They Say Life is Precious

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.

They Say Life is Precious
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.

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The Lamp burns sure

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.

The Lamp burns sure

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

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.

Here’s my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “The Lamp burns sure.”  Use the player below to hear it.

 

Fall 2018 Parlando Project Top 10 Number 7-5

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.

 

 

The Angel by William Blake

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.

 

Edward Thomas thin and thoughful

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.

 

Jade carving

“There are many paths away from here. How long are any of them? None of them go on forever.”

The Book of Lu T’ang Chu

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 Davidson Ficke and Edna St Vincent Millay

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.

Morituri Salutamus

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.

Whitman-Longfellow

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?

To hear my performance of the conclusion to Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamus,”  use the player below.

We Grow Accustomed to the Dark

It’s hard to escape the pull of Emily Dickinson here in the Parlando Project, and I keep finding that her poems ask for that unheard music in them to be made audible. So much is remarkable about Dickinson. She’s so original in poetic expression, and yet she’s kept a substantial audience of readers from the time of her first posthumously published collection in the late 19th Century.

Here’s yet another striking fact about her: she wrote over a thousand poems, the majority of her poetic work, roughly around the time of the American Civil War, in a burst of creativity less than a decade long. Can one even imagine what that might have been like? For this means that, on average, over twice a week a new Emily Dickinson poem, a new and unprecedented type of poetry, emerged from her pen.

Emily Dickinson's desk

Where she created a new way to write American poetry over a thousand times

 

She shared them somewhat, some of them anyway, with family and friends. She informally bound many of them into little booklets. But did she know what she was accomplishing? What faith drove her creativity?

Today’s words are drawn from a Dickinson poem she wrote halfway into that burst. Unlike some Dickinson poems, the “plot” of the poem is easy enough to follow, and it concludes with a moral, like a conventional poem of moral uplift might. However, like a lot of good art, the experience and meaning of it changes as you bring your own time and times to it.

“We Grow Accustomed to the Dark”  starts off in that pre-electric outdoors that we last talked about with Frost’s Stopping by a Wood on a Snowy Evening.”  On a new moon or overcast night, that old dark is darker than any we routinely experience in modern urban America. Yet, then or now, eyes indeed adjust, and make better use of what weak light may be present. Dickinson next changes the scene and speaks of “Evenings of the Brain” where even moon and starlight are extinguished. Other than Dickinson’s near, but not quite, “slant rhymes,” this is a conventional poem up to this point. But wait there’s a small warning that she’s not going to develop this conventionally. Those evenings inside the brain are a larger thing than the whole of the outdoor night.

Her next metaphor is not Victorian sentiment, but outright slapstick farce. Moving forward in the dark earnestly, the nobly brave—smack!  Faceplant themselves into a tree trunk.

This brings ambiguity to her concluding moral. Is becoming accustomed to the dark a good thing? We think we’ve adjusted. We think we’ve steeled ourselves to “Brave”—or maybe we’ve just added that outer darkness to our brain, and we agree to pretend it’s normal. “Life steps almost straight” she concludes. Somehow, at least this week, as I watch our dark world, I don’t think Dickinson intends this as a consolation.

For today’s music I tried to underscore that from the first note. I wrote this orchestral piece based around an F minor to D progression that should leave the listener unsettled from the start. I chose to experiment with this cadence after reading Alex Ross’ short piece about pioneering Afro-American composer Florence Price earlier this month. If you’re new to the Parlando Project, let me remind you that our goal is to present the words with music as varied as I can make it. If you like one kind of music that works one way, we may puzzle you with what we do in any single piece. If so, try another. We are fast approaching 200 audio pieces in our archives, so take a listen around a few of them.

To hear my performance of Dickinson’s “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark”,  use the player below. Please remember that this Project continues because listeners and readers pass the word around about it.  Mentioning us, tweeting about us, linking to us, telling a friend about us, helps grow the audience and encourages our efforts.