Is it even possible to mention Stonehenge without risking the unbidden memories of the feet-to-inches comic debacle from Spinal Tap? Well, that’s one reason I’m a little hesitant to introduce today’s piece in our Halloween Series this year.
But still, I’ve been talking and singing about ghosts, ancestors, spirits, and their home fires a good deal, and I remembered this performance by the LYL Band of this song I wrote after visiting an altogether homier set of Neolithic English standing stones at Avebury several years back. I understand Stonehenge is fenced off, and that enforced distance probably does little to staunch the tales of quasi-Medieval druids with magical rites floating stones in the air. Avebury’s large henge basically had a country hamlet grow up inside it, there’s even a pub in the midst of the circle. You can walk right up to the stones, feel these cool earth-aerials, measure them against one’s own height and age. A walk around the Avebury henge is a good walk, and one may also look over the equally amazing earthen ditch-works that are part of the site. As you stroll a flock of official government sheep wander the grassy meadow keeping overgrowth at bay without internal combustion clatter. So at Avebury, as I was walking around all this, I did not think of druids. I thought of men and women who dug and moved that earth, dug and moved those stones, erected them watching over each other.
There are several rings in the henge at Avebury, and the stones are individual in shape and size, furthering the thoughts I had while visiting the site.
Did they have some chieftain or matriarch who planned and ordered its construction? Perhaps. What belief was being expressed in large rocks? Some likely, at least to the level that metaphor asks of us. But as I said, I thought of who did the work — the sweaty, hard-breathing, hand-callousing work. They worked stones with stones, dug with pickaxes made of antlers. At night in what huts did they sleep, on dried grass beds perhaps? And in that night they no doubt slept hard after their day of work, dreamt dreams harder than those of old poets who need only to move words around. If the energy of the earth and sky was transmitted up and down those big stone antennas, so too must the energy of their dreams be drawn in there. And I was there where they must have slept, dreaming under night breaths, their aches soothed by the rest. Dreaming of what? Children, parents, lovers, siblings, colleagues, whole days of rest, the mighty thing they would construct, a story, a prayer, a melody, the little joys of a meal or exactly good weather?
Not druid magic in my thoughts at Avebury, but I felt those dreams might be — no must be — harder than the dulling mutes of time. They sparked around in their heads, and when their heads became skulls and then dust, where is that spark, and can we read it still, tune it in? A belief, at least to the level of metaphor, felt we could. That’s the song.
Here’s the songsheet. If you ask for scenery to back your performance of this, get the measurements right.
The player many will see below will play “Avebury Song #2,” and if you don’t see it, you can use this alternative highlighted link. I hope to complete at least one more new Halloween piece to present here yet this month, though the moving pieces of my life doesn’t make that sure.
Continuing our National Poetry Month celebration, here’s another poet’s love poem, loved by other poets, William Butler Yeats’ “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.” If Millay’s “Rosemary” portrays a relationship turned cold, “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” is more at the wooing stage.
The speaker in Yeats poem begins by saying that they’d offer their beloved heaven or the heavens — well, to be exact, a luxurious simulation as some kind of cloth — and then not care that the beloved might just use it like a rug and walk all over it. And then they say they don’t have those cloths of heaven, only a dream. Still, the beloved can walk on that, the poet’s dreams; but the poem finishes with a plea that they should walk softly on that treasure, the wooer’s dreams.
In this short eight-line poem, Yeats does some fine things. First — no surprise if it’s Yeats — it sounds beautifully, and he does this almost entirely with meter, supplely alternating two and three foot beats in my scansion of it, though you can force an iambic feel.* Unlike many poets and poems that pour on the consonance seeking musical sounds, he avoids this here other than “dim and dark.” Nor is end rhyme a factor, though there are 2.9 internal rhymes in the entire poem (“night” – “light,” “spread” – “tread,” and “cloths” – “enwrought.) Instead, Yeats leans on repetition of words, even though one can read or hear this poem without noticing just how heavily repetition is used. These words are repeated at least once: “cloths,” “light,” “feet,” “I,” “dreams,” “spread,” “under,” “my,” and “your” along with generally-repeatable articles like “and” and “the,” and with only 61 words in the entire poem, almost half the poem has another half echoing it.
