Medley: A High-Toned Old Christian Woman and First Fig

Sunday is World Poetry Day and I should do a piece about poetry and poets to mark it. The specific idea of World Poetry Day is to celebrate every nations’ poetry, something I try to do here with fresh translations sometimes, but for today I’ve decided to use works by two American poets. The United States is still a young nation, still used to using the cruder tools of youth to impress itself upon the world, but our poets have had their innings, so today I’ll sing them to the rest of the world. First up: Wallace Stevens.

It’s not uncommon for poets to write poems about art or the art of poetry itself, but Stevens did this often. So it’s no surprise that “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman”  starts off with an assertion about poetry, even though the rest of the poem seems to progress into an argument about religion and religious propriety. Here’s a link to the full text of Stevens’ poem in case you want to follow along.

Stevens’ poem slows down our understanding of what it means using two tactics. First, it gives us at best one-half of a conversation: a little like hearing a person talking on a phone in public where the other party is inaudible. It takes considerable effort in comprehension to settle on what issues and points are being addressed in the poem’s speaker’s argument. I’m not totally certain I grasp them myself despite several readings and going on to perform the piece. Our high-toned old Christian woman may be expressing outrage at some more pagan and unfettered artistic expression on Stevens’ part. Stevens’ response is to point out that art has its own religion of a sort, its own myths and beliefs. That unheard party, the HTOCW, seems to make an objection regarding Stevens’ or art’s outrageousness derived from its beliefs and theoretical constructions, and Stevens’ then parries with a short aria on the extremes of Christian asceticism bellowed over a tink-tank Vachel-Lindsay-ish Salvation Army band. In summary he’s claiming they are alike: that the HTOCW and her co-religious cohort and he the poet both have their own guiding constructions (supreme fictions), their own expectation of meaningful belief and actions that promise — well, what do they promise, or rather assuredly deliver?

He’s not sure. A poet’s masque (a play) performed on earth may aspire to cosmic importance, but we can be sure the planets will not be all that moved. And the most fervent displays of religious piety can’t move the heavenly spheres who would at most judge them as unserious “hullabaloo.”

The second way Stevens intentionally slows down our comprehension is with language, the stuff and lexicographic music of his poetry. Most any stanza of a Stevens’ poem is equal to a “Word-A-Day Calendar,” and this poem doesn’t disappoint: nave, citherns, peristyle, masque, epitaph, flagellants, muzzy, and hullabaloo are not common modern English language words, and I’ll wager that most readers, even the most educated among us, would be hard pressed on getting 100% on a definition test with that list.*  I’ve always “read” Stevens as having fun with his use of these obscure words, and in many cases here he’s punning on their sound, so we think we understand something we hear in a performance from the sound, while on the silent page they remain stumpers. Making someone a nave/knave is to fool them. A peristyle projecting upwards sounds like a periscope from a WWI U-boat or trench. A masque might as well be a mask. Flagellants with muzzy bellies sounds like flatulence from fuzzy bellies.

And while not an obscure word, “palm” is repeated several times in the poem with different meanings pressed onto it by context. It first seems to be Christian praise, as in the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, a moment of triumph to be followed by Good Friday (and then, yes, for believers, Easter). In its second mention, the poet might earn laurels, palms of honor for their work, but like the praise of the crowd it may be fleeting, pace what I call Donald Hall’s Law. And lastly, the palm plants become hands I think, the two seemingly opposed, the two sides — the prim believer and the pagan poet that the poem has satirized — I believe, palm to palm, a pair making a prayer.**

Let’s look at the poem’s end at last: Stevens seems to be saying that salvation by faith in art or religion is unclear. Widows wince when doubt says they may not meet their husband in heavenly reward or when that doubt (or belief) is sung impiously by some poet who calls his art, his mythology, the “Supreme Fiction.” God and the muses are both winking at us, telling us that we only half have an understanding, flirting with us on that unknown stage of our best fictions.

Stevens and Millay

Stevens was a famous late-starter, publishing his first poetry collection Harmonium where AHTOCW first appeared at age 44. Millay was already on to her second collection featuring First Fig at age 28.

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What then to make of the poem I combine with it, a short poem with plain words that many feel they understand at first sight: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “First Fig,”  the one that begins, as so many have memorized, “My candle burns at both ends.”***  Is this not also a poem of faith in poetry? Yes, with the same limits and lack of assuredness. Is it also one half a debate with another point of view? Yes too, though it be a short epitaph “unpurged from bawdiness.”

In effect, “First Fig,”  the opening poem in Millay’s A Few Figs from Thistles,  is the title poem, the dedication of that short collection that set out the Millay outlook on youth, freedom, and autonomy sexual and otherwise. It made her famous for a while, and unlike Stevens’ knotty poems, hers (and herself) seemed understandable. Here’s its full text.

We understand this poem quickly to say: that one may, from our passions artistically — or otherwise in that mere and yet larger life — expend or risk so much that we allow it to be foreshortened, but that we believe that intensity is illuminating, possibly worth the sacrifice. Note, there’s no explicit conclusion. Millay’s poem doesn’t say outright it’ll be worth it, and other poems in A Few Figs from Thistles  are not sure either. Its illumination is brief, a night in length it says. Yet a poem we think we understand, that we might memorize and carry in our muzzy brains may change as we project its light on different walls.****

Given Stevens’ satiric and philosophic wordiness, I came to think pairing it with Millay’s short heart-song would be a worthwhile contrast, each stronger with their lights against the ground of the other. You can listen to the performance and see if that’s valid — but before I go, is there one thing we don’t understand about Millay’s short poem?

