Some people live so long as to make time and its boundaried eras seem a foggy measure. Such a man was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the American poet, painter, and bookstore owner who predates and post-dates the Beat poetry scene — or for that matter the Hippie scene, and our century’s activist eras and its search for peace and justice. If you are a fan of generational short-hand (I’m not) you will notice that every one of those eras was widely denounceable as impractical, delusional, and in most ways inferior to those that came before that.
“Thank you for your service” is the reflex response nowadays. Surely due, but I think also of his post-war service, helping promote a new more vernacular American poetry via his work, encouragement, bookstore and small press. His own 1958 poetry collection A Coney Island of the Mind was immensely popular,* and seeing it or Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (which Ferlinghetti published**) in their paperback black and white form was once a common marker in smoky apartments during my youth.
Around the time this Project was beginning I performed a couple of Lawrence Ferlinghetti poems live with The LYL Band. I’d actually hoped to get permission to post those performances someday, but emails to City Lights garnered no replies. Hearing today of his death, and thinking of his life that well-lived, I thought inescapably of this poem of his from A Coney Island of the Mind entitled “The world is a beautiful place.” I’ve decided to post our performance here in the spirit of gratitude and in memoriam. If any rights owner objects, let me know, and I will remove. The player gadget for our performance is often below, but this highlighted hyperlink will also work if you don’t have the gadget on your screen. If you want to read silently, or read along, here’s a link to the text of Ferlinghetti’s poem.
Want to hear another version of “The world is a beautiful place?”
*Some accounts say Coney Island is the most popular poetry collection ever published in English. I’m not sure of that.
**Was Howl a big “get” that he was lucky to land for City Lights? Not exactly. He was put on trial for publishing it, and Ferlinghetti figured he’d go to jail. The Fifties judge, to some surprise, ruled it not obscene.
A new month, and I hope to have some new pieces here with a focus on February and Black History Month. It’s also a new year, and there are now some new books and works available in the public domain that I can freely adapt for use here.
I found today’s piece “In Memory of Colonel Charles Young” while reading one of those newly PD books, Alain Locke’s anthology The New Negro, An Interpretation published in 1925. This book was something of the premier book-length publication of what became known as The Harlem Renaissance. Unlike James Weldon Johnson’s anthology of just three years prior, The Book of American Negro Poetry, Locke’s book was a collection containing only the work of living writers, and with a particular focus on younger Afro-Americans who were just then coming to the fore. And so it is that after an introductory essay on “Negro Youth Speaks*” by Locke that I began to read his selection of youth of his day with the first poet in the alphabetical section: Countee Cullen.
Locke’s The New Negro is a beautiful book too, with striking woodcuts and illustrations of the authors.
Let me once more demonstrate the gaps in my scholarly education. I knew Cullen’s name and little else about him. The various short literary assessments I’ve since read to get some quick handle on him concentrate on his eventual estrangement from the development of Afro-American literature and poetic Modernism in general because his verse used 19th century Romantic poets as its models, and as his career progressed there was a feeling that his youthful promise didn’t sufficiently develop. After the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance passed by, Cullen in the 1940s was teaching middle school. One of the young teenagers he taught? A kid named James Baldwin.
So, what stood out as I came upon “In Memory of Colonel Charles Young” in Locke’s anthology? Well, there’s a mystery there for one thing. The poem read alone on the page seems to evoke something, but I suspect few readers will grasp what it means. Here’s a link to the text of Cullen’s poem. For me, and probably for you, that mystery starts right-off with the title. You may well ask: who the hell is Colonel Charles Young? Why would this young Afro-American be writing a poem about him? I need to tell you a story.
It starts in 1865. The American Civil War is raging. An enslaved Black man in Kentucky, Gabriel Young, escapes to Ohio leaving his wife and one-year-old son in order to join the Union army. After the end of the war, Gabriel uses his veterans’ pension to buy some land and a house for his young family. That toddler grows up to be a very sharp student, graduating first in his class in his high school. Perhaps thinking of the way his father had used military service to advance himself, that young man, Charles Young, decides to enter the U. S. Army military academy at West Point in 1884.
To say the least this was not an established path for an Afro-American in 1884. Indeed, Charles Young was only the second Afro-American to attend, and the first had entered only the year before and would become Young’s roommate at the school. The Academy had a well-established culture of hazing and a peer-discipline system based on fellow students issuing demerits on their own initiative. These pioneering Black students where therefore subject to every racist and discriminatory action the white student body could generate, and it was all so-easily cloakable as “tradition.”
