It’s my hope that some of you are newer people reading this as a result of my increased posting frequency and other activity during April’s National Poetry Month. If you’ve just found this: welcome! What we do here is combine words (usually poetry) with original music in varied styles, and then write about our encounters with those words and what we discover from performing them.
Since we’ve been doing this for 6 years and over 600 pieces, what we’ve been doing this Poetry Month has been to highlight some of my favorites from the first half of our Project. Since the composition, performing, and recording tasks are already done for these pieces, this has made the daily posts possible, but it has still been a lot of work at a time when life has made other calls on my time and concern. I’ll skip that story, but I want to take a moment to tell those other blog authors that I follow that I’ve been unable to read your posts for the past couple of weeks. I miss that, and I still intend to catch up.
Today’s piece is from a poem of love and respect lost by Edna St. Vincent Millay which is titled “Rosemary.” As a lyric poem it’s somewhat mysterious in terms of time, place, and exact events. The opening verse’s rushes and bergamot have something of a house-cleaning feel to them. Rush stalks were used in place of rugs or other floor covering historically in homes as varied as Native American structures to European castles, and dried bergamot is fragrant and would be a nice way to make a place smell better, as is the herb rosemary, which may be the name of the speaker in the poem, and/or another way to freshen the smell of the house. Housekeeping is continued as a theme in the second verse. The final verse links back to the opening two lines, and I read it as a revelation that those tasks are being done out of duty and with a false-face of faithful servitude. After the final verse, those early fragrant herbs and fresh-straw-on-the-floor mentions now say something has gone off, is spoiled or rotten.
Is the poem’s speaker a wife or partner in a cold relationship? Or possibly a servant? The poem’s “gentle sirs” in its next-to-last line indicates more than one master is being acknowledged, but I can’t eliminate the idea that it could be a spurned lover chiding a partner as if she’s now a servant.
I called this poem “mysterious” rather than “vague” largely because I find Millay’s word-music enticing. Another poem with the same matter, but without that extra factor, might merit that second term. In my performance I created a jaunty tune for this enigmatic but essentially sad story. That’s a common tactic in British Isles folk music, where you can have brisk tunes telling stories of unjust and sorrowful fates. The performance ensemble is a small acoustic band: drum set, bass, two acoustic guitars — but I’m a one-man band performing that in overdubs. Listening back on this several years later I admire that I was able to make it sound like a live take by an actual band. My musicianship has remained inconsistent throughout my life, but this one works, and is able to serve the composer (me), though I wish I was a better vocalist here and elsewhere.
The lyric video
Three ways to hear it: a player gadget below for some of you, and this backup highlighted link if you don’t see the player. And as I’ve done so far with all these re-releases of early Parlando Project performances, I’ve created a new lyric video that shows the full text of the poem above.
Let’s continue or count-down to the most listened to and liked Parlando Project piece over the last summer. Today we move to the half-way point, numbers 7 through 5.
Wait, maybe you’re new here. Parlando Project — what’s that? Well, for a little over five years I’ve been presenting combinations of various words (mostly poetry) with original music. The words are mostly poetry not just because poetry has musical elements built into the form, but because I like compression of expression. Typical Parlando pieces are 2 to 5 minutes in length. You may notice that I’m generally not doing poetry written during your lifetime or even mine, and that’s not by choice. American copyright law puts up heavy barriers to reuse of copyrighted work; but on the good side I happen to like some of what went on in the first quarter of the 20th century, and so you’ll see a lot of work by the pioneering Modernists here. One of the benefits of this Project is that I’ve been rediscovering in public what they did to “make it new,” and finding some of their ideas worthy of being revived today.
What kind of music then? I like to think I vary that, composing and arranging for different instruments and sounds. Some pieces are just voice and acoustic guitar (my first instrument), some have fuller arrangements using orchestral instruments, and some pieces use an off-the-cuff rock band. And some pieces use instruments you don’t hear all that often in America, or synthesizer sounds created or modified for the composition.
