Fall 2020 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 4-2, and what is it that you’re trying to do anyway?

Before continuing with our count-down of the most liked and listened to pieces here this past autumn, let me remind newcomers what the Parlando Project does. We take words, mostly other people’s words, usually poetry, and combine them in different ways with original music.

“Oh, you mean you make them into songs?” Well, sometimes, yes. But not always. I don’t always sing the words, thus the project’s name.

“So, it’s spoken word with some music in the background.” You could say that about some pieces, but I want the words and the music to interact, comment on each other. The music isn’t just background.

“Music with chanted words. Are you a rapper?” I wish. Can you imagine the commercial potential of old guys chanting poetry, often to acoustic instruments? House-party! I’ll bring the Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, and Fenton Johnson! No, I’m not a rapper, but you could say that I’m more a separate branch growing off the roots of things that rap also grew from.

“Are you some kind of beatnik?” Wait, where’s my black turtleneck, I’m going to reverently listen to some cool jazz records now while trying to remember what was so important about being intoxicated first. Oh, what was the question again?

“The last few numbers on the Top Ten had those orchestral instruments. Are you setting poetry texts to music in the tradition of art song?” One limitation of this project is that neither Dave, nor certainly I, possess bel canto voices that can realize what most art song composers do. I’m conceptually doing what art song composers do, but the empirical results reflect my outlook, performance resources, and limitations. Also, like Yeats, I fear that elaborately sung melodies obscure the impact of the words.

OK, back to the countdown. If you’d like to read what I wrote when I first presented these pieces, the bold-faced titles are hyperlinks to that.

4. O Let Me Be Alone Awhile  by Emily Bronte.  You could feel bad for Emily B. that my Halloween piece using her spellbound poem didn’t make the Top 10, but this one, an introvert’s shout-out that some readers and listeners might have felt was especially appropriate in this pandemic “everyone stay at home” time, did. The player to hear this should be below, but if you don’t see the gadget, you can use this highlighted hyperlink instead.

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Autumn Indian Pipe and Dickinson Poems cover

The first edition of Dickinson’s poems featured a picture of Indian Pipe flowers in bloom, but like all flowers, autumn, if nothing else, ends their term. Indian Pipe (also called Ghost Pipe) is a strange plant that doesn’t use photosynthesis, but rather gets its energy from fungus. The picture was chosen because avid botanist Emily liked this unusual plant.

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3. As if the sea should part  by Emily Dickinson.  From Emily B. to her American admirer Emily D. we go. For all the mythos about Dickinson’s later years of not leaving her family home, does anyone ever ask if being cooped up in a house with a family half-heartedly uninterested in poetry was all that comforting to her? In her most vital writing years, Dickinson still roamed some physically—and mentally. I’ve had some fun over the years here suggesting musically and graphically that Emily Dickinson would rhyme with Sixties psychedelia. “As if the Sea should part”  is certainly mental traveling of the purest sort. The player for this performance is below, or if you can’t see the player, you can use this hyperlink.

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2. The Listeners  by Walter de la Mare.  When I started this project I thought I’d be rocking out more often than it’s turned out to be the case. Part of that result comes from being increasingly unable to record with Dave or others, and some from enjoying the novelty of being able to score and play orchestral instruments. My version of de la Mare’s weird minimalist ghost story isn’t crossing the hardcore boundary, but this is  a rock band arrangement that sounds good turned up on your speakers. The player to test that claim should be below, or if not, this highlighted hyperlink will play it.

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O Let Me Be Alone Awhile

I’m going to take a walk around to get to a good small poem by Emily Bronte today. It won’t be a walk about the English moors, alas, but it’ll have to do in this otherwise wild and windy place we call the Internet.

My spouse and I have a worthwhile understanding that we are both a sort of introvert. Definitions vary between peoples and time, but one short definition of an introvert is that they are the people that gain strength and restoration from solitude rather than from gatherings of people. One can easily suspect that writers and their close allies, the readers, may be more likely introverts, but of course that’s not always so. That indispensable pioneer French Modernist Apollinaire*  was famously sociable within his element, a joyous bohemian boulevardier. Other writers, even while writing, seek out crowded places filled with voices and humanity to concentrate on their silent work. August Wilson, the great 20th century American dramatist, liked to write in cafes and coffee shops, places where other peoples’ voices were staging their own improvised plays.

