Today’s re-released Parlando piece from our early years is “Crepuscule” by American poet E. E. Cummings. This is certainly a passionate, ecstatic poem, isn’t it! Looking back at what I wrote about it in 2018, I was then taking the main meaning of the poem to be a portrayal of falling into a Surrealistic dream state. In the same post I confessed I hadn’t remembered that Björk had performed a version of this poem that seemed filled with erotic desire.
Rereading and reconsidering, I’m more unsure which is metaphor and which is meaning — and I think that’s often a good thing in poetry. We’re in one of those gestalt drawings created with a spell of words. We could be in the transport of desire, and it is like unleashing a spectacular dream: flowers are not just colorful, but burning with color. We will be still in bed, yet leaping with sleep-closed eyes. And so on.* It’s difficult to not feel the erotic pull of the text. For a dream, the mystery is very much of the flesh. Mouths, thighs, bodily curves, fingers, lips…is it dream as sex or sex as dream?
Three ways to hear my performance of E. E. Cummings “Crepuscle:” there’s a player gadget below for many, and there’s a backup highlighted link for the others. Want some dream images flowing behind the words of a lyric video? That video is above.
*The most mysterious line has lovely word-music: “with chasteness of sea-girls.” I’m assuming a reference to nereids, sea nymphs, but I’m unsure if the poet’s speaker is becoming one, or trysting with one, in the rush of their dream. If water spirits, perhaps gender fluidity is a subliminal?
I’ll promise you a love song at the end of this, but let’s look briefly at some other stuff that surrounds that song.
As I look in the Langston Hughes poetry collection I’m featuring this Black History Month for a Valentine’s Day piece, there is less to pick from than one might imagine. Even though his The Weary Blues is a first book by a young man, and it includes some of the Afro-American poet’s best-known poems — poems of love or passionate desire are conspicuous in their absence.
Even for 1926, the year The Weary Blues was published, this is somewhat unusual. You might think roughly a century ago the down and dirty lunge of love might be automatically missing, and to some degrees of physical explicitness you’d be correct, but poems on the emotional variety of love and desire were if anything the very fashion for the last decade called The Twenties. Popular and esteemed poets of that era Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sara Teasdale, and others were quite ready to talk frankly about desire. Nor were Afro-Americans silent on this subject. Jean Toomer wrote what I think is flat-out one of the best surrealist love poems of all time. Claude McKay wrote beautiful and passionate love sonnets, and the Blues singers performing and recording then were quite willing to serve in the lust and fond department of art.*
We’ve already said that Hughes was a pioneer in valuing those very Blues and Jazz singers. Early this month we performed Hughes’ “To Midnight Nan at Leroy’s,” a Blues poem presenting just such a singer and a condensed late-night view of a hook up. Was the man in this poem Hughes himself? Possible, but I think the preponderance of the evidence says not. I think he’s an observer of the tryst, and even given the value he puts on short poems in his collection, he somewhat stints on the details.
No, Langston Hughes, for all his night-life settings and ash-can-school observations in The Weary Blues is almost prudish about sex and love. If he feels desire himself, he’s loath to talk about it — while all around him poets and singers were talking and talking about that.
I’m not a scholar, just a person who actively seeks out poetry encounters and then gathers some information that helps me grasp what the poem may be on about. Hughes was guarded about his sexuality. I gather this was true for his entire life. Some believe he was gay or bi, but then other poets of his time were and that didn’t stop them from writing about desire even if their readers didn’t necessarily understand the gender object of their affections.** I read at least one piece that concluded Hughes was asexual. Frankly no one seems to know, and if you’re looking to date Langston Hughes, he’s dead, so it may not matter.
Today’s piece uses Hughes’ “Song to the Dark Virgin.” It does show passion, and if not as Surrealist as Toomer’s great poem, it dips into almost a Robert Herrick style 17th century set of conceits*** Hughes’ use of the archaic pronoun “Thou” and a few other less current words in common speech show him code-switching to something a bit like the Bible’s “Song of Songs” in the King James translation.