7. Answer July by Emily Dickinson We left off with Dickinson’s childhood classmate and “You should really publish your stuff Emily” friend Helen Hunt Jackson. So, it’s a natural segue to this piece that was a bit more popular last spring.
What was I saying about unusual instruments? The main motif in this one is played on a sitar, the South Asian instrument that had a short vogue in The Sixties. Some composers and musicians who encountered sitar took the rich musical heritage associated with it to heart and incorporated, and still incorporate, elements there into music played on other instruments, but unless one wants to invoke a “Don’t be late for the Human Be-In” soundtrack vibe, the sound of the sitar isn’t something Americans get to hear much now, but it’s still a beautiful sound.
I’ve never actually owned one of the complex and somewhat fiddly sitar instruments, though I’ve used more than one “electric sitar” approximation over the years. The practical compromise I’ve come to favor is to use MIDI “virtual instruments” where I can play my guitar with a MIDI pickup and the sounds that come out are decent approximations of the real acoustic instruments playing that note.
Dickinson’s poem I used here is one of my favorite expressions of the ineffability of the summer season, and it seems a lot of you agreed this summer. To hear it again, (or for the first time) you may see a player gadget below. No gadget? Then this highlighted hyperlink is another way to play it.
6. Over the Roofs the Honey-Coloured Moon by Bliss Carman. I had fun last month riffing on some late 19th/early 20th century poets’ names, but Canadian poet Bliss Carman’s name easily equals Algernon Charles Swinburne in promising the most in Yellow Book Aestheticism of that period. His audaciousness in the collection that introduced this piece Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics was to “Imagine each lost lyric [of ancient Greek poet Sappho] as [if] discovered, and then to translate it.” The first part of that description, which hints at mediumship is outrageous enough, but even the second clause reminds me of my own audacity in avidly translating work from cultures and languages I’m not native or intimate with.
His synthetic results still have their attractions. Sappho — however real and in what particulars she was, thought, and created in her reality — hardly exists. We have but two or three mostly complete poems, and a scattered field of quotes and fragments. We have thick books binding up Shakespeare’s works, and facsimile editions of Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts with every alternative and scratched out word, and yet we reinvent those authors and their work every generation or so, using such ample literary evidence and fresh insight. Carman was more cavalier with Sappho, and the best historical studies and literary scholarship can point out what are likely errors or mere imagining in this man’s early 20th century Canadian Sappho — but Sappho was a lyric poet, and lyric poetry exists in charged moments that seem as present. Lyric love poets may lie, may often prove untrue even if they are sincere during their moments, but isn’t it also so that we may accept those momentary lies if they are beautiful enough?
Taken maybe 80 years apart, three poets, their collars and neckwear. Each have their mouths basically in a neutral state though Carman’s is somewhat downturned and Millay has just a hint of a knowing smile. Dickinson seems to be looking right into the colloidal silver on the plate and saying, “I know, I burn you.”
5. Recuerdo by Edna St. Vincent Millay Speaking of lyric poets able to interrogate romance, let’s move on to Millay. Each of the bolded listings in this Top Ten is a hyperlink back to the original post when I discussed the work in somewhat greater length, and with this one I compared Millay’s impact in her time to Joni Mitchell 50 years later.
I also wrote about the ambiguity I sensed in the tale of the infatuated young couple and their interaction with the old woman on the ferry. In that reading the old woman is meant to stand, imagistically, for economic and social inequality coexisting in the romantic night within the last time we called a decade “The Twenties.”
Maybe I’m reading too much in this, but it’s as if a great portion of the whole of the novel The Great Gatsby was condensed into this poem that I can sing in four minutes. Well perhaps the 20th century cared more for novelists than lyric poets, but both Fitzgerald and Millay went through a period before their deaths when they were down-rated and thought too tied to now irrelevant past decades. Fitzgerald got reassessed in the second half of the 20th century while Millay’s examination of society and literary value continued to languish. Now our own Twenties can find its own reading of that previous Twenties. Reading, or listening? Here’s my performance of Millay’s “Recuerdo” available with the player gadget where present, or with this highlighted hyperlink where it isn’t.
