The River Merchant’s Wife, Another Letter

What if you were to find out that a famous, much-loved poem was not a singleton, but that it was instead part of a pair?

The River Merchant’s Wife, A Letter”  is perhaps the most famous Chinese poem in English, and it’s been widely anthologized since Ezra Pound published it in his 1915 collection of translations Cathay.  It’s not hard to see why. It’s a lovely piece of free verse, and though it holds to the Modernist style of showing not telling its sentiments, most readers can easily divine the emotions of the young wife displayed in the poem, separated and longing for her partner.

Be patient with me, reader. I feel I must deal with a few peripheral issues with this poem, which I too admire, for as close as it is to many of its readers’ hearts, there are a few issues. While it’s reasonably frank in its Imagist way about a woman’s desire, one could look at it as an endorsement of patriarchal marriage, rather than a portrayal of two people at a particular moment of time.*  One could conclude that the woman’s agency in the poem is limited to the feelings her tale evokes in us.

If you, like I’m sure some readers here and elsewhere are, seeking art as a break from social issues, there is also a literary issue, one of the nature of translation. I would discuss even more things I happen to think about when I consider this famous poem, but to keep this post to a reasonable length, I’ll just speak to the translation controversy.

Pound wasn’t a Chinese scholar, didn’t speak the language, and didn’t have any knowledge in depth about the history or culture of that vast country. What he was instead was a poet who had what musicians call, and I’ll repeat with punning intent, “great chops.” Particularly at the time literary Modernism was getting underway in the early 20th century, he had a sense of how to pare things back, to express something vital minus a lot of useless extra baggage. Pound likely recognized a kindred spirit in Li Bai,**  the 8th century Chinese poet, and so thought it all right to speak for him in English.***  The poem he produced from Li Bai’s work is a loose translation, missing nuance that more informed scholars find in the original. There have been other attempts at better, or at least more accurate translations. None have produced as widely an effective poem.

But it was in looking at that this past week, while trying to better understand Li Bai’s work and intents, that I had a remarkable discovery. It was probably around midnight, when I should have been sleeping, reading a .PDF scan of a 1922 book of Li Bai translations by Shigeyoshi Obata.****  His translation of the poem Pound made famous is rendered as “Two Letters from Chang-Kan,” the first of which is Obata’s rendering of “The River Merchant’s Wife, a Letter.”   But, But But—what!   There’s another letter!  Did Li Bai intend this to be from another persona, another river merchant’s wife, or is it a second letter written by the same character? Either could make sense. The situation is the same, absent traveling merchant partner, young wife left at home. The speaker’s mood has similarities to the well-known poem too, but there are differences. In my reading of more Li Bai poetry this month I’ve come to believe that he works in subtle associations, subtle parallels, implied metaphors not necessarily made into explicit similes.

Partch-Li Bai-Pound

Harry Partch kicks out the jams, Li Bai considers the abyss, Ezra Pound looking like he’s ready to write yet another crank letter to the editor

 

In this poem, the speaker is a bit more angry with the situation and more wary. She’s not fallen out of love, no, but her expressions seem to mix frank longing for her missing partner, with suspicion that it might not be mutual. Was Li Bai contrasting two women, or expressing that the human heart can hold all those emotions at once?

I’m indebted to Obata for making this Li Bai poem known, and since I know of no other translations, I based my version I use today on his English language one—though I, like Pound but having only my own talents—took liberties. I wanted to tell a story that worked as a song, one that would pull the listener in and bring forward in both the text and performance the wider meaning of what is said by the river merchant’s wife in this purported letter. So, my version has a stronger if not strict meter, occasional rhymes, and I try to emphasize those parallels that serve as images that I think are part of Li Bai’s poetic sense-making. Parallelism, refrains, rhymes—these are all musical tactics that can work to bring some things to the foreground that were undercurrents in Obata’s version of Li Bai.

My performance of what I call “The River Merchant’s Wife, Another Letter”  is available with the player gadget below. As this is already a long and much-delayed post, I’m not including texts yet for this, but I hope the performance will work in its way.