It’s also subtle in it’s meaning. Yes, it has been used in “real life” as a wooing poem by others, but being subtle in a valentine is a risky business. Yeats himself originally published this as a persona poem in the voice of a character as “Adah Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” even though many identify this as an expression of his in-real-life love for Maude Gonne. But notice this: the poem’s speaker would be extravagant with something he doesn’t own (and maybe no one could own fabric as rich as heaven) — but he’s asking for some mercy with the actuality of his immaterial dreams.
So, there’s a lot here for other poets to admire, but there’s more: this poem restates the situation of most poets when they are writing too. We plan to create the closest we can with words and their weave to the heavens — and those plans, those wishes, are our dreams. And then — like Maude Gonne, the plausible love interest this poem may have been directed to — people walk, not on them, but around them. Don’t be dismayed, such is life. All Artists Fail. We are the wooers, and then when we read or perform poetry such as this one by Yeats, we become the lovers, the beloved.
Watch here for views of a statue depicting this poem created by Jackie McKenna that I much admire. One thing I just noticed when doing this video: the crouching figure of the wooer looks quietly satisfied viewed straight on, and then in the final profile shot, a little sad or resigned. Intended or trick of the light?
Three ways to hear my music and performance of Yeats’ “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven:” there’s a player gadget for some, this highlighted link for others to use, and, at least for now, I’m continuing to create new lyric videos for this National Poetry Month series, and that is available above.
*That sort of repetition with variations, trod gently, gives a better musical effect in most cases.
Long time readers here will know that one of this Project’s ideas is “Other People’s Stories.” I’ve chosen to make that one of its principles for a couple of reasons. First, the Internet is full of folks telling their own stories, and this is fine (after all, to me those would all be “Other People’s Stories”). I wanted to do something different, to focus on how you and I experience a variety of words from a variety of writers with a variety of outlooks. The second is that I’m rather uncomfortable with promoting myself. That one’s complex.* Like most writers or composers or artists I think my own work has value at some percentage over half the time. Which then, mathematically, allows that I doubt its value, or my handling of its value, or the costs of declaiming its value to the universe a bunch of the time too.
No one creates without the first thought. It would be impossible. And no one who cares about what they create, about their audiences, or about how much craft and care can be devoted to any art; without seeing the faults, the missed communication, the needs for just one more revision or tomorrow for any work.
Many of us create instinctively, because we have to — but sharing that work is a choice. I’m nearing 600 Parlando Project audio pieces presented here. I could have presented at least half or two-thirds of that easily with things Dave or I wrote, but I made a different choice. It’s less conflicted for me to publicly look at, to be honestly surprised and delighted at Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, Sara Teasdale, or Du Fu; and then to share that with you.
But there’s a problem with “Other People’s Stories.” I’m likely not understanding everything those authors intended.** And they’re their stories, their visions. I’ve talked recently here about how when I translate a poet who wrote in another language how I want to honor their work and transfer accurately their particular powers, and yet then become tempted to break off into something their work makes me see through my own eyes.
A long prolog to presenting today’s piece, one I wrote and titled “Ethna’s Dream.” Ethna is Ethna McKiernan, a poet who I used to meet and talk about work with once a month or so, along with two to four others. Ethna cared and crafted her work over decades, and in her life did other useful work: running an Irish heritage book and art shop, working with the homeless. She’s currently in hospice, comforted by family, and the reports are that she’s now mostly in an out of what appears as sleep.
I couldn’t call Ethna a close friend. I always sensed a distance there. I think often of her none the less these days, and of every rudeness, awkwardness, or self-dealing on my part around her; and those or any number of things could have caused that. The very fact of writing a poem about her death, her dying, that mostest personal thing, seems problematic.
So, when you listen to my piece “Ethna’s Dream” you now know all that. This is not a poem about those things I’ve discussed in prolog, or at least I hope so. Instead, my intent is that it’s a poem about what we should treasure of that sharing of the unconscious that we have with artists (including those whose main art is just living). What I present in “Ethna’s Dream” is not a romantic, imaginary, sentimental metaphor in my own mind — though it may attract or repel you if you see it as such — it’s more at the essences of what we do, share, and take with art.
