Edward Thomas’ October

Moving from 17th century Welsh poet Henry Vaughn we’ll jump forward to a favorite of this blog: 20th century Welsh poet Edward Thomas. Thomas is less well-known in the U.S. than he is in the U.K., perhaps because he’s sometimes classed as a “Georgian poet,” a loose classification given to early 20th century British poets who weren’t Modernists.

As far as America was concerned, not being a Modernist wasn’t a good thing as the 20th century continued, particularly given that two Americans (Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot) were instrumental in the Modernist revolution in English-language poetry. Georgian poets were soon seen as those that hadn’t gotten the news about what sort of topics, outlooks, and word-music was appropriate for the new century. Societal and cultural failures were prime topics, skepticism and a multivalent posture toward agreed-upon premises were expected, and the tight starched collar of strict accentual-syllabic verse music was loosened.

Thomas’ other problem was that he was killed during WWI, and wasn’t published to any degree until after that war was over. In Great Britain, those war poets who held to the pre-war verse forms were given some license because of their service and sacrifice. In the U. S., this was largely a non-factor.

But of course, what kind of word-music a poet uses has little to do with his subjects or outlook. Thomas, like his American friend Robert Frost, was roughly as Modernist as any of his contemporaries, he just didn’t sound like one if you muffled his words so that only the sound and rhythms remained. Like Frost, he never developed a Cubist or Dadaist kaleidoscopic vision, but within the monocular vision by which they squinted at modern problems, their analysis was fully of the new century.

Edward Thomas The Night Tripper

Sun,  Moon, and Herbs; scabious and tormentil, Edward Thomas knows ‘em!

 

Case in point: today’s piece, Thomas’ autumn poem “October.”  The subject of “October”  is depression. Thomas gives it an old name “melancholy,” but depression and existential isolation is its matter. Many of Thomas’ other poems (including most of those we’ve featured here) have him focusing on the decision whether he as an over-draft-age man would volunteer to serve in WWI, a war whose cause he didn’t really believe in. In the end he decided that he would not exempt himself from the human suffering of the war.*  But in those poems, like this one, the other marker that lets one know that we are in an Edward Thomas poem is an almost encyclopedic knowledge of nature. “October”  shows this: the fall plants are specifically named, and the names he chooses for two of them: scabious and tormentil, specifically reference their palliative properties.** And so from the start “October”  features a prime Modernist tactic: the use of specific things to surround the actual, ineffable, topic of the poem. The October day described is altogether pleasant. He remarks it could just as well be spring, and the late fall flowers of the harebell are just as beautiful as the early spring flowers of the snowdrop.

He even muses that at some future time he may be able to see his depression clearly as a finished, or at least understood, thing. Notice: there’s close to nothing in this poem (other than that single “melancholy” that comes in the penultimate line, or that say-what’s-not, not what-is “I might as happy be” statement) that tries to say “I’m depressed and can’t presently find my way out of this mood, to decide my life.” He doesn’t even say “And now it’s fall, and I’ve got a damn winter to live through.” Instead, in “October”  Thomas leaves us in a Buddhist or Taoist moment, able to see the beauty and the sadness, equal reflections of each other. His opening couplet seems to me like it could be a poem by Du Fu or Li Bai, not the poem of an early 20th century Brit, and so I refrain those lines at the end of today’s performance.***

Elsewise in my performance I worked with the new orchestral virtual instruments which have given me more usable staccato articulations, which I’ve put in service of my simple “punk rock orchestration.” My finger strength has returned to a level that I felt comfortable playing the featured fretless bass motif for this.

The full text of Thomas’ poem his here. The player to hear my performance is below.

 

 

 

 

*Thomas’ outlook, his feeling that personal decisions even in the face of doubt and lack of information were critical, were gently chided by Robert Frost in Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken.”  Frost was the stoic, Thomas the existentialist.

**Henry Vaughn, the practicing physician, was more overt about the pharmacology metaphors in his poem about “Affliction,”  but think of Thomas as an herb-doctor as he assembles the formulary of his nature scene here.

***Has anyone tried to translate Edward Thomas into Chinese? Although “October”  is written in English blank verse, so much of it seems like it would sit naturally as a poem in the classical Chinese manner.

Fall 2018 Parlando Project Top 10 Number 7-5

7. A Poison Tree words by William Blake.  When I posted this piece this fall, I remarked that Blake never seems that popular with the blog readers/listeners here. Dave and I have always sung Blake pieces since the early days of the LYL Band, and so we persist anyway.

Well, this piece finally allowed William Blake to break out. I can’t say exactly why, but I’m just glad it found an audience.

When I first encountered Blake as a young man, one of the things that I admired about him was his DIY/Indie spirit: apprenticing as an artist/engraver, doing his own coloring, writing his own texts, devising his own mythology, making his own prints. In the psychedelic Sixties there was this appeal because Blake was a visionary, the man who was reported out talking to angels in trees. Well those are the reports—but the work says he did a lot more than that, using his hands and applied energy. Reminds me of one of my mottos: Creative people aren’t people who have great ideas. Creative people are people who make things.  Of course, you’ll need some ideas, some vision that we need to see—but sometimes you’ll come upon those on your workbench scattered and shining amid worn tools.

