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.
During this project’s first April #NationalPoetryMonth back in 2017 I started what has become a 5-year serialized performance of the entirety of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” And here we are today, finally completing that portion of our Parlando Project.
Why “The Waste Land?” for this lengthy each-April presentation?Several reasons.
Like a number of literary cultural artifacts, the single thing widely known and carried forth from it is only a single line. A certain significant ratio of us knows “The best of times, the worst of times,” or “Do not go gentle into that good night,” or “To be or not to be” — and so you may know “The Waste Land” from its opening line: “April is the cruelest month.” That small keepsake of a long poem is much brought forward for anything that occurs in any April, and as much or more than Chaucer’s April preface to his Canterbury Tales, it’s likely the reason April is National Poetry Month. As an opening line it’s not misleading. Much cruelty happens in Eliot’s poem. Is it cruel to be kind as Shakespeare and Nick Lowe might put it? Is it just cruelty for shock effect — or can it cure, however partially? Our long serialization explores that, covering all those parts that you may have forgotten even as you remember and repeat the first line only.
“The Waste Land” is also a landmark, a milepost, a line in the sand for a certain kind of Modernist English language poetry. While this project is not entirely about the rise of Modernism, the current rules of public domain make work from the first quarter of the 20th century the latest I can surely use for my project’s purposes without complications. If time permits me, I may follow up today’s post with a later one about what I’ve learned about Modernist poetry before and after “The Waste Land” while working on this project; but when I first encountered the unescapable “The Waste Land” in a schoolbook and classroom as a teenager one thing that I understood about it (perhaps the only thing I understood about it) was that it’s quite musical in most all of it’s movements.
“The Waste Land” is not, at least in America, a beloved poem from what I can tell. Even among college-education-exposed Americans it’s not commonly memorized, kept in a commonplace way, used for occasions, or re-read for pleasure or new insights. Consistent with that, for the most part, these every-April “Waste Land” segments have not been among the most popular here.* Even among poetry lovers there are some that actively dislike it, find it a pretentious mishmash overrated by those afraid to speak plainly. Eliot himself seemed to avoid speaking about it or reading sections of it at later public readings. He may have thought his later poetry more accomplished, but I also wonder if he didn’t care to revisit the more unbounded elements of his life reflected in The Waste Land.
Which brings me to the main reason you’re about to get a chance to hear this performance today: The Waste Land is not just one thing by design or execution, but it is significantly about someone in the throes of depression. Indeed, much of this year’s final section, “What the Thunder Said,” was first drafted while Eliot was hospitalized for this. This section is not “The Waste Land” of scholarly footnotes, bank officer work, gender blurring and questioning, or the knowledge of a night-class schoolteacher for working class women, or the lament of a man who has a personal sense of the intimate losses of a great war. This is the howl of personal despair of a consciousness who can portray those things — and it’s the howl of someone seeking to explode and break out of that state.
The LYL Band performance you’ll hear if you click on the player at the bottom of this post is a live performance from more than a decade ago, long predating the other sections I’ve presented here of “The Waste Land” over the past 5 years. At the time of that performance I myself was emerging then from an episode of depression, one of two I believe I have gone through in my life. Depression has a variety of feelings and absence of feelings, and if one reads good writers describing their own depression experience you may well get a sense of the blind men’s elephant of fable, but my own feelings on the day and hour this was recorded were largely feeling sick and tired of those depression feelings. At some level I felt this section of Eliot’s poem was similar to what I was seeking, feeling, finding: an expression of an expiation of that, of demons transferred into mad pigs being cast into the sea. This coincidence of my life, a performance, and the poem would make it dear to me.
As I said, this is a recording of a live performance. Besides my voice and electric guitar playing, you’ll also hear Dave Moore’s voice spontaneously following along as I unfurled mine. I was cold-reading Eliot’s text here, I had not rehearsed or prepared for this performance, other than printing out the text. Embarrassingly, as I reached many of the foreign words in the text and fully in high transport of the moment, I mangled their pronunciation or dropped them from the reading. I used a handful of short samples you’ll hear mixed in the background to restore some of the dropped text.
In later, calmer reflection I continue to think this element of expiation is part of Eliot’s design here. A line I recall feeling strongly and intimately as I came upon it in my reading and performance that day is:
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison.”
Whatever part of the elephant of despair or depression you might jiggle, touch, or be crushed by, we think of the key. Can we also think, hope to think, expect to think, of the prison as invalidated, destroyed, or obsolete?