There’s references to Bottom’s speech in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Am I prettifying myself up with pretentiousness, or comparing myself to the foolish play character? I wrote it, and yet I can’t tell.
*One problem, leading to one fear, is that when offered the chance to promote myself I see myself as overdoing it, and coming off as a self-absorbed narcissist that runs on too long about the arts I work in, prattling about the obvious and the obscure in equally embarrassing ways. If you’re still reading at the footnote stage, you may have forgiven me for that.
**Beside just plain embarrassment of ignorance, we now more often talk about cultural appropriation in regards to this. The travesties of cultural appropriation are real, but my belief is that they should, must, be risked.
Let’s pickup the countdown of the pieces that drew the most listens and likes over this past winter. Each bold-faced listing is a link to the original post on the piece in case you’d like to read what I wrote back then, and those original posts will also contain links to the full text of the poems used.
7 Thursday by William Carlos Williams. Quite often when reading through early 20th century Modernist poetry, I repeat my surprise of how plainspoken and outwardly simple some of it seems. This poem by Williams is one of those. There’s not a single word in it that would be unfamiliar to a grade-schooler. One need know no complex allusions to anything other than ordinary life. Not all his contemporaries wrote like this. Wallace Stevens will pleasingly stump us with his love of obscure words, T. S. Eliot will ask us to consider how history rhymes its myths, and William Butler Yeats will make English sing with beautiful and metrical word-music. Against that sort of thing, this poem by Williams may seem ordinary. As ordinary as a Thursday.
There’s only one bit of word-trickery in it — and having no other in this short poem should invite us to ponder it: that unusual use of the common word “carelessly” in the context of “I remain now carelessly/with feet planted on the ground….” Carelessly? Huh? How many quick readers would slide over that and not notice anything out of place! In the opening of his poem Williams has told us his dream has come to nothing. Is this dream one of our ordinary nighttime hallucinations or a strong and potentially life-changing imagination for the course of things? He doesn’t say and may perhaps mean either. His stance on this? Back to observing the world standing simply and unmoved with both feet on the ground, “carelessly” in the sense of “without a care” regarding that; with the sense also that the overlords of guilt and ambition or the lure of more surreal and spectacular verse are saying he should care and he’s going to ignore them.
In place of that care, of that “tyranny of the shoulds,”* Williams offers us ordinary life, ordinary words, the meditation of breath. That resilience and carelessness, those two steady feet able to stand up to the sky, is this song. You can hear it with a player gadget that may appear below, or with this highlighted hyperlink that will also play it.
6 I wake and feel the fell of dark by Gerard Manley Hopkins. What a combination this makes with Williams’ poem that it happens to sit next to in our countdown! Hopkins’ poem has its speaker also awakening from a non-productive dream “Hours I mean years, mean life” — this dream is clearly both a nightly and a life’s dream. And he’s in the opposite of careless: roiled with distress and self-disgusted guilt over it.
What a combination this makes with Williams’ poem…
The language here is extra-ordinarily charged. Some of us have had such a self-castigating night, but few of us could express it in such a tight compressed form as a sonnet that moves musically and emotionally. Hopkins’ feet are not firmly on the ground at all — he’s rolling and tumbling as the great American floating Blues verse has it — and that’s the nature of Hopkins’ song.
This is the distress half of the engine of the Tao. We may more easily recognize it quickly as great poetry, and should, though without some balancing aspect it cannot long whirl.
My performance of this greatest of his “Terrible Sonnets” can be heard with this hyperlink, or in cases where it appears, the player gadget that may be below.
Collar styles of poetry, a retrospective. William Carlos Williams, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and William Shakespeare
Well, the jury’s still out on that one. It is always so with art, as art happens in the present when we look, read, listen, hear. That’s a large part of what this blog is about: encountering stuff written in various ways and times and seeing what we can make of it in the immediacy of a musical performance.