 

 

The Angel by William Blake

In pickup basketball games, Blake always played skins. Also no pants.

 

 

6. Gone Gone Again words by Edward Thomas.  Thomas has been a blog favorite here ever since I followed the connection from Robert Frost to him, and discovered that I had unwittingly nearly reenacted his most famous poem Adlestrop  on a visit to England.

Thomas seems to have suffered from depression and other issues throughout his life. I don’t think that sadness inspires deep poetry, so much as battling it does, and Thomas’ poem is a compressed record of that battle as well as his beloved countryside of England during WWI.

 

Edward Thomas thin and thoughful

The return of the thin white duke, throwing darts at Blenheim oranges

 

5. Jade Flower Palace words by Du Fu.  I’ve noticed that I was using a string section of some sort (or its Mellotron equivalent) for every piece so far. Finally, we break that pattern as a conventional, unadorned LYL Band rock-combo instrumentation is used in this live recording.

There’s something I feel in Du Fu’s poem that is very near to Edward Thomas’ that is just above in the countdown, so it’s a nice coincidence that they slot together in popularity this time.

During the Parlando Project I’ve taken to doing my own translations from non-English language sources, including this one. Particularly with classical Chinese poetry this is risky or audacious on my part. I’m not sure if I should be encouraged by the number of inaccurate translations that are out there, including some that are fairly well-known—for example: the Chinese translations of Ezra Pound, which I’ve loved even after learning of the translation errors present in them.

I sometimes view my task as translator like I view my job as a musician who wishes to cover someone else’s song without merely duplicating it. I don’t want to be unfaithful to what the writer intended, but I do want to express it, in my own country’s language, in my own time, to my own audience. To do so, I may pull things toward my own language and my own grasp of the author’s imagery to keep what comes out vital.

That may just be an excuse for my own weakness in foreign languages and other skills of translation. Still, though Ezra Pound’s River Merchant’s Wife or South Folk in Cold Country  are not what Li Bai wrote, they are powerful works. But then, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”  isn’t Otis Redding’s “Respect”  played back faithfully either.

 

Jade carving

“There are many paths away from here. How long are any of them? None of them go on forever.”

Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.)

It’s 1956. World War One had ended less than 40 years ago, instead of 100. Robert Frost is the most celebrated living American poet, and he has traveled back to England to receive honors from both Oxford and Cambridge universities, a symbolic laurel helping to mark the 20th Century acceptance of American poetry into the pantheon of our polyglot language.

Two elderly women follow an invitation to an upstairs to-do in London, where the American poet has just landed. Eleanor Farjeon is one of the pair, then 75 years old, and here’s how she described what happened:

We approached a white-haired man who was talking to T.S. Eliot. ‘It’s Helen and Eleanor, Robert.’ He turned towards us quickly, unmistakably Robert. Were we as unmistakably ourselves? Eliot smiled at us and withdrew a little…. Robert muttered, ‘Well, well, well.’ Soon he and Helen were talking of their grandchildren.

Who are these ladies that broke off the tête-à-tête between the two Modernist poetic titans?

One was the widow of Edward Thomas, the man who Robert Frost called “the only brother I ever had.” The other was the woman who had introduced Edward Thomas to Frost in 1913, Eleanor Farjeon. The poet Edward Thomas is not well known outside of Britain, Farjeon even less so, but none-the-less she had a long and varied literary career as a poet, playwright, children’s book author, and songwriter in a life that spanned from the Pre-Raphaelites to Carnaby Street.

Eleanor Farjeon

Eleanor Farjeon early and late in her life

 

Back just before and after the outbreak of WWI, the Frost Family, the Thomas Family, and Eleanor Farjeon were a sort of an extended pod of friendship and affiliations. The Thomas marriage had strains, and Farjeon was in love with Edward Thomas. Thomas’ spouse, Helen, surprisingly cast Eleanor Farjeon not as a rival but as a balm to Edward. And so, between her own writing, and typing manuscripts to help D. H. Lawrence (also hanging around this circle*) Farjeon, like Robert Frost, took to accompanying Edward Thomas on his indefatigable walks around the countryside.

Eleanor Farjeon was still a literary stem cell at the time. She later said “In my youth I dreamed of being a ‘real’ poet, but half way through my life that dream died, and whatever figments of it remained went into writing songs** and verses for children.”

When Edward Thomas decided to enlist and volunteer for the front lines in the war, the pod all shared correspondence with Thomas, a correspondence that continued right up to the very week of Thomas’ battle-death. And after that, they all shared the task of putting his literary affairs in order and promoting the poetry of the man who had only started writing it during that short pre-war period.