Well, there’s the title. It’s such a short poem, yet we forget that there’s this added pair of words. I’d guess that many that know or have even memorized the poem forget the title. One thought was that it might be referencing an idiomatic English expression: “I don’t give a fig about…” which could easily be given an intensifying modifier “I don’t give a single (or the first) fig about…” I had assumed that fig, like the euphemistic interjections sugar or darn, was just a word used to replace a ruder word that started with the same letter-sound. I even wondered: was that idiom around when Millay wrote her poem in 1920? Well, just as I wouldn’t know muzzy or cithern fully when I read Stevens, it turns out I was off a bit. The idiom seems to date back to Shakespeare’s time or even more, which is odd in that the fig isn’t even a native fruit in England. It comes from Spanish and Italian; and it’s not only a word but it has a Mediterranean hand gesture to illustrate the thought, involving the thumb placed between two raised fingers. The intent in gesture or word in this idiom is to refer to low pink-toned lady parts, and in the patriarchal context then it’s an expression of contempt.

Did Millay know the derivation of the idiom? I don’t know — but she likely knew the non-etymological meaning of the phrase. In the context of the one-side of the debate that “First Fig”  is presenting, that indicates that the speaker doesn’t give a single fig for the off-screen speaker who disapproves of the possible costs of passion.

Long post, but two poems for this World Poetry Day! The player gadget is below, or if it isn’t, this highlighted hyperlink will also play my performance of Wallace Stevens’ “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman”  and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “First Fig.”

 

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*Ones I’d miss or get half-credit for? I knew citherns were an instrument from my interest in unusual instruments, but I wouldn’t be able to describe one definitively. I probably once knew peristyle from an early interest in classical theater, but had forgotten its meaning. Muzzy was dark to me and would have been a clear miss. A good dictionary then or the Internet now allows us to decode the original denotative meanings, but these still keep us from understanding Stevens too soon. And they can just be fun to come upon in a poem!

**This blog post and close reading, perhaps from more knowledge about Stevens’ biography, posits the HTOCW to be based on Stevens’ mother.

***If HTOCW may be Wallace Stevens’ mother, one of those that had memorized Millay’s “First Fig”  was my father, who once or twice recited it to me. What caused him to memorize it, or to read Millay? I never knew. He never lived a bohemian life, and as far as I know he lived a modest, constant, and long life. I can guess however why he recited it to me, who did have my bohemian modes and times: to say that he knew something of that, or that I could have faith that something worthwhile could come from that.

****I’m increasingly seeing readings that see coded (intentionally or unconsciously) in this poem an expression of Millay’s bisexual/polyamorous autonomy.

The Singing Woman from the Wood’s Edge

I’m thinking lately of the magic of consciousness, of how we exist as distinct limited illuminations of this world for a certain time, and how strange and inexplicable that is.*  Is that funny? Tragic? Is that choice just a matter of emotional weather and sensibility?

Today’s poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay is several things. First, I’ve made it the song it pretends to be, but it’s also something of a fairytale, and in sensibility it aims for humor. And since tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, we might see it as commentary on Irish culture from a woman’s perspective, even if American-born Millay is not generally thought of as an Irish culture poet to my knowledge.**  Of course all poets have, on one level, a single citizenship issued by our international muses, and our work may cross borders at will — even the well-guarded and maintained borders of time. But still, today’s piece “The Singing Woman from the Wood’s Edge,”  is going to use some Irish stuff that might need translation for anyone not versed in Irish culture.

“The Singing Woman…”  was included in Millay’s 1920 poetry collection A Few Figs from Thistles  which largely created the popular persona that launched her to the height of her fame during the last century. Back then they sometimes called Millay an exemplar of “The New Woman,”***  a label which doesn’t tell you itself anything of the novelty implied. Among those traits that might be contained within the term were unhidden intelligence, independence, openness to Modernist changes, and unabashed agency in love and sex. Was this a problem or an advance? The culture of the previous Twenties wasn’t sure, but they talked about it and had opinions. That currency and conversation, that framing, helped Millay to fame, and yet probably constrained her too. A Few Figs from Thistles  was read as part of this to a large degree.

A Few Figs from Thistles  often used humor within its poems tweaking of conventions, and “The Singing Woman…”  is an example of that. Fairytales can be scary or thinly disguised warnings against stepping into the unknown, but this one takes what could be a rather distressing situation and plays it for knowing winks. Since I know this Project has an international audience of varying ages, let me make sure we unpack the cultural particulars of this poem’s tale.

Millay and her poetry garden

Another spring task to get underway? Millay, her husband Eugen Boissevain, and Edmund Wilson make a point of planting a “poetry garden.” Not shown: plentiful organic fertilizer.