“Sonnet 97: How like a Winter hath my absence been” is neither the calm meditation after a dream’s failure nor the roiling disgust our first pair of poems had. Instead, this sonnet is all about the ambiguity. What kind of ambiguity? Shakespeare will pick several. One of the basest tests of mental state is “oriented to time and place.” This poem certainly isn’t — that’s its most pressing point. Is it winter, summer, fall, or spring? Can’t say for sure. The purportedly male authorial voice dons rhetorical drag and speaks of his sonnets as if they are birthed from a poetic womb as if the addressed “fair youth” is the only begetter in a very patriarchal metaphor for these sonnets. And what’s the true nature of the relationship between that authorial voice and the fair youth being addressed? Complicated. Author as vassal of the ruling class?** Lover? High-minded patronage? Some of all? Well, that’s Shakespeare’s song for us. This hyperlink will play my performance of it, or if you see it, you can use a player gadget that may appear below.
*The phrase is psychotherapist and author Karen Horney’s, whose mid-20th century work may still have something useful to say about us today.
**It was while dealing with this sonnet that this aspect of the “Fair Youth Sonnets” first occurred to me. I assume it’s occurred to others, but not being a Shakespeare scholar I can’t say who or where.
Returning now to the poets presented in Alain Locke’s 1925 The New Negro anthology, we’ve come to the poet I most associate with the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes. Though he was born in the Midwest and traveled some, Hughes actually lived for much of his life in New York City, unlike some others associated with that artistic flowering. And though Locke’s book concentrated on young, up and coming writers for the most part (Hughes was 23 when The New Negro was published) Hughes’ literary career continued on a more or less continuous path until his death in 1967.
So, if I was asked “Name a Harlem Renaissance poet.” My first answer would have always been “Langston Hughes.” And if Locke’s book is the launch point for that, Hughes was as prominent as any other young writer featured there and then, even if in 1925 he had yet to publish a single book.
Young Langston Hughes. Hey Pharrell, pretty sharp work on those fedora creases don’t you think.
This makes it strange then when I went to do a little research on how Hughes was judged during his 40 plus years as a literary artist. The summaries I read often point out that he was down-rated during his career, and to some degree up to the present day. Why? Well, he did have to go through the dangerous 1930s when political engagement was expected of writers, and like some others he had to handle the double-bind of associations and sympathy for the Russian Revolution and Communism and then later criticism of its faults. Many of the promotors of The New Negro era were so focused on up-lifting the race and demonstrating high-culture acceptance that they were uneasy about Hughes’ embrace of a wider range of Afro-American experience. And finally, there seems to be an element of purely literary judgement he shares with Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman (two of Hughes’ influences) that what he wrote was judged as too simpleminded and unironic. Sure, the high-culture critics would essay: that kind of poetry might have readership broader than many, but it doesn’t fit the literary criteria ascendant as the 20th century unrolled.
Today’s piece, “Dream Variation,” one of Hughes’ poems printed in The New Negro, is a short nature poem. Here’s a link to the full text of it.* Like a lot of lyric poetry, you can read it quickly and superficially with some pleasure. It has rhyme and its rhythms. It counts off some pleasant if not overly spectacular word-music. The first time through you may think it’s just pointing out a commonplace, something one could summarize as: “Hey, it’s nice when it sunny and you’ve got a day outside. And then a summer night when you finally go to bed — that’s nice too.”
Wait a minute. What’s with Hughes’ title: “Dream Variation?” First off, that seems to say that kind of summer carefree pleasure isn’t something the poem is experiencing right now. Like Wordsworth’s daffodils, the poem’s speaker is experiencing this mentally, as if in a dream. That’s a different thing isn’t it. In the same way that a love poem about lost love is not the same as a poem about present love, this is a poem containing longing. Many of us are reading this during this February in North America. Likely you may relate to that state the poem is actually portraying.
I have no way of knowing what the weather was like when Hughes wrote his poem, but Hughes estranged father lived in Mexico where Hughes visited him before embarking for New York City and the beginnings of his literary career. So that titular variation may be a dream not only of passing seasons but of lost places too.
But there’s another way that variation means. In music it’s when a composer modifies elements of an established motif and we see it morph into a new related shape. Do you see what Hughes does here in his short poem? There’s a statement about dancing, arms wide and accepting, in the sun — and then resting in the evening “beneath a tall tree.” An interlude, when inside the body of the poem they express that this is “my dream” — not what they’re doing as they speak the poem. Next we learn that the “bright” day is now described as “quick” and the following “cool” evening is now “pale” evening. And finally, the real metamorphosis: the poem’s speaker is now not “Beneath a tall tree” — there is just a tall tree that remains as night comes.
