Is it even possible to mention Stonehenge without risking the unbidden memories of the feet-to-inches comic debacle from Spinal Tap? Well, that’s one reason I’m a little hesitant to introduce today’s piece in our Halloween Series this year.
But still, I’ve been talking and singing about ghosts, ancestors, spirits, and their home fires a good deal, and I remembered this performance by the LYL Band of this song I wrote after visiting an altogether homier set of Neolithic English standing stones at Avebury several years back. I understand Stonehenge is fenced off, and that enforced distance probably does little to staunch the tales of quasi-Medieval druids with magical rites floating stones in the air. Avebury’s large henge basically had a country hamlet grow up inside it, there’s even a pub in the midst of the circle. You can walk right up to the stones, feel these cool earth-aerials, measure them against one’s own height and age. A walk around the Avebury henge is a good walk, and one may also look over the equally amazing earthen ditch-works that are part of the site. As you stroll a flock of official government sheep wander the grassy meadow keeping overgrowth at bay without internal combustion clatter. So at Avebury, as I was walking around all this, I did not think of druids. I thought of men and women who dug and moved that earth, dug and moved those stones, erected them watching over each other.
There are several rings in the henge at Avebury, and the stones are individual in shape and size, furthering the thoughts I had while visiting the site.
Did they have some chieftain or matriarch who planned and ordered its construction? Perhaps. What belief was being expressed in large rocks? Some likely, at least to the level that metaphor asks of us. But as I said, I thought of who did the work — the sweaty, hard-breathing, hand-callousing work. They worked stones with stones, dug with pickaxes made of antlers. At night in what huts did they sleep, on dried grass beds perhaps? And in that night they no doubt slept hard after their day of work, dreamt dreams harder than those of old poets who need only to move words around. If the energy of the earth and sky was transmitted up and down those big stone antennas, so too must the energy of their dreams be drawn in there. And I was there where they must have slept, dreaming under night breaths, their aches soothed by the rest. Dreaming of what? Children, parents, lovers, siblings, colleagues, whole days of rest, the mighty thing they would construct, a story, a prayer, a melody, the little joys of a meal or exactly good weather?
Not druid magic in my thoughts at Avebury, but I felt those dreams might be — no must be — harder than the dulling mutes of time. They sparked around in their heads, and when their heads became skulls and then dust, where is that spark, and can we read it still, tune it in? A belief, at least to the level of metaphor, felt we could. That’s the song.
Here’s the songsheet. If you ask for scenery to back your performance of this, get the measurements right.
The player many will see below will play “Avebury Song #2,” and if you don’t see it, you can use this alternative highlighted link. I hope to complete at least one more new Halloween piece to present here yet this month, though the moving pieces of my life doesn’t make that sure.
Sometime before The Police made it an album title, this project’s alternate voice and keyboard player Dave Moore took to using the term synchronicity to explain some things that going forward cause significant effects where there was no pre-existing reason or even connection. Maybe me seeing Dave read a poem in a church while we were both teenagers would be an example. Or here’s another one: an American poet who had generated no interest in America travels to England and creates not one but two poetry careers. And then that runs together with the next three pieces in our countdown to the most popular piece with listeners over this past spring.
Robert Frost went to England largely unpublished and un-heralded in 1912. He was 37. If you were thinking of starting a fantasy draft league for poets in 1912, Frost could not be your pick. I’m not enough of a scholar to know all the reasons for this move, but it might well have been because some of what Frost was writing chimed with poetry that had been published and reached an audience in the UK, poetry that used a rhymed/metrical lyrical voice to portray unpretentious countryside settings. While living in England Frost met another writer, the 35-year-old Edward Thomas. Thomas, also not your fantasy poet draft pick — he wasn’t even writing poetry. The two took a liking to each other.
Frost rather quickly found an English publisher while in England, and published two book-length collections containing many of the poems he’s still best known for. American Ezra Pound took to praising Frost to Americans, and Frost’s career was launched!
4. The Aim was Song by Robert Frost. Coming in at number four in our spring countdown this year we find the now successful Frost with a poem published first in America. It’s a natural text for this Project because it uses music as a metaphor in a very musical poem. It’s been popular here over the years since I first presented it, and it was one of the most popular pieces among the 30 I re-released for National Poetry Month this April.
You can hear my performance of “The Aim Was Song” with a player many will see just below this paragraph, or with this alternative highlighted link, which is here for those that won’t see the player.
So, what happened to our Edward Thomas? Thomas’ writing was focused on work-for-hire, the scriveners gig-economy of the time set to fill column inches in magazines and newspapers. Thomas’ personal interests were present in some of those works: he was an avid walker, bicyclist, and amateur naturalist. Like Emily Dickinson, no plant is encountered in Thomas’ writing and is not given a specific name or description. And likewise birdsong. Thomas kept journals, and they too have passages filled with the countryside carefully observed.