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The poem is the first-person story told by a child of the union of a leprechaun and a friar. A leprechaun****  is an Irish fairy creature. Leprechauns are solitary (unlike many other fairy types) and are often thought of as being in conflict with humanity, tricking or being tricked by humans. Friars are monks, and in the context of Ireland, we can suspect that they are monks of a Roman Catholic religious order. They too have elements of solitariness, as some monks live in deliberately separated contemplative communities seeking to avoid the corruptions of the material, human world. Oh, and one of those defined corruptions that all Catholic monks are pledged to avoid: sex and marriage.

So right from the second line we can see that the parents of our singer are both impure creatures in violation of their cultural rules, the powers and expectations of which they also apparently retain as the song further portrays them. Though I shortened the poem for performance length by one decorative stanza, a lot gets laid out in the poem, and a great deal of ambiguity and complexity is hinted at in the incidents recounted, even if they are played as a humorous tale. Our poem/song’s narrator, the fantastic mixed race (species even) woman of the title, seems to have chosen to “identify as leprechaun” in effect, but buried in the poem which gives equal time to the cultures she’s experienced from both parents is a sense that it’s more complex than a binary choice. And let’s not miss an important and primary point: both her parents are in violation of their cultures and vows. Regarding the roles often laid out as cultural “or” binaries she “ands’ them: “harlot and  a nun” — we can further suspect she’ll choose to not abide either’s rules.

I’m not going to further detract from this piece’s wry humor with more explanations and footnotes. Here’s a link to the poem’s full text, and you may well see a player gadget below to hear a performance of my song using Millay’s words. If you don’t see the player, this highlighted hyperlink will also play my performance.

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*Which is another way of saying that I’m momentarily unashamed about talking about the inner-directed and odd things that go on in my head as I wish my wife a happy birthday. I’m so grateful that her consciousness and its light has been held near to mine and our child’s.

**I was unaware of Millay’s Irish ancestral roots until I researched that before presenting today’s poem. Similarly, I’m unaware of how often another prominent American poet Frank O’Hara is discussed as having been influenced by Irish culture, despite that echt Irish name.

***See also last month’s celebration of “The New Negro,” the 1920’s other “New.” New is often getting old. On the other hand, a hundred years later, to this old person anyway, it seems like the last Twenties’ assumptions of independence and value haven’t become fully old-and-settled yet. Maybe this, still young and new, Twenties?

****One oddity in Millay’s mythological choices: even though fairies in general have a rainbow of genders, leprechauns are almost invariably presented as unmistakably male. There’s a riddle/joke using the old-style name “Indian” for indigenous Americans: A big Indian and a smaller Indian are walking by a river. One Indian is the son of the other Indian, but the other Indian is not the father of the other. Who is the other Indian?

Winter 2020 Parlando Top Ten, numbers 7-5

Back now to our recounting of the pieces that you, our readers and listeners, most liked and listened to this past winter. Let’s jump back in as we count them down.

7. “We Wear the Mask”  by Paul Laurence Dunbar.  This one is remarkable in that it was released on February 24th, very late in the winter season, yet it still racked up a lot of listens to go with the number of likes here on the blog, outstripping the other well-known Dunbar poem I performed and released three days earlier: “Sympathy (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.)”

These two poems are the best known works of this early 20th century Afro-American poet directly addressing racial issues, and given the seriousness of racism and the quality of “We Wear the Mask”  as word-music, it’s well earned its current position as a much anthologized poem.

Why did it edge out “Sympathy?”  Who can really say? I liked both performances I did of the Dunbar poems myself. “Sympathy”  has the more complex arrangement, but simplicity that works has its appeal. Or was it something random—did Dunbar’s title put it in search queues connected to world-wide Covid-19 concerns?

 

 

6. “Do the Dead Know What Time It Is”  by Kenneth Patchen.  I was completely enraptured by this poem of Patchen’s because of its complicated paralleled half-conversations. In the previous Top Ten post this week I remarked about how Marianne Moore’s poetic expression seemed to echo the actual syntactic twists of transcribed common speech, even at the cost of being harder to follow on the silent page. In Patchen’s poem, we have the more common “naturalistic dialog” where syntax is complete, where sentence structure is plausible, not the fractured and disagreeing actuality of literal transcribed speech. But Patchen has two speakers totally focused on non-answering halves of a conversation: the old guy at the bar who wants to tell the poem’s persona of a second-hand encounter with the God-head, and the poem’s persona, a quasi-homeless swain in conversation with an unheard and somewhat mysterious woman* at the same bar.

The chemical reaction of these two side-by-side half-conversations builds until one phrase appears to link the two—two loves linked somewhere between desperation and desire.

Patchen All at Once is What Enternity Is

And all our count-downs are happening over and over. Patchen as painter.

 

 

 

5. “The Little Ghost”  by Edna St. Vincent Millay.  So, a comforting God-head appears off-stage in Patchen’s poem. Hugo Ball’s ghost in our last Top Ten post seemed of the malevolent poltergeist type. Now here Millay’s is a much more benign spirit who seems to signify being there after being there.

Regarding the music for this one: like a number of my generation, I encountered Ravi Shankar LP records and performances in the Sixties. For a moment some borrowed sense of South Asian music permeated the culture of popular music groups and their audience. Why did that happen? Has anyone asked, much less answered, that question? Yes, I assume the drug and social stress induced search for mysticism was a factor. Maybe George Harrison and his access to the culture through The Beatles alone was enough. But I can speak for myself: some musical qualities easily discerned in this music grabbed me then as they still do now. The musical structures related to steps in various orders away from and returning to a home drone pitch. The opulence of microtones beyond the conventional 12 notes. The singing rhythms.

In the Seventies, that decade that everyone forgets, I spent nights working in a busy Emergency Room, often with an Indian-born surgeon, who as the evening would wear us on, would suture while hum-singing tunes of his homeland. Every so often, even these decades later, I sometimes find myself singing unremembered vaguely South-Asian melodies when working late on some task.

Evidence of some ghost? I doubt it myself. Not reincarnation—resonance.

 

We’re more than halfway down the countdown. The next three coming up here soon.

 

*Is she a down-and-outer like the poem’s persona just looking for some kind of human connection? A prostitute seeking money? An analog to the God-head, or is the poem’s persona that? By not clearly defining this, the poem gains mysterious power I think.

The Little Ghost

Tom Rapp is a singer-songwriter whose work I love, and whose 1972 joint setting of a Shakespeare and a Sara Teasdale poem is one of the inspirations for this project. Rapp had a favorite story about the earliest days of his overlooked career: while still a child he entered a talent contest in Minnesota. The story varies. He may have performed an Elvis Presley song. He finished second or third. Another Minnesota singer, a similarly young Bobby Zimmerman,* finished fifth. The Zimmerman kid eventually went on to have a career that outpaced Rapp’s.

But then, Rapp would always add, it was a baton twirler who finished first.

American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay is another poet who began writing and publishing early, sending poems to magazines when she was still a teenager. At age 20 she submitted one of her grander early poems to a literary magazine’s 1912 poetry contest, and that poem “Renascence”  oddly created considerable publicity when it didn’t win but finished fourth. She was a young, poor, rural kid and some said she should have won on the merits of her poem—even including the guy who won the contest, Orrick Johns. As with Tom Rapp, you may have to be a reader of blogs like this one to have some sense of who Orrick Johns was.

If you ever loose a talent or poetry contest, consider that baton twirler.

Millay suit and tie

Just kids. Whiten the background and Sinatra the jacket over one shoulder, and you’ve got that Robert Mapplethorpe/Patti Smith’s Horses cover a few decades early

 

After the contest and the brouhaha, a benefactor saw to it that Millay could attend college, and a few years later this other early poem of hers, “The Little Ghost,”  was included in her first poetry collection. “The Little Ghost”  isn’t the grandest or most incisive poem Millay would write, so even though I’ve done many Millay poems here, I had overlooked this one until I saw it this month over at the Fourteen Lines poetry blog.

My reaction is shared by most who encounter this poem: it’s charming and only a little bit chilling. Yes, there are a few mildly annoying inverted word order make-rhymes, but it’s the little details that make it work I think. That the ghost seems to enjoy the poet’s garden-work (gardening inherently partaking of the life-death-life cycle), that she enigmatically shows no sadness at being dead, that she (though immaterial) is gracefully careful of the poet’s favorite plant, that she walks away (though a ghost, and a ghost of a child) with the substantial while insubstantial bearing of a great lady.

There’s no redrum, no haunted charge to the living, no absolute-zero temperature of next to death. Millay doesn’t even make the revelation that the child is a ghost a held-off-for-the-big-surprise-reveal—that fact’s in the title and the first line. Still, in the moment the poem lets us experience, the poet doesn’t yet know what we know. That’s the little chill.

Some readers have said that Millay intentionally or otherwise put her own past childhood self in as an undercurrent of this little ghost, and that reading works too, though I don’t know that’s a secret meaning that one must get to fully enjoy the poem. What with the garden setting, and that annual reincarnation, I do get some sense of spiritual kinship between the poems living speaker and the ghost.

Did that inform the music choice? I am back in my South Asian mode today with hand percussion, tambura, and harmonium. The instrument in the right channel that sounds vaguely South Asian is an ordinary electric guitar, one with a vibrato arm that lets me get a bit of that characteristic pitch waver.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The Little Ghost”  is right below.

 

 

 

 

*Zimmerman changed his last name to Dillon and then to Dylan. My late mother-in-law used to tell the story of meeting Betty Zimmerman at a function decades ago, and as mothers in those olden days were prone to do, they got to talking about each other’s children.

“You may have heard of one of my sons. He’s Bob Dylan.” Betty proudly said.

My future MIL Maxine came back with: “Who’s Bob Dielan?”

When she told me the story some years later, she explained “I didn’t know! I didn’t have much time for music back then.”

Love’s Greatest Hits

“If music be the food of love, then play on…” So said Shakespeare and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. Here at the Parlando Project we explore music and words (mostly poetry) crushing on each other, and some of our most listened-to audio pieces feature aspects of love. So, for Valentine’s Day here’s a countdown of our most popular pieces that feature love.

As it happens this “Top 10” also does a good job of showing the variety of music and ways we integrate the words with the music. I often think I spend the majority of the posts here talking about the words we use, but love, like music, often prefers “to speak without having anything to say,” the thing that music does.

10. Vegetable Swallow words by Tristan Tzara. When I translated this Dada poem I wasn’t expecting it to form the recognizable poem of desire that appeared. Musically I set this to something that is unorthodox rock. The keyboard parts don’t really work the way rock keyboards usually work, but the second half features an electric guitar solo that while it’s not rock, meets it at least half-way.

 

9. Love is Enough words by William Morris. More plainspoken than Tzara about the value of love in a world that doesn’t seem to want to contain it. Here the LYL Band is in garage band mode, with the usual keening combo organ of that Sixties’ genre along with two guitars, bass and drums.

 

8. The Heart of the Woman words by William Butler Yeats. One of the limitations I need to deal with in this project is that I’m not a very good singer, so it was particularly audacious here for me to perform Yeats’ poem of tender devotion acapella. One of the things I love about traditional folk music field recordings is that they often capture singers who are not perfect in pitch or in other qualities that make one say “what a singer!” That quality brings a different reflection on humanity and the words being sung.

 

7. Sonnet 130 My Mistresses Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun words by William Shakespeare. I loved the episode of Upstart Crow  where everyone and Shakespeare’s wife takes the bard to task for this too honest love poem that deconstructs every phony and limiting idea of beauty in his era’s poetry. Bonus Black History Month points to the possibility that the poem’s famous “Dark Lady” might have African ancestors. Musically, we leave rock’n’roll behind for 12-string acoustic guitar, bass, recorder and a string quartet.

 

6. Rosemary words by Edna St. Vincent Millay. One of my personal favorite musical performances from the more than 300 I’ve presented here in the last three years. I was trying to recreate the sound of the acoustic band The Pentangle, and I’m still shocked and pleased at how close I could get. Millay’s poem has a new broom sweeping out the old, failed love to make ready for a new one.

 

5. Sonnet 43 What Lips My Lips Have Kissed words by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Our first repeat appearance by a poet in this list, and there’s a tinge of romantic regret in this one, but also there’s some satisfaction in a life of romantic independence. A massively underrated poem! Another small string group arrangement here with some spare piano, but also electric bass and drums.

 

Allegory of Music by Laurent de La Hyre

Actual photo of my anima recording another Parlando Project piece. “Yeah, it needs more theorbo.”

 

4. Let Us Live and Love words by Thomas Campion. Another variation on the carpe diem poem that starts as Campion’s Elizabethan English translation of Roman poet Catullus, and then branches off to his own take. The music here is blues: acoustic guitar and slide guitar with harmonica. I don’t play bottleneck slide guitar much with the Parlando Project, but listeners for some reason seem to like the pieces where I do.

 

3. Tender Buttons words by Gertrude Stein. Another one where I outright tried to cop the style of another band, this time Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. I remain surprised at the number of listens this one has accumulated, and even when I posted this I wondered how many are out there that appreciate both Gertrude Stein and Captain Beefheart. More than I expected you brave souls!

Even more than the Tristan Tzara poem, this one abstracts desire and love; but particularly in its closing section, that’s what I read was there expressed in Stein’s cubist language. It’s possible that, though the language is different, Stein is making something of the same point as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 does, that desire starts at skin deep and cares little how it’s attired or to what it’s compared to. Beefheart did much the same thing lyrically as Stein—but also musically, reassembling shards of blues music and visual emotions.

 

2. Sonnet 18 Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day words by William Shakespeare. More rock band instrumentation used in a different way than usual. The tolling piano sure ain’t doing no boogie-woogie, for this poem is yet another carpe diem argument, presented only slightly differently. As always in carpe diem, “we’re all going to die” is the unlikely come-on, and Shakespeare isn’t making the “mistake” of his Sonnet 130, opening this one by saying his beloved is better than, rather than lesser than, a common poetic trope; but as the poem continues he makes the ego-drenched claim that he’s the better love partner because he’ll put you in a poem that’ll make you immortal.

How’d that work out for the love object? Lots of conjecture as to who might be the “fair youth” or the “dark lady” in those sonnets (or if Shakespeare is, well, capable of just making the whole thing up) but in fact, we’re more concerned with Shakespeare than his romantic partners. We treasure the valentines, not the fleshy and independent lovers that they may have been addressed to, and we hold them while their erstwhile subjects are dust without names.

Doesn’t seem fair does it? Maybe for Valentine’s today the best thing is to skip the questions of appropriate metaphor and honor that partner, and to return to poetry and song tomorrow?

I can’t be serious, can I? This project needs more listeners and readers!

 

1. Love and Money words by Dave Moore. Can this be? An original song by Dave, who has contributed words, music, vocals, inspiration and keyboards to this project from the start is more popular than Shakespeare? How could this be?

Could it be the elemental and essential nature of the pairing in the title and the rest of the lyrics? I was considering some slavery stories as I first considered Dave’s lyrics, that added some weight for me, but Dave’s words are free-floating as far as time and place. So, I’m not going to knock the words, but maybe it’s the funky way his electric clavinet and the rest of the LYL Band jells on this one.

 

 

Happy Valentine’s Day to every reader and listener here!

The Book of Lu T’ang Chu

Why bother with little-known poets of the early Modernist age? Well, it’s conceivable that we can better understand the context the better-known poets were operating in by looking at the field the greats stood out from. And frankly, I get a kick out of looking at the left-behinds and odd corners. Like a crate-picker at a used record store, I’m looking for those weird finds that you can’t quite believe exist or that reflect some transitory moment in the culture.

I’ve already mentioned Arthur Davison Ficke in an earlier post as one of the Davenport Group, a bunch of Iowans, who with their rural Illinois cross-river neighbors, made a bit of a splash in American culture in the first part of the 20th Century. Ficke is not as obscure a character as Muriel Strode from our last post, but the separating distances of fame and achievement shrink as time moves on, so you’re not going to run into either of them in any survey course or even specialist literary class in school.

Unlike Strode, I could find out about Ficke’s family background. He grew up in one of Davenport’s richest and most cultured families. His father was a prominent lawyer and had amassed a considerable oriental art collection. After education in Davenport, Ficke was sent to Harvard where he was a classmate of Franklin Roosevelt. After graduation he was granted one of those traditions of the well off, an overseas tour which included travel to Japan.

Throughout his school years, Ficke was drawn to the arts, and yet family expectation dictated that he was to practice law. A career as an art critic and poet therefore progressed alongside lawyering. During WWI, and while serving as a military Judge Advocate, he met Edna St. Vincent Millay and eventually a post-war love affair blossomed. You may see some similarity to Millay in today’s Ficke-written piece, a rhymed, metrical sonnet, a form Millay also worked in.

Arthur Davidson Ficke and Edna St Vincent Millay

Arthur Davison Ficke with Edna St. Vincent Millay.

 

Like Millay, Ficke mixed with the Modernists socially while not consistently writing in the new Modernist style. This ambiguity of Ficke’s toward Modernism played out in an event we’ll cover in a future post.

I don’t find Ficke’s poetry as musical as Millay’s, but his“The Book of Lu T’ang Chu”  still has its charms. The poem combines Ficke’s interest in the Orient with a subtle observation about art in the modern age. This poem’s ancient Chinese emperor and Ficke himself are now both dust in the wind, as we all will be—but we can still listen to his meditation, set to my new music and performed on acoustic guitar, piano, and an attempt at playing (via a MIDI controlled “virtual instrument”) the Chinese traditional zither that came to the fore during the Tang dynasty, the guzheng. Use the gadget below to hear this.

Justice Denied in Massachusetts

Partly for the reason of sadness and disappointment with my country, and partly for disappointment with myself, it’s been difficult to focus on combining words and music recently. This is a value of one of the Parlando Project’s principles: Other Peoples’ Stories. When I cannot put the words together, I can listen and absorb someone else’s.

Yesterday, feeling particularly sad and angry, and holding it in so as to not harm with it, I went looking for someone else expressing what I could not express myself.

I looked first at Carl Sandburg, who after all was a committed political radical as well as a too-often overlooked Modernist. But with Sandburg’s expression love was almost always present—a good thing, but not in tune with my feelings. Sandburg may have been the right medicine, and I took some of him in on Friday for my health, but I didn’t want only medicine.

And then I found my howl, and strangely at that. I knew Edna St. Vincent Millay had written political poems, that in fact they had harmed her artistic reputation. The witty line I recall was that Millay’s anti-fascist poems did more to harm her artistic standing than Pound’s pro-fascist ones. Today’s words are from one of her early political poems: “Justice Denied in Massachusetts.”

I can see where the Olympian “New Critics” docked Millay on the basis of this one. It’s chock-full of that awkward backwards and inside out “poetic” syntax that reads like a stiff translation from another language. The early Modernists, even as they translated, were dead set against this—and they have a good point. Millay’s words here were hard to read with emotion, so stilted and undirect as they are as sentences. However, that could well be part of Millay’s point here (consciously or unconsciously), as the poem’s speaker is not speaking clearly; and for my benefit—however difficult it is to perform—she is speaking precisely in a confused mixture of disgust and disappointment. All the reverse/”poetic” syntax just makes it more twisted in at itself. A poet today might make this matter even more obscure with modern poetic syntax that also abjures plain speaking in the service of art, but in our current context we’d be expected to accept this as the way art talks.

One problem with political poems is that to the extent they speak to an issue they can become museum pieces tied to forgotten events. If they were to be effective, they could even be seeking that fate. Millay is writing here in the immediate aftermath of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti—a particular cause—but for my purposes, this has little bearing on the matter. She is speaking to women and domestic and domesticated people such as myself. Only the title is tied to then current events—the feeling and her point, ties to our own.

“Let us go home, and sit  in the sitting  room.” New Critic Cleanth Brooks placed his entry in the contest for most bone-head review of all time by reading this refrain line and Millay’s poem as a straightforward resignation at the course of events, rather than the ironic statement of disgust that it is. I can only hope that the savvy observers of our country are similarly wrong, similarly misreading.

Millay stands for something

Mr. Brooks, you may notice that I’m not sitting, but standing for something.

 

My music for this is based around a G suspended chord, where the third of the chord, which would dictate if it’s minor or major, is omitted. This gives the chord a feeling of awaiting change, awaiting formation. At times the replaced note to the defining third is a tangy second, other times a more consonant fourth. Risking grandiloquence, but I feel our country is similarly suspended now, and the cadence is to be ours.

Here’s my performance of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Justice Denied in Massachusetts.”

The Poet to Death

Here’s a short piece using a poem by a person who started out as a poet but who spent the greater part of her life working for her country, India’s, independence: Sarojini Naidu.

Sarojini Naidu, like Edna St. Vincent Millay around the same time in the U. S., impressed people as a capable poet while still a teenager. Her talents lead to her being sent abroad to England for college, and eventually she connected with the Rhymer’s Club, the turn of the century London organization that was the last stop in the 19th Century for some of the poets who would launch the poetry of the 20th century.

Today’s piece, “The Poet to Death”  was first published in England as part of Naidu’s initial collection of poetry The Golden Threshold  in 1905. Fluent in several languages, the pieces in The Golden Threshold  are in Naidu’s own English. Some accounts say that the young Sarojini was modest about her poetry at the time, worried that her work was less-substantial because it is lyrical and song-like; and retroactively English-language Modernism did discount that sort of poetic gift. So, while her poetic work is still remembered in her homeland, where Wikipedia says she’s called the “Nightingale of India,” Sarojini Naidu will be a new name to most of our reader/listeners.

During the WWI years Naidu transferred her focus from poetry to working for Indian independence, a cause in which she became a principal, alongside Gandhi and the other independence leaders.

Did the world loose a poet for India to gain its independence? Perhaps. I do not know enough to say. In her English poetry, I can see the influence of the earlier 19th Century English romantics, but her language is less extravagant. She can remind me at times of Christina Rossetti (readers here will know I consider that a good thing), and “The Poet to Death”  is a concise version of a trope Keats used as well.

Sarojini Naidu Real Folk Blues

India gave us chess. Chicago gave us Muddy Waters on Chess records.

 

Today’s music employs a polyrhythmic blues. Perhaps I was subconsciously moved by the “till I am satisfied” line in Naidu’s poem to think of Muddy Waters and his “I can’t be satisfied,” though what I ended up playing has some elements of Skip James’ guitar style too. At a conscious level, I was working on this while thinking of poet Donald Hall, having read a review of his new collection of essays coming out this month, and then hearing later in the same day that he had died at age 89. In his last couple of decades, Hall has often written of what continues until it ends in the course of aging.

Donald Hall
Donald Hall. His book of essays “A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety” drops in July.

 

For some reason the version of the text I worked with did not have Naidu’s first stanza, which specifically speaks, as a younger poet, for death to stay his hand. In the remaining two stanzas, the age of the speaker is less determined, and so the situation is joined whether it is a young poet or old. The blossoms are always there a short time, at any age.

To hear my performance of Sarojini Naidu’s “The Poet to Death,”  use the player below.

Full Moon

Our last poet, Margaret Widdemer seems to have done most of her adventuring in fantasy, but today’s poet, Elinor Wylie—well, she caused quite a scandal in the pre-WWI years. Widdemer may have dreamed of cavaliers and wearing leather in a traveling Romany wagon; but for Wylie, there’s biography!  Elinor Wylie grew up in Washington D. C. the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt’s Solicitor General and infatuated with the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, which, as we’ll see, could be a bit of a leading indicator. Elinor Wylie started right off by eloping with another would-be poet, Phillip Hichborn, shortly after high school. They had a child, but the match was not good, and the brief accounts I’ve read report the husband as “unstable” and “abusive.” Next, her story gets weirder. An older millionaire lawyer Horace Wylie, also married, began to, as Wikipedia puts it, stalk her. Again, I lack details, but he apparently followed her about, taking care to show up often wherever she was. I’m not familiar with dating etiquette for married people in the pre-WWI era, but this sort of thing began to attract notice.

Bad marriage. Stalker. What to do, Elinor? She ditched her husband and fled to England with the stalker. Now we have full-fledged scandal. They hid out in jolly old for a while under assumed names. President Taft reportedly made efforts to bring her back. Eventually Horace Wiley got a divorce, Elinor’s first husband Phillip committed suicide, and WWI broke out in Europe. The run-away couple returned to the US, got married, and settled in New England where according to one biographer “Shopkeepers boycotted her, and she could buy no food. People began to turn away from her in the street. [The Wylies] were ignored in the worst way possible.”

Back in the US, the marriage to Horace Wylie soured too. She was to have one more marriage, this time to Stephen Vincent Benet’s brother William Rose Benet. They eventually separated, but Benet continued to promote her literary efforts, until in 1928 at the age of 43, the writer, still writing under the name of Elinor Wylie, died instantly of a stroke at Benet’s home while looking over pre-publication galleys of her last poetry collection with him.

Eilinor Wylie by Carl von Vechten

Elinor Wylie, clean bones crying in the flesh

 

All that folly of love in one short life! Did she manage to produce any poetry worth noting? From a look at her first collection, written largely while she was still married to Horace, I found her poetry more immediately attractive when read in the present day than Widdemer’s work. It’s very concise, and often considerably musical. You can see the influence of Shelley in the intense feelings and in some of the elaborate word choices. During her lifetime, the musicality of her verse (like Teasdale, like Millay) was noticed and admired, but like all three of these skilled singers on the page, High Modernism eventually discounted that element of poetry and looked for grander, more elaborately worked-out themes. And, to be frank, it also seemed to be looking for men. Mid-Century Modernism was a boys club.