This variation is subtle and somewhat undefined, mysterious, once you notice it. Is this a statement of the poem’s speaker’s absence from the warm place, that in the variation he’s no longer present? Has the speaker’s life, the proverbial “quick day” ended? Or, is it something even stranger: in the dream he’s no longer the external dancer beneath the tree, external to the day, external to the night, but now he’s become them?** In dream logic it can be all those separate things at once. That’s part of why a dream experience can be so striking!
In this poem, like in some of the poems of Sandburg that I’ve presented here, I maintain that the simple language and seemingly straightforward scene of the poem has misled some readers and some critics. If I was encountering this poem as if I was translating from some Tang Dynasty Chinese classical poet, I would be aware that the poem may not be whamming me on the head about “Look it’s clever metaphor after metaphor! My, how complex a plot I can stuff into my poem! I bet no one ever said anything as complex as this ever before!” Perhaps the assumption is that a working-class Afro-American or the son of a Swedish immigrant can’t be thinking anything more complex than class-struggle position papers.
In my performance of Hughes’ “Dream Variation” I consciously sought to bring out the mysterious element here. Stubbornly the harmonic progression I composed sticks closely to a core around the D note of the scale. Chords move between major and minor however and there’s a rub up and down with a D# Major7. The player to hear my musical performance may appear below, but if you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to hear it.
*I used the text as printed in Locke’s anthology for my performance as it’s in the public domain. The version I link to is later and includes some, well, variations. In the newer version taken from Hughes’ Collected Poems, the title has become plural, “Variations,” “the bright day” has become “the white day,” and a couple of other smaller changes were made. One could speculate that the “bright day” vs “white day” could have been suggested by an editor as less confrontational.
**And I haven’t even entered into the significant racial aspect that is there as well. The dark night in the poem’s first experience as being first external to the poem’s speaker and being one with it in the second “Black like me.” As an Afro-American poet, Langston Hughes almost certainly intends this, and it may be the most consciously intended message he wished the reader to receive: that poem’s journey via its variation is from experiencing one’s Blackness as externally to an internalized appreciation of it, and that later revision from “bright” to “white” for the first instance of the day underlines that reading. I featured the above reading not to obscure that, but because our particulars as persons bleed into our commonalities as people. When William Butler Yeats or Joseph Campbell speak of being colonialized Irish, it’s not just about their particulars. When Du Fu speaks of being overcome by great events, it’s not just 8th century China that has felt that. When Emily Dickinson’s mind grasps onto a flower or abstract thought and sees its edges always curling, she’s not reduceable to a bourgeois New Englander. And so to when Langston Hughes speaks about being Afro-American in 1920s America. And frankly, I’m hesitant to assume an Afro-American identity as a performer of Hughes’ poem, even as I want to bring it forward to your attention.
Update: An alternate primary reading that the first dream variation is an unachieved dream and that the second is a reflection of the reality of Afro-American life colored by racism seems widespread. Widespread enough that I wonder if Hughes wrote of his intent or understanding of his poem’s meaning at some point. For example many of the alternate readings say the poem’s second dance and whirl is work-a-day and likely menial work inside a Capitalist and Racist system that wouldn’t value Hughes. Hughes experience and political thoughts could be consistent with writing a poem that expressed that. As much as I should doubt my reaction to the text of the poem as printed in 1925, I’m still not seeing that as being the inevitable and singular reading of the second variation, but I offer this update as a self-confessed non-expert on Hughes’ work and because I suspect not a few students come here via web searches to seek insight into poems, and so they should be aware of this other reading.
I’m going to take a walk around to get to a good small poem by Emily Bronte today. It won’t be a walk about the English moors, alas, but it’ll have to do in this otherwise wild and windy place we call the Internet.
My spouse and I have a worthwhile understanding that we are both a sort of introvert. Definitions vary between peoples and time, but one short definition of an introvert is that they are the people that gain strength and restoration from solitude rather than from gatherings of people. One can easily suspect that writers and their close allies, the readers, may be more likely introverts, but of course that’s not always so. That indispensable pioneer French Modernist Apollinaire* was famously sociable within his element, a joyous bohemian boulevardier. Other writers, even while writing, seek out crowded places filled with voices and humanity to concentrate on their silent work. August Wilson, the great 20th century American dramatist, liked to write in cafes and coffee shops, places where other peoples’ voices were staging their own improvised plays.