 

 

 

 

*I’m sure some have written critiques on this basis, because there is matter there for this, including that the wife is a teenager (though the poem indicates the husband is roughly the same age.) I wonder if anyone has written that the husband’s absence is based on the needs of commerce, asking if this is a veiled attack on capitalism or a cultured acceptance of it?

**Li Bai is the now preferred way to write the poet’s name in western characters. Many works of Pound’s time use a different scheme to render the same poet’s name as Li Po. There are more variations too. Same guy. Confusing.

***Yes, one of the things I could talk about, instead of getting on to the pleasure of the resulting poetry, would be the cultural appropriation in that assumption. Big subject, worthy of a longer treatment.

****The Works of Li Po the Chinese poet done into English verse.  Obata was of Japanese heritage, but writes he had access to Chinese-speaking friends and other resources while studying at the University of Wisconsin. When he encounters Cathay  he realized Pound’s artistry, but also knew how loose Pound’s translations were, and how they missed certain cultural nuances. “I confess that it was Mr. Pound’s little book that exasperated me and at the same time awakened me to the realization of new possibilities so that I began seriously to do translations myself.” Despite reading both Arthur Waley and Pound’s Chinese translations as a young man, I had never heard of Obata, and there is little available in Internet searches to indicate he made any lasting impact—save for one thing: his translations have been used for settings of Li Bai poems by Constant Lambert and Harry Partch, which seems like remarkably rich company to the likes of me.

Monotone

I love me some early short-form Carl Sandburg. Oh, I can enjoy him in his lengthy Whitmanesque catalog mode and I surely appreciate his too little recognized work in forging what we more recently call Americana, but in much of his early work he’s writing in a mode that people often forget. It’s similar to some of the other early Modernists before the High Modernist style absorbed that revolution and used it to make a complex and literary bureaucracy of allusions and images that were more showy and complex on the surface.

If you have a moment, look at “Monotone,”  a nine-line poem, linked here. How easy it would be to overlook this poem. There’s no exotic words or settings, and the images seem to risk falling into the banal. What’s there? A rainfall, a sunrise and a sunset. If most of us were to put those as the major images in a poem, our poems would likely fail to seem unique in any worthwhile way, or we’d stress and strain to make them unique. I myself might reach for the surreal or the odd detail because I would think I was otherwise making a poem with no worthwhile freshness. And perhaps Sandburg fails in that way for some readers here. What is he risking that failure to convey?

In these nine lines he wants to write a love poem of the least common kind. Poems of desire, poems of the kind of overthrow of the senses and proportion that new love brings, poems of enchantment with possibility—those are legion. And they’re worthwhile. Love and desire, like other visionary states, illuminate things we are otherwise unable to believe. Some of those things are true and some are false, some are the painful disguised as beautiful. They proclaim for us to give ourselves and give up ourselves.

Sandburg’s “Monotone”  isn’t that. It’s a lyric poem of a long-time relationship. Even its title dares to be unexciting. Monotone word-wise is near enough to monotony, and musically who would be attracted to a piece that claims that as its title?

The poem’s opening image makes an argument for musical monotone. A rainstorm has no melodic invention, but if listened to without seeking that quality and being disappointed that it lacks this, it has dynamics of volume and rhythm. Listen to what’s there, not to what’s missing  the first stanza asks of us, and we’ll find the “multitudinous rain.” This is not a showy stanza, but since multitudinous is by far the least common word in the poem, that one ornament stands out all the more. Even if one remembers only those two words “multitudinous rain,” one can carry it with ourselves and experience rain in new ways while thinking on that phrase on some grey and otherwise unappealing day.

Is the second stanza banal? If you think so I can’t give you an argument that’ll refute you. Yes, the sun on the hills is beautiful, and sunset over seas too. Thank you very much Carl Obvious Sandburg, but why have you wasted our time with those three lines about what everyone has already noticed. What value might they have? Well, for one they are  common. Carl Sandburg is fully baptized in the belief of a common humanity, so the fact that he states what we all know isn’t quite the sin that another artist might abhor. What Sandburg does with these commonplaces is to let us know there’s something we still don’t know about them, even when we think they’re too prosaic to have anything yet to perceive. In those few words in the second three-line stanza there is the notion that the sunset (precious, golden fire) is captured by the cold sea. So easy to overlook if we read it like a prose paragraph, assuming only quick utility. If one had to translate this from a foreign language, if this was written in Chinese ideograms, perhaps we’d slow down and see this. The beautiful in the guise of the desired, is captured, is quenched, rises and sets.

