Are there people today still falling in love, or not falling in love together, or remembering love and almost love? Seems like a silly or rhetorical question doesn’t it.
So, yes, I suspect there are, as there have been before.
People fall in love on marches, at the barricades. Policemen fall in love. People fall in love in the time of plagues. Old people fall in love. Young people remember love or almost love. Oppressed people fall in love. People fall in love, but their partner doesn’t, and sometimes that partner is the wiser of the two.
So, is this the time for a poem of romantic love to be the most popular piece this past season? This is a time of new dangers and old evils. This is a time that predicts greater uncertainties and promises change if we act, and despair if we don’t. Can poetry put its “Queer shoulder to the wheel” as Ginsberg wrote? Should it?
I’ll be honest, I think about that a lot this spring. It’s a large part of why it’s hard for me to get around to creating new work here as this spring unfurled. Honestly I have little right to present short pieces here on Emily Dickinson, Du Fu or Arthur Rimbaud, but I may have even less authority to write briefly on politics, economics, sociology, or epidemiology—much less American racial dichotomy and all it’s injuries.
My observation that many who do write of these things have no more authority than I do is not helpful. Another observation is that all us artists have is that: our observation. We must strive to be careful seers and more exact sayers of what we see, though we tend to be flat seers. Heaven and wildflowers: that’s leveling. Romantic love, that often-brief thing; and disaster, that sometimes-brief thing that harms long and painfully, we see them both, we write about them as if they’re equal.
The player gadget to hear Yeats’ “When You Are Old,” this love poem written by a 20-something about old age, is below. Thank you very much for reading and listening, and an extra thank you to those who’ve helped spread the word about the Parlando Project. There’s a lot of stuff here from the four years of this project to listen to, and I’ll still attempt to have new pieces here soon.
For those that have been following our look at English poet Frances Cornford, we’ll have at least one more example coming of her stuff soon. But now is the time when we count-down the ten most liked and listened to pieces from this past winter.
It’s been a slightly difficult season for this project for me personally. It’s frankly been hard to keep up the level of posting, research, composition, recording, and playing that goes into it. What has been encouraging is the increase in listenership for the audio pieces and your continued readership here on the blog. December set a new record for monthly listens with increases coming significantly from those who hear only the audio pieces from the places where you might get podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, PlayerFM etc.)* During February the number of listens passed the milepost of 50,000 all-time downloads. This is small by the scale of Internet sensations (typically measured in millions) but to me that’s satisfying in the larger, but sparser crowd of those interested in poetic expression.
Readers here on the Parlando Project blog know that besides the same audio pieces the podcast listeners get, you get more information here about the writers and my reaction to what they’re doing. You might think of the blog as a kind of an “insiders ring” in that way. Blog traffic took off last fall, which made my heart leap up, and it’s continued at a similar level over the winter.
Given that I mostly keep with the older pre-1924 Public Domain stuff that is unrestricted in reuse, and because I wander about various musical genres in a way that’d tempt many old car radio listeners to “push the button” and current playlist streamers to tap play next, I especially appreciate those who stick with this project and it’s eclectic tastes!
Let’s go to the countdown. Today we’ll cover numbers 10 through 8 as calculated from listens on all platforms and likes here on the blog. The title of each piece will be hyperlinked to the original post, so you can click and check on what I said about it then.
10. Rimbaud’s “Eternity.” This winter I decided to make things more difficult for me by doing more translations of non-English poetry, adding translation to the whole compose/record the music, play most of the musical parts, research the context of the text, and then write about those tasks. And Rimbaud may have caused me more trouble in translation that anyone other than maybe Mallarmé. I labored to some kind of reasonable draft on two or three Rimbaud poems, but the results just didn’t grab me in English. Knowing that some other poets who I admire think highly of his work, I couldn’t figure out if I was picking the wrong poems, or what.
“Go Rimbaud, Go Rimbaud….” The most famous photo of the teenaged poet.
Then with his “Eternity” I realized—this poem’s impact in French comes from its invocatory power. This is why someone as unafraid of going over the top as the young Patti Smith could be drawn to his writing. Free verse can reach that level, but loosening my translation so that I could (uncharacteristically) render it as a rhyming verse made this one more compelling.
9. “The Labors of Hercules” by Marianne Moore. Marianne Moore writes in English, but her expression is so unusual that I feel like I need to translate her to get to the heart of her poems. Unlike Moore’s contemporary Gertrude Stein, whose verse is even harder to draw denotative meaning from, the task of performing Moore to music is challenged by her conversational rhythms which sound like someone talking.** Not only does this make it harder to fit in regularized music (I didn’t) it tends to lure the listener into thinking that they should be able to comprehend what Moore is getting at. With Stein you’re quickly aware that words are being used in a musical way, so you can just enjoy them for sound value. With Moore you sometimes think that the speaker herself or you the listener are in early days as English as a second language.
A lesser-known photo of Marianne Moore. Like Frost and William Carlos Williams, I always visualize her as if she was born at that advanced age that she was at when I started to encounter poetry, not as this young woman
I’m doing the back-patting here, but I think I helped Moore’s gist come across a bit better by my performance than the poem left sitting mute on the page.
8. “Ghost Blues” by Hugo Ball. Another case where I decided to go with a looser translation in order to vivify the original work for the modern English language user. The original post shows some of the intermediate steps I went through in translating this Dadaist poem from German. One thing that I think I’ve figured out after the original post is that a word that I couldn’t find in any of my accessible German dictionaries, “Gängelschwemme,” is probably a place name. My performance uses “spillway” for it, and still I have no way to know for sure (if it is a place name) if it references something along those lines.
I decided to make this a Dada Blues as it might be loosely rendered by electric players in the blues revival of the Sixties. Unlike a lot of pieces here, this one isn’t really composed. I had setup a loop to see if my translated text might fit to a groove like that. As I sung, I felt moved to plug in an electric guitar as I tried the lyrics.
“Hey, this works pretty good” I thought. I hit record. And one take later this is what you get.
If you’re new here you may notice that all of these are electric guitar pieces in a rock’n’roll context (though “The Labors of Hercules” is more irregular and somewhere in-between post-rock and free-jazz in my mind). Long time listeners here know that’s not what we consistently do. Stick around, the next three of the Winter 2020 Top Ten is coming up soon.