Robert Frost and Eleanor Farjeon both wrote elegies for Edward Thomas. It may surprise you, but I’m choosing to use Farjeon’s memorial sonnet here to cap off our Armistice Day series on Edward Thomas, instead of Frost’s poem. Farjeon might have thought of herself as not a “real” poet, but it’s us, the audience, that decides. Her poem may seem to be made of genteel English stuff: gardens, Easter eggs, love tokens, so that it has the patina of an antique valentine—but that’s just the surface. How about those relentless repetitions? You can hear James Joyce or Gertrude Stein tuning up in the distance if you listen for those. Did she mean the punning subtext of the repeated “Eve” with the repeated apples? If this were a Joyce poem we’d assume yes, so why not here? And that surface? It’s a paper scrim she means to tear, to rip—and yet when she does it in the last line, there’s no sound, only an invisible gap, an understated “apology”.

Here is what Eleanor Farjeon said, shortly before her own death, writing again about Edward Thomas and Robert Frost when recounting her last, 1956 meeting with Frost in the company of Thomas’ widow:  “We do not lose our friends when they die, we only lose sight of them.”

Here’s my performance of Farjeon’s “Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.)”  that you can hear using the player below.

 

 

*Sounds a bit unconventional for an Edwardian village in 1913 doesn’t it—but any bets on who did the housework?

**And it’s in this guise that Farjeon is likely to be best known in the U. S. Back in 1972, three denizens of that Sixties London: Cat Stevens (later Yusef Islam), Rick Wakeman (later caped-keyboardist of Prog Rock fame) and Paul Samwell-Smith (producer and former bass-player with the Yardbirds) created an arrangement of Farjeon’s hymn “Morning Has Broken”  for a best-selling LP and eventual #6 hit single on the Billboard U.S. charts.

Edward Thomas and World War 1

In my roundup of World War One War Poets earlier this week for the upcoming centenary of Armistice Day, I only mentioned Edward Thomas in passing. He shares the military service and the battle-related death of the others, but his writing about the war is different. Though he was working on notes that could lead to poems during his short front-line service, I’m unaware of any Thomas poems that tell of his experiences of battle. Many of his poems instead deal, intentionally, or inherently in their time’s context, with the change in norms that the war brought.

A poem like his much loved “Adlestrop,”  if read in the context of the war’s coming outbreak, speaks even more intensely of the peace and unnoticed wonder that pauses in the muddle of an unscheduled train delay.

“Adlestrop”  doesn’t mention the war though, and it’s based on one of Thomas’ journal entries from before the war. On the other hand, a poem like his “Gone, Gone Again”  speaks intentionally and masterfully about the changes in his beloved countryside “before the war began turning young men to dung.” His highly condensed “In Memoriam, Easter 1915”  is another that intends to mark the war’s changes.

Edward Thomas in Nature 2

Edward Thomas, a British nature poet that events bent into a War Poet

 

If you look at a continuum* from his “In Memoriam”  through today’s “The Owl”  to “Gone, Gone Again”  you can see a journey from a short and moving, though impersonal, elegy/pastoral through “The Owl’s”  introduction of a linkage of his own corporal experience to those on the front, and concluding with the even more personal and aching conflation of his own state with his country’s situation in “Gone Gone Again.”  For this reason, I’m going to put the audio player gadgets for all three in the post today, so that you can follow Edward Thomas’ journey as he decided as a middle-aged family man to enlist—volunteering for the front-lines, and his eventual death.

Here’s “In Memoriam (Easter 1915)”  as Thomas begins to weigh the costs of war.

 

 

And this is today’s new addition, “The Owl.”  It’s not important to the poem, but the pendant in me wanted to know what species of owl Thomas heard. England helpfully has fewer species of owl than North America, so it must have been a male tawny owl, as the other candidate, the barn owl, has a screechy call that couldn’t have been cast as melancholy.

 

 

And finally, here’s “Gone, Gone Again.”

 

 

*I don’t actually know what order that Thomas wrote them, or even if “The Owl”  was written before the war, as some particulars of the journey he describes echo the book he wrote about a bicycle tour he took from the suburbs of London to the border of Wales in 1913. But for performance reasons, seeing the three poems as a narrative seemed defensible to me, or at least no more anachronistic as having the artificial tang of  Mellotron strings and flutes to stand in again for England in the music.

Gone, Gone Again

Let’s return to sing the poetry of a man who’s far better known in Great Britain than in the United States, Edward Thomas. Thomas had a remarkably short run as a poet, only writing verse for about two years after befriending and sharing thoughts about writing and the observation of the countryside with Robert Frost during the latter’s stay in England just before WWI.

Thomas was no longer young when he started writing poetry, and he had scratched out a living as a freelance writer for several years before he met Frost. None-the-less, two years is a very short time to develop as a poet, and today’s piece “Gone, Gone Again”  may show some rougher places commensurate with a poet who hasn’t fully developed his game.

As I worked with “Gone, Gone Again” as an audio piece with music, some of its odd poetic faults continued to jab at me, but as is sometimes the case with the Parlando Project, I grew to appreciate the poem and Thomas’ unique read on time and life more fully from the effort spent with it.

The poem’s meter is awkward and uneven, the rhyme unpredictable. A casual reader could hear it as doggerel. As the poem reaches its conclusion, with the only perfectly rhymed quatrain in the piece, the sentence seems twisted in order to make the rhymes.