Unlike Shelley, when time and death wore out the notoriety, the poet was more or less forgotten.

“Full Moon”  shows Wylie’s concise intensity well, and it shows a flair for visceral imagery too. In search of music or from love of obscure words, Wylie crafts lines that sound great even if one must keep a dictionary window open to grasp their gist. The poem as vocabulary test, a bit Wallace Stevens-like. Lines such as “My bands of silk and miniver momentarily grew heavier” and “Harlequin in lozenges” start the first two stanzas. Miniver? I think only of a Greer Garson movie. It’s a fur coat lining. Harlequin, a stock pantomime clown/fool character sure, but what’s with the lozenges, is the harlequin mute because of a sore throat? Nope, lozenges also means diamond shaped, the traditional harlequin costume has a diamond pattern.

nicoMarbleElinor Full Moon Album Cover

Harmoniums without Wallace Stevens: Nico and Elinor Wylie

 

What’s it all mean? It’s not hard for me to see Wylie’s biography in this, the experience of being seen as the bad woman, shunned and condemned. I made a mistake in performing this, singing “carnal mask” instead of the more perfect rhyme Wylie wrote: “carnal mesh.” I noted it right off and tried to sing the verse again, correctly, but I ended up liking the mistake and left it in. Musically, a Nico solo record from the mid-20th Century vibe came out, as I could hear Nico singing something like “harlequin in lozenges” and getting away with it a half-century after Wylie. To hear my performance of Elinor Wylie’s “New Moon”  use the player below.

When I Was a Young Girl

When I look at a more well-known poet or poem, I often find someone else less well-remembered connected with them. This sort of thing naturally intrigues me. Are we overlooking something of interest? Does this lesser-known person change our understanding of the more well-known poet?

I’ve noted earlier this month that Carl Sandburg won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1918 collection Cornhuskers—but that’s not the full story. For some reason, they decided to give out two awards for poetry that year, and another poet’s 1918 work was the co-recipient: Margaret Widdemer’s Old Road to Paradise.

Huh? Who?

I don’t aim this project to literary scholars, who likely know more than I do about the poets whose words I use, but there are indications that Widdemer’s name would stump them too, even those whose field includes the Modernist era. From a look through Widdemer’s Old Road to Paradise  this can be partly ascribed to Widdemer not writing in the Modernist style that triumphed as the century continued. Furthermore, Widdemer’s outlook, though feminist, is middle-class and lacks the bohemian allure of Millay or even Sara Teasdale (the poetry winner the previous year). As time passes, rebels and poètes maudite often retain their outsider excitement while losing their air of present danger, and Widdemer offers none of that. And while I’m hesitant to judge from a skim through one book, a further issue is that she may not be very good.

pre-war-lady-by-margaret-widdemer

Widdemer also had a successful career as a popular novelist between the wars.

 

Particularly for me, and for the Parlando Project, Millay and Teasdale’s words just want to sing off the page. Widdemer’s, though rhymed and following metrical schemes, generally don’t. There is a flatness to subject matter and a conventionality of imagery that fails to grab me as well. I would have loved to have picked up Old Road to Paradise  and found something as interesting as Fenton Johnson, Edward Thomas, or Anne Spencer; but not this time.

Margaret-Widdemer
Margaret Widdemer

 

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing there. Widdemer seems a level-headed person, and she is writing from a woman’s point of view that has fewer representations in the literary cannon of her era. What little I know of her biography says she worked to advance poetry and literary efforts. Could I find something to use? As I paged through Old Road to Paradise   I marked “When I Was a Young Girl”  as a possibility.

Why did this one stand out? It seems based on a folk song, but while it takes lines and tropes from folk songs, it presents an alternative viewpoint to the songs it borrows from. Since the post-WWII folk song revival, folk song has been even further associated with bohemianism and adventuresome living, even though the traditional texts used most often tell of sad ends.

From its title and often refrained first line, the folk song we can most easily connect with Widdemer’s poem is the female version of “The Unfortunate Rake”  a 17th Century song with dozens of popular folk song variations, including the American cowboy song “The Streets of Laredo.”  With the “When I Was a Young Girl”  title it’s been sung by Feist and Marlon Williams, and back in the 20th Century by Julie Driscoll and Nina Simone. The general plot of these variations is that a young person is dying after a short, intense life of drink and venereal disease. The too short life of pleasure is valorized even if the song’s singer often remarks that they know they are doomed to hell. No wonder this song has remained popular—both sinners and saints, and listeners on a journey from either pole to the other, can find something in the tale!

Widdemer starts as some of these folk songs do, by telling of the excitement of their youth before the song’s present moment, though in her more circumspect telling, the young girl’s adventures are in daydreams and fantasies, including (in another folk song reference), a longing to run off with the “raggle-taggle gypsies.”

I used a minor key melody for this, not unlike that used in the folk song. I won’t spoil the ending Widdemer puts on her version of this story by foretelling it here, but it’s not where that folk song and its variations take you. To hear it, use the player below.