Young persevered through all that, graduated, and was given his commission as a second lieutenant. He began his career in the still segregated U. S. Army in Nebraska and Utah with an Afro-American cavalry regiment. In 1894 he was assigned to Wilberforce College back in Ohio where he established the military services department at that historically Black college. He left there to serve during the Spanish American War of 1898, commanding a Black regiment in that conflict. After that war his military career took him to various assignments, including a time as the Superintendent of Sequoia National Park, various overseas assignments with Military Intelligence working at American embassies, and even a gun battle during the Pancho Villa expedition into Mexico in 1916. By this point he had risen to become the Colonel Charles Young of Cullen’s poem’s title.
And this brought upon the most remarkable event of his career as the United States entered WWI the following year. As the U.S. mobilized rapidly to enter the war, a veteran officer with war and foreign experience like Young should have been a prime resource. A white officer with a similar resume would have been rapidly promoted to general and put in charge of one of the regiments of the newly created expeditionary force. But this situation pointed out a problem with a segregated Army: there was no way to do that without making an Afro-American the out-ranking commander of some white soldiers. If there’s one thing white supremacists can’t account for it’s that, just maybe, there might be some Black folks with every demonstrated reason to out-rank them. Drives them nuts.
The Army decided to “solve” this problem by pulling Young from active duty, declaring him unfit for the war due to high blood pressure. Young attempted to refute that claim by riding on horseback from Wilberforce college in Ohio to Washington D. C., but less than a week after he arrived, the Armistice was signed to end WWI.
Young was returned to active duty however, and he died in 1921 while serving overseas with Military Intelligence in Nigeria. He was buried with military honors at Arlington cemetery, and thus we have the grave that Cullen would use as the scene for his poem.
So now that you know this as you read the text of this poem, or hear Cullen’s references to Young’s career in my performance, you should have a sense of its full import, one that should inform you as we celebrate Black History Month. Charles Young gave his full measure of service to America even if America gave him back something less than that. This is an example of what history is about. You may feel anger, puzzlement, gratitude, regret, or admiration at Young’s life. It might be most appropriate to feel all of those things. One task for poets and singers, from Homer to Countee Cullen, and onto you or me, is to be the trees with tongues to tell that Cullen ends his poem with.
*There’s nothing untoward about that categorization. Odd as it seems to think of these men and women who I think of as of my grandparents’ generation as ‘youth,” Countee Cullen was just 22 in 1925, the exact same age as our recent Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman is today.
I’m of an age when thoughts of death could be excused as more a present issue than a youthful goth affectation. Covid-19, that hit dirge of the summer that would play at every party were there every parties, amplifies that. But the gothic was similarly close at hand in the 19th century when untreatable disease and violence were more common. We still associate poetry with funerals—though I worry too that we can compartmentalize it there—but in the 19th century this was even more so. Real and imagined elegies were all the rage for poets at any level of talent and fame. From extensive demographic research I believe it may be true that just as high a percentage of 19th century people died as nowadays;* but it did seem the opportunistic occasion for poetic mourning was more extensive then.
Now Mark Twain, a satirist, loved subverting the expected, and so in the course of his novel Huckleberry Finn’s catalog of expected human behavior and good taste overwhelming a more rational ethic, he stopped to parody such memorial verse with this tale of romantic death that failed to be, well, romantic enough. In the novel this poem is written by Emmeline Grangerford, who is described as a young poet who rapidly cranked out memorial verse faster than any undertaker or supple lyric muse could keep up.
In today’s audio piece I give some of the story of Emmeline’s poetic endeavor from the novel, and then sing as a folk song of the sadful death of Mr. Bots using for lyrics the example poem of Grangerford’s Twain has given us. The full text of the poem is here.
What is said to be Mark Twain’s guitar still exists and has been acquired by a collector. Small size guitars like this were normal for the 19th century guitar market in America. (photo by Bianca Soros)
Today’s music is just acoustic guitar. Although I originally intended a more elaborate arrangement, I think just guitar suits it well. As I came to the decision for practical and aesthetic reasons, I was reminded that Mark Twain himself was a guitarist.** Just before leaving for the West Coast where he would make a name for himself as a writer, he bought himself a used Martin guitar.*** He says he played it for men and women in the newly founded boom towns, and on shipboard as he sailed hither and yon. Twain’s account says he sang along with the guitar, but I haven’t found any accounts of what his repertoire was. It could well have been a songster’s mix of popular tunes of the day and what we now call “folk music” and I could purpose he just might have slipped in a few originals. Since one can’t tell how Twain would have performed “Stephen Dowling Bots” as a mournful song, I claim my attempt as “close enough for folk music.”