But we can’t be sure that those two, or others like them, still aren’t introverts. My wife is good in typical social situations. I’m not. I’m so bad at social interactions that I’m sure I often leave a bad first, second, or last impression.**  Still, one thing that joins most introverts is that however well we perform the social whirl, it tires us out—and when we need to recharge it’s not a different self-selected group, even a group of friends or family, that we seek in order to recharge, instead it’s solitude.

So, I have a phrase that I use with my wife when she needs to recharge: “Oh, have a good time at your Introverts’ Support Group.” Which of course isn’t a group—it’s time alone.

I have a phrase that I use with my wife when she needs to recharge: “Oh, have a good time at your Introverts’ Support Group.” Which of course isn’t a group—it’s time alone.

This sort of time alone is particularly hard for non-wealthy women to find. In Bronte’s time a great deal of domestic and family labor was assumed to be their unquestionable duty, something that modern times and insufficient good intentions haven’t eliminated. I have some idea of the particular domestic duties of Emily Bronte admirer and like-named Emily, Emily Dickinson, but less of Bronte’s own family obligations, but I assume they were considerable.***

In our current Covid-19 age of shelter in place recommendations, the pressures of everyone at home may make more and more of us like unto residents of an isolated parsonage in the North of England like the Bronte’s. If so, today’s Emily Bronte poem, written it says in her collected poems on Sunday December 13th, 1840, may still speak to us. Arithmetic tells me Bronte would have been 22 when she wrote this. Here’s a link to the complete text in case you’d like to follow along.

Emily_Brontë_by_Patrick_Branwell_Brontë

Introvert Irony: the only image we have of Emily Bronte is a group portrait painted by her brother of her with her sisters.

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On publication this poem bore the title “Retirement,”  but I’ve chosen not to use it as I don’t think Bronte is using the word in the sense most of us use it today. I believe the sense she intends is more at a wish to retire (as one would “retire to bed”) to rest and refresh oneself after a day of labor.

Indeed, the scene she wishes for and describes may be staged in sleep and dreams—though if so, her dreams are outside, alone, and in God’s nature. My wife’s most favored respite spots are walking in parks, nature reserves, and around wild lake shores. For introverts like Emily Bronte, my wife, and I, a concertedly apprehended nature is the other that somehow comforts us.

When we last did an Emily Bronte poem as part of this project, it was her spooky poem “Spellbound”  in which the poem’s speaker seems to be suspended in the air figuratively or in imaginative actuality. Interestingly, in today’s joyous poem, the speaker speaks poetically of “wings,” and a wish to “quit this joyless sod,” and so is again in “mental flight” somewhere between heaven and earth. Just as if I wondered if A. E. Housman’s spell-caster’s poem and Bronte’s were in conversation, and if Emily Dickinson’s bird and hope poem was reacting to an Emily Bronte bird and hope poem, Bronte herself returns to an airborne state in today’s poem.

Wishing all the readers and listeners here the companionship and solitude they need and desire, and, and but, in the proper mixture!  The player gadget to hear my performance of Emily Bronte’s “O Let Me Be Alone Awhile”  is below.

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*102 years ago this month, Apollinaire died of the 1918 great influenza pandemic while still weakened from a wound he suffered in combat during the final days of WWI. The flu virus got him before he could see the end of that war, as noted in Tristan Tzara’s moving poem that I translated and presented here three years ago.

**I have something of the novelist’s eye for how those interactions can go wrong, but the social klutziness to do it all wrong anyway.

***Wikipedia says she did “most of the cooking, ironing, and cleaning” for her family.

Her Strong Enchantments Failing

Here’s another Halloween short poem with a supernatural spell and struggle in it, this time by British poet A. E. Housman. I found it spookily similar to Emily Bronte’s short poem from last time—but while Bronte’s poem wrung its fear from being frozen, this one is more hot-blooded.

Housman retains a degree of non-academic popularity in England but is less well known here in the United States. Academics on both sides of the Atlantic soured on his poetry during the 20th century as it didn’t hew to the Modernist ways of expression, because they viewed much of his verse as sentimental, not complex and allusive, and he often dealt with humble English characters. He’s not alone in that fate, but it’s somewhat ironic in that Housman was himself a formidable scholar, specializing in classical Latin poetry.

I found Housman’s language in “Her Strong Enchantments Failing”  as brisk and unemotional as an epigraph, despite its fantastic element. It would be easy to present as a pulp tale that starts with a statement about a failing spellcaster that by the fourth line has a knife at her neck. It moves as fast as any hardboiled fiction. Here’s a link to the text if you’d like to check it out.

The final two stanzas give us the summary, the box score, of a battle between the spellcaster and the knife-wielder. There’s no rigmarole of dice throws, just the final inning laid out as the poem ends with each character left a mystery.