A longish one this time. I’ll try to make it worth your while.
In the places I go it has been hard to escape Joni Mitchell and the 50-year anniversary of her breakthrough record album Blue this month. Mitchell is one of those artists like Emily Dickinson* or Thelonious Monk who people contemporaneously recognized as someone on the scene, someone whose work might appear at hand or gain mention — but then decades afterward the level of originality and importance of what they had done becomes more and more clear.
Mitchell’s Blue wasn’t immediately recognized as a classic, successful statement. Musically it’s a bit odd, even by the eclectic field of 1971 recordings. Though “singer-songwriter”** was a growing genre at the time, most of them would present their songs in a full band context on record. Instead, Mitchell’s record is spare, often just her voice and one instrument — and sometimes the instrument is a mountain dulcimer at that! She often used her voice unusually, with quick almost yodeling leaps in service of the originality in her melodic contours, and this was off-putting to some. One thing I remember about listening to Joni Mitchell LPs back in my youth was that the amount of volume in her upper register would rattle the plastic frame and enclosures of my tiny portable stereo’s speakers, producing a very unpleasant buzzing distortion.
To the degree that she was noticed in 1971, that she could be a figure who’s fame might outreach her record sales or rock critic esteem — it wasn’t just that she was a successful songwriter for others who could round-off her corners just a bit to present “Clouds (Both Sides Now),” “Woodstock,” or “The Circle Game” to a wider audience than their author could — it was because she was known as (this gets complicated, stay with me here) as the “girlfriend” of a lot of male rock stars. This got joked about. The now infamous Rolling Stone “Old Lady*** of the Year Award” in 1971, or a joke picture of a purported Joni Mitchell LP with a song listing of: 1. Crosby, 2. Stills, 3. Nash, 4. And Young.
Do those of my generation remember that? Did you laugh? I did. That’s part of the complication, but then I believe sex is only funny when you’re risking doing it “wrong” — and it is best if it’s funny some of the time. Dead serious and entirely secret? We might as well sign up for Brave New World industrial reproduction or efficient devices shipped in plain brown wrappers.
That said, now-a-days that 1971 behavior toward Mitchell is now viewed as belittling and a case-study in patriarchal attitudes in the “counter-culture.” Which it was. In the era’s defense I’ll say that the times were groping (should I revise that word?) toward an imperfect but different attitude toward sexual relationships. Just exactly what women would have to say about this wasn’t the first or second thing on the official list of speakers, alas.
It just so happens that Mitchell spoke up anyway, and mixed that with a kind of music which might have seemed just a bit odd or imperfect then, but now is seen as effective, important, and original.
And now it’s time to play Frank’s favorite history game. Folks are thinking about Joni Mitchell and 1971’s Blue here in 2021, but what could we see if we rebound off that 1971 time and look back 50 years from then?
Well, they do tilt their berets the opposite way. Edna St. Vincent Millay and Joni Mitchell
The poetry fans who are still with this post were wondering when I’d get to Edna St. Vincent Millay. In 1921 Millay had broken out as a young poet to watch, partly by that “being on the scene” presence in New York City in the era around and just after WWI, and by famously losing a poetry contest with a poem that many (including the contest’s winner) thought was the best of the lot. That poem was then featured in her debut book-length collection, and now it was time for the “difficult second album.” She planned that second collection to be what was to eventually become her book: Second April, a title that suggested that plan. But she was having trouble with her publisher, and eventually another collection came out ahead of it, just as the 1920’s began to roar: A Few Figs from Thistles.**** It’s a fair analogy: that book was Millay’s Blue. And like Mitchell’s Blue people noticed the author’s public persona not just the poetry. Millay became the exemplar of “The New Woman” of the 1920s, who were sometimes finding patriarchal marriage a doubtful institution, and flaunting disregard for traditional arguments financial and domestic for that. Speaking openly about erotic feelings. Creating their own art rather than settling for standby muse duties.