You can hear my reading of how Emmeline Grangerford’s poetry is introduced by Twain and the song made from her memorial poem with the player gadget below.
*I can present the statistical charts and tables for this startling claim when it’s ready for peer-review. A counterclaim is based on the data that many people in our 21st century are not, in fact, dead at this time. (emphasis mine)
**One of Twain’s sisters was a music teacher who taught piano and guitar. Both instruments were often thought of as women’s instruments in that era, to be played in middle-class home parlors for do-it-yourself culture and entertainment. The supposition that Twain’s sister taught Twain how to shred on his axe follows that tidbit.
***The famous American guitar making company was founded by a German immigrant Charles Frederick Martin in 1833 (a year that’s still featured on a Martin guitar’s label.) The Twain guitar pictured here is said to be from 1835, which would make it a “birth year guitar” for Mark Twain. Some collectors today seek out vintage guitars that are coincidental with their birth year, but I doubt that was a thing in Twain’s time. Further clouding the picture, the design of this guitar (particularly the headstock) looks more like the guitars Martin made later in the 19th century, and not those made just after the company’s American start.
Long-time readers here will know that the Parlando Project has been performing a section of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” each year to celebrate National Poetry Month.* It’s been a major task, and if one were to listen to all those past sections, you’d get a fair sample of the variety of original music we create for these performances. Similarly, the amount of work that goes into all of the Parlando Project has been huge (we’re rapidly approaching our 450th piece), but this year’s section of “The Waste Land” is small—the smallest section of Eliot’s Modernist landmark.
I recall when I first encountered “The Waste Land” as a teenager how puzzling the whole thing was. Right from the start it was confusing, with allusions and foreign language phrases that I had no way of decoding. It was said to be important, and it certainly seemed to be quite the accumulation of something, but its hard to grasp nature didn’t make it easy to like. I could understand only a little about what Keats was saying in a poem like “Ode on a Grecian Urn” back then too, but the essence of that poem’s longing and attractive mystery was there from my first reading. Eliot’s poem? It just seemed complex, even in an off-putting way.
But when my past-times teenager got to his year’s section, “Death by Water,” I found poetry I could take in immediately had slipped into the much larger corpus of this poem. “Death by Water” is a small elegy, and what allusions it had (like Keats’) were alluring. “Phoenician,” even at that age, had the right kind of mystery, what with the seafaring and alphabet. That feint echo of Shakespeare’s “Full fathom five” sea-change coral-bones. The straightforward sense of mourning.
For all its shortness, I doubt I was alone in finding it one of the most impactful parts of “The Waste Land.” If you’d like to read this short, 10-line section by itself here’s a link to it.
The teenaged T. S. Eliot before he adopted the Harry Potter eyewear.
In 1952, decades after “The Waste Land” was written, this section took an important part in a literary controversy. A Canadian critic, John Peter, published an article that year claiming that the key to understanding “The Waste Land” was that it was almost entirely a disguised elegy to a French medical student who Eliot knew in Paris before the war: Jean Verdenal. The strong inference in this theory was that Verdenal and Eliot were gay lovers. In 1952 this was not only sensational to the degree it might still be today, it was outright dangerous. To be homosexual was more than a notional criminal offence—and furthermore by this point T. S. Eliot was the living model of a religiously conservative Modernist and a Tory in his politics.
Eliot was furious at this article. Lean solicitors were called in. Retractions were demanded. In the end, Peters not only apologized, the magazine that had published the article tried to round up all extant copies and destroy them.
A couple of decades later, after Eliot had died, this reading was raised again, and this concept of the poem is still being explored in our century.
On one hand, Eliot made no secret that he admired the young Verdenal. They shared a love for the poetry of LaForgue and Mallarmé and acknowledged times together as college students in Paris. Eliot opened his first published poetry collection Prufrock and Other Observations with a fond dedication to Verdenal.
“Death by Water” was a key exhibit in this reading of “The Waste Land.” In late April of 1915, Verdenal was serving as a medical officer in the doomed WWI Gallipoli** campaign with the French army fighting along with British and ANZAC forces. Accounts written afterward said Verdenal was heroic in trying to deal with the mass carnage on the Allied side as they tried to gain a beachhead at the edges of the Middle East. He was killed, and there was little ability to bury the dead on the beaches as the invasion failed. They were left to the tides or thrown in the water. A cruel month indeed.
Now to press levity next to death: I used to mispronounce Phlebas as if it had three syllables. Apparently it’s pronounced with two, phoenicianally/phonetically, close to “Flea Bass”—though I think with a short, not long A sound. The next time you see RHCP, you’ll enter the whirlpool and think of T. S. Eliot.
Knowing this, it’s easy to see Phlebas as Verdenal. But I knew nothing of this when I first read “Death by Water.” And you don’t have to know it either to have the words work for you in some way. Eliot had a theory for that, a well-respected theory back in mid-century: “Objective Correlative.” Eliot, by his own theory then, would hold that it makes no difference what the relationship was for him to this other young man in pre-WWI Paris. Subconscious? Sublimation? Closeted? Self-protection? Platonic, or Dionysius denied? No matter. You consider Phlebas or you don’t. Their bones are picked in whispers now anyway.
So, here’s my new addition to the Parlando Project’s ongoing serial performance of “The Waste Land” available with the player gadget below. Perhaps another one where a legitimate singer might better serve my composition, but I like the current of the acoustic guitar music enough to submerge you in it.
*You know: “April is the cruelest month….” That one. No one has said as much, but between the opening line to “The Waste Land,” the prologue to Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,”and Shakespeare’s birthday, April seems like a logical choice for National Poetry Month.
I don’t plan ahead with this project much, which has it’s benefits and costs. Often one piece sort of kicks off the idea for the next one and so on. That was the case with doing my roll up of last year’s section of “The Waste Land” for National Poetry Month, and then following it up with a very short poem by Sara Teasdale, T. S. Eliot’s contemporary in growing up in St. Louis Missouri.
But I had looked at doing another Sara Teasdale poem other than her “Morning.” I even went so far as to write a sketch of the music I would use. I liked what I had there, but “Morning’s” striking compression made it more of a contrast to Eliot.
This project has a lot of inefficiencies like that, poet’s collections I read or skim and then find nothing that inspires me to go further. Ideas for musical combinations that don’t quite bear fruit. Poems that jump out at me as compelling, only to find that they aren’t in the public domain and therefore free to use. Ideas that seem sound but get pushed aside by other ideas that step in front of them.
Given the extraordinary work that I put into this project: selecting my own texts, researching what to say about them, and then composing, playing and recording multiple musical parts, these inefficiencies could trouble me. I certainly don’t want to increase them, but I’m somewhat comfortable in them. Like a meditative walking maze, there’s something in the time and indirectness that lets other thoughts in.
The Official Moon of Shelter in Place. None of you stand so tall. Pink Moon is going to get you all.
I’m continuing this project in a time of a global pandemic, which doesn’t aid efficiency either. Luckily so far, I haven’t had to deal with any family members or friends suffering from the Covid-19 virus. In their place, there’s the toll of artists who have succumbed to it. It’s been a tough week for that. Bill Withers, who in his too brief time singing through the music industry, produced songs and performances of them that could carry this troubled workman through his clocked-in days. Adam Schlesinger, a songwriter after my own heart who liked to jump and mix genres. Hal Willner, that most underappreciated functionary in the arts, the impresario, who melded other artists into projects many and wide, projects often aimed (as this one does) to celebrate other artists. And then John Prine, the singing mailman from the outskirts of Chicago, who came from nowhere quickly into the Seventies age of the singer-songwriter, and then stayed like a little public park that you knew was always there, visited by yourself, some others, some pigeons, but nothing elaborate and scenic enough to celebrate.
“Become an artist. They are the only profession that celebrates what it is to live a life.” – Viola Davis
When something, someone, goes away it’s a good time to notice what a sum total of things are. Some people are heroes for one thing they once did. Some have career highlights, a dozen or half-dozen models of importance. Others do things for decades, just doing what they do. Prine’s like that. Here’s a guy that in the decade that got called “The Me Decade” wrote songs that had other people in them. He kept writing, forging his trademark take on the human condition into song after song. No big thing. That’s what he does. Or did, because now he’s dead and you notice something: there aren’t a lot who did that, and we have songwriters and songwriters still who will do something other than that.
Anyway, these thoughts in a pandemic brought me back to this other Teasdale poem, the one I didn’t use, “I Have Loved Hours at Sea.”
It’s a premature, self-elegy. That’s a hard form to pull off, but I think Teasdale does. It’s bitter-sweet, but that’s what we should expect from Teasdale, poem after poem. It can be read as a poem with a moral, a lesson, that we should live our lives fully so that our container of time is fulfilled—but also as Teasdale often does, there’s a gothic undertone to it all: many the blessing she recounts is qualified or undercut and stated by this young poet in a past tense. Here’s the full text of her poem.
So, as you can see with the player gadget below, I decided to go through with performing this second Teasdale poem in a row. I even decided to write and perform a short piece for strings as an introductory lament. In the delay of inefficiencies and skimpy planning, “I Have Loved Hours at Sea” now seems to have a reason to be performed, and perhaps for you to listen to.
We’re a couple of weeks past Halloween, but let’s finish out our series on American poet Adelaide Crapsey with a ghost story about two families. Perhaps you don’t believe in ghosts? That’s OK. In this story one family believes in ghosts and the other one doesn’t.
As we learned yesterday, a young scholar and writer of poetry, Adelaide Crapsey was struck down just days after she turned 36 in 1914 by tuberculosis. Though greatly weakened by her illness, she had worked on organizing a book-length collection of her poems in her final year, including a section introducing examples of a new poetic form she had created.
Alas, she didn’t seem to have a publisher when she died. It’s uncertain who knew about the poems she’d selected. Adelaide had a strong belief in self-reliance and not burdening her friends and family, and so for as long as possible she’d kept the news of her grave diagnosis from them, and some of the poems in her manuscript (such as the ones used in our last post) spoke frankly about her illness, pain, and thoughts on mortality.
A grave marker that doesn’t burden you either. She ended her collection of poems: “Wouldst thou find my ashes? Look/In the pages of my book”
There were some external reasons for this desire not to burden her family. Her father, Algernon Crapsey* had been a prominent Episcopal priest in Rochester New York, one who had practiced a ministry to the poor and other disadvantaged portions of the Gilded Age. Adelaide’s father came to believe that certain spiritual beliefs of his church were not only of doubtful accuracy, but that taken on faith they would hinder service to the poor. Once he decided he was right about this, he wouldn’t shut up about it either. He preached it, he wrote articles and books about this: if you believe in miracles and heavenly rewards you are all too likely to not feel the need to make your own miracles by action here and now, in this life, on this Earth.
This put his church in a bind. Here was a churchman who was known for manifest good works around the state of New York, a Christian hero of a sort—but who was also vocally opposed to church doctrine.
So it was that a few years before Adelaide Crapsey died that a committee of investigators from the Episcopal diocese came to the parsonage where Adelaide had grown up to question her father on these matters. Her father was out, doing those good works. Her mother was worn-out from dealing with this all. Adelaide, like any good PK,** stepped in as hostess. The story is told that she served them tea and kept them graciously talking as the tea went down.
Oh, and she had spiked the tea with rum. It was said the investigators inquisitorial rigor suffered a decline during their wait.
But Adelaide’s father would not keep quiet. He eventually met with a church trial for heresy.*** He claimed the heresy of the church not serving the poor as Jesus commanded was far greater than any they could charge him with over supernatural events, but the church’s hierarchy convicted him. Maybe he wasn’t a heretic who believed in different gods or another heavenly host, but it just wouldn’t do to be a priest of their church who didn’t profess the right beliefs.
No burning at the stake though, he was just written out of his job and the church. The family had to leave the parsonage where they had lived for decades for a house some supporters found for them elsewhere in town.
Adelaide, like her family, didn’t believe in heaven and hell. And now she was dead, and as her poem had put it, her mouth was now part of the quiet as with falling snow and the hour before dawn.
In another part of the same town, there was a successful architect, Claude Bragdon. What kind of architect? Do you know the names of Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, or Buckminster Fuller? Claude Bragdon was that type, committed to artistic principles, in his case to a religious and mystical level. Indeed, he had a strong side-interest in Theosophy, a 19th century unified field theory of spiritualism and hermetic knowledge. He had known the Crapsey family and Adelaide at least somewhat. Adelaide had taken his mystical bent in stride, calling him “cube man” due to his fascination with the hypercube (which I think may be related to Buckminster Fuller’s theories about the geometric nature of the universe).
“The geometry of innocence flesh on the bone/Causes Galileo’s math book to be thrown” Claude Bragdon sings the Tombstone Blues.
Claude Bragdon had not been married long when Adelaide Crapsey died. His new wife, Eugénie had never met Adelaide. One day, in that silent time of the hour before the dawn, something happened. Here’s how he described it in his autobiography:
One morning in the summer of 1915 I was awakened by my wife Eugénie, who asked me if I knew anyone by the name of Adelaide. I told her that Mrs. Algernon Crapsey’s name was Adelaide, and it had also been that of her daughter, who had died a short time before. “Take me to see Mrs. Crapsey,’ said Eugénie, ‘because I was awakened by the sound of her name, repeated over and over: Adelaide! Adelaide!’ “
Now if a chill runs up and down your spine to hear this, the architect and his wife may have taken it more calmly. Not only were spirit voices and mediumship part and parcel of Theosophy, Eugénie was a “Delphic Woman” in her husband’s estimation, one who used automatic writing to take down sayings and messages from the ether.**** And so now Eugénie’s automatic writing sessions became peppered with messages from the late Adelaide Crapsey. With a little interpretation, the messages seemed to be referring to the poems, the book-length collection Adelaide had been working on.