All we know of the spellcaster, she with the weakened spell, is that she’s viewed as some kind of evil principal portrayed as at ease with killing. We’re told less about the other character, only that he’s young and a man, and that he’s got the upper hand holding the blade.

…this poem and Emily Bronte’s ‘Spellbound’  from last time have strange correspondences…”

Housman seems to be taking the young man’s side in the tale. His opponent is called the “Queen of air and darkness” here. I said this poem and Emily Bronte’s “Spellbound”  from last time have strange correspondences, perhaps only coincidental—but in Bronte’s “Spellbound”  the subject is held, apparently suspended, frozen in the darkening air. If we jam the poems together, our knife holding young man is a spellcaster too, and as today’s episode opens with a “previously on the Parlando Project…” connection, he was able to freeze our Queen, destroy her fearful towers and vials of poison. Bronte’s “Spellbound”  character isn’t described, but perhaps she shares Emily Bronte’s gender, and we sympathize and shiver with her for the length of Bronte’s poem. Bronte says the spell that binds her character is from a tyrant.

A E Housman

A. E. Housman, humble classics scholar, thinking how he could beat Emily Bronte in a fantasy boss fight

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There’s nothing that says the young man who is ready to kill an evil spellcasting Queen in Housman’s poem is not themselves a spellcaster and maybe not a humble freedom fighter either. After all, to slightly alter the old saw, who wants to bring a knife to a spellcasting fight? In my performance I couldn’t help but start to sympathize with this doomed formerly formidable Queen, even it she’s evil, or said to be so.

Well, that’s two good weird-tales poems now in our celebration of Halloween. The player to hear A. E. Housman’s “Her Strong Enchantments Failing”  may be below. Don’t see it? Not an enchantment failure, it’s just that some blog readers won’t show that. Here’s a highlighted hyperlink that will also play it.  There may be time to do a third Halloween tale yet this month. Check back to see.

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Emily Bronte’s Spellbound

Let’s begin our celebration of Halloween here at the Parlando Project with a setting of a short poem by Emily Bronte that starts “The night is darkening round me.” What a marvelous short poem it is too.

Halloween here in the northland of Minnesota is in some years an early winter holiday, and this late year’s late October seems one of those. I’ve awakened to temperatures in the teens Fahrenheit already this month, snow and ice are on the ground, and of course it’s already twilight at 6 pm. So, given that the speaker in Bronte’s poem is enchanted by a spell, it’s easy to see this from my landscape as a Halloween poem, but if you are farther south you can consider it a Winter Solstice one. And if you live in the tropics? Well, I do promise “Other People’s Stories” here.

My wife and I live by the Norwegian proverb about there being no bad weather, only bad clothes. Our love gifts tend not to be lingerie or sharp dress duds, but things like merino wool and handlebar pogies*.  We each try to keep up outdoor activities in the winter, and as long as you are active, such clothing works well.

But Bronte opens up in a different situation. It’s night. It’s cold. It’s windy. And our poem’s speaker has been spellbound out in it. They can’t leave. The poem, short as it is, tolls a refrain over and over, the speaker “cannot go.”

spellbound

I played this with the eerie, hook-like appendage guitarists call “a capo,” so it sounds in Bb in the recording.

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And the second stanza says the weather is getting, what? Worse! There’s already heavy snow on the tree branches. Where is the speaker bound in this spell in the foreboding night with a further storm coming on?

Not even hunkered down in a sheltered area or behind a windbreak. They are frozen (not soon to be a metaphoric word!) somewhere between the sky’s clouds and the winter, snow-covered wastes below. When I read this poem, I pictured the spellbound speaker held supernaturally some distance in the air (makes it easier to view the snow-load on those tree branches), but if you are less fantastic you could view them on a ridge or hillside and able to view lowland areas below, but still more than minimally exposed to the weather. I’ve even read a reading where the writer thought that Bronte had placed the speaker in Purgatory, and the clouds are heaven and the lower wastes hell. Well, Emily Bronte was a PK** and all, so that’s not impossible, but I’ll still take the picture with what Bronte gives us, stark as it is—and in its moment, without any route to salvation.***

Other close readers note the subtle change in the last “cannot go” refrain. The speaker says “I will not…go” the last time, not “I cannot…go.” Do they want to be in this predicament? Is there a kinky love bond with the tyrant who has them trapped in the spell? Plausible reading. My sensibility hears this “will” as a final realization that there’s no way out from the spell, that the speaker is not just temporarily trapped and cannot go, but they will be so in any future they can see.