Frost saw Thomas’ writing, declared to his friend that he already had the stuff of poetry, and analyzed Thomas’ situation as a “suffering from a life in subordination to his inferiors.” Thomas subsequently took up writing poems with the now published and becoming-known Frost’s encouragement. However, time was marching up on the pair with a large surprise — a world war was about to break out.
Thomas’ non-militarist outlook, his middle-age, and his family for which he was the sole support non-withstanding, Thomas seemed drawn to military service for his country. Frost moved back to America to further build on his growing reputation there. He put forth a standing offer for Thomas and his family to join him in the United States.
3. Gone Gone Again by Edward Thomas. Here’s a poem Thomas wrote during this time, and it’s a wistful evocation of war’s absences. In England Thomas is often thought of as a war poet, and there are reasons for that. But one of the uniqueness’s in his poems set during the time of WWI is that they avoid tableaus of the battlefields and the action set thereupon. “Gone Gone Again” is a poem of what’s not there: people, workers who are now soldiers.
Thomas enlisted, trained as a lieutenant, a most dangerous job in the warfare of the time. After duty in England (he helped make maps, an apt job for a man who so well knew the countryside) he shipped overseas to the battlefront, where he was shortly killed.
Like for some young poets and musicians, death was a good career move for Thomas. Friends posthumously published a collection of the freshly-written poems that Thomas had crafted in only a couple of years writing verse. Attention was paid in the UK to the “war poets” and everything Thomas wrote was read in the context of that cataclysmic event for Great Britain.
One poem Thomas wrote, based on a journal entry from a train ride he took on this very day, June 24th in the summer of 1914, became his best-known and loved poem in his home country: “Adlestrop.”You can hear my performance of “Adlestrop” here.
Or you can celebrate “Adlestrop day” with this “lyric video” from earlier this year.
.Most Americans don’t know this poem or Thomas. I didn’t, until 2016 when one summer day of unwonted heat the train I was to make was subject to what became an hours-long delay in arriving at Kingham. The heat was such that trains had been stopped for fear of track failure. I can recall the trees and foliage swaying in the summer breeze at the little station, some small bird activity, a station caretaker who arrived to drip a watering can into some hanging plants on the platform. It was only afterwards that I learned of this poem, set in the very next town on that trainline, the even littler town whose trainstop had been removed some years back. Rod Serling should have come out the station door with a skinny tie and a summer-cut suit to quip on that synchronicity. Did I miss him because I wasn’t looking for him, because I didn’t know any of that until after I had been in Kingham that afternoon? Thomas’ poem was, and to some significant degree still is, loved because a few days after Thomas was stuck in Adlestrop, an Archduke got assassinated and the slow-motion trainwreck of WWI broke out over the ensuing summer. Thomas wrote his most famous poem afterward, referring to his memory and journal entries, and so he likely intended this poem to be read, like “Gone Gone Again,” as a study in absences, a summer day with a peaceful nothing-urgent before “the guns of August.”
To hear “Gone Gone Again,” there’s a graphical player for some — and you others? This link.
2. Cock Crow by Edward Thomas. So, is Thomas only a war poet? Could he have been something else? I think it’s highly likely. He was a troubled man, some other calamity less nation-shared than a World War could have taken him early, but the more I read, even his slightest poems, the more I see why Frost was taken with him, and why even Americans who may not share the cathedral-plaque reverence given UK war poets might still discover him. When I read “Cock Crow” in a 1920’s anthology of Thomas’ contemporaries this past spring I was struck by how much fresher and less puffed up with ineffective references Thomas’ writing was set against the field. And Americans, whose culture received a 19th century dosage of Transcendentalism, love our closely observed nature poetry perhaps more than Brits. Maybe I feel a connection from that afternoon in Kingham, and that prejudices my reading?
Bird song occurs in “Cock Crow’s” title and text, and in reply I was pleased I was able to end my performance of it with a choral part. You can hear it with the player, or its backup, this link.
“Cock Crow” got a lot of listens. I thought it might be the most liked and listened to one, but when I totaled them all up this June, another piece beat it out. I’ll be back soon with the most popular piece this past spring. It’s a surprising one.
Americans know little of English poet Charlotte Mew, who wrote today’s poem during “the last Twenties,” but her poetry shows some unusual qualities, particularly for her time.* For example, this poem starts off off-hand and rises at its end to hearing an angel — so beginning like a reserved Frank O’Hara and ending as if she were Rilke.
