or people of color in the poems.
Mysterious and burning. Dickinson’s mind by lamplight
The poem I use for today’s piece is one of those rare ones. “The Lamp burns sure” is Dickinson at her most compressed and ambiguous. The poem’s plot is clear enough, an oil lamp whose oil is supplied by slaves or serfs (the poem says both at first, muddying the waters if it’s talking about slavery) runs out of oil because they have stopped filling the reservoir. The lamp’s wick is so busy burning that it doesn’t notice that it’s out of fuel and would in the normal course of events burn itself out shortly. The poem does not proceed to that end however. It leaves us only with the wick’s obliviousness, and then breaking the tie between the oil bringer’s role as being a serf or a slave, leaves us with the final statement that the busily burning wick is also unaware that the oil is out because “the Slave — is gone.” We don’t get to find out if the lamp is some Hanukkah mystery that will go on burning longer miraculously.
So, what does it mean, if it indeed means one thing? Some read it as a parable of creativity, that we’ll work ourselves past our resources in our passion. A key word there would be “within” indicating some imaginary inner lamp and the slave is just our body and emotional resources.
Some read it as a comment on the base labors that support a civilization that in turn supports arts, science or spiritual pursuits, and in that reading it’s an acknowledgment of the necessity of those labors—take them away, no light! The confusion of serf and slaves is a necessary confusion as it’s talking generally about civilizations.
And then some think, since this is a poem written in 1861 as the Civil War has broken out, and all the slave labor that has supported a large portion of the agricultural economy of the nation is now in question along with that nation itself, that this is not a generalized metaphor. The slave who’s gone, is an American slave, the light is an American light that will burn golden on.
Emily Dickinson’s desk with a whale oil lamp, a little luxury that could extend her writing hours
That last one would make it the closest to an Emily Dickinson statement on slavery and the Civil War. As I burn my own midnight oil tonight and I think of Emily Dickinson who wrote at night by the light of an oil lamp, I lean to the first reading. But some other day I might see something else and read it another way. I’d like to be surprised and to find out that Emily Dickinson’s keen and questioning mind could see what only some in her time could see about people of color and slavery, but that might not be the case. But here’s what I do find when I go to the music of that mind: a mind unafraid to be original and like Frederick Douglass in Robert Hayden’s poem, to believe freedom thought to be as needful as a heartbeat. Even if she didn’t free anyone from slavery like Lewis Frazier and his fellow servants in our last post, or agitate and orate like Douglass, I find there’s liberation there that burns sure.
7. A Poison Tree words by William Blake. When I posted this piece this fall, I remarked that Blake never seems that popular with the blog readers/listeners here. Dave and I have always sung Blake pieces since the early days of the LYL Band, and so we persist anyway.
Well, this piece finally allowed William Blake to break out. I can’t say exactly why, but I’m just glad it found an audience.
When I first encountered Blake as a young man, one of the things that I admired about him was his DIY/Indie spirit: apprenticing as an artist/engraver, doing his own coloring, writing his own texts, devising his own mythology, making his own prints. In the psychedelic Sixties there was this appeal because Blake was a visionary, the man who was reported out talking to angels in trees. Well those are the reports—but the work says he did a lot more than that, using his hands and applied energy. Reminds me of one of my mottos: Creative people aren’t people who have great ideas. Creative people are people who make things. Of course, you’ll need some ideas, some vision that we need to see—but sometimes you’ll come upon those on your workbench scattered and shining amid worn tools.
In pickup basketball games, Blake always played skins. Also no pants.
6. Gone Gone Again words by Edward Thomas. Thomas has been a blog favorite here ever since I followed the connection from Robert Frost to him, and discovered that I had unwittingly nearly reenacted his most famous poem “Adlestrop” on a visit to England.
Thomas seems to have suffered from depression and other issues throughout his life. I don’t think that sadness inspires deep poetry, so much as battling it does, and Thomas’ poem is a compressed record of that battle as well as his beloved countryside of England during WWI.
The return of the thin white duke, throwing darts at Blenheim oranges
5. Jade Flower Palace words by Du Fu. I’ve noticed that I was using a string section of some sort (or its Mellotron equivalent) for every piece so far. Finally, we break that pattern as a conventional, unadorned LYL Band rock-combo instrumentation is used in this live recording.
There’s something I feel in Du Fu’s poem that is very near to Edward Thomas’ that is just above in the countdown, so it’s a nice coincidence that they slot together in popularity this time.
During the Parlando Project I’ve taken to doing my own translations from non-English language sources, including this one. Particularly with classical Chinese poetry this is risky or audacious on my part. I’m not sure if I should be encouraged by the number of inaccurate translations that are out there, including some that are fairly well-known—for example: the Chinese translations of Ezra Pound, which I’ve loved even after learning of the translation errors present in them.
I sometimes view my task as translator like I view my job as a musician who wishes to cover someone else’s song without merely duplicating it. I don’t want to be unfaithful to what the writer intended, but I do want to express it, in my own country’s language, in my own time, to my own audience. To do so, I may pull things toward my own language and my own grasp of the author’s imagery to keep what comes out vital.
That may just be an excuse for my own weakness in foreign languages and other skills of translation. Still, though Ezra Pound’s “River Merchant’s Wife” or “South Folk in Cold Country” are not what Li Bai wrote, they are powerful works. But then, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” isn’t Otis Redding’s “Respect” played back faithfully either.
“There are many paths away from here. How long are any of them? None of them go on forever.”
Why bother with little-known poets of the early Modernist age? Well, it’s conceivable that we can better understand the context the better-known poets were operating in by looking at the field the greats stood out from. And frankly, I get a kick out of looking at the left-behinds and odd corners. Like a crate-picker at a used record store, I’m looking for those weird finds that you can’t quite believe exist or that reflect some transitory moment in the culture.