And speaking of “Song of Songs,” it’s not even clear if this love poem is to some anonymous person or if in some sense it’s to Black people in general, just as “Song of Songs” melds what seem like individual lovers into Judaism. If you read this poem as Black is Beautiful breaking out 40 years before it’s more publicized instances, you could make a good case.**** The Weary Blues includes poems set in the various ports Hughes landed at around the world during his stint as a merchant sailor before assembling the book, and his father was living in Mexico. From this I wondered if the ”Dark Virgin” is a reference to the Black Madonna paintings and figures he might have encountered overseas. A possible clue to this not just being a young person’s love poem is that it’s titled “to the Dark Virgin” not “to a.”
A Greek Orthodox icon, one of the examples of the Black Madonna found in Eurasia and Latin America.
But Valentines Day is here, so let’s perform this as a romantic love song. In Robert Herrick style, just calling out a love object as a virgin isn’t unusual. In such a reading or performance this is how the poem may be described: the poem opens with the idea of being a scattered and shattered love offering to the beloved in Part I. Part II gets a little more intimate: the speaker wants to be the layer of clothes next to the beloved skin. Kinky, but Herrick and for that matter “If I Was Your Girlfriend” Prince would approve. Part III gets closer to consummation of desire as in the trope of consummation as consumed by fire. Yes, it’s a little bit of archaic dress up, but who knows, maybe a love whisper of “I want to annihilate your body” is still a working bedroom line?
The above are guitar chords as I fingered them, but the recording uses a capo on the 3rd fret, so it’s heard in the key of Bb today. Interesting progression, there’s no V chord in it!
If you follow the progress of the imagery Part I starts out with shining light, then the more obscured light inside folds of clothing, and finally in Part III it’s out in blazes of leaping flame.
I ardently performed this one today with guitar, chorused fretless bass, and a warped low string section. I let those bowed strings play what an electric bass would play so that the actual electric bass could do other things. Many of you can hear it with a graphical player below, but those whose way of reading this won’t show the player can use this highlighted link to play it.
Looking for texts to feature here this month, I came upon this odd Robert Frost poem “Bond and Free” and I could easily see how I could perform it Parlando style. Performance unavoidably involves choices, even if it can precede fuller understanding. Let me talk some about those choices I made and what understanding I’ve come to have about this poem. If you want to have the full text available while I discuss it, it can be found here.
What seemed odd about this poem? Well, I associate Frost with specific and palpable imagery. If one has any sense of the rural landscape of the 20th century, as I do, I can often place myself directly on the stage with the speaker in a Frost poem and examine the set decoration. Critical overviews of Frost’s era will sometimes want to clearly distinguish his work from the Modernists, mistaking the devices of rhyme and meter as the essentials of his work. This ignores that he’s so often working in his early short poems with the same direct observation, avoidance of worn-out tropes, and fresh, lyrically present moments as the Imagists.
This poem with it’s capitalized “Thought” and “Love” is not like that. In some ways it’s like Emily Dickinson in her more philosophical or legalistic abstract mode. To the degree that this poem has a landscape, a stage set, the one on which this poem plays is cosmic.
Frost’s poem begins “Love has earth to which she clings.” Any accustomed Frost reader would expect that garden or farming matters will follow. We first read Love here as implying a plant’s roots, but what follows has a topography viewed from aerial heights. From there the valleys of a hilly country are, as they can practically be in Frost’s time, wall after wall that separates people and their towns from each other. That third word “earth” as the poem progressed could well be capitalized too, for it’ll turn out to be more at the planet Earth, not mere soil. The first stanza ends by introducing Love’s contrasting principle in this poem — Thought, as in Free Thought. Right away we see Thought is flying above it all, in the mode of Icarus or Daedalus.
The poem’s speaker (I’ll call them Frost, for as there’s no sense that Frost is setting up some special other voice from his own) follows Thought as the second stanza views Earth’s earth from above as a landscape with marks of human effort on the ground visible as a printed page. “Nice enough” it seems to have Free Thought thinking, but “Thought has shaken his ankles free.”