Book negotiations have been known to get complicated, and I haven’t read all the source materials for this story***** but somehow the husband and wife mystic family convinced the social-gospel materialist family to go through the late Adelaide Crapsey’s effects, and retrieve the manuscript. I can see this scene written in Mulder and Scully dialog.
Claude came out of the Arts and Crafts movement, so buildings weren’t his only art. He also ran a small press for books on his theories and other Theosophical works. He became the book designer and publisher that introduced the world to Adelaide Crapsey the poet and determined ghost.
What became of Adelaide’s ghostly voice? It didn’t do a book tour or poetry readings—pity that, it would have pipped Tupac’s hologram by nearly a century and spiced up the valves of many a bookstore. The final automatic writing messages thanked the Bragdons for their efforts and assured everyone that the other side was a fine and happy place where she didn’t miss living at all. Just so much “Bread and butter notes” from the beyond.
Well, I did say that Claude Bragdon had many artistic interests. One of his friends was Alfred Stieglitz, the pioneering art photographer who was connected to another famous photographer Edward Steichen, a friend and brother-in-law of Carl Sandburg. Either through that connection, or Sandburg’s strong early interest in short poems created with concrete images rather than abstract words, or some Great Lakes leftist linkage between Adelaide’s social gospel preaching progressive father and the Milwaukee and Chicago based socialist Sandburg (maybe more than one of the above?) made Carl Sandburg aware of Adelaide Crapsey’s poetry and story, and he wrote a passionate elegy for her.
*I should have warned you: as elsewhere in this story, the 19th century names are full-flavored. If Lemony Snicket reads this, let it be known that I will defend my intellectual property to the upmost here!
**PK, “Preacher’s Kid.” As a class, they have an opportunity to grow up with an interest in philosophy, ethics and words, but also with a childhood were the expectation to be good and the desire to rebel have to be balanced from a too-early age. Alternative reader here Dave Moore and my wife are both PKs.
***The story of Adelaide’s father Algernon Crapsey sounds eerily similar to a tale from The Sixties and another Episcopal clergyman (a bishop no less!) James Pike. Pike was also committed to social change and questioning of religious dogma and was threatened with an ecclesiastical trial for heresy. Coincidentally, Pike eventually worked with a medium to try to contact his dead son.
****We now use Twitter. Much better. But are those odd messages we read from bots or….the other side!
A couple of weeks back a local music legend Willie Murphy died. I’m going to ask indulgence from this blog’s overseas audience, because unless you were around Minnesota in the last 50 years or so, you’ll likely have no idea who Murphy was—no, it’s even more location specific than that—I believe you need to have memories pinned within a few blocks of the intersection of Cedar and Riverside avenues, in a Minneapolis neighborhood near the Mississippi river known as The West Bank.
Many years ago the West Bank was a Scandinavian immigrant enclave, and it is now the home to Minnesota’s largest Somali community. But my story today is in-between, in the second half of the 20th century, when it was home to a thriving bohemian culture, immigrants of a slightly different sort.
Shortly after I moved to Minnesota, I got work at a hospital there, and when I had enough money saved up, I took classes at the University of Minnesota which spans the two banks of the river. I came late to the West Bank scene, but I absorbed the stories of those nonconformist young immigrants who were homesteading something that was called “the counter-culture.” The counter-culture was Willie Murphy’s job, as much as musician: putting together bands, recording other musicians, inaugurating live music venues, working and networking the scene.*
Willie and the Bees getting down somewhere in the past
But he was a musician too. Sang, played bass, guitar, and piano. Interpreted a lot of great R&B and wrote some good songs himself.
He was never the businessman. He engendered some of the things that entrepreneurs like to claim they do, but he never got the cash rewards. It’s a complicated story and I don’t know all the details—but I do know that he was an artist making art on his own terms right up until his last months of his 75th year. In one trope of musician’s slang, musicians “make the gig” or “make the scene.” Murphy lived that literally: he made a lot of gigs, helped make a scene.
Angel headed hipster. Murphy in his later years, still keepin’ on.
Mine’s a complicated story too. I eventually fell in love at the same time with two people who lived on the West Bank. There was music most nights and every weekend at a couple of coffee houses, a short-lived jazz club, a music school, and several bars, all of them within four or five blocks. And for my literary side, besides the University, there was Savran’s bookstore, which was well stocked with small press publications and poetry in several languages. In one’s Twenties many are imprinted on the culture encountered then, but the West Bank in the ‘70s seems an especially strong tattoo—and nostalgia fades in reverse.