I’ve already mentioned Arthur Davison Ficke in an earlier post as one of the Davenport Group, a bunch of Iowans, who with their rural Illinois cross-river neighbors, made a bit of a splash in American culture in the first part of the 20th Century. Ficke is not as obscure a character as Muriel Strode from our last post, but the separating distances of fame and achievement shrink as time moves on, so you’re not going to run into either of them in any survey course or even specialist literary class in school.
Unlike Strode, I could find out about Ficke’s family background. He grew up in one of Davenport’s richest and most cultured families. His father was a prominent lawyer and had amassed a considerable oriental art collection. After education in Davenport, Ficke was sent to Harvard where he was a classmate of Franklin Roosevelt. After graduation he was granted one of those traditions of the well off, an overseas tour which included travel to Japan.
Throughout his school years, Ficke was drawn to the arts, and yet family expectation dictated that he was to practice law. A career as an art critic and poet therefore progressed alongside lawyering. During WWI, and while serving as a military Judge Advocate, he met Edna St. Vincent Millay and eventually a post-war love affair blossomed. You may see some similarity to Millay in today’s Ficke-written piece, a rhymed, metrical sonnet, a form Millay also worked in.
Arthur Davison Ficke with Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Like Millay, Ficke mixed with the Modernists socially while not consistently writing in the new Modernist style. This ambiguity of Ficke’s toward Modernism played out in an event we’ll cover in a future post.
I don’t find Ficke’s poetry as musical as Millay’s, but his“The Book of Lu T’ang Chu” still has its charms. The poem combines Ficke’s interest in the Orient with a subtle observation about art in the modern age. This poem’s ancient Chinese emperor and Ficke himself are now both dust in the wind, as we all will be—but we can still listen to his meditation, set to my new music and performed on acoustic guitar, piano, and an attempt at playing (via a MIDI controlled “virtual instrument”) the Chinese traditional zither that came to the fore during the Tang dynasty, the guzheng. Use the gadget below to hear this.
I suspect no poet in the past couple of centuries has suffered a greater decline in esteem as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This is not due to some scandal in his biography, for as far as I can tell he lived an admirable life, but artistically he’s been indicted for a number of crimes and misdemeanors. Before I go over those, let me briefly summarize the heights from which Longfellow has fallen.
He was the first self-sustaining professional American poet, the first to reach a considerable level of national and international success. By the middle of the 19th Century he was roughly as famous as Tennyson and Dickens, known and generally admired by his contemporary poets, and avidly read by a broad non-academic readership. He sustained this fame for several decades and further, past his death in 1882. His general readership survived into my grandfather’s generation, and then through my father’s, and to a degree, into mine. Somewhere in the middle of the 20th Century, this engine of fame and readership broke down, and by now they’ve torn up the tracks of the Longfellow Line, and ragged grass grows over the railbed.
I grew up reading Longfellow as the next generations might read Dr. Suess or Sandra Boyton in childhood. As I reached the age of ridicule, I could revel in Bullwinkle the moose in his parody poetry corner reciting Longfellow poems that I knew. Now Longfellow is probably not well enough known to satirize.
So, what are Longfellow’s poetic crimes? Meter and rhyme and a certain amount of antique diction—though we are able to somewhat forgive the English romantics of the generation before Longfellow those afflictions. Earnestness and popularity, two things that no ironic 20th Century Modernist would wish to be accused of—but Robert Frost survived the later, while being seen (mistakenly) as expressing the former. Longfellow’s contemporary, Walt Whitman, explicitly sought to commit the earnestness and popularity crimes—though, as the old dis goes, for many years, Whitman couldn’t get arrested for it.
The good gray poet Whitman, and his doppelganger the forgotten famous writer Longfellow.
But Longfellow’s capital offense, the crime his reputation has been executed for, is simplicity and conventionality of thought. If I had to be Longfellow’s defense lawyer on this charge, perhaps I’d be reduced to throwing his case on the mercy of the court. Longfellow’s writing is often expressly didactic, and impersonal sentimental themes abound. Over and over again, he counsels perseverance and its seeming opposite, acceptance of impermanence. A more metaphysical poet would show his work and do more with incident to earn his conclusions. A more modern poet would make sure to make his life’s painful particulars his main subject.
Ironically, Longfellow’s life story is full of such material. Today we often think of poetry and art as an extension of memoir, and that writers earn their license to express things from their life stories. Longfellow would have had that license.
Some forms of Modernism believe that the best way to deal with complex emotion or great pain is to put it in the silences, in the blank spaces. These Modernists believed this would be more effective, because they are signaling with this constrained and minimalist expression that the thoughtful audience needs to seek for what is not said.
20th Century Modernists decorated their foreground with images, not antique forms of literary expression, and the complex message is encrypted in those images as if by steganography. Could Longfellow be doing something similar in the blank spaces between the lines of his hypnotic verse?
Today’s piece uses words from a late Longfellow poem “Morituri Salutamus,” a Latin title taken from the famous gladiator phrase “Those who are about to die salute you.” The bulk of this poem, written for the occasion of his 50th college class reunion when Longfellow was 68, is taken up with matter that might appear in a commencement speech or the granting of an honorary diploma. Its purported mode is lightly elegiac, advice to the young is given; but as it proceeds, Longfellow transitions to a not over-worn thought. He prepares for the poem’s final stanza by cataloging some swan-songsters of literary history: Simonides, Chaucer, Sophocles. For compression, and for my preference for briefer work, this last stanza is what I used for today’s piece.
In that final stanza, with supple verse, Longfellow concisely implores his aging generation (and himself) to continue to labor to create, to create better. That’s not a complex thought. Does it need to be? Is it easier or tougher to do because it’s a simple thought?