How much of this is intended and how much of this is a beginner struggling with the verse? Who can say. From working with it, I think the rhyme scheme that refuses to be—well, a scheme—is likely intended. It does keep you off balance, but I think it’s effective. The meter with its odd steps, is likely just as intentional, though I’m still not sure it works as well for the performer or listener. Even in the performance you’ll hear today I didn’t reproduce Thomas’ text correctly, rounding off a few of the rough spots, and revising the last line of the fifth verse. Another musician who has worked with a great many poems, including a number by Thomas, gracefully manages to sing this poem unaltered, though I’m now somewhat attached to my “mistaken” changed line.

grass gowing inside 3

Thomas wrote “Grass growing instead” which would be consistent with a house abandoned an unknown time ago, but I sang “Grass growing inside,” which while a strong image determines it for long ago.

 

What then comes from repeated readings, or from the time I had to spend with this poem in order to turn it into a song? Thomas is playing with time. He starts off with a common trope: and end of summer poem. How many of us are having this same thought, “Where did the summer go?” Almost as if he’s leaving his own critical note, Thomas’ second stanza says right out, “Not memorable.”

And then he adds: “Save I saw them go.” Already, the poem starts its turn into a poem about survivor’s guilt.

In the next verse, we’ve gone from a ballad stanza style rhyme scheme, to a verse that starts with a rhymed couplet, followed by an unrhymed couplet. You really feel the lack of rhyme every time you sing or say “The Blenheim oranges/Fall grubby from the trees.” The curious pendant in me had to find out what a Blenheim orange is. It can’t be an orange, can it? As the sentry in Monty Python’s Holy Grail  reminds us: “Found them? In Mercia? The coconut (like the orange) is tropical! This is a temperate zone.”

The Blenheim orange is instead an English apple variety. Blenheim orange is a flavorful name though. It’s even an alternate title under which the poem is sometimes published. Assuming intention, Thomas may have chosen it not just because the apple is named the same as an imposing palace in Oxfordshire, but because the palace, and presumably the name of the apple as well, comes from a battle that was already 200 years ago when Thomas wrote his poem, a key engagement in the European War of Spanish Succession.

This may be too subtle by half, a College Bowl or Jeopardy-level question about history that almost everyone in the audience will miss.

Here’s where the play with time part returns. The poem next visits an abandoned house site, a trope that Thomas’ friend Robert Frost would go to more than once in his own rural poems.

Thomas is writing his poem in the context of WWI. During his entire poetic practice, he was grappling with the question if he, nearing 40 years old, should volunteer for battle service in WWI. He’s considering this well past any illusions of a grand battle adventure. He’s well aware that modern warfare has turned technology into an efficient killing machine, in his disconcertingly brutal phrase, turning “young men to dung.”

How long as this house been abandoned? Since the war of Spanish Succession? Since the outbreak of WWI (which might be the cause that river barge traffic is absent and those apples falling unpicked)?

Here the poem completes its turn: a compressed meditation on the losses of the cycle of life with or without the fortunes of war, four warm months started us off, May to August; now life is four as well “Youth, love, age, and pain.”

Thomas’ conclusion is stoic, fatalistic. The final verse’s schoolboys are a rich image, at once nihilistic vandals and the reduction of reason and textbook learning to emptiness. In Thomas’ time, WWI has broken the world, and he eventually decides that the call of duty, however irrational, is the only way to take part in the mending and solace of tradition.

I talk-sing this for the most part, but it’s a fairly full orchestration that I mixed in the background of the acoustic guitar/folk music song I wrote for this. The strings are quiet, but I let an oboe, trumpets and a fluegelhorn come a bit forward at times. The virtual instrument versions of brass instruments don’t sound as authentic as strings and keyboard virtual instruments do, but I wanted a bit of that flavor in there anyway. To listen to “Gone, Gone Again (The Blenheim Oranges)”  use the player below.

Following up on In Pursuit of Spring

I completed reading Edward Thomas’s In Pursuit of Spring  yesterday, the book about a bicycle tour across southern England published just before his transition from a self-described hack writer to a much loved English poet. I’ve already noted some surprises in a reply to a comment earlier, but now that I’ve finished I have more to say.

I at first thought the journey was more than a month long, as I read a quote from the book mentioning finding May at the end of his journey—but that was poetic license on Thomas’ part, his bicycle trip from London to the Bristol Channel took only a few days, it was only the vicissitudes of English climate that he was expressing. So, my supposition that the time on his bicycle on a country trip helped break the cycle of hack writing is likely wrong. And more than the time-span says this. The book internally shows evidence of work for hire. Parts of it are uninspired writing—prolix and tangled  writing at that—which is doubly surprising given that Thomas’ poems are usually so sharp and short, where every word tells. The book contains digressions which may or may not have been conventional in English travel books of the time, but they vary in quality and subject. At one point he simply begins to tell a folk tale about two sisters for no reason I can discern. Some of the digressions geek-out on detail. There’s a monolog on clay pipes that I quite enjoyed, which might still pass today as a post on a hipster blog. His shorter discussion of “waterproofs” (rain gear) for bicycling would gather likes in a post today too.

Edward Thomas 2

“I have discovered that sellers of waterproofs are among the worst of liars, and they communicate their vices with their goods.” Even today, many all-weather bicyclists would agree with Thomas.