What you’ll hear if you click on the player or hyperlink is rough, it has some mistakes, and being recorded live there is little I can do to fix them — and by intent it’s not a very genteel and formal presentation of Eliot’s poem. If that was my intent on that day over a decade ago, I today renew that intent by concluding our long, serialized The Waste Land with this performance that predates all the other segments. In one of Eliot’s later poems (“The Little Gidding”) that he may have uprated over his 1922 landmark, he wrote:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
And so it is here too: every episode for this serialized presentation of “The Waste Land” has been informed by that beginning, performed and recorded long before, that is now being used at it’s conclusion.
We’re now nearing the top of our look back at the most liked and listened to audio pieces this past fall. Yesterday we used words from a trio of women writers, and today starts off the same way. If you missed the original posts on my encounter with these texts and creating the music for them, I’m including a link to them in each of their notices in this Top Ten series, and those linked posts also will show or link to the full texts. The player gadget to hear the audio performances with original music is after each listing below.
4. Autumn by Emily Dickinson. We start off again with Emily Dickinson. I can’t help it, every time I go looking for some additional texts I run into a short Dickinson poem that fascinates, and that’s just the sort of thing I like to use here.
Of course, her times weren’t placidly occasional as this poem seems to be—they were less so than even ours are. She grew up in a time that the U.S. political system was falling apart, unable to solve the social and economic addiction to chattel slavery based along racial lines. Her own father was a local principal in one political faction trying to grapple with this.* The years of her greatest poetic output paralleled the bloody 4-year civil war that followed.
I can’t say for sure why Bob Dylan issued his Nashville Skyline album in 1969—another war-torn time. In that LP Dylan dared to write the simplest, even corny, statements; and the singer who had snarled and howled his words at the height of his fame sung them in a tenor croon. Is there some truth—or at least momentary respite—in those sentiments? Opinions differ. Dickinson’s “happy autumn” poem reads like that to me. My suspicions are that it was a part of her capacious mind (no one can be fierce all the time), that she wanted to show (in this early poem) that she could do those expected kinds of verse, and that maybe it was a resting place for her (as it could be for us) from the changeable world that refuses to change.
Brancusi’s Golden Bird by Mina Loy. It was a blockbuster trade. The United States sent Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, both powerhouse Modernists with a reverence for old school classicism to the European side in return for a scrappy English up-and-comer Mina Loy and a future draft pick which turned into W. H. Auden.
And as I noted in my original post, this poem of Loy’s was published in the same issue of The Dial that included a modest little contribution from Eliot: “The Waste Land.” You might have heard of that one.
It’s only lately that some have come to re-assess Loy. And talk about fierce, committed, and assertive writing by a woman—Loy could bring it.“Brancusi’s Golden Bird” is a high-energy hymn to Modernist art.
Separated at birth? Mina Loy and Patti Smith. Alas, Loy was more than a generation ahead of the electric guitar, a fault we’ve now remedied.
In the 21st century, Patti Smith, one of my heroes for demonstrating the uses of heroes, and a model for the value of guitars with poetry, has issued some below the radar explorations of various Modernist artists. Let her heart and mind go where it wants to go, but I do sometimes wonder if she’ll get around to Mina Loy, whose soul might resonate with hers.
Do Not Frighten the Garden by Frank Hudson. Yes, the Parlando Project continues to be about “Other People’s Stories.” That means it’s about how I react to others’ writing. There’s no lack of selfish pleasure in that. The thrill I get when I compose the right music for a text, or when I complete a translation of something from another language, or just perform a piece with some degree of satisfaction is more than enough.
And really, honoring other people’s work is important! If our poetry scene is only voices, however vivid and individual, speaking only their own words, then it risks being the silent forest for the trees.
In my defense, I offer that “Do Not Frighten the Garden,” is inspired by a phrase in one of poet Robert Okaji’s poems as I discussed in my original post on this. In all probability I wouldn’t have written my poem if I hadn’t read his poem. Writers in general are instructed to “Write what you know,” but like “Look before you leap” and “He who hesitates is lost,” opposites can be true. Particularly with the immediate lyric poem, there is another possible instruction: “Write what you didn’t even start to know until just now.”
And here’s my holiday wish to you, adventuresome reader and listener: that something we present here inspires you to see something differently or possible. Tomorrow we’ll be back with the reveal of the most popular piece this fall.
Here’s a poem by 20th Century American poet and artist Kenneth Patchen performed with music which manually realizes some ideas often produced by machinery.
Patchen is one of the original poetry accompanied by jazz guys, an idea that is one of the tributaries to the Parlando Project, but the poem of his I use today isn’t one that sings off the page when you first look at it. The speech in it seems casual, as if one is overhearing someone talking.
“Do the Dead Know What Time It Is?” has a very unusual structure. It’s one part a Robert-Browning-like dramatic monolog and another part seeming snippets of a bar-room conversation. But Patchen doesn’t separate these out into differentiated sections of a multipart poem, rather the two modes seem to be occurring at once, the louder monolog spoken by “the old guy” to the younger man and then the often whispered and interrupted conversation between the younger man and a woman who is trying to pick him up.
Here’s Patchen reading this poem with a jazz combo. I also just discovered that The Blue Aeroplanes did a version of it with a rock band decades ago.
I first thought: oh, what a great thing for a recording! I’ll put one in one stereo channel and the other on the other side—but then I thought better. The claustrophobic nature of these two conversations is part of the effect Patchen has designed.
As barroom stories go, the old guy’s story is a good one, even if the younger man is only half-listening—but the second, whispered one, is all about what isn’t exactly said. I could go on at length about how the two stories connect, what they say to each other in the structure of the poem Patchen made, even though the two conversations in the bar never actually join each other. I found the poem quite moving, but I’ll leave it to you to connect them.
Instead, let me dance about the architecture of the music today. I’ve been on a loud electric guitar kick lately, which may frustrate those of you that prefer the acoustic music, which will return in good time. Music structured like this piece is often constructed by loops stored and manipulated by computer software or by small solid-state devices that can capture a phrase and repeat it. Similarly, the original rappers’ DJs used turntable manipulation to repeat a section of a grooved record, a task that can now also be emulated digitally at the press of a button. There’s nothing wrong with these methods or machines.
Still, I most often try to play the repetitive parts you hear here. It’s not something I’m naturally good at, and I allow some imperfections to occur. Perhaps I do this because I became enamored of the hand-played repetitions that made up the composed music emerging in New York near the time I left for the Midwest—but it’s not Steve Reich or Phillip Glass* that today’s piece sounds most like. The proximal influence is a record album that came out in the early 1970’s called “No Pussyfooting” by Eno and Robert Fripp. That record’s guitar textures were produced by mechanical means too, two tape recorders set several feet apart from each other so that the “looping” was really a long loop of tape between them that allowed measures played by the guitar to repeat and get gradually added to in approximately real time. This seemed magical then, but a tidy little box that sits on the floor and costs about $100 can do all that these days.
It was hard to find a barber shop with a fresh tarot deck in the ‘70s
There are two guitars in my music here, but the one that sounds throughout most of the piece I’m playing with loud sustaining notes that I (unconsciously) made sound as if they are a repeating loop with variations even though it’s real-time, straight through playing emulating Robert Fripp’s sound on that record which made such an impression on me at the time. One never knows what ghosts will visit when I plug in a guitar.
*Reich did use tape loops as well as live through-played instruments. Seeing the small ensemble Phillip Glass toured with in the ‘70s: electric combo organs that sounded like “96 Tears” and “Light My Fire” along with a handful of wind instruments was amazing in a small space.
Let’s give the lyrical reins over to Robert Frost one more time for another electric guitar driven piece. “The Aim Was Song” is a poem from Frost’s 1923 Mountain Interval collection, and not only is it a reasonably straightforward poetic credo from Frost, it speaks a little to Parlando’s goals too.
I put forward a definition of poetry as I was starting the Parlando Project as “Words that want to break into song.” I don’t recall where I read that definition, but when I searched this afternoon, all I can find is myself, so the source of that phrase may remain a mystery.
Unlike Sandburg and Yeats, Frost himself had no desire to sing or perform to music that I’m aware of, but his desire to use metrical/rhyming verse goads me to use him often here. And Frost had his own theory about how meter and language worked in poetry. He called it “The sound of sense,” and he once described it in a letter as akin to what comes through if you listen to talk in another room from the other side of a door. I don’t think he’s writing there about meter as commonly scanned in metrical poetry, I think instead he’s talking about human vitality that arrives through the panels of a door, the rise and fall, the breath and repetition. Frost’s theory was that you then laid that over the structure of metrical/syllabic prosody, so that each side pushes and pulls on each other. Too much evenness and it’s a motorik machine. Too little and you have only thoughts scattered on the page where only a silent and uncycling eye can gather them. You find that balance with one’s ear and heart.
Perhaps what Frost is aiming for here is the thing musicians call phrasing, but one thing that’s sure is that Frost believes poetry, even poetry of complex meaning or subtle rhetoric, is received through the ear and not the eye. So, even if Frost was not thinking directly of his poetry in association with music as we present things here, he is thinking of poetry as suffused with orality.
In “The Aim Was Song” Frost develops one image throughout: how the human being captures breath, moving air in waves, the essence of that natural force of the fierce spring wind, and shapes it into a smaller but more intimate thing. That is the work of musicians and poets. I could almost hear Lord Buckley read this one, as Frost repeats some words in his short poem that seem to pun on musical terms, to “blow,” “how it ought to go,” and “measures.” I didn’t go that route (if I could) but consider that an undercurrent in this.
To hear my performance of Frost’s “The Aim Was Song,” use the player below. U. S. National Poetry Month is coming up in a few days, and I’m hoping to have a good number of encounters between music and words here in April. Please check back or subscribe, and spread the word.
A bit earlier this month we presented a landmark very short Imagist poem, Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” 14 words, and a prime example of the Modernist’s reaction to the rhetorical flourishes of a worn-out 19th century. Today I’m going to release a Robert Frost response, a 47-word rejoinder, a spring poem with some winter snow left in it.
Frost was born 145 years ago this week. His relationship with Pound is complex. On one hand Pound could view himself as responsible for launching Frost’s career, writing the first substantial review of Frost and seeing to it that his poems were published in Poetry magazine. Without Pound’s endorsement, Frost had submitted poems there which had been rejected.
Frost tells the story of their initial meeting, with Frost’s first book A Boy’s Will so newly published in England that he himself hadn’t gotten a hold of a copy. F. S. Flint (a too-often-forgotten pioneer of British Modernism) had met Frost at a bookstore reading, shortly after Frost had moved to England. Flint noticed Frost’s American shoes and insisted that he must meet his countryman Ezra Pound, now also residing in London. Frost later went to Pound’s apartment, and this is how Frost recounted their meeting:
[Pound] said, ‘Flint tells me you have a book.’ And I said, ‘Well, I ought to have.’ He said, ‘You haven’t seen it?’ And I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘What do you say we go and get a copy?’ He was eager about being the first one to talk. That’s one of the best things you can say about Pound: he wanted to be the first to jump. Didn’t call people up on the telephone to see how they were going to jump. He was all silent with eagerness. We walked over to my publisher; he got the book. Didn’t show it to me—put it in his pocket. We went back to his room. He said, ‘You don’t mind our liking this?’ in his British accent, slightly. And I said, ‘Oh, go ahead and like it.”
Even in prose, there’s some Frost-ian ambiguity it his account. He notes in passing that the American Pound was putting on a British accent. And his sly quote of Pound “You don’t mind our liking it” before Pound has read it—a subtle dig at poetic politics that—and who’s the “our” here. Pound (and Flint too) were promoting a poetic movement, Imagism—poetry that used direct, concise treatment of “a thing” without any extra words whatsoever.
Frost never liked a movement that included more than him.
And to some degree this soon led to a break between the two poets. Pound thought that Frost fell short on the “use no extra word” dictum of Imagism. He apparently offered to help Frost learn to excise those surplus words—and though similar offers from Pound were taken up by literary giants like T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemmingway, Frost refused it.
There was a second catch. In Pound’s review that launched Frost, Pound wanted to make a point of Frost’s rejection by American editors, and he was loudly saying this in an American magazine (one of those that had, in fact, rejected Frost). Many musicians and music fans will quickly recognize Pound’s move here. This is the punk/indie/”street cred” claim. This artist has too much honesty and individualism and lacks the subservient guile to please the suits and the mainstream! The problem here was that Frost was a middle-age man with a family—he wanted to cross-over to those editors. Frost thought Pound was pulling this move to show what a discerning critic he was more than to promote Frost as an outsider artist.
But note too in Frost’s account of his first fateful meeting with Pound, the subtle admission he makes about himself. “Oh, go ahead and like it.” He wanted, needed the help—by any means necessary.
Oddly, if you were to read Pound’s short review today, you might be surprised that it worked to launch Frost at all. There are condescending elements, Frost is almost treated as some idiot-savant country bumpkin. And worse for Pound, he goes on record as the first man to misread Frost as simple and earnest (the same mistake that I made as a teenager, but then I’m not Ezra Pound).
A patch of old snow, blossoms on wet dark bough not included
Here’s the text of Frost’s poem I use today and here’s Pound’s 14-word Imagist flagship. Look at Frost’s first stanza. Sure, Frost’s is rhymed and metrical, though Pound uses a near rhyme that many miss. If Frost ended there, his poem is purely Imagist. “Old” in front of snow isn’t a wasted word. We need to know it’s spring now, and that the snow is past its sell-by date. And it’s an interesting choice to say “blow-away paper” instead of blown-away—more immediate, and it indicates that its transient nature is inherent, not something acted upon from without.
Frost’s second stanza? Pound’s editor’s pencil might have suggested he’s restating the image from the first stanza, but Frost might have countered by noting that he’s making clear this isn’t just any crumpled scrap paper the snow is being made equivalent to, but a newspaper or other publication, with “small print.”
Here’s the Imagist difference. In conventional poetry, the images, the similes and metaphors, are only decorative—look, clever I can compare this to this. In Imagist poetry this comparison shouldn’t be just decorative—it’s the meaning of the poem. This last edition of winter is “yesterday’s papers.” And bilaterally, wrong-headed reviews in Poetry? They will pass like the lonely grimy snow-bergs.
The last line, “If I ever read it,” is Frost’s touch. Pure Imagism doesn’t like to draw conclusions, even enigmatic ones. Does it mean one thing? I think it predominantly says, it’s the past, I’ve endured, it’ll soon be gone completely. The poem first appeared in Frost’s third book, the first to be published in America not in England. Frost was on his way. But there’s an undercurrent—with Frost there always is. Is that small print an edition of The Book of Nature? After all, we also know this: winter will return, and should we not read what it has written to us?
Frost will do that too in many of his greatest poems.
This morning I ask myself, what a strange way to spend a weekend full of news and melting snow, reading the small print about two poetic innovators at cross-purposes to each other.
Musically, I wanted to let loose a bit for this one. I’ve been playing acoustic guitar for many recent pieces, so I wanted an unleashed electric guitar. The wild spring bird-whistles near the end are feedback between the guitar’s pickups and the amplifier.
Today’s episode is something of a companion to our last one, what with moths appearing in each. Emily Dickinson’s sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson let the Book of Job fly in with her moth, and today Thomas Hardy’s open summer window lets in four bugs.
Our scene: a summer night, window open, a 19th Century lamp letting Hardy literally and literarily burn the midnight oil. The breeze and light brings on the bugs, and beside the moth we get a daddy-longlegs spider, a fly, and a dumbledore. Besides it making his rhyme, I think Hardy must have liked that charming name for his fourth bug, which is either a bumble bee or a beetle, though either will disappoint Harry Potter fans brought here by a search term.
A dumbledore beetle and a DOD Carcosa fuzz pedal. They could be filed under “things you step on.”
What was Hardy writing when the bugs arrived? He doesn’t say, though of course to be meta, it should be this poem now shouldn’t it—but even if it was some other piece, the bugs interrupt it, marching over his just-penned wet ink and drawing his attention away to their antics. Susan Gilbert Dickinson called her moth “silly” and Hardy has his insects more or less performing a Three Stooges skit bumping into the glass of his artificial light.
Susan Gilbert Dickinson wanted to remind us of that harrowing Old Testament lesson that God can crush a human as easily as a bug. She wrote “Irony” and underlined it over the top of her poem’s manuscript. Hardy writes a slightly different conclusion. After watching his fab four beetles make a farce out of replacing the poet on top of his manuscript paper, he ends by declaring that those insects know more about nature than he does. I think that little insect play on his desk reminds him that he, like other poets, struggle to understand and portray nature.
Just as the last time I worked with Thomas Hardy poetry, the melody just flowed out effortlessly when I went to set his words. I quickly had the basic vocal and guitar track, and then added a couple of cello parts and an additional guitar melody that followed what I had so easily fallen into as I sang Hardy’s words.
That electric guitar melody line uses a DOD Carcosa fuzz pedal which I’ve been using a fair amount here lately. It’s a very flexible effects pedal, but I won’t interrupt this with any more guitar nerd material than that tonight. To hear my performance of Thomas Hardy’s “An August Midnight,” use the player below.