Now the third, three-line stanza concludes this book of changes, bringing synthesis to the previous two. Beholding one’s long-time partner, one sees the multitudinous monotone rain and  the moments of passion or anger, unease or loss, joined. With the “Monotone”  title at the head and the ending line I read that sunny mountain scene and picture postcard sea-sunset of the second stanza as being measured against a rarer and more precious multitudinous rain of long-love.

With this simple concise expression of a complex feeling, the poem requests you to see that. In 1916 when this was published in Sandburg’s Chicago Poems  its very simplicity was still audacious, and that itself made the case for this poem. In a generation or so it would seem to not be trying hard enough to capture our attention. While poetry was free to leave strict meter and reliable rhyme schemes behind, it had returned to an aesthetic of surface complexity equaling merit.

Carl and Lillian Sandburg by Edward Steichen

Espoused. Carl and Lillian Sandburg around the time “Monotone” was published. Photograph by Lillian’s brother, the photographer Edward Steichen. Earlier, inn 1908 Sandburg wrote “I would rather be a poem like you than write poems,” but we got the multitudinous rain of his poetry anyway.

 

A few words on the musical setting before I remind you that you can click on the player gadget to hear my performance of Sandburg’s “Monotone.”  As I composed this I was concentrating more on timbre and less on melody. The dominant keyboard sound in the piece is a complex combination of a grand piano with every bit of string resonance brought forward, an electric piano, and a keyboard piano bass (that last a sound mostly known from Ray Manzarek’s playing with the Doors). It’s kind of the idea of the “Hard Day’s Night”  chord being used throughout the piece. this is another composition where it would probably be better if I wasn’t the vocalist who sings it, but that’s who I have available. Listen to it with the gadget below.

 

Some Rainbow coming from the Fair

There I was, thinking it’s been over a month since I’ve presented an Emily Dickinson poem here. I didn’t start this project thinking that Dickinson would be so prevalent as a source for texts, but that’s what happened, and during the past four years my appreciation and wonder at Dickinson has increased greatly.

One thing I came to sense in her poetry that I had not noticed before was an air of the mystical combined with an almost psychedelic playfulness. This can be dark or light depending on the poem, but since many of the things I’ve been working on lately have been in a darker, more gothic vein, I thought I’d look more to the lighthearted side. I started a search for Dickinson and spring, and while I’m not sure exactly what keywords I used, this poem turned up very near the top, and it immediately captured me. I had thought I’d be searching for a while but found my next piece in less than 10 minutes.

“Some Rainbow coming from the Fair”  is not one of the most famous of Dickinson’s poems, nor has it been commonly set to music (unlike many other Dickinson texts). Here’s the full text and a picture of the manuscript in Emily’s own handwriting if you’d like to follow along.

It opens with two remarkable and attractive lines that don’t present a distinct image. I’m not sure which meaning of the word “Fair” we’re to understand in the first line. Fair as in a celebratory meeting or market (like a county or town fair) or fair as in beautiful, but rainbows and fair in the first line and we could almost be in My Little Pony land if Dickinson doesn’t launch us further out quickly into a “A vision of the world Cashmere.” I first thought of the luxurious wool,*  but she also could be using this word as an alternate name for the Asian region called Kashmir. Peacocks complete the luxurious imagery of the first stanza. In later context we’ll see that this is an image of wildflowers, but at this point we’re still in mystery and allure.

Next stanza is lovely in sound and more specific in what it pictures. Butterflies are butterflies, ponds have insect sounds again, and in an image that might make one laugh out loud, bees are “barons” out of their castles and on the ambling march.

Third stanza, robins have replaced the enrapturing snow that Dickinson so ably described in a poem many liked here last winter. She next gives us an orchis flower prettying up for an old lover, the exotic Spanish nobleman “Don the Sun” who is revisiting her in her swamp.**  The sensual and the silly playfulness keep mixing it up.