*Just to clarify expectations: the Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet podcast is only the audio pieces themselves, unadorned. While I suppose I could chat about the poems and my music in the discursive and wandering way most audio podcasts do, I don’t do that.
**Back in the 1960s when I first got a little plastic cassette recorder, I took to recording people having casual conversations and then transcribing the words literally. Here’s what shocked me in this practice: the words on the page made little grammatical or syntactical sense. The transcriptions didn’t even match “natural, realistic” dialog in fiction. Our daily conversation is often more avant-garde than we realize; and we are comprehensible to each other orally in ways that we would not be if our speech was turned into page text, through things like timbre, expression, non-regularized conjunctions and connections.
I suspect Stein and Moore were both more exacting mental transcribers of what we actually say aloud than conventional literature expected, and as two women aware of the modernist movement in general (not just literature, but music and visual art) they combined this objective phenomenon with their own aesthetic techniques.
The story this time is failure, diversion, randomness, and Dada. Some of it’s mine.
After the largely pleasant interruptions of the holidays, I’ve been finding it hard to concentrate extensively on new pieces. This hurts the more intricate musical compositions, research on the context of their original creation and reception, and my fresh translations of poetry not originally in English.
I’m fairly good at limiting one scourge of the modern artist: social media. I get behind on responding to comments here (bad form!), I usually put off reading the blogs I follow to once every week or so. I’ve never dived into Twitter much and have entirely avoided Facebook and the rest. Other artists have other types of engagement with these things, I wouldn’t call myself a model in that regard. Indeed, I’m sure I’ve done this project no favors with my avoidance of these things. I ascribe a great deal of the growth of this audience to random searches and the intentional work some of you have done spreading the word about the Parlando Project. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
So, I’ve carved out the precious time for this. And then, I get to work, a blessing many never get. And sometimes, it just doesn’t happen.
I’ve started and broken off three or four translations this month. I’m often drawn to the more hermetic poets with translation: the ones with wilder syntax, unusual metaphor, elusive meanings. I think what draws me is the same that causes one to open the most mysterious wrapped gift first. What could it be? Sure, it could turn out to be the wrong size or color, or a complete misreading of your interests, but that desire to jump into mysteries is undeniable.
But this predilection does lead to issues with my translations. My goal as a translator is to make vivid to a contemporary audience the images in the original poem. I will not usually make any attempt at carrying over the sound-music to English, but I do like to honor the thinking-music of it, the order and cadence of the original poet experiencing the matter of the poem. This intellectual melody is a great deal of the pleasure I get out of a poem that works for me: that the poet would think and express this first, then this, and finish with that. If each of those is a surprise that I can share, art has happened.
But when taking on a Surrealist or Dada poem, or a poem that claims to be based on disordered sensations,* how can I be sure enough that I grasp the metaphor, divided as always by time, language, culture, but in addition with an aesthetic that seeks to confuse or confound the reader, at least at first.
That sort of thing takes a lot of attention, more than most close readings, even before the task of finding the new English words comes in. And this month, I get only partway in and then feel lost or discouraged—and something interrupts, or my energy flags, and the house of cards doesn’t necessarily fall down, it just remains a bunch of playing cards with no architectural reason to exist.
The closest I got to completing a new translation was this poem by Hugo Ball, one of the original Dadaists. It was the fifth in his series 7 Schizophrene Sonette.
Here’s the original:
Gewöhnlich kommt es, wenn die Lichter brennen.
Es poltert mit den Tellern und den Tassen.
Auf roten Schuhen schlurrt es in den nassen
Geschwenkten Nächten und man hört sein Flennen.
Von Zeit zu Zeit scheint es umherzurennen
Mit Trumpf, Atout und ausgespielten Assen.
Auf Seil und Räder scheint es aufzupassen
Und ist an seinem Lärmen zu erkennen.
Es ist beschäftigt in der Gängelschwemme
Und hochweis weht dann seine erzene Haube,
Auf seinen Fingern zittern Hahnenkämme,
Mit schrillen Glocken kugelt es im Staube.
Dann reißen plötzlich alle wehen Dämme
Und aus der Kuckucksuhr tritt eine Taube.
At the point I set aside the translation, here’s what I had tentatively and incompletely rendered in English:
It usually happens when the lights are on.
It rattles the plates and the cups.
On red shoes it slides in the damp
Swaying nights, and you hear its flames.
It seems to run around from time to time
With trumps, likely to play the ace.
It’s careful with the ropes and pulleys
And is recognizable by its noise.
It is busy in the Gängelschwemme
And then its white crown wavers in the wind,
Its tines tremble like cockscombs
With shrill bells it spins in the dust.
Sudden exploding dams are torn apart
And a dove emerges from the cuckoo clock.
Almost done, but I couldn’t figure out that word “Gängelschwemme.” Any reader here have a good solution for that?** It seems a compound word, the start having some sense of walk or lane I’m thinking and the last part may have some water connection, but as it became hard to continue my focus, the meaning seemed to tumble further away.
The image of that exploding dam. I thought of Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks,” a song about impending disaster. The Blues have their own Dadaist streak,*** but this song is one of those that has a fairly easy to follow plot: a singer who tells us that no matter what he (and others do) to hold back an impending flood, when it comes he will be driven from his home, child, and spouse. There’s an undercurrent to that story if you look at it a second time. He says he has a “happy home.” And surely this great flood (the song is likely a reference to a significant and damaging 1927 American flood) will be destructive. But why is he not taking his spouse and child and fleeing with them at the point when there is nothing else that can be done to stop the flood? Because he can’t? Is he an imprisoned worker forced to work on the last defenses against the flood, or is he racially or economically constrained to leave the area? Is it because even if he knows there’s little chance that his labor on the levees will keep the flood in check, he must try to his upmost anyway? Could it even be possible that he has absorbed the impending disaster in his soul and he’s ready to leave that all behind as the flood has “intended.” Maybe his happiness isn’t as certain as the awesome disaster is.
One could write a novel or short story from that song. In one’s imagination one might link that specific situation to other things. But let’s stay with the lyric impulse, the exultation of the moment.