So, a Halloween-scary poem. Back in the “real world” that we hope is safe enough to tell each other scary stories, we can reflect how this trope of being in a situation of oncoming dread and not being able to move is a common bad dream. Or if you, or someone you know, suffers from S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder) you may find the winter darkness brings on a torpor that’s hard to break out of.

A simple setting for today’s piece: guitar, bass, and piano. The weather’s too cold and dark to drag an orchestra outside I guess. I plan to be back with more Halloween spells this week, time allowing, so check follow, or check back. The player gadget to hear my performance of Emily Bronte’s “Spellbound”  also known as “The Night is Darkening Around Me”  is below.

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*Pogies are neoprene hoods that allow one to operate bicycle controls inside their wind and warm shelter while wearing only normal gloves rather than bulky insulated mittens. They are the only solution that really works for subzero F. cold on bikes.

**PK means “Preachers Kid.” A class that Parlando Project alternate voices Dave Moore and my wife share with me. One thing this experience usually leads to is a youthful exposure to a lot of sermons. “Heaven and Hell” may not just be someone’s favorite Black Sabbath LP—or it may be, but one has yet another context for that.

***In its short, stark, three stanza format that could repeat in any order, and it’s no way out of here situation, this poem is sort of Emily Bronte’s “All Along the Watchtower.”  Except, Emily’s speaker has no one to talk this doom over with. A like-named Emily, Emily Dickinson, would appreciate the solitary nature of this kind of Bronte poetry. Earlier in this blog we discussed that Dickinson’s “Hope” in her famous “Hope’ is a thing with feathers”  poem may have been quoting Emily Bronte.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers

We don’t usually associate Emily Dickinson with metapoetry or with the widespread sampling and recontextualizing such as found in T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”  But this poem from Dickinson, one of her best-known, could be engaging in something we could call that.

The poem starts off with a clear indication of reference, by putting its first word in quotes. Based on Emily’s unusual but internally consistent style, I don’t believe that she’s using quotes to indicate hope as concept, as an ideal (she capitalized words to indicate that sort of thing). If it’s a quote, she’s referencing someone else. Who said this “Hope?”

My chief candidate would be the poet and poem from our last post, Emily Bronte and Bronte’s poem “Hope.”  If you read and listened to “Hope”  in our last post you’ll know that “Hope”  isn’t a hopeful poem at all. Dickinson’s poem, on the other hand, is often viewed as praising hope, but if you read/listen to them together, Bronte’s poem sheds a different light on the much better-known “thing with feathers” poem.*

Dickinson seems to start where Bronte ended. Bronte’s hope has feathered wings, and it uses them to soar to heaven to never return. Dickinson starts with “hope” only specifically given the potential for flying away, but Dickinson has “hope” sticking around. Some read the feathered aspect of Dickinson’s image as cute, like a pet songbird, a friendly image, but I don’t think Dickinson does cute much, and I’m not sure she’s doing it here.

Punk Monk Emily

My wife sent me this and I believe the illustration is by Wendy MacNaughton.

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What Dickinson says about hope in the rest of the poem has been read as outright praise, but if we take that fly-away-and-feathers link between Bronte and Dickinson, we should be alerted that there may be more shading the situation.

Hope and Hope is a thing with feathers

For those who’d like to read along, here’s today’s text and the Bronte poem it may be referencing

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Dickinson’s hope sings without words, which is a statement of great ambiguity from a poet. Abstract sound that goes beyond meaning is part of poetry’s power, yes, but “without words” may also say that, for good or ill, hope is generalized and not realized by the specifics of the situation. A song without words could be like advice that things will always get better, always turn out fine. A friend or advisor that always tells you that; whose non-specific hope is constant and never relenting can be a “not today please!” thing after all.

The second stanza is an extended metaphor of the hope-birds sweet song in a storm. “Plucky little bird! Good for it!” Is one reading. But there’s an odd line in there that must be weighed too. If the storm is bad enough the bird might be abashed, embarrassed, Dickinson says. Why would that be? Is the hope-bird, shy, timid? Bronte’s hope is said to be in her poem’s first line, and that turns out to be a very severe flaw as Bronte develops it. Could it be even darker? Did the hope-bird say listen to my hope-song in the storm and not fear—oh, how embarrassing—category 5, your town is wiped out by the tornado or hurricane?