In context we now suspect that the poem is describing wildflowers in its more impressionistic and feathered images. And the final stanza marshals the spring blooms into an army. And then, like it started, the poem departs with two lines that end in mystery. What’s up with the flower children of “turbaned seas” and the “Circassian Land?”

Well first, flowers again.*** The spring flowering tulip’s name is derived from the same word as the Turkish word turban because the bud’s shape is of a like shape to the head covering. The Circassians and their native region in the Caucasus mountains were in the news at the time this poem was written. Imperial Russia had invaded the area, and the Circassians were fighting back.**** Some of the coverage dealt with atrocities including the enslavement of Circassian captives and captured Circassian women being held in Turkish harems. As we’ve discussed before, this last trope was an exotic/erotic fixation for some westerners. Circassians were geographically “Caucasians”—and in the archaic understanding of ethnicity of this time, Caucasians were held to be the prototypical white race. Therefore, beyond the usual fascination with underdog fighters against Imperial forces and humanitarian concerns with displaced refugees, there was this additional element of “White Slavery” and a frisson of the forbidden.

So this is a very particular and odd way to end the poem—but even if you know nothing of the current events of the mid 19th century, it does still convey that exotic flavor. A reader reading this without context may still find it an enjoyable spring celebration poem. It certainly captured my interest at first reading. But wait, there’s one more bit of context!

It may well have been intended to capture it’s reader, as it did me, in that it’s one of the poems Dickinson sent in a letter to her friend, sister in law, neighbor, and possible lover Susan Gilbert Dickinson in 1859. If you look at the end of that handwritten manuscript, it ends with this note:

Emily's Dear Sue Note

Dear Sue, I haven’t “paid you an attention” for some time. Girl.

 

 

As with all things Emily and Sue, there’s a gathering amount of modern speculation and scholarship to these matters. Just a little friend to friend note or a bread-and-butter obligation repaid to a sister in law? Or is this poem meant to be an encoded mash note to a romantic crush?

If it’s consciously or unconsciously erotic, one may be able to see that reading without strain. Cashmere as fabric for a vest or blouse. The pervasive flowers now as the beautiful reproductive organs of plants. And butterflies. The bees, are they singing Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee”  from a hundred years after Dickinson’s poem? That Orchis waiting for a lover? Oh, for certain. Sensuous feathers. The whole captive in a harem as role-playing. It’s not just the spring wetlands that are getting steamy in here!

In the end, the poem may stand either for spring’s desire and delight or the poet’s. And as I said last time, it captures you with it sound of thought either way. The player gadget for my performance is below.

 

 

* Dickinson might have had it in mind, as this textile from Asiatic goats had been introduced to western countries, and Massachusetts in her time had mills that wove it into fabric.

** The informal British English meaning for “bog” was not likely on Emily’s mind. However, one of Dickinson’s poetic heroes Elizabeth Barrett Browning had helped propagate the Latin lover trope with her publication of her love poems Sonnets from the Portuguese in 1850.

***Emily Dickinson was an avid gardener, and as a young woman compiled an elaborate herbarium classifying a great many flowers in her region. Whenever Dickinson mentions a flower you can be sure she knows more about it than the average person.

****These overseas battles were covered in the Springfield Republican,  a Massachusetts newspaper that was read in the Dickinson household and which was one of the few places that published an Emily Dickinson poem while she was alive. Alas for the Circassians, the final outcome of this invasion was diaspora and what in a quaint 20th century euphemism was called “ethnic cleansing.” And to think that I sought out this poem because I wanted contrast to other, darker stuff I was working on.

Crepuscule (I Will Wade Out)

Another short break in the Dave Moore series to present an unabashedly ecstatic poem by E. E. Cummings.

The kind of Modernist poetry we often use here rarely presents itself like this, as the early 20th Century pioneers tended to be a downbeat and skeptical lot, even before the great tribulation of the First World War. Cummings isn’t the only exception, but a poem like this is so extraordinary in its exuberance that it will always stand out.