It’s now a good time to take note of the poem’s title: “Bond and Free.” Frost is writing this about 50 years after African-American emancipation. Like Emily Dickinson (who wrote most of her poetry during the Civil War) Frost almost never mentions slavery, the issues of racism, or the widespread theories of racial differences or superiorities in his poetry.* Leg shackles could be applied to prisoners of course, but like the broken shackles that are hard to view at the feet of the Statue of Liberty, in the American context I think slavery is an intended connotation here. Essays on cultural appropriation could be written from this. Not here, but it’s possible. I could suppose someone could see a BSDM reading. While I know a blog post titled “Robert Frost and Sexual Kink” would be surefire clickbait, I’ll resist. It’s also plausible that he was connecting “bond” in the sense of “marriage bond.” More on this below.
“You read your Emily Dickinson. And I my Robert Frost…” The two great American poets lived in Amherst in different centuries, and this set of statues there commemorates that.
In the third stanza we outdo Bezos, Musk, and Branson as Frost notes with inexpensive poetic efficiency that Free Thought is not bound-in by earthly hills but is capable of interstellar flight. This stanza’s final lines, an Icarian or Luciferian plummet, find that at the end of the limits of the dreams of a night Thought invariably returns to an “earthly room.” As my footnote below notes, Frost is fairly sure of the fallen nature of humanity.
The final stanza is, to my reading, an ambiguous judgement. If humanity is fallen, Frost too is unable to judge the competition and contrast of Love and Free Thought. Thought’s freedom and range, even if temporary, even if illusionary, has a pull and value. And “some” (Frost externalized this opinion and doesn’t say they are right or wrong) say Love (even if it’s bondage and constrains one) can have a fuller possession by nature of its grounded stasis.
The poem’s final couplet retains this duality, Free Thought has partial experiences of multitudinous beauties in a wonderous universe, but these beauties are “fused” to other stars. To choose other than temporary dreams, just replaces New Hampshire with Sirius.
I said at the start performance means choices. I made an audacious choice. In Frost’s poem he consistently gendered Love as female and Thought as male. Furthermore, I’ve read second-hand references that in an earlier draft he chose to make both Love and Thought female, an unusual choice that he abandoned. I made my choice for my own reasons, to help the performer, myself. I think that choice makes it a stronger piece for myself and for my audience.
The reports of Frost’s abandoned choice would make for a different poem. English writing in Frost’s time usually used male pronouns for universals and abstracts, so that original choice of female pronouns must have been intentional. His choice for skyward Free Thought as male, and earthy and fecund Love as female is archetypal, and I in turn made a conscious decision to reject that. I did this because I feared that too many listeners might grasp this poem as a conflict of male sexual freedom vs. the clingy women. Intentionally or subconsciously, this may have been in Frost’s mind, and even so then this is Frost’s version of the complicated love poem that the female “songbird poets” were developing in his time, even if it’s more abstract in describing the bond and free of desire.** I just preferred the duality of the poem ungendered, and I think modern audiences are ready to receive that version.
The player to hear my performance will appear below for many of you. However, some ways of reading this blog won’t show it, and so here’s a highlighted hyperlink to play it. You will notice that besides the pronouns there are a few other textural differences, some accidental, some chosen to make the language more colloquial*** and easier for a modern listener to grasp on hearing. I don’t know if these changes are for the better, but they were this performer’s choice. As promised earlier in this month of noisier musics, acoustic 12-string guitar and piano featured this time, but just enough sarod and tambura in the background to add a non-New England air.
*Frost did write one searing poem on racial hatred and violence: “The Vanishing Red,”which I presented here. A brief search today didn’t return much. I would expect that he held stereotypical views and used ugly racial epithets casually. Like Dickinson, Frost’s silence on this central American issue should be more often considered as a loud silence. In her defense, Dickinson’s stance on human freedom, often expressed in her poetry, can easily be viewed as inspirational by all. Frost is surer of a fallen humanity, but that too can be appreciated by those weighed down by life or oppression.
**That reading would say that Frost was more guarded and indirect in dealing with desire than Millay, Teasdale, and the “songbird poets.” Thus, the uncharacteristic abstraction of this poem
***One of Frost’s Modernist strengths was to largely remove from his metered and rhyming verse the sense of stilted and too formal poetic diction. My judgement was that this skill deserted Frost several times in this poem. Perhaps abandoning his usual distinct and grounded settings for this more abstract poem also blunted his naturalness of speech.