My new diversion was to turn Ball’s sonnet into a blues. This freed me up to make some more audacious adaptations as I merged the feeling of the lyric of “When the Levee Breaks” into another re-visioning of Ball’s poem. Doing this in a week of loud yet underexplained**** international explosions creeped into the resulting lyric too. Ball was writing his poem in 1924, but this week it seemed that a “a dove emerged from the cuckoo clock.”
Here’s the blues interpretation inspired by Ball’s sonnet:
The lights is on people, but it happens just the same.
The lights is on, happens just the same.
In the swaying nights, you can hear the flames.
Seems to run around, sometimes you see its face.
You see it time to time, see it face to face.
But when it’s got its trumps, likely to play the ace.
It’s careful with the ropes and pulleys, I can tell you boys.
It’s careful with those ropes and pulleys, I can tell you boys.
But no matter how careful, you can recognize it by its noise.
It’s busy at the spillway, white crown wavers in the wind.
It’s busy at the spillway, white crown wavers in the wind.
Peaks are trembling like a rooster’s comb when it begins.
I heard those shrill bells, there was spinning in the dust.
When I heard those shrill bells, there was spinning in the dust.
When the levee breaks, the dams is torn apart.
When the levee breaks, the ghosts begin to walk.
When the levee breaks, and the ghosts begin to walk,
I dreamed a dove emerged from the cuckoo clock.
You can hear me take it on with a quick musical interpretation using the player gadget below. In another week, it might be better performed, but it felt good to get it out during this one.
*Yes, some of my translation failures this month have been with Rimbaud.
**Even though my draft had a tentative idea for “erzene Haube,” I really couldn’t figure that one out either, even if I had put something down in English that I could develop as a comprehensible image. But what comprehensibility did Dadaist Ball intend?
***Part of Bob Dylan’s genius was to not only borrow from Modernist page-poetry but from the Modernist Afro-Americans and some strange folk-songs to create his revolution in song lyrics. Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) also did this extensively.
If one wonders where are the Afro-Americans doing what Pound, Eliot, W. C. Williams, Sandburg, H. D. etc. were doing in the first part of the 20th century—well, the bards of Blues and the creators of Jazz were making their own revolution we are still incorporating and absorbing.
In terms of page-poetry, much of the Harlem Renaissance is still to come into public domain availability, but this insight was one I share and partially derive from them. Also, see literary figures like Fenton Johnson.
****Could it have been a poltergeist that Ball’s poem seems to be referencing?
William Carlos Williams Kora in Hell is an unusual book. Its subtitle: Improvisations promised me more than it delivered. Improvised or semi-improvised poetry, that true Jazz poetry where the author composes on the spot from themes or from spontaneous inspiration is something I admired and—to a degree—practiced in my youth. The improvisations of Williams’ book are usually classed as prose poems, but I don’t find much music in them nor a sense of surprise or discovery. They do reflect the influence of Dada and Cubism, and if I could hold my attention on them longer, they might still bring some pleasure and illumination to me—but so far I haven’t been able to do that. But nearly half the book as published is prologue and that was more rewarding to read.
One can get a real sense in the prologue to Kora in Hell of where Williams found himself a century ago when it was written. There’s a lot of self-assertion, a lot of names dropped, a lot of debates on poetry and art where Williams as the author of the piece gets to be not just a debate participant, but the moderator, editor, and director of the debate. Poets Ezra Pound, Mina Loy, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, H. D. and Alfred Kreymborg make their appearance. In visual arts Duchamp, Man Ray, and Charles Demuth are referenced. Earlier this year I also noted that a forgotten Modernist poet and editor Orrick Johns has one of his poems quoted in the prologue without attribution.*
The point Williams seems to be making over and over again in the prologue is that he is just as important, connected, valid and artistically insightful as any of these. One can easily view this assertion in a multi-valent way. Williams could easily have felt isolated and left out, now resident in New Jersey and earning his living with a bourgeois job** as a physician. And however genteelly it’s couched, most artists must engage in self-promotion—it’s unlikely that any ego-less man or woman ever set out to write a poem or paint a picture. And the point he’s making, that he, Williams, has something worth considering has since been validated by the canon-setters.
In the case of two poets, Pound and H.D., Williams has a personal history, having known them in his college years. And it’s an exchange of letters with H.D. excerpted by Williams in the prologue to Kora in Hell that I used for today’s audio piece. In her letter H.D. is offering gentle advice regarding something Williams has written. She’s noticed some stuff that seems derivative and that she feels doesn’t represent Williams’ individual inspiration. She sets that observation in the context of a writer’s calling and the sacredness (in her view) of the artistic enterprise.
Two initial American Modernist poets: H.D. and W.C.W.
Williams, the home team here, gets to respond in the bottom of the inning and he shrugs briefly before thundering. He doesn’t really address the substance of H. D.’s feedback so much as he jumps on the “sacred” sentiment it’s couched in. Sacred in Williams’ mind is associated with singular artistic criteria, the kind of thing that Eliot and the New Critics of High Modernism are starting to create in a revised standard version—and he’s again’ it. When Williams says “There is nothing sacred about literature, it is damned from one end to the other” it sounds as a ringing iconoclastic statement, but what does he mean? Is he saying “There’s so much crap around that folks think is great art, so who should care what little mistakes us Modernist innovators make.” Or is it something else? Is he perhaps saying something akin to a maxim I repeat here often, that “All artists fail.” Is Williams claiming that to attempt some impossible sacredness, forgetting that the artist will fail, will harm the work from that intention?
There is nothing sacred about literature, it is damned from one end to the other.
He then closes, in a sentence as musical as anything in the prose poems that follow, with a Dada litany. A half a century later, another Dada-influenced artist who influenced me, Frank Zappa, would phrase the same principles when he said his artistic rule was AAAFNRA, “Anything, anytime, anywhere for no reason at all.”
I’ll have more to say on this in a follow-up post, but this is long enough for one sitting and it’ll give me a little space to talk about the music in today’s piece. I got to use two new components in composing this. The opening section features a fine pipe organ virtual instrument from Garritan. In a vary real sense, the pipe organ was the first, wholly mechanical, embodiment of the synthesizer, and I personally can’t play or compose for it without thinking of Michael Barone and his long-running radio show “Pipe Dreams” featuring that instrument. The orchestra sounds are from Sonuscore’s The Orchestra which is a novel approach to orchestral virtual instruments. My initial encounter with using The Orchestra mirrors most other reviewers: it makes adding orchestra colors simpler than most while giving indications that it can be used deeply if one gets under the hood of the default ensembles.