E E Cummings self-portrait

Lipping flowers…the ecstatic poet’s self-portrait in pencil

 

As a page poem, “Crepuscule”  is laid out on the page in staggered lines sans punctuation, something Cummings may have picked up from Apollinaire, but the syntax isn’t as jumbled as some E. E. Cummings poems. It actually reads fairly easily once I lined-out the dismembered sentences. The images are surreal, though written before official Surrealism, and paradoxical sensations and states come one after another. Can one gather what is happening in the poem beyond the welcoming of sensation and exploration?

Crepuscule as a page poem

Cummings’ “Crepuscule” as a page-poem.

 

The title is “Crepuscule,”  an antique word for twilight, and so the poem is set in that proverbial border time. The poem goes on to either explore sleeplessly and fearlessly in the unknown darkness, or launch itself into the imagination of dreams, which surreally complete and supersede the “mystery of my flesh”—at night exploration, or dreams, at once, indistinguishable.

I didn’t see this until after I finished performing it, but I suspect the poem may have bookended images near the start and at the end, the twilight beginning with the swallowing of the sun, the ending with the moon setting the teeth (on edge) with the metallic bite-taste of the moon.

As sometimes happens when I compose the music for these pieces I find out or remember that others have done this before me. As soon as I saw the title I thought immediately of Thelonious Monk’s instrumental compositionCrepuscule with Nellie  and the idea was planted to use piano in my music for this. I did end up with some piano, but I reverted to guitar, my home instrument, to express the unrelenting long line of this poem that leaps into the bothness moment of twilight.

Embarrassingly, I had forgotten that Björk had performed all but the last part of Cummings’ poem as Sun in my Mouth  on her album Vespertine.  Björk brings big time sensuality to Cummings’ words, bringing out the eroticism that was always there, not just by her commitment to the performance, but by ending on and repeating the “Will I complete the mystery of my flesh” line, bringing fleshiness to the mystery. But this is a poem of the borderline, and the flesh is also hymned to complete a change to something else.

My fearless borderline tonight is presenting this music which would have difficulty reaching the level of originality of Monk or Björk. To hear my performance of E. E. Cummings’ “Crepuscule,”  leap into the ripe air by clicking on the player below.

 

Cold Is the North Wind, and Why Did Confucius Collect a Book of Songs Anyway?

Here’s one more musical piece from the anthology of ancient Chinese poetry collected by Confucius and his school and known as the Confucian Odes  or The Book of Songs.

This one may be my favorite, though my performance of it dates to a time before I could find literal translations to check against the extant English ones. Perhaps even more so than our last piece, “Wild Plums,”  this presents itself as an expression of lover’s desire. You might find it similar to the Bible’s Song of Songs in that regard.

When I was young and looked at commentary on the Song of Songs,  I was surprised to find that some scholars believed it to be a spiritual metaphor rather than some too-hot-for-school love poetry. My take then: those scholars must be prudes.

With the Confucian Odes,  remember that the Confucians thought their collection of folk-poetry was not just a piece of cultural curation, but required reading for advanced participation in society—not just for poets or humanities majors, but also for politicians and bureaucrats, a class the Chinese Empire needed a great many of. There is commentary on “Cold Is the North Wind”  that says then that this song expresses a hardship or grievance experienced by some province or another, or that the lover’s desire is a metaphor for political concern. After you listen to “Cold Is the North Wind”  you may think that must be willfully obtuse. “What part of the ‘I’m lonely, it’s cold in this bed alone, and I want you right here, don’t they get?” you might be thinking.

In both cases, the Song of Songs  and “Cold Is the North Wind,”  I’ve come to a slightly different view. Poetry, sometimes when it’s at its best, binds the image and what it’s representing in a way that doesn’t privilege one over the other. William Carlos Williams’ Red Wheelbarrow  isn’t some symbol which we need to decode as a handy emoji for the usefulness of tools in ordinary work, and “Aha! We’ve solved the poetry puzzle for today!” it’s also a freaking red wheelbarrow in a chickenyard and it’s wet with rain in a way we can feel and see if we allow that. Separated lovers are separated lovers, and their ache we can feel, but that ache specific to that need and pleasure is something we can feel again in other intensities. And that act of listening to these words (or listening to them on the page) binds us to the poem in the way the poet binds the image to the things the image is like.

There’s something there for future bureaucrats and politicians.

There was a time, also in my youth, when we thought songs might be able to do that. Someone who listened to Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, Patti Smith, or other Smiths and Jones would be changed not necessarily into record store clerks or musicians but into more empathetic people whose imaginations would be wider than the immediate space around them. To what degree were we wrong? One provisional answer: “not entirely.”

Chinese Throne

“So, I’m writing this tweet. What makes the best metaphor: low IQ, sick, ugly, dumb, dog, failing or FAKE? I’m a genius myself, but poetry is an elite WITCH HUNT, and I could use a little help casting this spell. What, you can use poetry to listen, not just to speak good?”

 

 

If there was a modern Confucian school sitting somewhere in the English-speaking world, what would they collect to instruct future government members and business functionaries?

The player to listen to my performance of “Cold Is the North Wind”  is below. If you’ve been checking out the archives of over 250 other combinations of various words and original music on the right, you might notice that “Cold Is the North Wind”  appeared here several years back, before the official launch of this blog. With today’s post, it will now be available to those that follow the audio pieces via Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or through other podcast services.

 

 

Pig Cupid

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.

mina-loy

I love my baby, cause she does good sculptures, yeah!” The young Mina Loy

 

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.

Tullio Crali - Bombardamento-aereo (1932)

Futurist war painting. Compare its outlook to Guernica or Flint’s poem “Zeppelins.
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.

What happens?

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.

 

Union Square

Last month when I dropped Sara Teasdale’s “I Shall Not Care”  hurriedly, I promised I’d return to Teasdale and say a bit more about her.

I’m not sure where Teasdale is in “The Canon” of modern verse now, but back when I was in college, she was even more left-out than Edna St. Vincent Millay, and for similar reasons. Teasdale and Millay were both contemporaries of the pioneering early 20th Century Modernists, both were published in their little magazines, received prestigious literary awards, and achieved a considerable readership in an era when page poetry had a more general readership.

But such status didn’t hold. As the 20th Century wore on, and High Modernism and academic-informed writing became the predominant style, Teasdale, like Millay didn’t seem to have the gravitas High Modernism required—after all, both wrote often about love and desire, a subject that if treated directly wasn’t thought serious enough. You know, “women’s stuff.”

If you’re getting the idea that by mid-century, Modernism was a bit of a boy’s club—well, yes, it was.

Teasdale had all of Millay’s problems with the curators of Modernism, and then some. Millay could write in the more modern style as well as engaging in somewhat old-fashioned-sounding sonnets. Teasdale was more adamantly a writer of metrical, rhymed lyrics that increasingly didn’t sound modern enough. Millay herself was a fiercely modern woman whose persona contrasted against any Victorian trappings in her poetic music, while Teasdale seemed less sure of herself. A typical no-win-situation for female poets by mid-century: assertiveness or originality couldn’t overcome the patriarchal attitudes—while submissiveness and reticence guaranteed its victory.

We’re decades past all that now, and we have a new century well underway. Today, it may seem like less of a crime for Teasdale to use the poetic music of 1875 instead of 1925 in this poem written around 1911. Publishing a poem like “Union Square”  would have not caused Millay any second thoughts, but Teasdale went back and forth on that. In a fascinating run-down of Teasdale’s own doubts about the poem, Melissa Girard recounts early readers giving feedback like “Perhaps it is better, after all, to pursue the lovelier side of existence, and only give expression to what is unmarred in the realm of beauty.” And bizarrely, even after publishing it, Teasdale suggested “If the idea at the end of ‘Union Square’  had not been an accident suggested by rhyme, I should never have said what I said.” Say what? One of the beneficial side-effects of rhyme is that the search for it can work like Surrealist and automatic-writing techniques to jolt the mind’s search for language in directions it might not otherwise go—but none of the lines in “Union Square”  where the poem’s speaker compares herself to the streetwalking prostitutes are rhyming lines.

isabel-bishop-virgil-and-dante-in-union-square-1932

Looking for early 20th Century pictures of Union Square I discovered a remarkable painter Isabel Bishop

I found it impossible not to sing this poem when presenting it, the poetry just demands it, even if the poem’s persona is expressing constraint. I think that contrast is what makes this poem, and Teasdale, worth considering. To hear my performance of Sara Teasdale’s “Union Square,”  use the player gadget below.

