On the Grasshopper and the Cricket

There used to be a thing, back in the Seventies when “The Sixties” were being established as a retrospective era: “The Beatles or The Stones?” The idea was that this choice, which was supposed to be somehow exclusive, was an “opener,” a what’s your (astrological) sign query that would tell the questioner who you were—or at the least start a conversation.*

Among the smallish subset of 20th century young people who liked poetry in English and were inclined to the Romantic revolution launched by Wordsworth and Coleridge at the beginning of the 19th century, one could play a similar game: “Byron, Keats, or Shelley?”

Sarcastic Byron “Mad, bad and dangerous to know” was the bad boy. Shelley was the beautiful intellectual, the man whose genetic material you wanted to incorporate. And Keats was the misunderstood outsider, the garageman’s son who presumed words alone could elevate him.

English Romantic poetry’s boy band—choose your poster.

I was easily a Keats man in this forced choice. I’m not sure, but I think Parlando alternate voice and keyboardist Dave Moore was a Byron guy back then. Early supporter of this blog, Daze and Weekes, Shelley. There are no wrong choices there, and when it comes down to it, no necessarily exclusive choices there either.

Keats hasn’t played a lot here in the Parlando Project. I’ve expanded my interests much since my teenaged years, and I guess the English Romantics have fallen back into the pack of poetic schools as I moved on to other things. Coincidence can bring Keats back though.

John Keats and the Chirping Crickets 3

Unheard music will Not Fade Away! John Keats and his “Chirping” Crickets.

 

Last weekend I hesitantly went to the newly reopened Minneapolis Institute of the Arts with my family. It was my wife’s idea, a way she hoped would be fairly safe in these Covid-19 times and still get us out of the house. She wanted to see a special exhibit on the immigrant experience. I thought I’d like to review their Chinese section.**

I may well write about the immigrant exhibit later, but the reason I wanted to do a bit of a wander in the Chinese wing was from my recent presentations of 8th century Tang dynasty poets here: Du Fu, Wang Wei, and Li Bai. As it turns out the holdings are a bit lacking in artifacts from that time. While this was a golden age for classical Chinese culture, that might not have carried over to the tastes or availabilities of objects to Western collectors.

But as I wandered the hall, I noticed something that had persisted in Chinese culture for centuries that I hadn’t encountered before. Beside a large, lacquered Chinese string instrument (the size of a pedal-steel guitar), there was a note that Chinese interest in music extended to modifying pet crickets vibrating wing edges with metallic powders and resins to increase the qualities of the cricket’s song. That grabbed this music-nerd’s interest! I started to examine other displays: there were cages and holders for pet crickets, tiny dishes in cricket-scale to feed them, and in one, two tiny wands, like fine detail paint brushes, only finer, the brush a single small hair. These, the note told us, were cricket ticklers designed to encourage the insects to start their music.***

Chinese Qin and Cricket Note

Beatles or Stones? Qin, songbirds, or crickets? The sort of things that a Chinese scholar might have in China during the time of Keats.

 

I’d already been looking at Emma Lazarus’ summer sounds poem before this trip, with its pairing of cricket-chirp with far-off children’s laughter. And then I found this slight little sonnet by John Keats, another one with crickets. My favorite short Keats poem, In the Drear-Nighted December  is a fine quasi-Buddhist meditation on suffering depicted as an appreciation of a frozen winter water-run. This one, “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket”  doesn’t strike my heart as strongly, but it’s still charming in comparing warm days and winter. This one has almost a Midwestern tang to it. I could see James Whitcomb Riley or Paul Laurence Dunbar writing it. The humble man in nature noting the grasshopper’s****  song even in the hottest summer days, and the comparison of the like sound of a housebound cricket chirping behind a wood stove in darkest winter.

The player gadget to hear my performance of John Keats’ “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket” is below.

 

 

 

*Don’t ask a music-nerd like me this question. Yes, I understand the points it’s attempting to weigh, but I won’t be able to resist spilling out mini-improvised essays on The Animals, The Yardbirds, The Zombies, The Kinks and so on, and then I’ll interrogate the now exhausted and bored questioner about how these exotic British acts are viewed as “saving” us from Bobby Rydell et al, when Afro-American jazz and R&B artists—right on the other side of town in a lot of cases  here in the U.S. —were doing vital work then that inspired these Brits. You can see I’m no fun at parties now, can’t you.

**Like some American museums that date from the late 19th century, Asian art was a significant part of the MiA collection. A significant number of wealthy collectors then were interested in the “exotic east.”

***There’s more I learned. Besides keeping them as pets and enjoying their music, cricket fights were a broad Chinese cultural thing as well, and because a full-formed cricket’s life span is but a few months even without visits to the Disabled List, an entire industry rose up in the capture of crickets for song and sport, with a hunting season in August and September gathering the most from the wild.

****Despite their somewhat similar appearance and sounds, the cricket makes its spiccato with its wing-edges, the grasshopper with its legs. I plucked a 12-string guitar and had double-basses provide some heavy late-summer air for this piece, but probably the most cricket-like sounds in the recording are from a marimba. The old saw says that if you take the number of cricket chirps in a quarter-hour and add 40 to it you’ll get the temperature in Fahrenheit. If so, this is a fairly cool bpm cricket.