This may be a good time to explain how I use virtual instruments here, and particularly orchestral instruments. I’m thinking that many of our casual listeners when they hear Dave or myself chanting or singing away with everything from a string trio to larger ensembles that I’m just dropping in some loops or samples from a recording. There’s a good deal of that done on the Internet with poetry and I won’t knock it.*** After all, I subscribe to the maxim of Duke Ellington’s that Peter Schickele sustained “If it sounds good, it is good.” However, because I consider myself, despite my limitations, a quasi-musician and an intentional composer, I choose not to do that. Those string and orchestra parts are played, on little plastic keyboards or with a guitar MIDI interface. Sophisticated musicians probably already know that because even while using orchestral instruments my harmonic framework is either based on rock’n’roll/blues and their common “three-chord trick” or on older drone/modal folk music traditions.
So the opening H.D. section of today’s piece is a three-chord trick, something that any garage band or punk musician would understand. And the William Carlos Williams part that follows is simpler yet harmonically, based on just C to D major chords, though the color notes of the electric guitar solo extend that slightly. When someone asks what kind of music I write I’m at a loss for useful words. I’ve said extended folk music and I’ve said punk orchestral.
To hear me present the epistolary dialog between H. D. and W.C.W, use the player below.
**I have no idea of Williams’ intent in that “day job” choice—or even how good or bad he was as a physician—but given the latency and indirectness of writers and artists impact on their fellow human beings, such work may be a useful adjunct to the writing life. I myself spent nearly 20 years of my working life in the lower levels of nursing. As I told my wife recently in a moment of clarity, I figured that if I couldn’t help myself at least I could be some help to others. Young artists: consider this.
***I must also mention modern hip-hop production which has developed a class of composers who are very adept in using samples, bits of recordings, and timbral eclecticism in a way that if someone had described it in the mid-20th century it would have seemed the very essence of an elite and esoteric avant garde, and thanks to a blessed (as in The Beatitudes) audience, and a good dose of the ever-popular folk music elements: intoxicants, sex and violence, they’ve made widely-heard popular music with it. This strikes me, along with Bob Dylan completing the Modernist revolution in poetry, as the most significant and surprising artistic events of my cultural lifetime.
Here’s a piece that I wrote* which is appropriate for July 4th, American Independence Day, since it talks about freedom and independence—but also because of its compositional back-story.
A few years back I got to travel to New York City with my wife and young son. An advantage of this trip is that I could see New York as a tourist. We stayed in Brooklyn, on the same block as a now unused building that was a waystation on the Underground Railroad, and we’d walk by it every day going to and from the subway station, that different underground railway. We visited the Tenement Museum (highly recommended) and my accompanying book for this trip was Rebels: Into Anarchy and Out Again,“Sweet Marie” Ganz’s** memoir of her life as a tenement-dwelling radical a hundred years before. We visited Ellis Island and my wife and son got to sit on one of the benches that immigrants sat on in the great hall awaiting decisions. We did what resident New Yorkers rarely do, we visited the Statue of Liberty, the giant statue that on Independence Day becomes the representational symbol for the American spirit.
Every American knows that statue as an image. For our large and diverse country, it’s the equivalent of ancient Athens’ civic sculpture of Athena. Still, here are two things that are lesser-known.
“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame..” The reconstruction of the Parthenon’s Athena sculpture is in Nashville Tennessee. Athena has a carving of Steve Earle in her right hand as stone-Earle proclaims Townes Van Zandt the greatest songwriter ever.
The pedestal of the monument rests on the repurposed ruins of an early 19th century fort which once guarded New York harbor. Visitors to Liberty Island can see a section of the fort’s lower structures left uncovered and accessible down a stairway: bricked-in doorways of a room that was once used as a military prison cell according to the placard. The author of the placard was likely not a poet, but the Statue of Liberty rests on top of the doors of a prison.
One part of the statue, otherwise so well known, is nearly impossible to see for visitors, but was intended as part of the work’s imagery by its creator: beneath the torch of “imprisoned lightning,” the halo of spiked rays, the serene face, the tablet bearing the date July 4th 1776, and the copper-clad folds of its robe, the sandaled feet of this Lady Liberty stand on top of a broken shackle and chains.*** That would become the title image of “Chains At Her Feet.”
“Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight” some of the broken chains at her feet
It was sometime after that visit that I watched a young woman move out of a rooming house on my block. I could not discern all her story, but the small number of belongings, and the unable-to-tell relationship with a man who was assisting her with the move, but who left after helping with a couple of larger pieces of furniture, supplied the second set of images.
Why did I combine those two sets of images? Because it seemed emotionally right, though it may not be. A Dada principle, one beloved by composer/musician Frank Zappa, was “Anything, anytime, anyplace for no reason at all.” My understanding of Zappa’s artistic tactic is that combining things that don’t seem to go together, even things that seem outrageously incongruous, can create new and strong impressions. Chance, randomness, coincidence can be entryways to this.
I agree with that, though I’d caution you that my experience has been that most results of chance, incongruity and randomness will suffer from incomprehensibility and boredom, near and far misses. In practice, selection must occur, whether it happens before or after. Who selects? The artist and their audience. Zappa certainly chose, he was just happier choosing widely, and in some cases choosing things many people (and even I) will not like.
So, this combination in today’s piece “Chains At Her Feet,” the Statue of Liberty and a young woman, leaving or going somewhere, sketched in clear lines, yet missing parts of the story, may not impress on readers/listeners what I intuited and felt in combining them. Would it be better if I filled in the missing parts, even with invented details? Some readers of it have thought so. The title/refrain “Chains at her feet,” a detail taken from our giant July 4th icon, puzzled people. Was that my intent? Yes and no. I wanted people to ask what that odd line meant. In singing it, I repeat it enough to make sure people know it’s not a mistake. Do I want listeners to think “Aha, that must be the Statue of Liberty?” No, but I wanted the effect Liberty’s sculptor wanted when he put those chains under his statue’s feet, the same sort of conjunction as the remains of the military fort and the jail doors under the pedestal on Liberty island.
