Summer 2021 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 10-8

It’s time for our quarterly look back at the pieces here the got the most listens and likes. We start today with the numbers 10 through 8. Each bolded listing as we count down from 10 to 1 is a link to the original post where I first discussed my encounter with the text used, and those original posts will also include the text of the poem used or a link to it.

10. I Am Laughing in the Dark Underground by Frank Hudson  The Parlando Project has from the beginning aimed to put other folks words to music we compose and play. Dave and I are both writers, so I could predominantly present work we wrote the words for here — but I find the encounter with other people’s words interesting for myself, and I hope it adds variety for you the reader and listener. Therefore, it was with some hesitation that I posted this self-written piece for the blog’s 5th Anniversary last month.

You can click on the bolded title above to read what I wrote about writing the words then, but in summary, this text came largely from my interrogating one of those vivid dreams that happen around dawn when you’re half waking and half still asleep. To hear the musical piece, you can use this highlighted hyperlink, or a player gadget that will appear below for some of you.

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9. They’re Not the Grateful Dead by Dave Moore  By chance the next piece as we count down to number 1 is by alternate Parlando Project voice and frequent keyboard-contributing musician Dave Moore, though I wrote the music, sing it, and contributed one verse.*  This one mentions a series of  dead-too-soon musicians well-to-little-known to folks around our age. Anyone remember that sacrament to saccharine paean “If There’s a Rock and Roll Heaven (you know they’ve got a hell of a band)?   Well, this is Dave taking a skeptical look at that idea.

There’s a player device that some of you will see to hear Dave’s song as I performed it, and if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlink is another way.

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By Moonlight a Goose Can Be A Swan by Heidi Randen 1024

“By Moonlight A Goose Can Be a Swan”  a late summer photo by Heidi Randen

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8. August by Helen Hunt Jackson  Speaking of deceased musicians, recent new member of the choir invisible Michael Chapman had a musical life that ran with some marvelously miscellaneous combinations. Early in his career a singer/keyboard player wanted him to join his backing band. Chapman would recount that he figured his own front-man career was launching just fine, and said no thanks. The keyboard guy? Elton John. Chapman was based out of Leeds in England then, and he wanted another electric guitar in his band. He picked up just such a fellow from Hull who had to be lured away from his band for Chapman’s. That guy’s name was Mick Ronson. Having been pried away from one band, Ronson soon left Chapman’s group for another, becoming the notable guitarist and arranger for David Bowie’s breakthrough Spiders From Mars band.

Musicians love those kind of stories, because it’s assumed that many will have “close, but missed it” tales of successful opportunities slipping from their grasp. How about writers? I give you Helen Hunt Jackson. Jackson was a grade school classmate of one Emily Dickinson. Like Dickinson she connected with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the late-period Transcendentalist critic, activist, and editor. Higginson, you may remember, later gets his knocks from history for not fully recognizing and promoting Dickinson’s unorthodox verse, though after Dickinson’s death he arranged and helped edit the publication of collections of Dickinson’s work that started Dickinson’s career posthumously.

Jackson on the other hand ardently pushed Dickinson to publish while she lived, and for that effort she got little support from the living Emily.

I first ran into Jackson around the same time I watched the often satirical Wild Nights with Emily  movie a few years ago. That mixed-bag film portrayed Higginson as a nincompoop and Jackson as a simpering all-to-Victorian fustian. I’ve read a lot of bad 19th century verse looking for stuff to use here** so I figured it worth the risk to look at some of Jackson’s own poetry.

No, it’s not Modernist before it’s time in the same way that Dickinson’s can sometimes strike you, but it can be more vivid and effective than many of her contemporaries with higher surviving profiles, and this sonnet “August”  is a fine example of that. Here’s the highlighted hyperlink to play my performance,  and some will see a player below that can do that too.

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*Dave, a keyboard player, led off his song with Nicky Hopkins, who’s one of the lesser-knowns in the grouping. As a bass player I couldn’t let that role in the song’s “catacosmic” band go unfilled, and so I added the Jaco Pastorius verse.

**My general read on the later 19th century was that the Modernists were correct in rejecting what poetry had come to by the beginning of the 20th century. Stale metaphor, simple messages, perfunctory expression, hard-walled gotta make my rhyme and meter exact verse — there was good reason to make it new.

Why Now, Vocalissimus

Today’s piece uses a very short poem I wrote in immediate reaction to some sad news I heard this weekend. Despite that news’ immediacy and particular sadness, the poem that resulted became something else, and I’m not sure why, even as I was writing it, revising it, and then figuring out today’s music and performing it. Being present throughout, shouldn’t I know?