 

Thomas’ hack work included literary reviews, and there are mini-essays on several English poets thrown in amidst the travelogue. The only living poet this 1913 book dealt with at any length is Hardy (Thomas approves of him) but the strange case he recounts of the 18th Century rural poet Stephen Duck lead me to look for more about him. Thomas was reviewing the contemporary early 20th Century Modernists at this time, and no doubt absorbing some of their tactics, but he does not speak of them in the book.

Over the course of the book he spends an inordinate amount of time in village churches and their graveyards, often cataloging the ordinary names of those buried there—not just the plaques enshrining local now-forgotten notables—and he recounts many epitaphs he finds. This seemed padded and tiresome to me at first, but as the book continued I just grew to accept it. Was this a conventional part of travel book writing then? Are the family names or ordinary people particularly redolent of a region in England? I don’t know. But as this practice continued at every town, I recalled again, this is less than two years before WWI changed England and four years before Thomas met his own Eastertide death in that war. Prophetically intended or not, the book’s catalog of graves does begin to tell.

Another Thomas tic, carried over somewhat into the poetry, is his naturalists-level knowledge of plants and birdsong. At one point early in the book he’s riding off in the morning and identifies a great number of the birds calling by their song, and he never seems to pass a plant without knowing it’s common name.  When I think of his much beloved “Adlestrop,”  a poem I much admire, written only a bit more than a year later.  I wonder if he had to restrain himself from cataloging for several stanzas the species that make up “all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.”

When Robert Frost saw the poetry in In Pursuit of Spring,  he performed a task of greater perception than I expected, even though there are lovely phrases, a keen intellect that pops in and out, and an odd charm to the whole thing.  Have you run across the current craze for creating poetry by redacting the greater part of large blocks of text so that found poetry emerges? Frost must have mentally done something like that.

How much of Thomas’ mode of prose expression was warped by the pay-by-the-word and deadlines/assigned topics of hack work I can’t say, but the poet Edward Thomas is all the more remarkable to me after reading this.

No new music today, but since I mentioned “Adlestrop,”  it would be good to remind newcomers that they can hear it. The player is below.

 

In Memoriam Easter 1915

Here’s a story about a poem appropriate for this Memorial Day, though the story includes three Easter holidays.

First Easter: on Easter 1913 in March, a freelance writer, normally so pressed for a paycheck that he worked 15-hour days writing piece after piece, started off on a bike tour across Britain from his home near London to the south-western coast of England. Of course, there was a paycheck involved, a travel book was planned and resulted, which was called In Pursuit of Spring.

Edward Thomas Easter Bike Trip 1913 crop

Can’t tell the model, but from the front it’s clear that Thomas was riding a classic English “roadster” on his tour.

 

This trip started in overwork and near the ending of a glum winter, and finished in May with true spring; and this bicycle journey allowed the harried writer to expend a bit more focus on his writing. In the book, his trip ends in Somerset England, but a packet of photos he took during the trip indicates that he must have somehow crossed the Bristol Channel to Wales, the homeland of his ancestors. A tell-tale photo with his handwriting on the back was discovered recently, saying it was taken near Tinkiswood, the site of a Welsh Neolithic stone burial chamber. A year later the site was excavated, and 920 human bones were located. Welsh legend has it that staying the night in the chamber will cause any surviving visitor to go raving mad or become a poet. That wasn’t included in the book.

The overworked freelancer who took this journey was Edward Thomas. Shortly after the journey completed, he met a then little-known American poet who’s work Thomas had reviewed perceptively. The poet was Robert Frost. Frost read In Pursuit of Spring  and suggested that Thomas should write poetry.

“How so?” asked Thomas.

Frost told him that Thomas had already shown close readings of the book of nature and the rhythm of verse in passages in In Pursuit of Spring.

So, at this time Thomas began writing poetry, extraordinary poetry that is little known in the United States, but which is much loved by poets and readers in the U.K. Some of it so concise and so infused with deep attention to the natural world’s calligraphy that it rivals classical Chinese and Japanese forms.

And World War I breaks out.

I’ve already written about Thomas’ dilemma in deciding if he should enlist in the war, and Frost’s part in Thomas’ ambivalence, so here I’ll just say that Thomas did enlist. The records say it was in a company called “The Artists’ Rifles.”

Can Americans of our time imagine such a military organization? Of course, artists of all kinds have served in America’s military services, but I can’t envision that sort of name being used here in place of something like “The Screaming Eagles.”

Edward Thomas' company in training with Thomas in rectangle

Thomas’ company in training camp

 

The second Easter: the somber name today’s poem was published under was not his. Thomas in his manuscript simply wrote down the Eastertide date in 1915 when he apparently wrote the first draft of this, two years after he’d started the trip that had indirectly formed him into a poet. That summer he was even stationed for a while on military training in one of the towns he’d passed through on the bicycle journey.