When singing this, I add more refrains. When reading it you see words I want as punned/double-meaning: “steals” and “sole.” Even “chains at her feet” sounds a bit like “change…” when drawn out.
So, who’s right? The answer is I don’t know. Long-time readers here know one of my dictums: “All artists fail.” Even the canonical greats bore and puzzle and meet with disinterest of most people most of the time—so unestablished artists like me certainly don’t know if what we do is any good.
No artist does. We do it anyway.
I like it when something connects with readers/listeners, I’m often sad when it doesn’t. My stance on what disconnect I find with what audience I find is to interrogate it and myself. I haven’t let it stop me making. Indeed, it sometimes leads me to additional making, seeking ways to make something work some of the time.
As important as it is that we artists respect, are even grateful, for genuine audiences, it is also important that we choose widely, even fail widely.
To hear “Chains At Her Feet” performed, use the player below.
*Regulars here know that presenting pieces with my own words is an intentional rarity here. I often fall into doing it when I’m running behind in developing pieces with other writer’s words or researching around that goal.
**Ganz’s story was fascinating to me, an immigrant sweat-shop garment worker from age 13, who through chutzpah and conviction toward justice became a street agitator for reforms in early 20th century NYC. Speaking of a conjunction that may be accidental or designed, I’ve wondered if the Sweet Marie in Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” could have intentionally referenced her. Some of Dylan’s Greenwich Village cohort might have known of “Sweet Marie,” and her actions were less than 50 years old when Dylan hit town.
***Though Liberty’s tablet references the 4th of July, the proximal motivation for its creation was the ending of the American Civil War and American slavery. In statuary, having something beneath the feet of the figure or trodden on is not uncommon imagery, but chains and shackles aren’t just mythological images. In another juxtaposition, Juneteenth and July 4th sit close together on the calendar, if four score and seven years apart.
Man Ray was sort of Man Ray’s real name. His family immigrated to the U. S. in the 19th Century and like many families they changed their name along with their country, and so Radnitzky became Ray. His birth first-name was Emmanuel, which would be conventionally shortened to Manny, and with just a bit more compression you arrive at Man.
I think I’ve mentioned in passing that in my 20s I developed an interest in Dada and Surrealism. I’d never pass myself off as a scholar of these subjects, it was more a matter of feeling that some of their ideas resonated with ones I had already been using. As evidence of my lack of scholarship, I’ll mention that I had always assumed Man Ray was French. Well, no. He grew up and began his career in Brooklyn and moved to Paris in his early 30s, before he could speak any French, That must have increased the Dada potential of the move!
Man Ray always felt free to range about in media and approaches. He was creating Dada assemblages and “ready-mades” by 1920 and Andre Breton called him one of the “pre-Surrealists” who had been creating art in harmony with that movement before it was officially a movement. Man Ray pioneered the idea that photography could be non-representational, made short experimental films, but also shot portrait photographs. And, luckily for this Project, he also wrote poetry. Ray once said that his artistic credo was seeking pleasure and liberty. “I simply try to be as free as possible, in my manner of working and in my choice of subject. No one can dictate to me or guide me.”
His short poem “Three Dimensions” was published in Alfred Kreymborg’s NYC-based Modernist magazine Others in 1915. As I understand Ray’s poem he’s looking at houses at night, not a city but outer borough or suburban scene. They’re lit up, representing the lives within. I suspect he’s punning when he says the luminous houses, walled off and oh so separate, should not be viewed “as masses.” They seem weightless, but in their separations the are as well not “The Masses.” The dark spaces between the houses, the hedges and walls, are then compared to shawl-covered heads as would’ve been worn by old women in his day. Ray concludes, still recognizing the separateness of the houses and the lives within, but perhaps with a hint of their potential. Mystery and curiosity are separated when we know that if they were to be combined they would combust!
So, what can I do with Man Ray’s poem?
Glover, Ray and Ray. Tony Glover on blues harp, Dave Ray on 12-string guitar, and a Man Ray self portrait
Dave Ray* was a singer and guitar player. In the early ‘60s he was part of Koerner Ray and Glover. I guess you could call Koerner Ray and Glover a group, though they themselves didn’t.** Dave Ray was 20 years old when KR&G released their first LP***, half-a-decade younger than when Robert Johnson first recorded a side, and much, much younger than Leadbelly was by the time John and Alan Lomax recorded him. Ray kept up playing his whole life until it ended while he was still too young in 2002.
KR&G formed in Minneapolis and were part of the early days of the West Bank and other folk music scenes here. I can’t say for sure (I’m a late arrival), but Dave Ray was probably one of the reasons that the Twin Cities area has a higher percentage of 12-string guitar players than anywhere else.**** Shortly after I moved to the Twin Cities in the ‘70s I bought a cheap 12-string at a record store on Hennepin Ave. It seemed mandatory, like learning the snow-emergency parking rules.
Why yes I can prove I’m a Twin Cities guitarist: here’s my 12-string.
Today I made a Dada assemblage. I’ve recast Man Ray’s “Three Dimensions” as “3D Blues” and I played it on that still surviving 12-string—not as well as Dave Ray could have done it, but then it wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t done it. The old 12-string has a soundhole pickup which I played through a little combo amp. KR&G started all acoustic, but Dave Ray often played plugged in later in his career. I rearranged some lines and phrases in Man Ray’s poem to fit it into a blues form. You can read Man Ray’s original here. You can hear my revision with the player gadget below.
*As far as I know, Man and Dave aren’t related. Dave Ray’s youngest brother, the equally well-named Max Ray, played the saxophone with the Wallets and still plays around town. If I was to Kevin-Bacon-game Man Ray and Dave Ray, Max Ray and the Wallets would be my move.
**Koerner Ray and Glover never broke up because they never joined up, performing solo or in various combinations from the first to the last. Dave Ray claimed they should have been truthfully billed as “Koerner and/or Ray and/or Glover.” Koerner made a record with Willie Murphy back in the 60s. Tony Glover wrote an important early instructional book on how to play blues harmonica as well as writing about the new Rock music that emerged later in the 60s.
***That first LP was called Blues, Rags and Hollers and just like it says on the cover, they played a wider-range of material than what was labeled “Blues” as time went on.
****Both Koerner and Ray played 12-string guitar, in the tradition of Leadbelly and Blind Willie McTell. As time passed, the blues 12-string tradition became forgotten in many places, and I’d encounter people online who thought acoustic-guitar blues must be played on small-bodied 6-strings or resonator guitars.
Today we’re going to have our first Parlando Project double-header, two pieces whose words and music were written by Dave Moore back in the 1979-1982 era and both of which appeared on the Lose Your Lunch Band’s only official release, the cassette-only Driving the Porcelain Bus in 1982 1980*.
The LYL Band and Porcelain Bus were not entirely political, but the elements of political protest and social commentary were a big part of it. Some of this was based around the election of Ronald Reagan as US President in late 1980 which at the time seemed to be the culmination of a long conservative struggle dating back to the early ‘50s.** You could say it was like today’s post-Trump election era, and one could point to similarities, although the pendant in me could list considerable differences too. I’ll just let that rough likeness stand to simplify the history for our younger readers. It’s close enough for rock’n’roll.
Dave also points out that his spouse and her relatives at the time were politically interested, and discussions in their circle often included political analysis and issues. I’d add, knowing Dave from a decade before that, that the same could be said about him. Let’s just say that around 1980 it wouldn’t be strange for political dialectics to be part of a casual conversation in South Minneapolis, again, just as today.
But here’s something interesting I noted as I rethought those years, the local music scene really didn’t reflect that directly. I recall folk-singer Larry Long, a man who has sought to continue the legacy of Pete Seeger, as being around the cities during this era, but at least as far as recordings he comes later. John Trudell an activist and singer was based out of the region later in his career, but in the early 80s his musical expression was just beginning, and he was living in California then.
Of course, artists portraying the world and how people relate to it cannot help but reflect political and social connotations in their work, and to that degree that any of the biggest bands to eventually emerge out of the Twin Cities indie scene were political, it was largely that.*** Those bands had something to say about life: what they opposed, what they preferred. An argument can be made on both artistic and commercially-distributed subversion levels for that. But the songs Dave was writing then were sometimes upfront about their political stance. In those songs, subtext, which was also there, was what was beneath the politics, not the other way around.
Traveling to a telephone pole of the past, we see a Dave Moore Dada poster for an early ‘80s show
So, let’s step out of the history and into the songs.
Here’s “Scrap” a companion song to “The Night Inspector” which you’ve already heard here, inspired by Dave’s work in a machine shop in this era. There was a good live version sung by Dave on Porcelain Bus, but I don’t have access to a digital copy of it right now, so in its place here’s a later solo acoustic guitar version where I sing it.
And here is an actual cut from the Porcelain Bus, engineered by Colin Mansfield, just after he was helping Husker Du get underway, a song asking the rhetorical question “What’s Wrong with That?”
If you’re asking yourself, where’s the poetry and various musical settings that you’ve seen here before, know that I plan only about one more history-of-a-band post before returning to our regularly scheduled programing. If, on the other hand, you wonder how this all turned out, the next post will be about that.
And, of course, footnotes, but we reject the hierarchy of superscript numbers for asterixis!
*I’ve just located a few digital scans I made years back of the even then moldering materials form this era, and they show the the Twin City Reader reviewed Porcelain Bus (see footnote below) in their issue that covered the upcoming week interval of January 7th to the 13th 1981. This would mean we recorded it in late 1980 and probably released it before the turn of the year.
**for a detailed history of this conservative effort, I recommend Before the Storm by Rick Perlstein. For me a lot of what he covers was current events, but for most present-day Americans, it’s history. His two follow-up books are good too, but why not start at the beginning?
***Two exceptions I can note, even if neither are the best-known songs in their respective catalogs: Paul Westerberg’s “Androgynous” from the 1984 Replacements LP Let It Be, a heart-felt yet casual sounding and appropriately ambiguous song about busting gender roles, and then Prince’s arch “Ronnie Talk to Russia” from 1981’s Controversy, where Prince sounds like the LYL Band would sound if they had Prince’s skills, work-ethic and recording studio (or at least a drummer and bass player). Perhaps Mr. Nelson was paying tribute to The LYL Band and our sound, but Prince’s song was released a little less than a year before “Driving the Porcelain Bus.” OK, the new date for Porcelain Bus means that theoretically Prince could have heard Dave’s Farisa drenched sound before he used a similar punky combo organ sound on “Ronnie Talk to Russia.” File this under “improbable.”
OK, that last part is irony for you English majors, but Porcelain Bus was reviewed and got a cover blurb on the local alternative weekly in 1982 January 1981, along with Prince protégé’s The Time’s LP. The blurb said “The Time Ain’t No Lose Your Lunch Band,” a statement that I think we can all agree on. The review said we might become a cult band. If you’ve read this far, you’re our last chance as cult adherents. You don’t have to shave your head, sell tracts, move to a compound in the country, or worship Dave as a semi-divine incarnation—unless you think it’ll really help. I believe Dave would rather be worshiped as an Andy Devine incarnation anyway.
Did I skip over Dave Moore the poet and writer to get to Dave Moore the words and music guy? Perhaps. Let’s step back away from the 1980s and recap a bit in word-print silence, without any musical noises at the beginning.
I met Dave almost exactly 50 years ago in 1968. And my first encounter found him reading his poetry in a church. He was also publishing what would have been called an “underground newspaper” in those days, an occasional Ditto-machine-printed* dozen pages or so of social, political and cultural comment, which I eventually contributed to. 1968 was a fabled year, like unto 1989 or perhaps some year coming soon in our current folly, full of momentous and contentious events. Odd as it may seem, it felt important to engage with them on paper, even for a small audience.
Dave left for Wisconsin to continue college, I ended up in New York to not. We didn’t see each other for over five years.
When I decided to cover Bob Dylan in reverse, and left New York for Minnesota in 1976, I ended up staying with Dave for a while and helping him work on rehabbing a run-down house he was living in. Dave had hooked up with a group of writers, the Lake Street Writers Group, all of whom lived a few blocks from that central east-west commercial/industrial strip in Minneapolis. As a group it was an unusual mix, including bartenders and low-paid workers, most with some college under their belts, but now in their mid-20s trying to figure out what to do with life that didn’t formally give college credits. These experiences gave the group something of a blue-collar, we’ll earn our cultural worth, not be awarded it, air that I liked. I too joined in the group.