Without stepping on anyone’s own living story, and my limited understanding and participation in it, let me just say that not one, but two poets that Dave Moore and I have known for many years have been dealing with potentially mortal illnesses this summer. I started intending to write a personal poem about considering their possible deaths, and some very tangled words started to emerge.

Why those words? I’ve already told you I don’t know for sure. Perhaps the words were tangled because I don’t feel I’ve been a supportive friend in their time of illness for complicated reasons which include my social awkwardness and not really knowing to what degree they would welcome that in their situation. The tangled words were awfully impersonal, even if the person wrestling with them was infused with emotions.

I decided to leave the tangled syntax of what came out, because I came to feel that their odd flow was a potentially striking effect, slowing the reader to consider them more closely. I made attempts to bring the personal in, but none of my considered words seemed to fit when I did. Could the impersonality too be part of the way the poem means? Yes, by this point I truly wondered what my poem — my own poem — meant.

Why Now, Vocalissimus

Why now, when it is already so
when I listen to people sing in the night,
that so many of them are dead?

And some of the words that comfort us,
or cause us to wonder at why we’re not,
were written by those who now never talk.

But if you go to silence for after all,
leaving just words, sundered breath,
will they be but husks, after seed has left?

When I completed the draft I used today, I thought it had become a poem that isn’t about particular people, but about us (you, I, anyone) wondering about what a poet leaves when their poems no longer have a choice but to remain silent on the page. I know that is a problematic mode. T. S. Eliot, who like many effective poets was right and wrong about why his poetry — much less poetry in general — worked, would approve of this poem’s impersonality; but in our century now we often expect poetry to include diaristic detail, and while the muse wouldn’t supply it, I myself expect that the poem should be specific about those that I’m thinking of — and yet to include explicit thoughts of that while they live seemed morbid and presumptuous. Even though I present this piece today, I’m not sure the poem is done with me yet.

Empty Milkweed Husk by Heidi Randen 1024

Poetry. Seeds. Speak it!

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What’s with the weird Latin word in the title? It’s to lead you away from me and my particular poets in my thoughts, and back to just about the only appearance you’ll find of that word used in an English language poem: Wallace Stevens’ “To the Roaring Wind.”  In that poem “vocalissimus” is that voice of the muse that asks to become the voice of the poet; and by extension asks us to be the voice of the poet beyond their lifetime, which is what this project is about in our normal course of presenting other people’s words.

Let me leave you with one thought: you here who write, read, speak poetry are part of a continuum. Poet’s poems dream of being more than your poem — the ones with personal details, the ones without. Few will achieve that dream, but still they dream it, before and after the dreamer.

Many will see a player gadget below to play my performance of “Why Now, Vocalissimus.”   Some won’t, so I supply this highlighted hyperlink that will also play it.

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To Poets Not Dying Young

Poems and songs about those artists who die young are easy to find.*  Why should that be? Well, tragic aspects there are plain to see and it’s easy to note the lost potential in an early exit. I think there’s a further factor too: we are much in love with the trope of young artists whose work is caught in a rising arc before falling with melted wings. It’s extraordinarily difficult for an artist to continue to impress or delightfully surprise over a long career. We artists repeat ourselves and are judged to have become stale — or we change and produce work that isn’t judged correct to be coming from us. Perhaps this is inevitable. Or maybe in part it’s us as readers, listeners, audience, who contribute some faults to this by always seeking new faces — or the practical use of any failures as telling markers to drop attention.

I’ve made no secret here that I’m old. I missed out on being a has-been and I’m not anyone’s coming thing in the arts. In a strange way I find that frees me from those burdens, and I only need to carry my age and infirmities while producing new work. This summer as the blog and listenership has its seasonal drop off, I’ve indulged myself and your attention with more work with texts written by Dave or myself. I do notice that the poetry I’m presenting here of mine is overwhelmingly focused on loss, something Dave usually avoids. Young poets, young musicians, often add gravitas with similar emphasis — and I should note, young artists can and do directly experience those things outside of the world of imagining. Experienced artists may more likely realize this is a choice, one that we are free to question and doubt. But, speaking for myself and my summer it’s been more at reporting. The everlasting crisis of the wider world continues — unjust losses there are still noted — but each day I think of the closer infirmities of those I know: small losses for me beating in resonance to their greater losses, and less specific worries and predictions for myself standing before me as I look through them to assay these others unavoidably present and particular ones. This is likely the selfish and self-contained man’s version of empathy.

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To Poets Not Dying Young

I enjoyed some dissonant chord colors and an “Is it in major or minor?” rub in this one’s music.

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Today’s piece uses a text of mine I call “To Poets Not Dying Young.”   The effect I’m trying to convey is the wearing of life on the body and soul of older poets who persist in their observation and writing, and it’s written in the hope that we, as audience, retain our ability to read and hear them. I do worry that the images are too enigmatic in this one, but maybe the connotations or some incantatory power will carry the effect through to you. Even to myself, their author, some of the images reflect more than one thing, and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.

The Parlando Project plans to restore our usual service in presenting texts by other writers in upcoming pieces you’ll see here soon, but to hear this one you can use a player gadget below if you see it, or this highlighted hyperlink which will open a new tab window with an audio player.

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*Here’s a post and a short and graceful poem linking several “died young” poets by American poet Anne Spencer.  And here’s a real-life ghost story post that has as its musical bit a poem by Carl Sandburg about another poet who died young.

And here are three to argue from the other side for older artists persisting. An aged Longfellow calls on the spirits of other older artists to make his case.  And his contemporary in Britain, Tennyson famously hymned a possibly deluded old Ulysses asking for one more voyage. And here’s another one of mine, in full rock fury recalling a young man who was once thought a coming man in his field and who persisted in making art past fame. If you didn’t like today’s musical piece, these five pieces will give you a wider sample of what we do here.

Silent Steps

Rabindranath Tagore is surely one of the most remarkable writers ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. If you’re a veteran of this project you might recall that a few years back when Bob Dylan won the same Nobel there were objections from poets and novelists that song-writing wasn’t literature, and that giving such a Nobel to Dylan was unprecedented and wrong.

While “Wrong” is a debate, unprecedented was an error on the part of the objectors, even though they often stated their objections from a stance of knowledge, craft, and learning. I was explaining this to someone earlier this summer, who had innocently asked your hosting windbag here if songwriters hadn’t taken over some of the place that poets occupied a century or more ago. The concise person would have just agreed with a “Yes,” but I wanted to tell him the story of the 1.5 songwriters who like Bob Dylan had already won a Nobel Prize for Literature.

The .5 songwriter in my tale was William Butler Yeats, a great poet who once decided that if the ancient bards presented their poems with music, that he should revive that practice. He went so far as to commission the building of instruments to accompany his poems and setup a tour from a professional performer* to realize this aim. “Yeats, The Musical” was not a success, and when Yeats won his Nobel it was largely for his poetry printed on paper.

Tagore was a much more significant songwriter than Yeats’ case, though Tagore wasn’t just a songwriter. He made other 20th century polymaths like Albert Schweitzer look like pikers, with copious literature in all forms, political activism, painting, teaching in several areas, social reform work, and more. But for those who spoke his native language, Bengali, he was a very well known and liked songwriter. Nor was he just a poet with a sideline as a lyricist. Tagore the composer had his hand in not one, not two, but three South Asian national anthems.

When Tagore won his Nobel for literature, there was one book most Westerners could read of his: Gitanjali,  a work he had translated himself into English. That title references songs, and from what I’ve read it consisted of Tagore’s prose-poem-ish adaptations of his song lyrics. Yeats himself knew this, remarking in an introduction in the 1912 English edition of the book that because Tagore was a songwriter all strata of his society knew his work intimately.

Today’s song is my adaptation of the 45th piece in that 1912 collection, using my own music. “Silent Steps”  may seem familiar even if you are not familiar with Tagore or his beliefs. I hear echoes of Hebrew psalms and prayers, and the other Middle-Eastern-origin religions such as Islam and Christianity too. Are you instead secular? I’ll come back to you.

I lightly adapted Tagore’s phraseology for much of this piece to make it more singable in English, because one of Gitanjali’s  chief issues is that it often doesn’t sing in our tongue. I departed more widely for the final verse. Tagore’s image there is hard for me to follow, and even if I haven’t clarified it much, I was moved to modify the image.

Tagore originally wrote this in English as the final stanza:

In sorrow after sorrow it is his steps that press upon my heart,
and it is the golden touch of his feet that makes my joy to shine.

See what I mean about hard to sing? But let’s get to the overall issue. What are, or whose are, the poem’s titular “silent steps?” To those familiar with Tagore’s beliefs, it’s the godhead, manifesting itself through nature and human consciousness attuned to it. Tagore is saying that human awareness that the godhead is present and manifest in its creation is consolation in times of sorrow. His “press upon my heart” is perhaps more at “seal,” as in the Hebrew Song of Songs  “Set me as seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm.” And the touch of the feet more at something like the Christian “If I could touch the hem of His garment, I know I would be made whole” line that has been used in many Christian song-settings.

Silent Steps

The text of my adaptation used for today’s song-setting of Tagore.

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To be audaciously critical of the great man Tagore, his concluding stanza lacks visceral power. I thrashed around a bit to come up with a different image that may be adjacent to Tagore’s. My last stanza says in effect: as we walk in the footsteps of our life, trying to follow our precepts and finding in that journey the inescapable sorrows of infirmities and imperfection, we feel not only our own lowly footsteps on the path, but the pressures of (unrealized) perfection and completeness pressing on ourselves. All of our footsteps polish the surfaces of the paths we trod — and that the higher consciousness (the godhead consciousness for believers) does the same to us. We try to make life shine in our footsteps — and the limits of trials, troubles, and tribulations that press down upon us in turn polish us. Our joy shines because of those pressures, those rubs.

I said I would get back to the secular among this readership, because I don’t think the poem requires agreement with Tagore’s beliefs, or any adjacent religious beliefs either, to retain power. The godhead manifesting in a chariot would please the Biblical prophet Ezekiel, or 20th century Midwestern Afro-American Fenton Johnson, and so too the onrushing, unstoppable “time’s winged chariot” of 17th century English poet Andrew Marvell, who recasts that cosmic sound as a booty call. In American sports idiom, “hearing footsteps” is when a player senses a play-ending tackle is forthcoming. The successful player knows that, just as the unsuccessful one does — but the successful ones are able to continue to complete their task despite that knowledge.

For all I know, the heaven of death and reunion with the godhead and the heaven of oblivion may be two neighborhoods of the same city.

The small graphical player will appear below for some of you to hear my adaptation and performance of Rabindranath Tagore’s “Silent Steps.”   If you are reading this where that player doesn’t appear, this highlighted hyperlink will also open a new tab window to play it.  Thanks for reading and listening!

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*From accounts Yeats was (like myself) somewhat pitch-challenged as a singer. And he didn’t exactly want his poems sung, thinking that a complex melody might detract from the words. Yeats instead choose some kind of middle-ground for the vocalist of which we have no extant recordings to demonstrate. From some research I did a few years back, the closest we may have to understanding what he was proposing was his “Song of the Wandering Aengus”  which Burl Ives and Dave Van Ronk and then Judy Collins performed back during the midcentury “Folk Scare.” Van Ronk said in performance that he learned it from an actor Will Holt who was also a folk singer, and it’s speculated that Ives and/or Holt may have learned the melody he used from another actor (Sara Allgood) with connections to the Abbey Theater, where Yeats was a foundational force. Here’s how I recounted that story a few years ago back here.

The Dragonfly

This summer, amid the seasonal lower traffic volumes for The Parlando Project, I’ve been featuring some uncharacteristic pieces where Dave Moore or I have written the words as well as the music. But today we’ll return to the proper mix, using a text by English Victorian poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson.

I saw today’s text first over at Kenne Turner’s blog, where it was included as a short stand-alone lyric poem entitled “The Dragonfly”  in the midst of a series of excellent  photos of varieties of this creature.  Here’s a link to that post which will also let you read the text I used. Other blogs have published the same text under this title, and I assumed it was a uncharacteristic very short nature poem by Tennyson. Let me thank Kenne for bringing this poem to my attention.

Long-time readers here will know I like concise poetry, and this one, so concentrated in its charged notice of this strange yet charismatic insect in a moment of transition captured my interest immediately. Earlier this month I performed “The Dragonfly”  along with Dave playing keyboards, and you’ll be able to hear how it came out below. Sure, it is a Victorian poem, though not excessively so. Just a few words might need 21st century explanation. That “sapphire mail” is the insect’s chitin exoskeleton portrayed as if armor, not a blue envelope delivered by some postman. “Crofts” is something of a Britishism and means a humble field. The moment Tennyson seems to be describing is the ending of the years-long nymph stage of the dragonfly, as the mature winged insect splits open its old hard exoskeleton emerging a moist new winged creature. In checking on the zoology of this, I read that dragonflies spend the majority of their life as immature, wingless, nymphs before becoming the strange fascination that we see, and only then think: dragonfly.

I’ve mentioned infirmities and transformations a good deal this summer, and I thought this transformation more clearly ecstatic in nature, and that it would be a good break from the more gothic material I’ve been working on recently.

So there I was, I had this text, cloaked in language and poetic diction that said “Victorian,” but also prophetically Imagist in its concise approach. I had music to perform it with, and then a decent recording that brought it into existence.

Dragon at the Door 1080

Summer, time to fly thro crofts wet with dew, and not just more screen time.

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Then today, I decided to see what else I could say about this poem when I present it here. It was then that I found that it may never have been intended as a short poem, but was instead part of a long, very philosophic poem by Alfred Tennyson called “The Two Voices.”   Here’s a link to that text. When I say philosophic, that might sound a bit bloodless, but Tennyson’s own working title was “The Thoughts of a Suicide”  — and no, that’s not a literary plot, like “The Lady of Shalott.”   It appears* that “The Two Voices”  is something of a less-favored and less fully-achieved early attempt at the matter that produced what is thought of as Tennyson’s masterpiece “In Memoriam AHH.”   So, “The Dragonfly”  a simple nature poem? No, nature isn’t simple, even if beautiful. The matter Tennyson was grappling with was the unexpected death of his friend, supporter, and literary compatriot, Arthur Hallam, at the age of 22.

It would be appropriate to insert your favored curse word here. I’m an old man. The death of folks I know, then knew, is a commonplace of age, and painful, though touched too by a strange partnering with an idea that death is closer to me — if only demographically at this moment. But young, brilliant, helpful, a man with whom, it is recalled, would fall and roll down in the grass with the similarly young Tennyson, overcome by paroxysms of laughter at some bit of passing humor — how can one express that kind of loss?

Imagism says that you can enclose that unexpected death of a vibrant and cherished youth inside a short poem, made up of a moment of exacting and clarifying observation; a poem that is furthermore modest in its emotional expression and that doesn’t say what something like that event feels — showing instead what one examines with our two, small, dark eyes, our meager allotment compared to the giant multitudes of eyes that make up most of the dragonflies’ head.

Can it do that? I don’t know. Interesting to try. I sensed only this mysterious/glorious transformation when I first read “The Dragonfly”  excerpted from it’s longer setting in “The Two Voices.”   I really did intend for it to be a bit of a break here, but I’m left with informing you of my honest experience of this poem as I do regularly in this Project.

For some, the player gadget will appear below to hear The LYL Band perform Tennyson’s “The Dragonfly.”  Don’t see a player? Turns out a lot of ways to read this blog won’t show that, so I provide this highlighted hyperlink to open a new tab window and play it as well.

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*Given that I’ve only seen Tennyson’s “The Two Voices”  in its entirety this afternoon, I’m not able to tell you more about it other than what I’ve quickly gathered. Victorian poetry doesn’t generally attract my attention, even if most of the Modernists that do attract me grew up during the Victorian era, and, even in rebellion, would be impacted by it.

The Final Minute

Patience appreciated reader. You know we sometimes start one place here and then teleport to somewhere else near the end.

The NBA finals concluded last night, settling for this year the championship of the world’s premier basketball league. Best as I can tell, there’s not a lot of sports-fan overlap here, and to be honest my sports interests atrophied by the time I reached middle age to the point that it’s mostly a skimming of the sports news.

Still while researching something else last night I noticed a live-updating article on a news site for the finals game in its last quarter. I opened a tab in my browser, and in between reading other links germane to my research, checked back on how it was going.

A tied and then two-point, one-possession game eventually entered its final minute, and around there the Milwaukee team, possession by possession, started to assure its win. Even though it is a business, and even though the losers will get paid too, these moments in sports still build into an Aristotelian Poetics agony. One side is partly hoping no one screws up the increasing likelihood; the other side increasingly knows hopelessness. Compounding this, the obligatory strategies of the game mean the endgame is prolonged with timeouts for court position and play caretaking, and desperate, clock-stopping intentional fouls.

Fireworks spent

July remains of bang, light, spent.

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And so, patient reader, it was then, as we continue our summer death, infirmities, and transformation tour here at the Parlando Project, that I thought of this song by Dave Moore that we had performed over a decade ago. Things sticking in memory is one test of artistic validity, and out of hundreds of different songs that Dave and I have performed since then, to recall this one seemed meaningful.

When I dug it out and listened to it this morning, I heard its infirmities: a simple rhythm-machine beat, Dave misses some intended notes in the vocal, my guitar part is not much. The combo organ sound that Dave uses is not hip or fashionable. But still, I think the piece did more than charm my memory. Near the end, Dave lets out a quatrain that still says something about our lives, about infirmities and death:

“You can’t make this up.
It makes up itself.
You can’t make it be
more than anything else.”

We all have our lies, our lives, our arts. We strive, and then someday, strived, to make them. Two out of the three are artificial, and yet from that we still try to discover truth. In the end, death makes up itself. Funny game.

A player gadget will appear for some of you to play this performance of Dave Moore’s “The Final Minute.”   If you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to hear it.

They’re Not the Grateful Dead

Is it time to take a break from our sometimes intense presentations of poetry combined in some way with music? Well, here’s a little ditty about the lighter side of death, or rather the worship of dead rock stars.

My observation is that though there are still the occasional premature music casualties in the current environment, that the worship of “The Greats are Taken from Us Too Soon” variety is reduced among young people today. Perhaps that’s a healthy sign, or it could be secondary to the casualties not having the right mix of fame to burn brighter at the graveside. And in the past, the other half of this project’s concern, poetry, has not been immune to the praise of dead talent, particularly dead, young talent, either.

Sure, it can be a honorable thing to give respect to those who’ve gone, to carry their artistic flag further when they can’t, but there is another side, the romantic admiration for the risks and the access to excess that often precedes the early death of musicians, writers, and other artists. The first duty of an artist is to survive. Society is not generally on the artist’s side until they become successful commercially, and even when it grants them that success, it can withdraw it and their support quickly too. To add to that burden with one’s own self-medication and distractions seems like a compensation to that state, but it doesn’t always work that way.

Poet, songwriter, alternate voice, and frequent keyboard player here Dave Moore wrote a short poem about how an older person might view with a strange kind of envy the tentative fame and unbounded experiences that others in our musical/generational cohort enjoyed. Sex, drugs and Rock’n’Roll once seemed to be jobs on offer in the want ads in our youth, even if it turned out the positions were already filled and the items already sold. I adapted Dave’s words, added a verse of my own, and wrote music for my performance of “They’re Not the Grateful Dead”  some years back and thought you might enjoy it here. Oh, that “Grateful Dead” in the title? Translated folkie Jerry Garcia knew that this was a trad folk song trope where the dead magically and musically express some gratitude.

They're Not the Grateful Dead

Who’s who for any crate digger obsessives: Hopkins, Hendrix, Moon, Jaco, Saxon, and Thaxton are hereby linked.

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One thing I like about Dave’s lyric is that, outside of Jimi Hendrix he doesn’t pull in the big names, the Boomer rock’n’roll Shelleys and Byrons, the ones that are still featured faces in the rear-view mirrors looking at the music and times. Starting right off with Nicky Hopkins* is a bold move, but then Dave is  a keyboard player.

The song’s conclusion has a little fun with the sentimental “If there’s a rock’n’roll heaven, you know they’ve got a hell of a band” thing. Keats’ unheard music may be sweet, but it’s still hard to hear.

My performance of this has a few flubs, but it’s hard for me to get more recording in right now, so we’ll make do with this older recording as is. The player gadget is below for many of you, but if you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink will also play my performance of “They’re Not the Grateful Dead.”

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*Huh. Who? Those who didn’t ruin their eyesight fantasizing about debauched after-parties but by reading all the liner notes on every LP will know who Nicky Hopkins is.

In memory of Lawrence Ferlinghetti: The world is a beautiful place

Some people live so long as to make time and its boundaried eras seem a foggy measure. Such a man was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the American poet, painter, and bookstore owner who predates and post-dates the Beat poetry scene — or for that matter the Hippie scene, and our century’s activist eras and its search for peace and justice. If you are a fan of generational short-hand (I’m not) you will notice that every one of those eras was widely denounceable as impractical, delusional, and in most ways inferior to those that came before that.

Perhaps I should remind all that Ferlinghetti was 101 years old, and would have been 102 next month. That means: he knew the Roaring Twenties and whatever we have begun in these Twenties. To any of you XYZ believers, that means he was a member of the Greatest Generation. This man, Ferlinghetti, attached philosophically during the entirely of my own longish life to anarchism and pacifism was a WWII vet, who enlisted before Pearl Harbor, who served during the Normandy invasion, and who, when moved to the Pacific theater, was able to view Nagasaki shortly after the atomic bombing. Philosophical pacifism of a most visceral kind.

“Thank you for your service” is the reflex response nowadays. Surely due, but I think also of his post-war service, helping promote a new more vernacular American poetry via his work, encouragement, bookstore and small press. His own 1958 poetry collection A Coney Island of the Mind  was immensely popular,* and seeing it or Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems  (which Ferlinghetti published**) in their paperback black and white form was once a common marker in smoky apartments during my youth.

Around the time this Project was beginning I performed a couple of Lawrence Ferlinghetti poems live with The LYL Band. I’d actually hoped to get permission to post those performances someday, but emails to City Lights garnered no replies. Hearing today of his death, and thinking of his life that well-lived, I thought inescapably of this poem of his from A Coney Island of the Mind entitled “The world is a beautiful place.”   I’ve decided to post our performance here in the spirit of gratitude and in memoriam.  If any rights owner objects, let me know, and I will remove. The player gadget for our performance is often below, but this highlighted hyperlink will also work if you don’t have the gadget on your screen. If you want to read silently, or read along, here’s a link to the text of Ferlinghetti’s poem.

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Want to hear another version of “The world is a beautiful place?”

Here’s Ferlinghetti’s own reading of today’s piece. You can buy a copy of A Coney Island of the Mind from City Lights via this link.

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*Some accounts say Coney Island  is the most popular poetry collection ever published in English. I’m not sure of that.

**Was Howl  a big “get” that he was lucky to land for City Lights? Not exactly. He was put on trial for publishing it, and Ferlinghetti figured he’d go to jail. The Fifties judge, to some surprise, ruled it not obscene.

Mark Twain takes on Poetry: Stephen Dowling Bots

I’m of an age when thoughts of death could be excused as more a present issue than a youthful goth affectation. Covid-19, that hit dirge of the summer that would play at every party were there every parties, amplifies that. But the gothic was similarly close at hand in the 19th century when untreatable disease and violence were more common. We still associate poetry with funerals—though I worry too that we can compartmentalize it there—but in the 19th century this was even more so. Real and imagined elegies were all the rage for poets at any level of talent and fame. From extensive demographic research I believe it may be true that just as high a percentage of 19th century people died as nowadays;* but it did seem the opportunistic occasion for poetic mourning was more extensive then.

Now Mark Twain, a satirist, loved subverting the expected, and so in the course of his novel Huckleberry Finn’s catalog of expected human behavior and good taste overwhelming a more rational ethic, he stopped to parody such memorial verse with this tale of romantic death that failed to be, well, romantic enough. In the novel this poem is written by Emmeline Grangerford, who is described as a young poet who rapidly cranked out memorial verse faster than any undertaker or supple lyric muse could keep up.

In today’s audio piece I give some of the story of Emmeline’s poetic endeavor from the novel, and then sing as a folk song of the sadful death of Mr. Bots using for lyrics the example poem of Grangerford’s Twain has given us. The full text of the poem is here.

What is said to be Mark Twain’s guitar still exists and has been acquired by a collector. Small size guitars like this were normal for the 19th century guitar market in America. (photo by Bianca Soros)

 

Today’s music is just acoustic guitar. Although I originally intended a more elaborate arrangement, I think just guitar suits it well. As I came to the decision for practical and aesthetic reasons, I was reminded that Mark Twain himself was a guitarist.** Just before leaving for the West Coast where he would make a name for himself as a writer, he bought himself a used Martin guitar.*** He says he played it for men and women in the newly founded boom towns, and on shipboard as he sailed hither and yon. Twain’s account says he sang along with the guitar, but I haven’t found any accounts of what his repertoire was. It could well have been a songster’s mix of popular tunes of the day and what we now call “folk music” and I could purpose he just might have slipped in a few originals. Since one can’t tell how Twain would have performed “Stephen Dowling Bots”  as a mournful song, I claim my attempt as “close enough for folk music.”

You can hear my reading of how Emmeline Grangerford’s poetry is introduced by Twain and the song made from her memorial poem with the player gadget below.

 

 

 

*I can present the statistical charts and tables for this startling claim when it’s ready for peer-review. A counterclaim is based on the data that many people in our 21st century are not, in fact, dead at this time. (emphasis mine)

**One of Twain’s sisters was a music teacher who taught piano and guitar. Both instruments were often thought of as women’s instruments in that era, to be played in middle-class home parlors for do-it-yourself culture and entertainment. The supposition that Twain’s sister taught Twain how to shred on his axe follows that tidbit.

***The famous American guitar making company was founded by a German immigrant Charles Frederick Martin in 1833 (a year that’s still featured on a Martin guitar’s label.)  The Twain guitar pictured here is said to be from 1835, which would make it a “birth year guitar” for Mark Twain. Some collectors today seek out vintage guitars that are coincidental with their birth year, but I doubt that was a thing in Twain’s time. Further clouding the picture, the design of this guitar (particularly the headstock) looks more like the guitars Martin made later in the 19th century, and not those made just after the company’s American start.

Fear No More

I’ve already talked here about doing translations from other languages into English and how it can be a strikingly intimate way to get next to another poet’s creative choices. Performance, or even attentive reading, can also bring on this effect.

Let’s take Shakespeare as a mere lyricist today. Of course, he’s a big deal for our English language, a writer from the days when it was beginning to resemble the one we speak today. For many he’s the writer of plays, with characters of which generations of actors measure themselves by the facets they cut from them. For others he’s the writer of sonnets, many of which work by complex arguments and compressed thought, making them memorable from line to line, even if it’s hard to grasp the entirety of even one of them. But occasionally* within the plays he becomes a lyric poet in one or both of the senses of the word: a writer giving us a complex emotional matrix of someone’s experience in a moment of time, and as a writer who expects his words to be sung to music.

Songs meant to be performed inside other, larger works can be problematic. They may refer to particular characters and situations, which when the song is presented separately, become unfootnoted puzzlements. This song doesn’t have much of a problem there. “Fear No More”  is  sung as a funeral song in the play Cymbeline,  but it’s self-evidently that—a situation that is universal, just as the song admits.

So, as I do my task with this project, figuring out what sort of music to write and effect to try to present in performance, I need to read attentively. Though I have done this hundreds of times during the Parlando Project, I often find that no number of silent readings finds what route to take. This may be me, my wandering attention and self-centeredness, but for this one (as with many others I’ve presented here) the subtilties started to emerge as I come to grips with performing it.

On the surface one could say this song is making an argument: they’re dead—but you know life is suffering, so they are no longer suffering. It doesn’t take long to notice that surface is transparent and there are other things to see through this.

First off, many things here are bittersweet. The opening line, for a Minnesotan** “…the heat of the sun” isn’t something we fear or are even displeased by, even during an extraordinary hot spell. “Golden lads and girls” also, not exactly earthly suffering, and we’re given their end with the joke that they’ll come to dust like the occupationally dusty chimney-sweep. Yes, wages, clothing, eating, learning, loving (all referenced here) can have their struggles, their bad as well as good days, but on the whole we don’t wish to dispense with them.

As the lyric proceeds, Shakespeare slides into darker and darker territory though. Those that assume to be our social superiors are going to have opinions on us, and in some cases our rulers will be tyrants. We may be slandered and censured (apparently this could be done before Twitter). And given some storms in the upper Midwest this August, I’m reminded that summer lightning and thunder are not mere theatrical sturm and drang, but can be the light and sound tech-crew of destructive forces.

And the final stanza moves darker yet. Exorcists, vampires, zombies, and vengeful ghosts—but wait: these are all dangers to/from the dead. So, the whole argument of “At least they are now resting” is completely undercut. And it’s here that I started to notice that the singer who’s tasked with merging with the poet’s work is outlining an inconsistent but vivid life that’s not without agency. This vividness argues against its inconsequentiality.

Imortal Poems of the English LanguageMaster Poems of the English Language Cover

Oscar Williams’ poetry anthologies surprised the mid-century publishing world selling quite well. These two thick yet inexpensive books were part the paperback library of my youth. Maybe it was the titles: “Master” and “Immortal” would be catnip words to an inconsequential young writer. Williams was an ad-man besides being a poet and editor, so this may have been no accident.

 

Shakespeare’s songs attract composers, and this one has been made into lovely art song, but I like to roughen them up a bit, and do so here with this acoustic guitar and voice setting. The player gadget to hear my performance is below. But before I go, I want to tip the hat to the Stuff Jeff Reads blog which recently reminded me of this beautiful and enigmatic lyric. And it turns out he and I both read it first thanks to the same anthologist, Oscar Williams, who issued some surprisingly great-selling mid-20th century paperback poetry anthologies.

 

 

*Besides being a dramatist, he’s also an entrepreneurial content provider for a new form that needs to please nobles who might get their heads chopped off—and then too, folks who couldn’t get good seats for the bear baiting and so had to make do with a play. Given that Elizabethan song had many clever lyricists, it’s not sure if Shakespeare wrote all the songs in his plays. We also don’t know the music composers, or their tunes for the most part. This particular lyric seems “Shakespearean” however.

**And likely too for an Englishperson, with a temperate-climate, but one that’s not too-often sunny. Winter’s “rages” aren’t without joy in Shakespeare either, like this song from another play.