August Moonlight

I promised last time that we’d move on from Emily Dickinson’s church of the August crickets to another take on something like the same thing. Dickinson’s words are set in the afternoon, but this one, “August Moonlight” moves on to August nighttime.

I knew nothing of this poem’s author, Richard Le Gallienne, before I found these words looking for some material on the end of summer. I still know little about him. He’s from Liverpool England, but his lifetime only overlapped the Beatles a little at the end, and besides he’d moved to France by then. In his youth he wrote for The Yellow Book, a short-lived but influential periodical of the ‘90s. No, not the grunge ‘90s, though the thought of Husker Du, Nirvana, or The Replacements being drawn by Aubrey Beardsley (the Yellow Book’s art editor) gives me pause to think. No the 1890s, the “yellow decade,” when using art to throw light on difference, and difference to throw light on art was all the rage.

I’ve always loved the visual art associated with The Yellow Book and the circles surrounding it, but frankly, I’m not a big fan of most of the writers associated with that movement. There’s a kind of dead-end romanticism about a lot of it. Even in my youth, when such things might have been attractive to me, the writers, taken as a group, seemed stilted, like it was a paint-by-numbers picture of a Keats poem.

The visual art however gets past any of that, because it’s just so beautiful in line and color. 70 years afterward, the art of The Yellow Book circle was one of the chief influences on San Francisco rock poster art. So I could have thrown Le Gallienne’s words in with my take on a slinky Grateful Dead space jam or maybe some Beatley folk-rock. I did neither. Instead I paired it with the night-time side of the Velvet Underground, the representative New York City rock group of the 60s.

While I’m at it: Grateful Dead, The Velvet Underground. They’re supposed to be in complete opposition. Sonically there is a bit of a gap there, I’ll admit, though nothing that music couldn’t bridge. But nothing alike? Each band is fronted by a guitarist who has a problem with heroin. The bass player (and sometimes the keyboard player) is really an avant-garde classical composer. They both start out playing to dancers swimming in colored lights at events heavily associated with and promoted by a non-musician guru. Both bands had trouble selling records, at least at first, but those who did find them started forming bands beloved by cliques of college students. Both bands are known for an un-compromising poet maudit stance. Of course, one band hangs out with gangsters leading to a well-publicized incident of an audience member getting killed at a show. One wanted to call to call an album “Skull F**k.” One band put a drug kingpin in charge of its sound system. The other band hung out a lot with artists in lofts and had girl-germs for letting a woman be their drummer.

Seriously folks, I kid. I think it was John Keats who said that great artists must be capable of liking both the Grateful Dead and the Velvet Underground. He called it Negative Capability. Coleridge was always reminding him of that whenever Keats couldn’t clamp onto a good ground when trying to jump-start Coleridge’s rusty Borgward sedan.

Alas I’ve run out of time. You could have been reading “William Morris and Andy Warhol, pretty much the same thing.” Feel free to use the rest of your time listening to “August Moonlight” as Richard Le Gallienne thinks about what it all means out behind the barn. The gadget to play it should be right below this. And you know, that rhythm guitar part might have been a little influenced by the Beatles “Rain…”

Further In Summer Than the Birds

William Blake wrote “To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour.” Brothers and sisters, it’s time to testify, and I want to know: are ready to testify? I give you a testimonial:

Emily Dickinson!

Okay, that’s a metaphor. The poem that provides the words to this piece “Further In Summer Than the Birds” uses a similar trope. Dickinson starts with a joke, yoking the language of a high church Christian service (instead of the rock’n’roll revivalist call I supply above) with–what? Late summer, the laziest time of year, before harvest. And worse yet for the comparison, she leaning down to the grass and hearing not mighty choirs or church organs, but those famous orchestrators of silence: crickets.

Dickinson, like Blake, was a religious rebel. Many members of her family were swept up in the 19th century religious revival, while she, an otherwise dutiful family member, actively resisted this. I think the poem starts off drawing us in with satire of religious services, but then we get to the mysterious last stanza. Dickinson’s syntax is so abstract that I (and other readers) are tempted to just let the sound of the words flow over the ear without need to extract meaning. Perhaps this was effect Dickinson wanted, as my best understanding of that last stanza is close to that. That line “No Furrow on the Glow” sounds great, but is also seems to say: no easily extracted message can be “farmed” or “gardened” from this church of the crickets.

Similarly, I don’t know exactly what “A Druidic Difference” is. Might be more satire. Or it might be that this glowing August sound which can’t be used to raise crops of meaning, is the meaning. The Druidic difference may be the isness of nature itself. But that’s me attempting to cultivate the experience, furrowing my brow to plow another furrow on the glow.

I think this speaks to the heart of something the Parlando project seeks to highlight. Poetry is not merely meaning, Poetry’s sound. It’s statements, its way of saying, has the structure of music; and music, it has the beautiful structure of thought and the human voice without the burden of specific meaning. That is why music and words meet here.

The music for “Further in Summer Than the Birds” shows a little of my Velvet Underground influence, and specifically with this piece, their eponymous 3rd album. Later this month we’ll visit another set of words about August and crickets along with some louder Velvets influenced music.

To hear the “Further in Summer Than the Birds” as played by The LYL Band, use the gadget below: