As long-time readers here will know, the Parlando Project likes to vary what it does. Loud, immediate and approximate rock’n’roll, string quartets, folkie and electronica tinges combine with words that I look around for—different stories each time, most of them not mine.
Are we now going to vary from Bronze Age Chinese poetry collected to instruct politicians? Or from the W.H. Auden-who-can-bring-the-funk remarks of Jimi Hendrix’s ET visiting the Third Stone from the Sun and marveling at the chickens?
Well, maybe a little.
And so, we’re going to descend into parody today. Mad magazine imprinted me on parody while young, and Weird Al Yankovic never did a thing to cure me, and here I am an old man who still can’t help making up travesty-lyrics to songs he hears, which distresses my son who likes to sing Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” with his sincerely growing voice, while my questionable tenor tries to make that into a dissertation on salad vs. main-course silverware: “Fork with the Longest Tine.”
To the possible detriment of today’s piece, I didn’t choose anything as well known as one of Joel’s hits. In tryouts, just one of the folks I’ve sung today’s piece to even recalls the original song it references: Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.*” That may say something of the fragmentary fame of Leonard Cohen in the United States. Back in the Sixties, a couple of his songs “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire” were fairly well known from cover versions, and his 21st Century song “Hallelujah” has become even more well-known after being sung by John Cale, Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright—but “Famous Blue Raincoat” despite dozens of covers, just hasn’t penetrated the U.S. mind.** There may be reasons for that. It doesn’t have a hooky chorus, even Leonard Cohen himself thought the lyrics were confusing, and to the degree it has an accessible plot it’s about a complicated love relationship far from the common I love her/him, or her/him has left me and I’m so sad or angry about that.*** My favorite part of the song was its uncommon ending, where it’s revealed to be a letter of sorts, signed with solemn irony “Sincerely, L. Cohen.”
A famous orange retainer and a famous blue raincoat.
And that was the hook for today’s parody. I thought of another Cohen living in New York City, who is a principal in another messy romantic entanglement, whose feelings about it are multivalent, and whose sincerity is a changing thing. You can hear “Sincerely, M. Cohen” using the player below.
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.
National news and household events continually waylay my attention. Dejected gutters, palace intrigues throwing glances on complicated and duplicitous political alliances, and a middle-schooler with the sniffles—how can one weigh these things against this small but welcomed audience here for music combined with (mostly) poetry?
And so, I found myself short of material as I got ready to record with the LYL Band this week, a problem that the domestic, the national, and the poetic world combined to answer.
My wife had sent me a poem from the Confucian Odes recently, a loving gesture gratefully received, and as beautiful as it was, I wondered about the poem and its English translation because of my work here. As the news sticks its tongue out at me with screen-edge notifications (mutterings about the Emperor and his possible private derangement issuing from the far-off capitol) I read again some of those Confucian Odes, an ancient anthology designed to instruct not just scholars or poets, but politicians and bureaucrats.
What an odd idea. I suppose distributive requirements in American colleges still require some exposure to literature for those who will eventually serve in those roles, but this anthology was considered core material in Imperial China. And the Confucian Odes are not grand works of moral or civic uplift, rather they are compressed, tiny reports of humble activities, decisions, and situations. They sometimes imply or depict correct behavior, but they don’t explicitly end with a moral. Their lesson may be, in the largest part, that the reader must study them and find the lesson in the everyday.
How different would our emperor or his retainers be if this was their schooling?
One collection I read mixed in later classical Chinese poems with some of the Odes. It was here that once more I was pulled in by Du Fu, one of those aspiring bureaucrats who was steeped in those odes, but who lived centuries later at a time his country was in rebellion and upheaval. The Confucian ethos elevates faithful service, but who was to be served was shifting with the tide of rebellion. Reading Du Fu’s poems from the 8th Century as a small-part-citizen witnessing an empire disrupted in folly can have eerie resonances.
Late Thursday night, worried about material to record the next day, I began to translate Du Fu’s “Jade Flower Palace.”
I could not find a clean literal translation of the original ideograms for the entire poem, only for about half the lines. I was able to find three previous English translations, which I could at least triangulate for the parts I didn’t have the raw stuff for.
Looking at what I had, I noticed that Du Fu was making constant juxtapositions, comparisons of contrast. Even the opening lines had water pushing and wind sighing and reflecting. That seems conventional, even a commonplace like “oh no, the wind and rain” in an English folk ballad, but it’s followed by a jump to rodents running through a roof, so close to a translation of the English idiom “bats in the belfry.” I decided to take Du Fu as intentional here. Events may seem to push you, or you may sigh and accept them, but “Rats are running in the rafters.” The ruin is real, and for that matter, your mind may reflect that too.
What follows is part “Ozymandias” without Shelly’s political radicalism, and part ghost story. A ruined palace, once as lush as Mar-a-Lago, haunted by ghosts. I was puzzled by the “green ghost fires” referred to in this section, what with my limited knowledge of Chinese culture. Those three words are wonderous, but I still don’t know exactly what Du Fu is describing. Are there actual fires, lit as protection from ghosts (akin to the tradition of ghost lights in theaters)? Why green? Is it brightly colored moss or overgrowth in the ruins? Is Du Fu seeing luminous ghosts (instead of hearing them as he does later in the poem)? I can’t tell. Looking at some online material on Chinese ghosts, I see that this end of August/beginning of September period is sometimes celebrated as “ghost month” in China, and various things are done both to connect with or protect oneself from various spirits. Offerings, such as burning a pile of currency may be left out. I have no idea if that goes back to Du Fu’s time, but in our current world, the thought of a burning pile of greenbacks to keep one safe from long dead rich people sure seems like a vivid image. And water is running over the palace’s roadways. Just what is the sea level of Mar-a-Lago if global warming isn’t only a political question?
“Green ghost fires” The “ghost light” on the dark Fitzgerald Theater stage and money being burned as part of the Chinese Ghost Festival
As you listen to “Jade Flower Palace” perhaps you’ll want to pay notice to Du Fu’s subtle use of juxtapositions. More so than the other translations I read, I sought to bring those forward in mine. Translators seem to differ on Du Fu’s final lines, and that was a part where I didn’t have a literal translation to draw from. As midnight approached, I left two alternatives for my decision of what the final line should be to follow “There are many paths away from here.” It could be “How long are any of them?” or “None of them go on forever.” In the morning I decided that I would keep both, another juxtaposition.
In the performance on Friday I used this as our band warm up, where we loosen up our old and demented fingers, a cold first take. I repeated the first two lines once more at the end both to emphasize that they should be heard as more than commonplaces, and as a reminder (to invert a proverb of mysterious origin) that history isn’t necessarily instructed by rhyme, but repeats.
To hear the LYL Band perform Du Fu’s “Jade Flower Palace,” use the player below.
I’m going to ask you to not read these notes yet. Listen to today’s audio piece first at least once. It’s short, two minutes long, it won’t take long. The audio player is at the bottom of this post.
OK, now you’re back and you’ve listened to the piece at least once. Do you think the words were written recently? Do think it’s a satire, some kind of sly Machiavellian comment on a particular modern politician? Do you think it’s Donald Trump’s first draft of his recent speech to the Boy Scouts? Or perhaps is a secret litany of personal affirmations? It does at times seem like a twisted take on self-help.
So what is it?
It’s my quick and dirty attempt at a version of a section of the “Surrealist Manifesto” written by André Breton in the early 1920s. The Manifesto is sort of a grab bag, part a sincere plea for a deeper and broader application of imagination in art, part a catalog of examples of how unleashed imagination has already been applied, and part is indeed a parody of a certain genre of self-help, the kind published by occult gurus of the time.
Not the Boy Scout manual
My piece is taken from that parody segment, and I’ve departed from conventional translations in two ways. First, to disguise it, I removed one phrase specifically mentioning Surrealism, and secondly, I’ve chosen my own idiosyncratic translation of the phrase “Peau de l’ours” in it. This is a condensed version an old and French saying, “Don’t sell the bear skin before you have it.” (a French version of “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”) Breton may have been using that cliché to contrast with the religious campaign-promise of heaven, but he also could have been refereeing to a hedge fund of his time which used that exact Peau de l’ours” name. And critically, what the investor group bought (and later sold for tremendous profit) was modern French art. “Hedge fund” gave me both ideas in a way that would be meaningful to a 21st Century English speaker.
André Breton and perhaps the Surrealist Party’s first President, Donald Trump.
So Breton, as he often does in his pronouncements, is mixing the absurd, with recognizable satire, with sincere advice. But briefly, before I go, I ask you to think about a bigger question. What does it say that some modern artistic principles sound like they could be descriptions of Donald Trump’s (or other similar politicians) philosophy? Is it that Trump doesn’t have a philosophy, only that he finds excuses or rationalizations? For past politicians, we would say they lack a sense of irony, but Trump speaks ironically so often that one wonders if there’s a word for unconscious irony. Could it mean that the sincere iconoclastic individualism and commitment to their own personal freedom that 20th Century artists thought they needed as a corrective to disasters like WWI and a restrictive society and its expectations, is now leaching upward to more powerful men in conventional professions?
I’m often attracted to Chinese poetry, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s the deceptive simplicity to the images, that hardly seem like images at all if one expects the showy metaphors used by many western poets. The concision of many of the most admired Chinese poems can be shocking. And to me there seems to be a radically flat broadness to the way some of the poets consider society and politics. Like a lot of my favorite UK folk songs, the tales of royalty and servants, peasants and generals, saints and drunkards seem to treat them all with the same even diction and consideration.
From what I read, Du Fu is highly regarded as poet in Chinese culture. He wrote in the 8th Century, about the time someone in Europe was compiling Beowulf between long drinks of mead out of cups made from skulls. Du Fu’s time was a chaotic one, with the Chinese kingdom falling into rebellion and civil war. “Spring View” is his response after his side had lost the battle and he was in disgrace.
Du Fu: the red trucker cap or the pink pussy hat?
In translating Du Fu’s “Spring View,” I thought of our own times, particularly here in the United States, three months now into some kind of change. Alas for Du Fu, I became so enamored of seeing our own current events in his lament that halfway through I started to get more “free” with my translation, until by the time I reached the final line, I chose to conclude on a different thought altogether from the original. Consider it a theme and variation composition.
I do not read Chinese, but here is Du Fu’s “Spring View” as written:
国破山河在 城春草木深 感时花溅泪 恨别鸟惊心 烽火连三月 家书抵万金 白头搔更短 浑欲不胜簪
Musically this piece uses 12 string acoustic guitar, an instrument I love to struggle with. The overtones and extra harmonics of the 12 strings are the attraction, and the danger too, as they can clash a bit. Some musicians work very hard to try to even out the intonation of those notes to minimize this, leading to one of my favorite music jokes. Question: how long does it take to tune a 12 string guitar? Answer: Nobody knows.
“Every politician should be issued a 12 string, because you never really tune it, you just negotiate with it.”
My approximate ear has come to embrace the somewhat woozy sound of the 12 string for much the same reason that loud electric musicians may choose to welcome feedback or that electronic musicians select the detuned effects of things like ring modulators.
To hear Spring View (after Du Fu) use the player below.
I decided on my own that Yeats’ piece in the last post was about February, but I have some other pieces that say, right out, in their own words, that they are about our current month. Here is one, “2ebruary.”
Earlier this month I saw Jim Jarmusch’s film, “Paterson.” This movie succeeds, in its modest and appropriate way, to do something impossible: to film poetry, or more exactly, the composition of literary work. It does this two ways: by having a writer, its central character, portrayed as a regimented, routinized person, grounded in a particularized working-class city and job; and then by having him compose “aloud in his head” his work against this background.
this movie has no light-sabers
This is a wonderful choice. The city, the routine clock of the days, the job, become the metrical, musical background for the flowerment of the writer’s consciousness that becomes the poems.
Though the movie is set in the New Jersey city of it’s title, the filmmaker refers often to the “New York School” of poetry, using the poems of Ron Padgett to stand-in for the work of the film’s main character.
The New York School uses a lot mid-20th Century Modern ideas, combining them into various combinations, depending on the individual writer associated with the movement. Some of it can be obscure and abstract, taking off from the same ideas that launched abstract expressionism in painting around the same time. But some also find a tenderness and wonder in the abstract patterns of urban existence, a Pop Art with a depth beneath its surface able to hold a beating heart. At a point in the film, the main character opens his noon lunchbox to eat, and to write down the intermediate state of his morning’s writing aloud in his head, and there like a Thermos, nestled above an orange and a sandwich, is Frank O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems.” It has to be there.