But we can’t be sure that those two, or others like them, still aren’t introverts. My wife is good in typical social situations. I’m not. I’m so bad at social interactions that I’m sure I often leave a bad first, second, or last impression.** Still, one thing that joins most introverts is that however well we perform the social whirl, it tires us out—and when we need to recharge it’s not a different self-selected group, even a group of friends or family, that we seek in order to recharge, instead it’s solitude.
So, I have a phrase that I use with my wife when she needs to recharge: “Oh, have a good time at your Introverts’ Support Group.” Which of course isn’t a group—it’s time alone.
I have a phrase that I use with my wife when she needs to recharge: “Oh, have a good time at your Introverts’ Support Group.” Which of course isn’t a group—it’s time alone.
This sort of time alone is particularly hard for non-wealthy women to find. In Bronte’s time a great deal of domestic and family labor was assumed to be their unquestionable duty, something that modern times and insufficient good intentions haven’t eliminated. I have some idea of the particular domestic duties of Emily Bronte admirer and like-named Emily, Emily Dickinson, but less of Bronte’s own family obligations, but I assume they were considerable.***
In our current Covid-19 age of shelter in place recommendations, the pressures of everyone at home may make more and more of us like unto residents of an isolated parsonage in the North of England like the Bronte’s. If so, today’s Emily Bronte poem, written it says in her collected poems on Sunday December 13th, 1840, may still speak to us. Arithmetic tells me Bronte would have been 22 when she wrote this. Here’s a link to the complete text in case you’d like to follow along.
Introvert Irony: the only image we have of Emily Bronte is a group portrait painted by her brother of her with her sisters.
On publication this poem bore the title “Retirement,” but I’ve chosen not to use it as I don’t think Bronte is using the word in the sense most of us use it today. I believe the sense she intends is more at a wish to retire (as one would “retire to bed”) to rest and refresh oneself after a day of labor.
Indeed, the scene she wishes for and describes may be staged in sleep and dreams—though if so, her dreams are outside, alone, and in God’s nature. My wife’s most favored respite spots are walking in parks, nature reserves, and around wild lake shores. For introverts like Emily Bronte, my wife, and I, a concertedly apprehended nature is the other that somehow comforts us.
Wishing all the readers and listeners here the companionship and solitude they need and desire, and, and but, in the proper mixture! The player gadget to hear my performance of Emily Bronte’s “O Let Me Be Alone Awhile” is below.
I don’t know if this is still so, but in my mid-20th century youth it wasn’t unusual for children to read some of the American 19th century worthies in ways not unlike the Young Adult books of today. So before I was old enough to take drivers ed, I’d read Tom Sawyer and a smattering of other Twain, some shorter Longfellow poems (the epics didn’t attract), and lots of Edgar Allan Poe. In a year or so I would start to read Keats and Blake and move on to literature as school assignments.
Other than availability, I’m not sure what drew me to the Poe. The gothic stuff may have attracted me for its examination of human oddness, and I recall the hyper-rational side of the detectives or adventure stories like “The Descent into the Maelstrom” pleased me. His poetry worked well enough, though I was not yet committed to poetry.
Did the antiqueness of the settings and language bother me? I don’t remember that being an issue. No, the world of Poe or Twain wasn’t the world of colorful tailfins and gray TV, but it seemed tolerably close to my own.
My Poe phase didn’t last long, and even finding out that some of the French poets who would intrigue me in my 20s had first or second-order influence from Poe didn’t make me want to re-read him. My casual judgement that I’d rather read something else has continued, and so today’s piece, “A Dream Within A Dream” is Poe’s first appearance in this project.
Mad, bad, and daguerreotype to know. Edgar Allan Poe.