But never mind the name, what a poem. It’s four lines, a single quatrain. Nearly every word is telling, even ones you slide over in the first line. Decades later Pete Seeger wrote a song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,”  condensing an episode from a WWI novel expressing a similar idea to Thomas’ poem. Seeger’s song is not long as songs go, but it’s a good length for a room to sing along with. Thomas’ poem has only started when it comes to its fourth line. The previous line breaks abruptly, enjambed, with “should,” and its final line reveals itself as it unwinds in heartbreaking fashion.

And Thomas? A third Easter: another spring, 1917. His diary entry in France wonders if the enemy is unseen in the fields ahead of him, which he still must view with the precision of a nature poet. He pauses to light his pipe. A bullet pierces straight through his beating heart that, will, do, never, again.

To hear my performance of the poem eventually published as “In Memoriam (Easter 1915)”  use the player below.

 

 

 

Additional notes:  There’s a new paperback edition published a couple of years back of In Pursuit of Spring,  which includes for the first time the photographs Thomas took during his journey, and it’s available from booksellers. Yes, English people do take up the idea of trying to duplicate Thomas’ bicycle trip today, for example Kimberly Rew, the  guitarist alongside Robyn Hitchcock in The Soft Boys and songwriter and guitarist of Katrina and the Waves, and also the Nick Drake estate manager and vintage bike enthusiast  Cally Callomon, whose plans included riding the trip on a period-correct English roadster bike.

I recognize that Memorial Day is an American Holiday, directly derived from the post American Civil War Decoration Day. I know this blog has a large segment of U.K. readers, so to explain: in the U..S. we have two holidays celebrating the armed forces, Memorial Day, which retains some of it focus on honoring the dead who served, and Veterans Day, which is the U. S. holiday that coincides with Remembrance Day. For readers on either side of the Atlantic who’d like to hear the LYL Band present a performance of an American poet for Memorial Day, here’s Carl Sandburg’s “Grass.”

 

Thaw

I like to mix up our musical encounters with poetry here, using both well-known and lesser-known poems. Here’s one you probably haven’t heard before, written by a poet who is less-known in the U.S. than in his native Britain, Edward Thomas.

In 1913, Thomas was 36 years old and was scratching out a living for his family as a freelance writer on whatever topics could generate a check, but his real passion seemed to be as an enthusiastic naturalist. He liked nothing better than to walk about the countryside reading the book of nature, jotting down notes about what he’d seen. Then he met a similar no longer young writer, a 40-year-old American who wanted a career as a poet.

The American had not found his own country in agreement with his vocational desire, and so he had flipped a coin to strike out somewhere else: Canada or England? He knew no one in either place, it was just a hunch that someplace different might change his lot. The coin came up England. He took a cottage in the Cotswolds, near to where Thomas was living. The 40-year-old American poet? Robert Frost.

Over the next couple of years, the two men developed what would be the most significant friendship in their lives. Now Thomas had a companion besides his notebook on those nature walks. Although Frost had published only a handful of poems in periodicals at this point, Thomas saw his talent, a man who could write metrical verse so supple that it didn’t seem like poetic diction. In turn, Frost saw another poet in this self-described “hack writer” with his avocational notebook.

Thomas and Frost

Nearing 40 years old and yet thinking about poetry. Edward Thomas and Robert Frost.

 

Frost published his first two books of poetry in England, “A Boy’s Will”  and “North of Boston,”  and Thomas reviewed them enthusiastically, helping launch Frost’s literary career. And with Frost’s encouragement, Thomas’ notebook jottings became poems.

In 1915 Frost moved back to the U. S. where publishers would now publish American editions of his poetry. Edward Thomas, and his family, were to follow. The two poets were to live near each other in America and continue their fruitful friendship.

These two men, these two friends, who each could write tremendously concise poems in which a natural drama could play out in but a few lines, had one constitutional difference. Frost was reconciled to chance and fate. He would jump oceans with a coin flip. If lost on a road by a snowy woods on the darkest night of the year—well keep on driving that buggy onward in the dark. Thomas, on the other hand, believed that introspection and judgement, an ever-closer reading of the book of nature could discern the right choice. If two roads diverge (as they would when he and Frost walked the Cotswolds) your honor derives from making the correct choice from the inconsistent evidence.

Back in the USA, Frost wrote his famous, misunderstood, poem about those two paths and sent it to his friend, still tarrying in England, and Thomas became the first person to misunderstand The Road Not Taken.”  No matter how much we honor the author’s intent, the poem exists after it’s creator. Thomas’ outlook saw the undercurrent in the poem, that choice could be important. Thomas thought: if Frost was making gentle fun of that, no matter, that was the point.

Here’s a small, four-line poem that Thomas wrote about spring, “Thaw.” As often with Thomas’ poems “Thaw”  is set on a nature’s large stage, but it’s a very short drama. Winter’s snow, as it is here in Minnesota today, is half-melted. Crows are cawing in tree tops, as the crows I saw today on my morning bike ride to breakfast were too, speaking the inscrutable language of crows. I saw one swoop down and frighten a foraging squirrel on a lawn, the black bird somewhat larger than the squirrel—and then, larger yet to it when the rook spread its wings and hammered out its hard-consonant caw.

The squirrel hopped like something had exploded underneath it and disappeared. These natural decisions could be read if one picks up the book of nature.