Don’t loose your Lunch Poems
O’Hara wrote in a great many styles, but this slim chapbook features several poems that someone once called his “I do this, I do that” poems. where O’Hara walks about, seemingly composing aloud in his head amidst daily tasks. These are my favorites, because, like “Paterson,” these poems seem to be about their own grounded creation in a city of routines, reflected inside the moist, encased, flowing mind of their writer.
Today’s piece “2ebruary” takes off from that Frank O’Hara mode, as I often like to do, though I’m an old man, writing in another century, in the Midwest, not New York City, and my old joints creak best on a bicycle.
a scene from today’s piece, breakfast not included
“2ebruary” is a short bicycle journey thinking of history, and past the events that are turning into history that we can still change. I take a pause, as every American should, to note that American culture is made from those who came here carrying something from elsewhere. And Midwestern culture? For many, those packing trunks are hardly great-grandparent’s-age-old, at the eldest.
At one point in the journey, I note those that had no trunks when they came to America, they had only their chattel bodies and souls—and even of those two things, the former had been appropriated by others for handy profit. What could they unpack? Well for one thing: the largest and grandest part of our American music. Our history is short compared to many nations, but it contains mighty things like this. We who are joining that history, already in progress, can turn it one way or another. Which way do you choose to turn?
To hear the LYL Band perform “2ebruary” use the gadget below.
I often wonder when reading opinions when someone stops or starts thinking.
Opinions generally come from two states. One is intuitive emotion the other is from reason, a thoughtful weighing of something or another. In the case of the former, thought has little to do with it. We know something is wrong, wonderful, disgusting, laudatory, whatever from something we feel innately. The child saved from the burning building, the willful act of unnecessary violence—but we feel intuitively about more complex and controversial things too: the results of an election, the worth of some work of art. In the case of art, many of us are comfortable with expressing that intuitive response, we like it or we don’t, we don’t know why, and don’t really care to know why. However, in politics and public policy, that sort of response can seem irresponsible. Furthermore, mere internalized like or dislike is no good for recruiting others to your side.
The other state, the opinion generated from thought, from some comparison of the options and a reasoned judgment brought forth on the results seems admirable. The problem is that too much thought seems to stop as soon as some conclusion can be reached. There’s no second thought on the thought, no deeper examination of one’s assumptions. There’s a worth to this—speed is a value in decisions not about art after all—and the nature of thought and questions is for them to be never-ending. At some point, one has to stop thinking to ever reach a working conclusion.
I opened this morning’s local paper and saw a man from Crosby Minnesota moved to think about political matters and how they intersect with art. Meryl Streep, a famous movie actor, has expressed political opinions about a TV actor—let me look this up, oh yes—Donald Trump, who has taken up politics and found himself with a prominent new job in the public policy field.
The man from Crosby feels he has found an important thought in this Meryl Streep matter, and his thoughts are expressed as a couple of questions and answers:
“Who wrote those words for her? After all, her whole life has been one of just reading and acting out the words creative thinkers have written for her. She has been good at it, but how can someone who has never had a thought of her own criticize others who have?”
Did he answer his questions too quickly? Did he not expand his inquiry enough?
So, assuming we think about something, when do we stop thinking? We have to stop sometime, but stopping too soon can leave us with meager conclusions and less rewarding art.
For that matter, when do we stop practicing our art? In 2013 a local actor (Kate Eifrig) made a decision to stop acting because she felt that continuing was harmful to her. She gave an interview about her decision, which I felt it was an honorable and insightful one, and this audio piece with the LYL Band performing the music was the result. The first sentence is a quote from her interview, which I then developed into the rest of Acting.
One thing she may not have accounted for in making her decision: while as an actor she would have been allowed to serve in a political office like Helen Gahagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Franken, Ronald Regan, Fred Grandy, Jesse Ventura, George Murphy, or Fred Thompson; but she would not, by our man from Crosby’s accounting, be qualified to comment on political matters.
I object to this too, but don’t compound it by saying something at the Golden Globes!
In one limited way I agree with the man from Crosby. While thought, sometimes even considerable thought, goes into acting and performing; the performance itself is not a thoughtful process: for it is entering into, embodying, a thought, often someone else’s thought. That is a visceral, not intellectual experience whatever thought went before it.
I would ask one more question, reformulating the man from Crosby’s rhetorical question to a familiar piece of folk wisdom: how can someone who has never lived someone else’s thought criticize others?
To hear the LYL Band perform Acting, use the gadget below.