Already a Broken Heart

Are there more poems about love than any other topic? I’ve done no study, but I think that’s likely.

Now, are the majority of the most prestigious poems about love? I strongly suspect they are not. If one looks at the top of the list compiled from mostly American modern poetry anthologies completed by Emily Temple for LitHub, less than a quarter are love poems—and this is so even if one loosely counts poems like “Prufrock” as love songs on the misdirection of the title.

Another thing I would expect to find, if one focusses on the poems concerning love, is that most that remain are about how love has gone wrong.

Perhaps that can be laid to the principle in Tolstoy’s famous line about families “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Perhaps there is more varied material in love’s absences and discontents.

The Lovers by René Magritte

Why yes, I agree these pillowcases seem to have adequately high thread count, but I was shopping for a duvet cover.

 

Can this relative rarity have other causes? Could it also be that it’s harder to write a good love poem? Mere gushing has its limits, as true as it may be to love’s initiation. Honest love poems have their dangers, as they ride on a delicate balance point. My favorite episode of the BBC Elizabethan-era sitcom “Upstart Crow” has Shakespeare trying to explain that sonnet 130 “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” is a good love poem. Sitcom Shakespeare explains:

“Conventionally, love sonnets are ridiculously flattering. They make absurdly overblown claims for the beauty of their subjects. Well, we wouldn’t want that, would we? The love I show you in my startlingly innovative 130th sonnet is greater, because it recognizes your flaws.”

“Next time bring me sweets.”

No spoilers here. “Who The Bard! Me the Bard!”

 

And then there’s the episode’s ending when Kit Marlowe defends Shakespeare on a morals charge with a surprising legal defense. I won’t spoil that.

“Already a Broken Heart”  is my own attempt at an honest love poem/love song. If even sitcom Shakespeare has troubles with honest love sonnets, I won’t claim success. Furthermore, I’m hesitant about the performance, as I’m asking my singing voice, the only one I have available in my production process, to do things it’s not good at. Sometimes I hear it as honest, and other times I hear it as insufficient. A better singer or singers could do much more with this.

Use the player below to hear “Already a Broken Heart.”

 

Arrival

Today’s words are from William Carlos Williams. Unlike our last post, I wouldn’t call this a love poem. Oh, I believe there’s an assignation between two people in the opening section of this poem, but affection seems missing and the desire, if present, seems to be questioned—no, that’s not quite right—the questioning of desire is silent, present in its absence.

William Carlos Williams 1

Poet and physician William Carlos Williams casts a cold, clinical eye on desire

 

This is another poem I came across at the Interesting Literature blog, where it was included in a round-up of seduction poems. We’ve visited a few of that type of poem here as well, with shepherds, nymphs, a merchant’s wife, and Williams’ fellow physician-poet Thomas Campion making invitations—but this isn’t really a proposition, any more than it’s a love poem.

Williams’ poem is not titled something like “Come Live with Me and Be My Love”,  it’s titled “Arrival.”  So yes, an assignation, but one with a schedule like a train or airplane flight, or as we’ll soon see, like a season. Is there desire in the unhooking of the dress? In modernist, Imagist style, that emotion is not stated, but the passive voice and sparsest of descriptions argues that it’s there and is not there.

After the poem finds itself, as many of us have or will find ourselves one day, in a “strange bedroom,” a sea change occurs. The woman in the dress has disappeared. In her place: an autumn tree, disrobing its leaves because the season is felt arriving. Again, desire is not mentioned—it wouldn’t be mentioned, this is an Imagist “show not tell” poem—but this image is also passive and rote.

I’ll let you feel and figure out the image of the final few lines yourself. The now naked woman as bare winter tree? Or is her presumably male companion’s body being synecdoched?

Merlin Dulcimer

“A dulcimer in a vision once I saw” The Seagull Merlin dulcimer I played on this.