I’m not sure if even an incomplete list of Millay’s lovers was known to a general poetry reading public 100 years ago, and one can’t quite imagine Poetry magazine naming Millay “The Old Lady of 1921,” but the persona in A Few Figs from Thistles gave us that adventurer in love character that makes Millay and Mitchell echoing artists. But the original edition was a thin volume, chapbook length, and from things I’ve read this week it seems that Millay worried that it wasn’t substantial enough while Second April’s publication faced continued delays. A second version of A Few Figs from Thistles was hurriedly planned and issued, and some of the additions were standout poems in the collection as we now know it, such as the one I use for today’s audio piece: “Recuerdo.” Here’s a link to the full text of that poem if you’d like to follow along.
In her heyday of the 1920s Millay’s Modernist milieu and outlook wasn’t always reflected in her poetic diction. This may have helped her readership who were not yet used to, or appreciative of, free verse or other experiments in expression. Robert Frost or William Butler Yeats would also retain a poetry audience in this time with lovely metrical verse that expressed the modern condition, but Millay was (to my mind) not consistently as facile with metrical verse and more often fell back to fusty 19th century syntax and language,***** but she could also rise above those limitations. “Recuerdo” is an example of that. It has an effective refrain expressing two contradictory and relatable emotions: “tired” and “merry.” Those emotional words are contained solely within the refrain. The rest of the poem progresses in the Modernist/Imagist style: things and events are described out of order, and in a common Modernist trope in a mixture of tones and importance. How many love poems include a phrase like “smelled like a stable?” Yes, this is largely a love poem — why it even touches on the aubade formula of the pair’s night being interrupted by the dawn — but look again: love (or sexual desire) as a word or even as a direct description is not mentioned once! Yet many readers can sense and feel the limerence of erotic love all through the poem intensely. That is there in this objective and fragmented depiction. Remarkable!
But that absence does allow for some ambiguity. Is there some level of inconsequential going-through-the-motions experience available in a reading of this poem? Or at least some sense of transience in the experience, which after all is framed by the title which means memory in Spanish? I think that’s accessible there too. Suppose I was to present this poem by inventing a frame that imagines it was written by two drug-addled addicts hooking up for one night and to say that that emotion word “merry” in the refrain has some archaic meanings that are congruent with “high.” Same words, different effect in that frame. Or if the same poem was written with a title like “How I Met your Father.”
Perhaps I overthink things, but the last stanza with the donation of fruit to the older woman who responds with words of gratitude was rich in ambiguity to me as well. An act of Christian charity, mixed in Modernistically with other random events and sights? Seems likely, but if I’m traipsing around tired and tipsy with my night’s hot flame and somehow, someway we’re carrying two dozen minus two each of apples and pears, their value isn’t exactly gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Is the older woman’s “God bless you” a simple expression of thanks or an implied suggestion that maybe the two younger lovers might want to kick in some spare change, which they consequently provide? Given the push-pull of political radicalism and romance in Millay’s work, can we be sure she doesn’t intend to portray something of the limits of the gesture to the old woman?
How many are thinking then that I’m an unromantic old cynic who has misunderstood and harmed this poem? Is there another group that says I’m not straightforward in my social and political analysis of the situation? Well, my fate is to be doomed to be in both states alternately and sometimes at once. That’s why I like this poem.
One knock against Millay and other New Woman poets of her time once the peak of her fresh fame wore off was that she wrote love poems, not statements about the important, complex issues facing us. Fifty years later, one knock about Joni Mitchell was that she was writing songs about two little people who don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Both of those summary beliefs are incorrect — but then, what is it you are saying: love songs are simple?