In Thomas’ “Thaw,”  the poet has come to understand that the crows know spring is coming, they are nesting already, and their treetop kingdom, unlike the ground beneath the poet’s feet, is snow free. They have read the book of nature more perceptively.

In Frost’s “The Road not Taken”  the comic narrator will sigh “ages and ages hence” about not having read nature right, of having lost the experience the road not taken would have given him. Edward Thomas decided not to move to New England to live next to Frost. Edward Thomas decided, though he was nearing 40 years old, and with a family to leave behind, that honor and his sense of correct decision required that he enlist in World War I, then half-way over. Within a few weeks of arriving at the front, a German artillery shell, following the arc of nature’s laws for men’s unnatural needs, killed him outright.

Thomas had continued writing his nature poems through his boot-camp training, and presumably at the front. He was still seeking to find what it knows that he doesn’t.

You can hear my performance of “Thaw”  using the player below. In the middle section I tried to give the impression with electric guitar of the sounds of a flock of crows.

If you like what we do here, particularly as we celebrate National Poetry Month (#npm2018), you may want to let others know about The Parlando Project on social media or elsewhere.

 

The Road Not Taken

As we continue our celebration of National Poetry Month (#npm2018), today we present one of America’s most loved poems, “The Road Not Taken”  by Robert Frost.

This poem is loved, but like many of our lovers, it may not be understood. We think it means, as we think they mean, what they mean to us.

Some love the poem as an endorsement of going against the tide. If an article or personal story includes the line “the road less traveled by” that will likely be the point they are making by referencing this famous poem. So common is this understanding that many people think that phrase is the title of the poem.

Some think of it as a slightly less sure poem that reflects on a common life experience. Many of us can look back at some seemingly mundane choice that we’ve made that has had far-reaching consequences in our lives: that class we took on a whim, that meeting that occurred only because we were late or went to the wrong place, that failed idea that lead to a much better one, and so on. We often love a poem that reminds us of ourselves and the common beats of our lives. We may even be flattered by that.

Robert Frost was adamant that neither of these was the poem he wrote. And if I’m to honor my mid-century teachers—all schooled in the close reading of that then only-slightly-old “New Criticism”—I’d have to say that Frost is right, that’s not the poem he wrote.

As I recounted in my presentation of one of Britain’s favorite poems, Edward Thomas’ “Adlestrop,”  Frost was attempting to make a generalized joke derived from a particular foible of his British friend.  Thomas, who Frost encouraged to become a poet, was a naturalist, and as he and Frost walked around the Cotswold countryside, Thomas was often unsure about the old and sparsely marked paths and lanes that wander through that landscape. He wanted to take Frost to the best locations to see wildlife, and when he took the wrong path, he would regret it and puzzle all the more the next time he came to a fork or crossroads.

Robert Frost against the wall

To you it’s a nature walk, to Frost it’s a way to notice your peccadillos

 

In the poem Frost wrote, the vacillating description of whether there is any actual difference in the roads to choose between at the time of the choice, is meant to describe the difficulty in making that decision. That’s consistent with that second reading of the poem about how seeming arbitrary decisions can have unexpected effects later. We don’t know what meetings to be late for or which whim will turn out fruitful at the time.

It’s the poem’s last stanza that sets out Frost’s poem, in place of ours, despite it ending in the two lines (“I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference”) that are used to sum up the first two subjective readings. First, the conclusion revealed there is stated “with a sigh.” This is not an “I took my own path, and that’s what made me what I am today,” or an “I didn’t know it then, but that mistake was a lucky break” recollection. Those are statements of triumph or benevolent fate, and we don’t make either of those “with a sigh.” And even more subtly, there’s a trick in the two lines before the last one, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by.” Did you notice it?

Perhaps the musicians, the poetic or the score-reading kind, or actors will notice it. Frost has the speaker, announcing his oh so firm and final conclusion stated from the certainty of comically exaggerated “ages and ages hence” to repeat a word. It’s almost a stutter. He doesn’t say “and I took the one less traveled by.” He says “I (pause) I took the one less traveled by.” It’s the slightest tell, isn’t it? It’s not the shouty Townshend/Daltry “why don’t you all just f-f-f-fade away,” but the speaker is still divided about what road he should have taken. Frost called the poem “The Road Not Taken”  after all, not “The Road Less Traveled.”

As it sometimes is with our lovers, we may have misunderstood what he said by misunderstanding how he said it.

Robert Frost Fear of Roads cover

Not the cover to his “More Songs about Woods and Snow”

 

Musically this started with an idea: do Robert Frost as if performed by the Talking Heads. I came to a fork in the road part way into recording it when it came time to add the keyboard part and I wasn’t able to lay down a part that helped the song. As a result of that choice, I didn’t really use the early David Byrne vocal mannerisms either. In the end I think it’s a clean presentation of the poem, sung. When I noticed the “I—I” thing today after recording the vocal and had finished a final mix, I went back and was pleased to find that hadn’t missed the two I’s, but then I recalled the “I, I, I, I, I!” vocal riff Byrne repeatedly interjects in “Psycho Killer”—so there’s still possible version someone could do to bring that out!