 

What of the music today? The instrument that sounds something like a mandolin is an Appalachian dulcimer, a simple American instrument; but one, like the sitar used in the last post’s audio piece, that has drone strings. The music is modal too, based around D Dorian. On the percussion side I remain attracted lately to little instruments, so there are shakers, maracas, a cabasa, congas, a chime tree, even some finger snaps in this. I could say that this is a connection to William Carlos Williams’ Puerto Rican heritage, but really, it’s something that is pleasing me musically this month.

Here’s the piece, use the player gadget below to hear it.

 

Did you like it? Want to help spread the word about this ongoing project to mix various words (mostly poetry) with various music? Hitting the like button here helps, but what does the most to bring this to the attention of new readers and listeners is to mention and share this blog on your own blog or on social media.

Want the audio pieces to listen to later? You can subscribe to the Parlando Project podcast on Itunes, Google Play Music, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

 

Oread

How did you spend your extra hour given to us by the Daylight Savings Time changeover? Some spent it snuggled with a loved one, or others for splendid dreams given time for extra chapters. I spent my night and hour wrestling with another poet’s poem and creating and performing music for it.

A few posts back we presented William Carlos Williams “The Red Wheelbarrow,” a widely anthologized and very short Imagist poem. My current feeling, shared in that post, was that Williams really was talking about a red wheelbarrow, a simple tool used for important tasks. Of course, he was also aware that the rain-glazed red paint of the wheelbarrow and the white chickens around it was a bold visual image, consistent with the modernist art he appreciated, and that he didn’t mind the provocation of calling attention to this without elaborate justification, any more than a classical painter or poet would think they would have been required to tell us why we should give a fig about Artemis.

Here’s another short Imagist poem, this time by Hilda Doolittle, who wrote as H. D.   H. D. knew William Carlos Williams from when Williams was a college student, but then H. D. knew or crossed paths with many of the principals of Modernism over her lifetime. Modernist poetry admitted more women creators than painting or music, or most other arts at the start of the 20th Century, but that’s a low bar to clear. H. D. cleared it however, and she continued to run her own race on her own course from the start of her career.

HD in Egypt

Another episode from HD’s remarkable life: she was present when King Tut’s tomb was opened in 1923

 

H. D.’s 26 word poem is much different from Williams’ 16 word one. It’s much stranger, and the internal state the external images present is more complex than even many longer poems reflect.

In some ways, the title “Oread”,  the effective 27th word, helps us. For those not up on Greek mythology, we can look it up, it’s a mountain nymph or spirit. Like many Greek nature spirits, an Oread is female.

So, from the title of the poem, we can say that it’s an Oread that’s speaking—but even if we grant that, this ain’t Tinkerbell. The supposed nymph is commanding nature, as a full-fledge god or goddess or a magician would. And the Oread is not asking it for protection, or forbearance, or even for it to put the hex on someone else, it’s asking it to do it’s best to overcome her. “Whirl” “pointed” “splash”, and “hurl” are some of those 26 words.

Another huge difference between Williams “Wheelbarrow”  and H. D.’s “Oread:”  the former is intensely visual, the later, just as intensely, tactile.

And who’s the Oread talking too? Three words in, it seems to make that clear: “sea.” Except the sea is described largely as a forest—a forest that can splash and form pools, but a forest at least as much as a sea. The sharpest readings of this is that the Oread is speaking of the sea with the images of the forested mountain (waves are like trees, water drops are like the needles of pines), but by saying it so, she is saying that the overcoming she commands is a merging of two like things.

I’m left with a conclusion that this is a spell of desire. Whether it is sensual, spiritual, or artistic desire makes no difference in the frenzied merger that is being called into being.

So, what did I do in writing music and performing “Oread?”  I repeat most of the lines at least twice, to emphasize the incantational aspect. Despite my recently expressed desire to re-explore artificial drum machine sounds, the percussion has lots of little instruments for a ceremonial air: shakers, maracas, cymbals, tambourine, even a chiming triangle. The main musical motif is a four-note synthesizer phrase that seems to be looping, but once again isn’t, as permutations occur throughout. The bass part rarely plays the same note as the synth motif, a musical effect that can be likened to “rubbing,” an apt metaphor for this sensuous poem.

To hear it, use the player below.