A longish one this time. I’ll try to make it worth your while.
In the places I go it has been hard to escape Joni Mitchell and the 50-year anniversary of her breakthrough record album Blue this month. Mitchell is one of those artists like Emily Dickinson* or Thelonious Monk who people contemporaneously recognized as someone on the scene, someone whose work might appear at hand or gain mention — but then decades afterward the level of originality and importance of what they had done becomes more and more clear.
Mitchell’s Blue wasn’t immediately recognized as a classic, successful statement. Musically it’s a bit odd, even by the eclectic field of 1971 recordings. Though “singer-songwriter”** was a growing genre at the time, most of them would present their songs in a full band context on record. Instead, Mitchell’s record is spare, often just her voice and one instrument — and sometimes the instrument is a mountain dulcimer at that! She often used her voice unusually, with quick almost yodeling leaps in service of the originality in her melodic contours, and this was off-putting to some. One thing I remember about listening to Joni Mitchell LPs back in my youth was that the amount of volume in her upper register would rattle the plastic frame and enclosures of my tiny portable stereo’s speakers, producing a very unpleasant buzzing distortion.
To the degree that she was noticed in 1971, that she could be a figure who’s fame might outreach her record sales or rock critic esteem — it wasn’t just that she was a successful songwriter for others who could round-off her corners just a bit to present “Clouds (Both Sides Now),” “Woodstock,” or “The Circle Game” to a wider audience than their author could — it was because she was known as (this gets complicated, stay with me here) as the “girlfriend” of a lot of male rock stars. This got joked about. The now infamous Rolling Stone “Old Lady*** of the Year Award” in 1971, or a joke picture of a purported Joni Mitchell LP with a song listing of: 1. Crosby, 2. Stills, 3. Nash, 4. And Young.
Do those of my generation remember that? Did you laugh? I did. That’s part of the complication, but then I believe sex is only funny when you’re risking doing it “wrong” — and it is best if it’s funny some of the time. Dead serious and entirely secret? We might as well sign up for Brave New World industrial reproduction or efficient devices shipped in plain brown wrappers.
That said, now-a-days that 1971 behavior toward Mitchell is now viewed as belittling and a case-study in patriarchal attitudes in the “counter-culture.” Which it was. In the era’s defense I’ll say that the times were groping (should I revise that word?) toward an imperfect but different attitude toward sexual relationships. Just exactly what women would have to say about this wasn’t the first or second thing on the official list of speakers, alas.
It just so happens that Mitchell spoke up anyway, and mixed that with a kind of music which might have seemed just a bit odd or imperfect then, but now is seen as effective, important, and original.
And now it’s time to play Frank’s favorite history game. Folks are thinking about Joni Mitchell and 1971’s Blue here in 2021, but what could we see if we rebound off that 1971 time and look back 50 years from then?
Well, they do tilt their berets the opposite way. Edna St. Vincent Millay and Joni Mitchell
The poetry fans who are still with this post were wondering when I’d get to Edna St. Vincent Millay. In 1921 Millay had broken out as a young poet to watch, partly by that “being on the scene” presence in New York City in the era around and just after WWI, and by famously losing a poetry contest with a poem that many (including the contest’s winner) thought was the best of the lot. That poem was then featured in her debut book-length collection, and now it was time for the “difficult second album.” She planned that second collection to be what was to eventually become her book: Second April, a title that suggested that plan. But she was having trouble with her publisher, and eventually another collection came out ahead of it, just as the 1920’s began to roar: A Few Figs from Thistles.**** It’s a fair analogy: that book was Millay’s Blue. And like Mitchell’s Blue people noticed the author’s public persona not just the poetry. Millay became the exemplar of “The New Woman” of the 1920s, who were sometimes finding patriarchal marriage a doubtful institution, and flaunting disregard for traditional arguments financial and domestic for that. Speaking openly about erotic feelings. Creating their own art rather than settling for standby muse duties.
I’m not sure if even an incomplete list of Millay’s lovers was known to a general poetry reading public 100 years ago, and one can’t quite imagine Poetry magazine naming Millay “The Old Lady of 1921,” but the persona in A Few Figs from Thistles gave us that adventurer in love character that makes Millay and Mitchell echoing artists. But the original edition was a thin volume, chapbook length, and from things I’ve read this week it seems that Millay worried that it wasn’t substantial enough while Second April’s publication faced continued delays. A second version of A Few Figs from Thistles was hurriedly planned and issued, and some of the additions were standout poems in the collection as we now know it, such as the one I use for today’s audio piece: “Recuerdo.” Here’s a link to the full text of that poem if you’d like to follow along.
In her heyday of the 1920s Millay’s Modernist milieu and outlook wasn’t always reflected in her poetic diction. This may have helped her readership who were not yet used to, or appreciative of, free verse or other experiments in expression. Robert Frost or William Butler Yeats would also retain a poetry audience in this time with lovely metrical verse that expressed the modern condition, but Millay was (to my mind) not consistently as facile with metrical verse and more often fell back to fusty 19th century syntax and language,***** but she could also rise above those limitations. “Recuerdo” is an example of that. It has an effective refrain expressing two contradictory and relatable emotions: “tired” and “merry.” Those emotional words are contained solely within the refrain. The rest of the poem progresses in the Modernist/Imagist style: things and events are described out of order, and in a common Modernist trope in a mixture of tones and importance. How many love poems include a phrase like “smelled like a stable?” Yes, this is largely a love poem — why it even touches on the aubade formula of the pair’s night being interrupted by the dawn — but look again: love (or sexual desire) as a word or even as a direct description is not mentioned once! Yet many readers can sense and feel the limerence of erotic love all through the poem intensely. That is there in this objective and fragmented depiction. Remarkable!
But that absence does allow for some ambiguity. Is there some level of inconsequential going-through-the-motions experience available in a reading of this poem? Or at least some sense of transience in the experience, which after all is framed by the title which means memory in Spanish? I think that’s accessible there too. Suppose I was to present this poem by inventing a frame that imagines it was written by two drug-addled addicts hooking up for one night and to say that that emotion word “merry” in the refrain has some archaic meanings that are congruent with “high.” Same words, different effect in that frame. Or if the same poem was written with a title like “How I Met your Father.”
Perhaps I overthink things, but the last stanza with the donation of fruit to the older woman who responds with words of gratitude was rich in ambiguity to me as well. An act of Christian charity, mixed in Modernistically with other random events and sights? Seems likely, but if I’m traipsing around tired and tipsy with my night’s hot flame and somehow, someway we’re carrying two dozen minus two each of apples and pears, their value isn’t exactly gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Is the older woman’s “God bless you” a simple expression of thanks or an implied suggestion that maybe the two younger lovers might want to kick in some spare change, which they consequently provide? Given the push-pull of political radicalism and romance in Millay’s work, can we be sure she doesn’t intend to portray something of the limits of the gesture to the old woman?
How many are thinking then that I’m an unromantic old cynic who has misunderstood and harmed this poem? Is there another group that says I’m not straightforward in my social and political analysis of the situation? Well, my fate is to be doomed to be in both states alternately and sometimes at once. That’s why I like this poem.
One knock against Millay and other New Woman poets of her time once the peak of her fresh fame wore off was that she wrote love poems, not statements about the important, complex issues facing us. Fifty years later, one knock about Joni Mitchell was that she was writing songs about two little people who don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Both of those summary beliefs are incorrect — but then, what is it you are saying: love songs are simple?
Maybe for you. Not for all of us.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Edna St Vincent Millay’s “Recuerdo” will appear below for some of you. No player to be seen? Then this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab window and play it. My music today isn’t very Joni Mitchell-ish (though later Mitchell, much past Blue, was a bit into synths). The vocal turned out to be a “scratch track” I kept because it seemed usefully spontaneous, even though I omit a few words in the poem’s text inadvertently.