Am I being Debbie-downer here? Could be. But how else does one explain the “abash” in that line?**

The last stanza begins still carrying over that metaphor: hey New Englanders (and Minnesotans!) if it’s cold, the frozen center of winter, you can still hear the magical hope-bird. Out way beyond land on the strangest sea? You can hear it. The hope-bird is operational in any and all conditions!

More won’t-shut-up testimony about the hope-bird there. Is this fulsome praise? Recall Dickinson’s famous definition of poetry: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry.” And in Wild Nights Wild Nights  she speaks about adventuring on chartless wild oceans. Not to paint Dickinson as an inner stone-cold Goth here, but cold and strange are not what she seeks to avoid. Dickinson says the hope-bird keeps “so many warm.” She doesn’t say everybody or herself.

What do I make of Dickinson’s concluding couplet? Many readings see it as a comment that hope isn’t self-serving, the crumb being reward for a pet or a tamed or otherwise human-habituated bird. Dickinson (unlike Bronte, whose hope is portrayed as fickle and even cruel) has just made much of hope’s seeming ubiquity. If we take it that she’s commenting ambiguously on someone else’s hope or Bronte’s portrayal of a fickle hope, she could have undercurrents in those last two lines. She may be saying “My hope is wild and unpredictable, maybe not as specifically feral and cruel as Bronte’s, but my hope is not my pet, not at my beck and call.”

Of course, a great deal of this reading depends on thinking that when Dickinson put hope in quotes she meant to refer to the title of Bronte’s poem whose protagonist is highly skeptical about hope. There’s another thing she might be quoting, a special use of the word. When Dickinson entered Mount Holyoke the students there were highly encouraged to make a sincere profession of religious faith. At the end of her single year there, Emily Dickinson was still in a small group that refused to make that profession. The school had a classification for those hard-cases. They were put down as “Without hope.”

Here’s my performance of Dickinson’s “Hope’ is a thing with feathers.”  Use the player below to hear it if you see that, or if you don’t, this highlighted hyperlink can play it.

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*Somewhere in my reading this spring someone tipped me off to consider Bronte’s “Hope”  as an influence on this poem of Dickinson’s. I did, and this is what I found following that tip. However, I can’t find any note I made about where I first read that there might be a connection. I owe someone.

UPDATE: Thanks to another blog’s discussion of this poem, I think I’ve rediscovered where I may have read of this connection between poetic Emilys and “hope.” It could have been this post by Nuala O’Connor.

**I’m truly hesitant in this regard. I do believe in the intractable nature of the human condition, and I think Dickinson does too, but I don’t want to discount hope or “the peace that passeth all understanding” as a necessary part of dealing with those things.

Emily Bronte’s Hope

If Emily Dickinson had no real models for the revolutionary poetry she developed, she did have other poets she could look to. We know from her letters that one of them was Emily Bronte.

English author Emily Bronte and her two sisters Charlotte and Anne all wrote poetry and then novels, but Emily seems to have been the most avid poet of the trio. Starting in childhood Emily Bronte created along with her sister Anne a fantasy world they named Gondal in which they spun tales of adventure. At least some of Emily’s poetry was connected to that world, and so it’s possible that today’s hopeless piece titled “Hope”  is part of some fully imagined plot and isn’t autobiographical.

Emily Bronte

Emily Bronte. Plotting what to do to that useless hope when she’s uncaged?

One of America’s great contributions, an Afro-American contribution in large part, is The Blues. The Blues reaction to misfortune is almost inevitably to battle that misfortune in some way: to mock it, to hip others to it, to talk back to it and tell it that the speaker knows the score and may even settle that score with it some day. Most American Blues aren’t “woe is me, I’ve got it bad, and I’d rather be dead” it’s “I can tell you how much trouble I’ve encountered, but I’m still here.”

Emily Bronte is mocking too, but she’s mocking hope itself, not the unspecified troubles that have figuratively imprisoned the poem’s speaker. Hope is portrayed throughout as an external character, and that character is a pious creep, totally uninterested in easing the pain of the imprisoned speaker.

Still you have to hand it to Emily Bronte here. This is a rather impious poem from a preacher’s kid, even if it’s a character from her imagined world and this is only a momentary lament. Perhaps that’s part of what attracted Emily Dickinson to this fellow Emily. Dickinson is also a great mocker.

Does today’s Emily Bronte poem remind you of a well-known Emily Dickinson poem? Check back later this week and we’ll try to follow up on that—but until then, here’s today’s audio piece Emily Bronte’s “Hope.”  The player gadget is below for some of you, but if your blog reading software doesn’t show it, this highlighted hyperlink will also workFull text of Bronte’s poem for those who would like to read along is here.

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