“A Dream Within A Dream” is not overly florid nor is it chained to a too-simplistic, toe-tapping rhythm. Grains of sand and tormented seashores may be over-used tropes, but this poem doesn’t pass these off as priceless revelation, only handy counters to make the poems stark point: that since life is transitory itself, those things that one creates within it, however placed in the scale from practical to fanciful while alive, are in a final judgement as substantial as dreams. It’s implied that—like many a poet, writer, or artist—the poem’s speaker’s life work was judged while alive pretty close to the not-useful, fanciful side. The poem’s tone seems sad about that, but then it has that subtle valedictory dig: the same holds true for those who think they are doing more important things.
This poem was first published in the last year of Poe’s life, and as Poe struggled to earn enough as a professional writer, it’s ironic that the Wikipedia article on this poem says that the next month the owner of the publication ceased paying writers.
This Wednesday, October 7th is the anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s death under mysterious circumstances where he was found dazed and confused in Baltimore and died after a short hospitalization there. Oddly, I didn’t know that I would be writing this on the eve of that anniversary, so maybe some of Poe’s sand grains have washed up here?
Poe still attracts musical settings, so maybe it’s time for me to weigh in with my efforts. It’s been awhile since I ventured into the world of synth created sounds, which are the dream created inside the dream of music. So, today’s piece let me use some weirder analog synth sounds that make no claim to reality. Though the featured sounds today are entirely digital, created inside a modern computer, they are imitating analog synthesis waves with grains of ones and zeros, and I got to wiggle knobs to control parameters in real time just as the early analog synth players did.
Silicon music, like Poe’s grains of beach sand, the anonymous Internet sea will take almost as quickly as they are made. So before they slip away, you can use the player below to hear my performance of Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Dream Within A Dream.”
Here’s a romantic poem by William Butler Yeats, in both senses of that word. “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” is Romantic in the literary and artistic sense in that it seeks to reconcile personal emotional experience with some sublime otherness through imagination, and it’s romantic in the sense that the poem takes a courting stance, that it’s an expression of love for another.
Yeats is one of those “bridge” poets who did substantial work in both the 19th and the 20th centuries. Always fiercely lyrical, he was able to recast his poetry so it continued to be read into the Modernist era. This poem, though written in the 19th century—and proving it by using an entirely antique word “Enwrought” to start off its second line—remains in circulation as some lovers still recall its ending.
It’s a short poem, only eight lines, so it can’t waste time.* The first four lines are devoted to a nicely rendered image of the sky and a richly embroidered cloth, the sort of thing that would indicate high fashion when it was written. Of course, this is self-consciously an image on the poet’s part, he acknowledges that he’s made it as poets make images, as a new way to apprehend reality.
Oliver Tearle, over at the always Interesting Literature blog, points out that prime English Modernist T. E. Hulme made his own version of this sky/cloth image only a few years after Yeats when he wrote his “The Embankment.” Hulme saw himself as setting out to overthrow Romanticism, and I’d suppose it’s possible that he could even have been thinking of Yeats’ poem as he created his different one. Considering the two poems together makes for an interesting contrast.**
After those first four lines, Yeats goes on to reference something that was once a widely-known tale—just as untrue, but just as commonly known as Washington copping to chopping down the cherry tree. In the English mythical tale, Walter Raleigh, acting as a paradigm of Elizabethan courtly love and devotion was said to have taken off his expensive cloak and laid it over a muddy spot on the road so that Queen Elizabeth wouldn’t soil her royal footwear. And so it is that Yeats says he’d make this beautiful image and then allow his beloved to trod all over it.
Yeats’ poem enwrought by sculptor Jackie McKenna in Drumcliff Ireland. Photo by Eric Jones.
There’s also something more here than just self-abasement or Yeats’ confidence in his brand of detergent: by saying he could put the plane of the heavens underneath his beloved, he’s also saying his poetry could take her to Heaven. But blink and you’d miss that implication.
Yes, the closing three lines are the poem’s best remembered, still quoted by those who have put themselves in the danger of love, or the danger of love refused. Romantic and romantic, and like most anything by Yeats, it just sounds so good! I performed it with acoustic guitar, electric bass, and a bevy of woozy keyboards, and you can hear it with the gadget I have spread below under your feet (or finger or mouse). Click softly.