Most change happens slowly enough that you never see it happening. One day you look over your shoulder and you see everything behind you isn’t there anymore.
Or you pick up a paper and see that Willie Murphy has died.
Most change happens slowly enough that you never see it happening. One day you look over your shoulder and you see everything behind you isn’t there anymore.
Or you pick up a paper and see that Willie Murphy has died.
I felt I needed to write about this, regardless of how well I could do it. The song I wrote “Willie Murphy (Is Always Playing on the West Bank)” has in-jokes and puns that only West Bank habitués will understand. In the first verse I twisted a line from Ginsberg’s “Howl” that also supplied the name of Murphy’s last band. Punned-in the name of some West Bank bars in the second verse, gave a shout-out to Koerner Ray and Glover in the bridge, and got in a sideways nod to the West Bank’s Mixed Blood Theater before I finished.
A week ago, I sprung it on the LYL Band and we gave it a go, with Dave Moore supplying his piano part off-the-cuff. You can hear it with the player below.
*Murphy recorded an LP with “Spider” John Koerner back in the 60s, and produced Bonnie Raitt’s first LP in the early 70s. Willie and the Bees was an integrated R&B band that mixed funky jazz and danceable grooves for a decade or so from the mid-70s into the early ‘80s.
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 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.
I’m not a fully-qualified Science/Speculative Fiction fan, though I did read it when I ran into it as a young man. Dave Moore, whose voice, songs and keyboard playing you’ll hear from time to time here, read more of it. I’m not sure if Dave introduced me to Harlan Ellison’s work, but my memory is that he did loan me a copy of Dangerous Visions back in the Sixties. In that 1967 anthology, Ellison made the case that SF was the heir to a Modernist tradition of fiction using outrageous and unique situations—he was claiming SF could be more Kafka than L. Sprague de Camp.
It’s unlikely he was the only person thinking along those lines, but he certainly helped to popularize the idea at a time when an aging generation of SF writers, steeped in pulp magazines and cents-per-word paychecks were in danger of losing touch with the younger post-WWII generation who were more likely to be college educated and experienced in some chemically enhanced inner-space traveling.
Used copies may have slight foxing (or are they cannabis stains?)
Ellison was an any-world-class curmudgeon. His non-fiction writing is full of enthusiasms and invective, with almost no middle ground. At times he reminds me of another late 20th Century artist/social critic: Frank Zappa. Both of them liked to remark that “The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.” Over the course of his career Ellison seemed to transform from a US-born angry young man punching mostly up to a more generalized misanthropy, where at appearances he would sometimes riff like an insult comic. He once called my late wife who he had just met at an event, “Cathy Carbohydrate.”
These two things worked together. SF had always had a darker side, and the border between it and the gothic strain of fantasy or noir-ish mystery was crossed back and forth often. I believe a utopian, Transcendentalist wing of SF remains, but the terms SF and dystopia now seem to follow one another almost automatically.
Is this the artists’ fault or ours? A large question that.
Thursday night I read that Harlan Ellison had died. Friday I was booked to record with Dave. Friday morning, as I slept, I dreamed that Dave was showing me a binder full of typed manuscripts of stories he had written. As he flipped the pages I read parts of the stories. In style, they were the sort of thing a teenager just starting out would have written, so in the dream’s timeline they would have been written in the Sixties. In the dream, Dave, after learning of Ellison’s death, was telling me that Harlan Ellison had looked over these stories, and that Ellison didn’t like them very much, though he thought the last one had some promise. There was a short, encouraging note from Ellison scrawled in the margin on a page in the story. As I glanced up toward the middle of the page, I saw some dialog in which a character in the story was saying something. The character in this non-existent dream-story was named Octavia Butler.
Now I remind you: this is a dream. Dave never had Ellison critique any early stories he wrote. In the dream, these stories existed, in the waking world they don’t. But here’s the funny thing. I told you at the start that I’m not a fully-qualified SF fan. If you had mentioned Octavia Butler to me on Friday, the only impression I would have was that she was a writer. I wouldn’t have been able to name any of her work or have been able to place her in a genre. In the dream, I just thought it odd that Dave was using a writer’s name as a character in a story that the dream had had him writing 50 years ago. I was about to ask him why, when I woke up.