To hear the road I took with this, use the player below.

Fall 2017 Parlando Project Top 10

It’s time to report the most popular audio pieces posted here over this increasingly busy summer. Before I get to this season’s Top 10 countdown, I want to thank everyone who has listened, followed, liked, or shared our posts and audio pieces on social media or on other blogs. I don’t have time (or perhaps the talents) to do all the promotion that some other blogs do, so it’s the kind words and enthusiastic work that you readers/listeners do that has spread the news about this combination of various words with various music.

Lots of changes from our last Top 10, so let’s get started. There should be a player gadget after each piece on the list, so you can easily hear the audio combining those words with music we create and perform as part of the Parlando Project.

10th place? Turns out it’s a three-way tie for 10, and since the three pieces demonstrate the variety I seek to present here, let’s just dispense with tie-breakers and list all three audio pieces that are tied at number 10..

“Sonnet 18”
  is, so far, our only Shakespeare selection. Shakespeare is, or course, inescapable, and setting Shakespeare’s sonnets to music isn’t a rare thing either, but one of the good things that comes from the Shakespeare phenomenon is that a listener can hear a lot of different takes on one text. I choose to bring out the brag in this one.

A Summer’s Night”  uses a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first widely published Afro-American poet who died tragically young in 1906. A lot of Dunbar’s success during his lifetime was with dialect pieces which he had ambiguous feelings about. He sometimes said that he wished to be known more for his poetic work in standard English, something that “A Summer’s Night”  demonstrates.

 

“On the Troop Ship To Gallipoli”  demonstrates a small bit of artistic courage on my part to pay tribute to the real-world courage of Rupert Brooke, who died in service to his country in WWI. The “Great War” redrew the world’s maps, overturned several empires, and it also drew a literary dividing line, as post-war poetry embraced Modernism which made the poetic stylings of Brooke seem decades old only a few years after he wrote them. Those who lived through that time often adapted to the new ideas of modern poetry, but Brooke never had that chance. So, in this piece I recast a late fragment of Brooke’s words as if it was an Imagist poem.

In 9th place, we have “Zalka Peetruza (who was christened Lucy Jane),”  which uses a poem by journalist and poet Roy Dandridge, who coincidently like Dunbar, was another Ohio Afro-American. By evidence of this poem, Dandridge deserves to be better known than he is, as it’s a tart observation of the art of getting over while Black, in this case by passing one’s self off as exotic.

8th place goes to a bit of a surprise, my slightly Beefheartian musical setting of two sections of Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons.”  Don VanVliet (Capt. Beefheart) and Gertrude Stein were both uncompromising artists who hoed their own rows, so I viscerally made the connection in creating this piece.

7th is Sir Walter Raleigh’s damning litany “The Lie.”  It’s a poem I’ve loved since my youth and I don’t think one has to add much musical vengeance to amplify Raleigh’s words. 400 years old, and still pissed off.

6th slot goes to one of my translations, Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Dark Interval.”  I did this translation a few years ago, and it was intended to be a somewhat freer variation. As I learn more, I think my assumptions on what the poem was getting at were wrong, but this looser version got 20 more listens that it’s more literal translation I also presented here this summer.

Halfway to number 1, at number 5, is Parlando Project alternative reader Dave Moore’s tale “I Was Not Yet Awake.”  Dave also plays many of the keyboard parts you hear here, including the organ part on this.  “I Was Not Yet Awake”  is short for a story, but longer than many pieces we present here. Dave’s story is so well told that it still managed to pick up a lot of listens this summer.

At number 4, dropping down from two straight appearance as number 1, is “Frances,”  a teenaged George Washington’s acrostic love poem. That’s still a marvel, as week after week I look at stats and see that it’s still getting listens, long after its appearance here last February.

Top 3 time! In position 3 is “The Death of Apollinaire,”  my translation of Dada principal Tristian Tzara’s surprisingly sincere eulogy for the multi-national poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, who invented the term “Surrealism” and helped weave together many of the strands of European Modernism before he died from complications of wounds he suffered in WWI.

And in position #2, up one place from 3rd in the last Top 10, is Dave Moore enigmatic song “Love and Money.”  It may offer an American answer to the question the Beatles once asked in “Can’t Buy Me Love.”

adlestrop Station

“The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat. No one left and no one came…”

Position number 1 is another return, and an even higher rise in the chart due to the large number of listens over this summer: “Adlestrop,”  British poet Edward Thomas’ famous moment on train platform on a hot June 24th 1914, were nothing much happens, but everything palpably is.

The poem portrays the train’s stop as unscheduled, but research into train schedules (see them here in this blog post at The National Archives) says otherwise. Adding this element was a conscious choice by Thomas.

It’s a much-loved poem for many reasons. Some find extra resonance in the lines describing calmness in the tiny village train stop, the literal calm before the storm of WWI, and that’s a fine thought for those that hold it, but I believe the poem exists beyond those associations. “Adelstop’s”  closing lines are sublime even without that particular war, that particular trauma to that specific nation, and as it was, to the ending of the life of its author Thomas, who became another of the poets killed in that war.