The Revolution Will Not Be Duplicated…for less than 1/4 cent a copy! Just think, I could run off a few pages of this blog and have them in mailboxes by the morning!
Besides the usual get-together/critique/talk thing that writers’ groups have done forever, the Lake Street Writers Group ran a little magazine, The Lake Street Review. The first two bootstrap issues were printed on Dave’s Ditto machine, the magazine’s post office box was Dave’s too, and Dave was co-editor in the beginning along with the founding spirit of the enterprise, poet Kevin FitzPatrick.**
I asked Dave what poetry he remembered writing or publishing from this era today, and he reminded me that in the mid ‘70s he was concentrating more on stories. “Oh,” he recalled, “There was a song ‘Ballad of Mr. Lake Street vs. Mr. Id’ in the Lake Street Review.” That piece of Dada was attributed to John Lee Svenska in print, but it would have predated his work with Fine Art or the LYL Band by several years.
What would you get if you combined blue-collar with Dada? One answer would be some of the first songs Dave wrote for the LYL Band. Yesterday’s “Evil Man” would be one example, the man in the title morphing from childhood bully to sociopathic businessman to stickup man. You could see this as a new expression of the notable Woody Guthrie line about “Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen,” but by having the evil man fade in and out of these equivalented roles from verse to verse, the Dada this-beside-this comparison is made. In today’s piece, Dave’s early ‘80s song “The Night Inspector,” the Ubu Roi rides a fork-lift in a factory. To give you some relief from the audio quality of the archival recordings from the early ‘80s, this performance is a later one where I sing Dave’s song with acoustic guitar. Go go Night Inspector (player) Gadget…
*I’m reminded that Fugs’ founder Ed Sanders was able to raise his ruckus in the ‘60s Greenwich Village scene at first by being the owner of a similar machine on which he printed his own little magazine and flyers. Ditto machines were better than Mimeograph machines. Mimeo machines printed in purple and their printed pages stank of that can’t-be-healthy-for-you volatile ink that is probably responsible for some of you getting lower mid-century grades than your parents expected on school tests. Ditto machines produced pages that looked more like “real” printed work with dark black text.
Today we return to the early 20th Century Modernists with a piece using words by Mina Loy. Last post we had a poet taking a political stand: Longfellow aligning himself with the movement to abolish slavery. Decades later, the Modernists joined political movements too.
One might suppose that since Modernism sought to overthrow the old cultural order and revolutionize artistic expression that many Modernists would be attracted to political radicalism—and to a large degree that’s so.
You might also assume that these artistic radicals would be leftists, aligned with the growing Socialist movements in England and the United States, or attracted after 1917 to the as then untested promise of the new Communist government in Russia. Or perhaps they’d make common cause with anarchism. Or maybe they’d create their own playlist mixing all of the above.
And yes, you can find that. Carl Sandburg in the U. S. Midwest, most of the Surrealists, bohemians in New York’s Greenwich Village, Herbert Read and some other British Modernists.
However, one can also find Modernists who aligned with the right wing in this era—and not only garden-variety Tories, or even those who allied themselves with the “respectable” racist strains of U. S. politics. Even in the years before WWI, the social theories that would coalesce into Fascism found adherents in the new literary avant garde. As to Americans, the most famous case is the indispensable Modernist poet, editor and promotor, Ezra Pound, eventually charged with treason at the end of WWII.
Modernists seemed something like stem cells as their artistic revolution kicked off—they could develop into followers of any kind of political radicalism. At a time when political engagement for artists was common, there must have been a feeling in the air that a side must be chosen if one was to be a thorough-going cultural Modernist.
So, much as the French Surrealists once sought to make Communism a dictate for membership in the Surrealist movement, the slightly earlier Italian Futurists eventually made Fascism a core value of their artistic circle.
It’s now we get to Mina Loy. No, not the delightful Hollywood actress—that’s Myrna Loy (Myrna Loy was the stage name for the woman born Myrna Williams, and it’s just possible that Loy could have been chosen to refer to Mina).
It’s 1905. Modernism is kicking off first in the visual art world, followed just behind by the poets. Loy, in her 20s, has already done the visual art thing in London and Paris, but her marriage is failing, and she’s just had an infant child die. To change her life, she moves to Italy. She befriends Futurist artist Carlo Carra, and if you follow along on your Futurist score-card she had love-affairs there with two principals of Italian Futurism: F. T. Marinetti and Giovanni Papini.
Let’s re-set our scene. Here’s a young woman in a foreign country going through life stress events. The art-world is shifting under everyone’s feet. As a movement that will eventually fancy itself outright as the cultural well-spring of Italian Fascism, the circle she’s fallen in with isn’t just about making it new, it’s militaristic, paternalistic, nationalistic, and it worships violence. That isn’t what jealous opponents say about Futurism, it’s what its own manifestos brag about.
Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto declared “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene”
As preparing actors say, all that would be part of the work to figure out what Mina Loy is experiencing. Here’s another bit of business you might grab onto: young, ambitious, male artists. I doubt some not-uncommon tropes have changed in that field.
Mina becomes a poet. A fierce poet. Artistically she uses some of the new ideas that the Futurists are thinking about. Her poetry moves between time and tenses, voices and outlooks, in machine gun bursts. Conventional expression and sentiment? Blow them up, run them over with a locomotive. Sixty years later Harlan Ellison would write “Love is just sex misspelled” and be thought provocative. Mina had already been there in the horse-and-buggy era. How can a woman keep her selfhood (or for that matter, how can any human being do so) in the minefield of desire and relationships? What is deep and inherent in motherhood that society will not express openly?
Though she used some of the artistic ideas of Futurism as effectively as any writer, Loy seemed to resist most of its political ideas and she satirized the pretentions of the “Flabergasts” while writing about her Italian time as being in the “Lion’s Jaws.” Leaving Italy, she next moved to New York, where she joined the Greenwich Village circle.
Today’s piece uses selections I took from a 34-poem sequence called “Songs to Johannes,” inspired by the relationship with Giovanni Papini (Johannes and Giovanni are variations of the same root name). Loy published these in 1914, near the end of her Italian time. Within the little-magazine world of Modernism she made an immediate impact. Eliot, Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Gertrude Stein said good things about her work. Legendary founder of Poetry magazine Harriet Monroe seems to have been scared by Loy’s frankness. Amy Lowell, poet and influential anthologist, was so put off she is supposed to have said that she would not publish in any magazine that printed Loy.