Octavia Butler, before or after she was in my dream
I biked off for breakfast and hurriedly came back to write the piece you can listen to below. Looking for info I might use in my song, I searched on Octavia Butler. In the Sixties, Butler was a young, unsure author, fearing that she was too “ugly and stupid, clumsy, and socially hopeless.” While she was still in school, Harlan Ellison, this man with a reputation as a scouring critic, had told her she had promise and should go to the Clarion Conference and present her work there, a suggestion that lead to her first publication in 1971.
Nothing there I could use in the song as it turns out, but strangely this was also nothing I knew when I had dreamed that dream early in the morning. I did use one bit I found in my searching: an interview with my former co-worker John Rabe that revealed that Ellison was still using a typewriter as his writing machine in the 21st Century. I thought of those older generation pulp writers and their per-word paychecks.
That afternoon, Dave and I recorded “The Apotheosis of Harlan Ellison.” It turned out that in the waking world, Dave had not heard yet that Ellison had died. The player gadget below will let you hear it—though not on your typewriter.
This is an elegy, not a love poem, but then an elegy is a love poem that replaces the focus masking the complexity of love with the common mystery of death. Even the images and incidents can have an eerie similarity, as an absence may be at the center of either.
The author of today’s piece, Tristian Tzara, is as much as anyone the founder of Dada—if that absurdist movement can structurally support a founder. Like much of the early 20th Century modernist movement, the horrors and changes of WWI accelerated Dada’s development. Proudly anarchistic and rejecting the whole lot of social norms and artistic traditions, Dada was at turns playful and bitter about a European world order that that was itself disordering everything on the continent though modern warfare.
When I look inside the back of my guitar amp, do I find? Picabia’s portrait of Leo Fender, or a tube socket schematic?
As we’ve learned in earlier posts here, a whole generation was mobilized as part of The Great War. The teenage Tzara, residing in neutral Switzerland, escaped this, but he apparently tried to gain funds from both sides’ propaganda arms to fund Dada activities—which would be just the kind of audacious prank that Dada loved.
The subject of today’s piece, Guillaume Apollinaire, was a slightly older member of that WWI generation who should have gone on to even greater things after the war. As I mentioned last time, he had invented the name for Surrealism, the modernist movement that was a post-war outgrowth of Dada. Before that, he had also invented the term Cubism. In France during this time, Apollinaire seemed to know, and was admired by, everyone: composers, writers, painters, theater artists, the whole lot of this vibrant cultural scene.
Swept up into the military by the war, Apollinaire was seriously wounded at the front and weakened by his wounds, he died during the great flu outbreak of 1918.
Apollinaire, his war-wound bandages “pendaient avec leur couronne”
His death then leads to Tzara’s elegy, today’s piece. Given Tzara and Dada’s reputation, I was worried as I started to translate this. Translation, particularly for someone like me who is not a fluent speaker of other languages, is already fraught with issues, but doubly so with writers who can use arbitrary absurdist phrases intentionally. When is something unclear, and when is it meant to be so? That’s a question you ask a lot with these writers. I have a prejudice for vibrancy, and if I feel there’s a good image or English phrase hidden in an unfamiliar language’s idiom, I will generally seek to bring it out, but I also realize that I’m fully capable of misunderstanding the writer’s intent.
With Tzara’s “The Death of Apollinaire” I grew to believe that this was a sincere elegy for this much-loved artist among artists, and so, translated and performed it as such. Yes, it has its absurd images, but I chose to translate them with clarity in mind. Apollinaire died in November, and so I took the mourning images as a series of late autumn images, and presented them as such. I had the most puzzlement with the line “et les arbres pendaient avec leur couronne” which can be simply left as an unusual combination: a (presumably, shiny metal) crown hanging in a tree-top. As I looked at “couronne” it appears that it’s used also for a laurel wreath crown, and for a funeral wreath too, and for a while thought “wreath” or “funeral wreath” would be the best translation. And then I considered the botanical meaning of “crown” applied to trees, and the follow-up line “unique pleur” made me think of the last leaves in autumn, a rather conventional image—but a great deal of what makes that conventional in English is the popular song “Autumn Leaves” written originally in French by Surrealist Jacques Prévert! My translation: “And the trees, those still with hanging leaves” takes liberties with Tzara’s words, in hopes that I might have divined his image. I’m more confident in how I translated the last line, “un beau long voyage et la vacance illimitée de la chair des structures des os” which I proudly think is superior to other English translations.
Musically, today’s performance is a mix of 12-string guitar in Steve Tibbett’s tuning, with electric guitar and bass. As always, there’s a handy player below so that you can hear it. If you like a piece you hear here, go ahead and hit the like button, but it’s even more important in bringing this work to others attention to share it on your favored social media platform. Thanks for reading and listening, and double thanks for sharing!