*Dickinson wrote much of her work in the 1860s, and a small group of people knew of some of it though almost nothing was published in her lifetime. I speak here of the Dickinson that existed at the turn of the century after several volumes of her poetry with regularizing edits had been issued. Today she’s taught as one of the great American poets. Back when I was in school she was a charming slight oddity that seemed to fit in with some of the small, short poems the Imagists/Modernists produced in Millay’s time.
**Years ago I wrote a humor piece where I called this 1970’s trend “Singer Sewing-Machine” artists because so much of their ethos had airs of “back to the land/rent a house in Laurel Canyon/sew hippy blouses and embroidered patches on your jeans.”
*** “Old lady” and “Old man” as in “My old lady” were usages borrowed from what were the old-fashioned/outdated terms for wedded partners. Used in the more fluid arrangements by young people in the mid-20th century counter-culture they were supposed to be ironic statements of: partnership at least for now. Mitchell’s song on Blue“My Old Man” is an encapsulation of that moment.
****Back when I first presented a poem from that collection that so many of you liked this spring,“First Fig,” I was unaware of the origin of that book’s title. I wonder if my father who memorized Millay’s short poem but also studied to become a Christian minister in the Millay era would have known that Millay’s book title is from Jesus’ words in Matthew.
*****Her admirers can parse this as a Modernist use of older “ready-mades” which are being modified in the context of her 20th century verse.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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:
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.
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.
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?
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 composition “Crepuscule 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.
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.”
“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 Apple Podcasts, or through other podcast services.
Today we return to the early 20th Century Modernists with a piece using words by Mina Loy. Last post we had a poet taking a political stand: Longfellow aligning himself with the movement to abolish slavery. Decades later, the Modernists joined political movements too.
One might suppose that since Modernism sought to overthrow the old cultural order and revolutionize artistic expression that many Modernists would be attracted to political radicalism—and to a large degree that’s so.
You might also assume that these artistic radicals would be leftists, aligned with the growing Socialist movements in England and the United States, or attracted after 1917 to the as then untested promise of the new Communist government in Russia. Or perhaps they’d make common cause with anarchism. Or maybe they’d create their own playlist mixing all of the above.
And yes, you can find that. Carl Sandburg in the U. S. Midwest, most of the Surrealists, bohemians in New York’s Greenwich Village, Herbert Read and some other British Modernists.
However, one can also find Modernists who aligned with the right wing in this era—and not only garden-variety Tories, or even those who allied themselves with the “respectable” racist strains of U. S. politics. Even in the years before WWI, the social theories that would coalesce into Fascism found adherents in the new literary avant garde. As to Americans, the most famous case is the indispensable Modernist poet, editor and promotor, Ezra Pound, eventually charged with treason at the end of WWII.
Modernists seemed something like stem cells as their artistic revolution kicked off—they could develop into followers of any kind of political radicalism. At a time when political engagement for artists was common, there must have been a feeling in the air that a side must be chosen if one was to be a thorough-going cultural Modernist.
So, much as the French Surrealists once sought to make Communism a dictate for membership in the Surrealist movement, the slightly earlier Italian Futurists eventually made Fascism a core value of their artistic circle.
It’s now we get to Mina Loy. No, not the delightful Hollywood actress—that’s Myrna Loy (Myrna Loy was the stage name for the woman born Myrna Williams, and it’s just possible that Loy could have been chosen to refer to Mina).
It’s 1905. Modernism is kicking off first in the visual art world, followed just behind by the poets. Loy, in her 20s, has already done the visual art thing in London and Paris, but her marriage is failing, and she’s just had an infant child die. To change her life, she moves to Italy. She befriends Futurist artist Carlo Carra, and if you follow along on your Futurist score-card she had love-affairs there with two principals of Italian Futurism: F. T. Marinetti and Giovanni Papini.
Let’s re-set our scene. Here’s a young woman in a foreign country going through life stress events. The art-world is shifting under everyone’s feet. As a movement that will eventually fancy itself outright as the cultural well-spring of Italian Fascism, the circle she’s fallen in with isn’t just about making it new, it’s militaristic, paternalistic, nationalistic, and it worships violence. That isn’t what jealous opponents say about Futurism, it’s what its own manifestos brag about.
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.
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, you use the player below if your reader displays it, or this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.