Maybe for you. Not for all of us.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Edna St Vincent Millay’s “Recuerdo” will appear below for some of you. No player to be seen? Then this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab window and play it. My music today isn’t very Joni Mitchell-ish (though later Mitchell, much past Blue, was a bit into synths). The vocal turned out to be a “scratch track” I kept because it seemed usefully spontaneous, even though I omit a few words in the poem’s text inadvertently.
*Dickinson wrote much of her work in the 1860s, and a small group of people knew of some of it though almost nothing was published in her lifetime. I speak here of the Dickinson that existed at the turn of the century after several volumes of her poetry with regularizing edits had been issued. Today she’s taught as one of the great American poets. Back when I was in school she was a charming slight oddity that seemed to fit in with some of the small, short poems the Imagists/Modernists produced in Millay’s time.
**Years ago I wrote a humor piece where I called this 1970’s trend “Singer Sewing-Machine” artists because so much of their ethos had airs of “back to the land/rent a house in Laurel Canyon/sew hippy blouses and embroidered patches on your jeans.”
*** “Old lady” and “Old man” as in “My old lady” were usages borrowed from what were the old-fashioned/outdated terms for wedded partners. Used in the more fluid arrangements by young people in the mid-20th century counter-culture they were supposed to be ironic statements of: partnership at least for now. Mitchell’s song on Blue“My Old Man” is an encapsulation of that moment.
****Back when I first presented a poem from that collection that so many of you liked this spring,“First Fig,” I was unaware of the origin of that book’s title. I wonder if my father who memorized Millay’s short poem but also studied to become a Christian minister in the Millay era would have known that Millay’s book title is from Jesus’ words in Matthew.
*****Her admirers can parse this as a Modernist use of older “ready-mades” which are being modified in the context of her 20th century verse.
1 A High-Toned Old Christian Woman and First Fig by Wallace Stevens and Edna St. Vincent Millay It seemed like an odd pairing. So much so that I wondered why I thought it might work. Wallace Stevens, who looked like what he was, an insurance executive; and Edna St. Vincent Millay, the beautiful bohemian New Woman of the 1920s. Stevens’ poem “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” was awash in his characteristic play with esoteric words, luxuriating in its educated Modernism. Millay’s “First Fig” is epigramically brief and simply said. They were only about a dozen years apart in age a hundred years ago when these poems were written, but Stevens seemed older than his years, and Millay was famous as a distinctly young poet and as a poet who spoke for the new youth.
The subconscious forces that had me perform them together is still somewhat inexplicable. The rational connection I can see is that both of them are giving their Modernist defense against an older propriety, each in their own voices. Both are defiant in their ways, but they also somewhat reassure the older generation with an undercurrent in their poems. “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” is telling the titular old Christian (which may be based on Stevens’ mother) that he too is a devout believer, but his belief is in pagan art. Millay’s “Fig” self-admits the likely unsustainability of her devotion to an artistic life, yet her short poem has enough room to say that she’s aware of that. Both poets accept that their stubborn individual Modernism may make widows wince.
Adding Modernist poets to your electric guitar pedalboard.
The unusual music in this spring’s most popular audio piece may have attracted some. Earlier this year I was able to find a used example of a guitar effects pedal that I’ve looked at for some time: the Electro-Harmonix Attack Decay pedal. Its prime trick is to make an electric guitar’s notes burn at both ends. Most other similar effects work only with single notes, but with proper settings and playing, the Attack Decay can latch on to and do the reverse delay thing on overlapping notes, letting the featured guitar in this piece sound like a hurdy-gurdy.
This is the piece that you, our flexible Parlando audience, listened to and liked the most last season, and you can hear or re-hear it with the player gadget below, or through this highlighted hyperlink which will play it in a new tab window.
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 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.
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.
*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!
***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.
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.
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.
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.
*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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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!
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 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.