*Here’s the text of the poem for those who like to read along. When the poem was originally published, Yeats used a persona as the poem’s speaker. Aedh was a kind of John-Keats-besotted nebbish character from what I read, and in doing so, Yeats is hedging his bets on the poem’s Romanticism, kind of a “I’m just asking for a friend” deal. When he included the poem in later collections, he dropped the persona.
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.
I’m not a fully-qualified Science/Speculative Fiction fan, though I did read it when I ran into it as a young man. Dave Moore, whose voice, songs and keyboard playing you’ll hear from time to time here, read more of it. I’m not sure if Dave introduced me to Harlan Ellison’s work, but my memory is that he did loan me a copy of Dangerous Visions back in the Sixties. In that 1967 anthology, Ellison made the case that SF was the heir to a Modernist tradition of fiction using outrageous and unique situations—he was claiming SF could be more Kafka than L. Sprague de Camp.
It’s unlikely he was the only person thinking along those lines, but he certainly helped to popularize the idea at a time when an aging generation of SF writers, steeped in pulp magazines and cents-per-word paychecks were in danger of losing touch with the younger post-WWII generation who were more likely to be college educated and experienced in some chemically enhanced inner-space traveling.
Used copies may have slight foxing (or are they cannabis stains?)
Ellison was an any-world-class curmudgeon. His non-fiction writing is full of enthusiasms and invective, with almost no middle ground. At times he reminds me of another late 20th Century artist/social critic: Frank Zappa. Both of them liked to remark that “The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.” Over the course of his career Ellison seemed to transform from a US-born angry young man punching mostly up to a more generalized misanthropy, where at appearances he would sometimes riff like an insult comic. He once called my late wife who he had just met at an event, “Cathy Carbohydrate.”
These two things worked together. SF had always had a darker side, and the border between it and the gothic strain of fantasy or noir-ish mystery was crossed back and forth often. I believe a utopian, Transcendentalist wing of SF remains, but the terms SF and dystopia now seem to follow one another almost automatically.
Is this the artists’ fault or ours? A large question that.
Thursday night I read that Harlan Ellison had died. Friday I was booked to record with Dave. Friday morning, as I slept, I dreamed that Dave was showing me a binder full of typed manuscripts of stories he had written. As he flipped the pages I read parts of the stories. In style, they were the sort of thing a teenager just starting out would have written, so in the dream’s timeline they would have been written in the Sixties. In the dream, Dave, after learning of Ellison’s death, was telling me that Harlan Ellison had looked over these stories, and that Ellison didn’t like them very much, though he thought the last one had some promise. There was a short, encouraging note from Ellison scrawled in the margin on a page in the story. As I glanced up toward the middle of the page, I saw some dialog in which a character in the story was saying something. The character in this non-existent dream-story was named Octavia Butler.
Now I remind you: this is a dream. Dave never had Ellison critique any early stories he wrote. In the dream, these stories existed, in the waking world they don’t. But here’s the funny thing. I told you at the start that I’m not a fully-qualified SF fan. If you had mentioned Octavia Butler to me on Friday, the only impression I would have was that she was a writer. I wouldn’t have been able to name any of her work or have been able to place her in a genre. In the dream, I just thought it odd that Dave was using a writer’s name as a character in a story that the dream had had him writing 50 years ago. I was about to ask him why, when I woke up.
Octavia Butler, before or after she was in my dream
I biked off for breakfast and hurriedly came back to write the piece you can listen to below. Looking for info I might use in my song, I searched on Octavia Butler. In the Sixties, Butler was a young, unsure author, fearing that she was too “ugly and stupid, clumsy, and socially hopeless.” While she was still in school, Harlan Ellison, this man with a reputation as a scouring critic, had told her she had promise and should go to the Clarion Conference and present her work there, a suggestion that lead to her first publication in 1971.
Nothing there I could use in the song as it turns out, but strangely this was also nothing I knew when I had dreamed that dream early in the morning. I did use one bit I found in my searching: an interview with my former co-worker John Rabe that revealed that Ellison was still using a typewriter as his writing machine in the 21st Century. I thought of those older generation pulp writers and their per-word paychecks.
That afternoon, Dave and I recorded “The Apotheosis of Harlan Ellison.” It turned out that in the waking world, Dave had not heard yet that Ellison had died. The player gadget below will let you hear it—though not on your typewriter.