If the patriarchy may have lost the battle with Mina Loy, for a long time they seem to have won the peace. It was only in the last few years of the 20th Century that Loy’s poems of the first part of that century began to be looked at again. Now, Loy has become a key poetic Modernist for literary scholars tired of the usual sausage-fest, but that opens up the danger that work like “Songs to Johannes” may be introduced, academically, like this: “Loy in effect diagnoses an end to love poetry in the light of historical circumstance, anticipating that poststructuralist line of inquiry which urges a rereading of ‘lyric’ as a culturally responsive construct. Instead, her poetry constitutes a critique of the very demand that lyric expression be viewed apart from the social world.”
There’s nothing wrong with that view, but I find Loy’s pre-WWI writing here a lot more immediate assuming one has some applicable life experience to bring to it. Her diction sometimes reminds me of Emily Dickinson, and like Dickinson figuring out what is ironic, and what is earnest, and what is both, can sometimes be a challenge. In performance, any of those three choices seem to work for most phrases here. The greatest error would be to make them all of the same tenor. Also, like Dickinson, Loy will move from speaking concise abstraction to vivid metaphor using very few words. Thus, the high minded and the sensual nitty-gritty are juxtaposed.
My appreciation for this sequence grew tremendously as I constructed this performance. There are strong images, richly ambiguous expressions, and yes, lines that one could deconstruct at thesis length. I didn’t even have room to include the phrase from “Songs to Johannes” that I’ve chosen to title today’s selection, but I can never look at a plump rococo cherub again without recalling it. But the real gift I got, the unique gift of art, is that I could experience some of Loy’s moments in the hot-house nexus of Fascism and Modernism. “Pig Cupid” would probably be more authentic if this was performed in a woman’s voice, but alas my voice is what I have available today. To hear my performance, use the player below.
OK, let’s reveal where the words from the last post, Poetry in Translation, came from and what I know about their context—but stick around, as this is going to relate back to those 20th Century theories about how poetry works. If you haven’t listened yet read and listened to Poetry in Translation, this would be a good time to scroll down and do so.
Earlier this month I was making some tea and talking to my son in the kitchen. He asked about what kind of tea I was making. I picked up the box to show him, Tazo Peachy Green tea. I noticed there was something more than an ingredients list and those filled-circle graphs of how much caffeine was stuck inside the individually bagged dried leaves. So, I broke into my Parlando Voice, improvising line break pauses as the early 20th Century Modernists have ingrained in me, and read it to him:
Modernist verse in the supermarket?
My son, now a teenager, is making sure that he’s nobody’s fool. “They must be smoking that tea, not drinking it.”
We both laughed.
Modernists a century ago would have liked this. “Found Objects” and use of commercial ready-mades in art and Dada japes were ingrained in Modernism during its avant garde phase. I’d have fit right in at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 if I was to have read this wacky and rapturous advertising copy from the tea box while Hugo Ball played piano.
Some will see a Picasso sculpture, others will wonder if a bicyclist won’t be able to ride home
But as Modernism moved to the universities, and I. A. Richards’ and John Crowe Ransom’s “New Criticism” solution to the problem of unreliable interpretation became predominate by mid-century, things would change.
Simplifying wildly, the New Criticism suggested that the reader, not just poets and writers, needed to get under the hood and figure out what made poetry run. Inside every poem was the ideal poem, an expression of complex ideas or states of being placed there by it’s writer. The poems surface, though it may have some interest itself, was only the wrapper surrounding this more sublime poem. This bridged over the revolutions in poetic language, by making less important changes in the way poetry spoke, such as the widespread use of rhyme and free verse. John Donne, John Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens—the different music of the words made no difference, the rich images portraying important thoughts could be studied side-by-side.
Imagery became poetry, more or less (yes, meter and sound were still attended to, but they dropped in importance). The original Modernists, including the Imagists, sought to kill off centuries of ingrained and tired imagery that had become merely decorative, and replace it with more integral and concrete images, palpable things. But just as when one finally cleans out a closet, time passing will clutter it again. If images contain the soul of poetry, and if deep reading is the best and proper way to encounter a poem, then complex and hermetic images will offer more of the poetic experience.
There’d been something of a cult of great poetry before, often based on important subject matter or the extent of readership, but as the New Criticism ascended to orthodoxy, the ideal of great poetry became stronger and used new criteria. Poems with densely jammed complex imagery requiring close reading and educational training to comprehend were great. Poems that didn’t do this were highly suspect—and likely harmful, in that they did not reinforce this new critical understanding of the soul of poetry.
As I said last time, this is how I was taught to understand poetry in the midcentury.
How can we return to the box of tea with its peach singing to the cucumber of its deathless desire? The midcentury New Critics presumed the supremacy of the poem and the poet’s intent. Later in the 20th Century new literary theorists arose, and the subjective experience of the reader became the place where the poem existed. The poem means what you think it means, which may be different from what another reader thinks it means. Meanings extracted from even the merest of texts could still be complex and valid. The intent of the author is not important, they could well be mistaken.
Now our singing peach isn’t a joke at the expense of exalted literature, it’s an expression of the woo of consumer culture signifying exotic essence through the appropriation of an ancient amphitheater dramatizing barely sublimated vegetable desires. Or it may be something a tired copywriter churned out on Friday afternoon before leaving work and picking up takeout on the way home to feed the kids.
As I said, I’m simplifying, but for the mid-century New Critics the poem existed objectively deep inside the poem where the poet put it. For the late 20th Century Deconstructionists and their contemporaries, the poem existed subjectively in its readers experience of it and the structures around that.
Coming up, is there a reconciliation between those two views? How will the 21st Century view what poetry is and where the poem lives? Will the cucumber and the peach find a meaningful relationship before they are dried and bagged?
Don’t worry if you’re missing the usual music and words meeting up here, we’ll return to that soon enough too. I promise variety, not predictability. To tide you over, here’s Dave Moore and the LYL Band running through his song, set in the late 19th Century, called “The Green Fairy.”