Oh, and in the middle of the poem, there’s a short meditation over the corpse of a dead rat.** Joyce Kilmer must have forgot to add that kind of touch in his better-known Arbor Day connected poem!
Accounts from those who were acquainted with Mew often commented on her eccentricities, and even though Virginia Woolf and Thomas Hardy thought highly of her writing, Mew’s writing career never really gained traction. Over the decades since there’s been some increase in interest in Mew, especially in England. I’d suppose that the eccentricities and tragic arc of her biography help some with interest, but in the immediacy of Parlando’s performances we’re left with just the text of a poem like this. This performance is a live LYL Band take, and like much O’Hara, I found the conversational style makes the text easy to perform.
As with Frank O’Hara, or Emily Dickinson for that matter, just what Mew is getting on about in her poem may not be grasped on one listen or read-through. Yes, the poem’s audacious empathy for the trees comes through easily, but what’s the purpose of that rat? I think Mew is explaining that it’s the absences, the deaths, that more fully convince life into our memory, and that this is so for the “god-forsaken” rat and the angel-blessed trees.
The poem’s Plane tree is a species well suited to urban spaces, able to survive the Victorian pollution of London that Mew was born into.
One last day to go in our celebration here of National Poetry Month, but I’ve got some plans for a big send-off day tomorrow if time and life allows. As with most of the 30 performances of a variety of poems that we’ve re-released this April, there are three ways to hear Charlotte Mew’s “The Trees are Down.” You can use a player gadget below, this highlighted hyperlink (supplied for those who won’t see the player), and via a lyric video above.
Thanks again for reading and clicking play. It should be obvious if you read or listen to the things here, that there’s a reason I’m attracted to the unusual. You must be too. I’m grateful for that.
*That relaxed beginning, interrupted by the interjections of the workmen’s voices all related in long prosy lines is still an unusual effect today. Maybe the beginning has some Whitman in there too?
**Without plan, 3 poems in the 30 have had rats in them. T. S. Eliot’s “Waste Land”river rat in “The River Sweats,” Du Fu’s scurrying rat in the ruins from “Jade Flower Palace,” and now Mew’s spring corpse rat.
You’ll sometimes find Edward Thomas filed under “War Poets,” but his best-known poem “Adlestrop” is a unique peace poem that emerged from a journal entry written a few days before war broke out in Europe in 1914. In Thomas’ “Adlestrop”, nothing happens — the sweetest nothing.
This poem is lesser-known in America than it is in Britain, but its achievement deserves to be celebrated more generally. Now, I won’t knock the accomplishments of the World War I “War Poets,” but from the time of Homer it’s been assumed that the heightened events and sorrows of war can make powerful poetry. But to write poems about the day before a war, the minutes of mere inconvenience amid beauty so ordinary we will not burnish it on paper, that’s a rarer thing.
And now, with a new war being waged in Europe, the “Adlestrop” moment may have gained fresh power for us.
The new lyric video.
Adlestrop is, and was in 1914, a tiny English village in the Cotswolds. Edward Thomas did take a train ride a mere four days before Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated tripping off the first world war. He was journaling at the time, a busman’s holiday for a man who made his living freelance writing at a “bills-to-be-paid” rate.* In his journal he noted the heat and the sleepiness of the train station (which was outside of the town’s edge). An avid naturalist, he made exact notes of the plants there, and the birds. Oh, the birds. Thomas’ writing is always full of bird-song.
Here’s what he wrote on June 24th, 1914, the first draft of what would become the poem:
Then we stopped at Adlestrop, through the willows could be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 and one thrush and no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam.
Stopping outside Campden by banks of long grass willowherb and meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between the two periods of travel — looking out on grey dry stones between metals and the shining metals and over it all the elms willows and long grass — one man clears his throat — a greater than rustic silence. No house in view. Stop only for a minute till signal is up.”
The final poem, the one we know and perform below, was then written after the outbreak of the World War. It transforms that entry’s already poetic detail into that masterful poem of nothing, the sweetest nothing. The poem’s final zoom out to “Farther and farther, all the birds/Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire” seems an invention, a choral work derived from a smaller bird-song ensemble in the journal entry.
The performance features one of my better examples of melodic bottleneck electric guitar playing. You can hear this performance three ways: a player gadget below for some, this highlighted link for others, and a new lyric video that you’ll see the picture/thumbnail/link for above.
One other note: my own accelerated posting schedule for National Poetry Month 2022 is wearing me down a little this April. I have more pieces like “Adlestrop” that I plan to re-release yet, but it’s possible that I may reduce frequency in the second half of the month.
*Thomas wrote around a hundred poems in the just over one year that he worked at writing poetry. His work for hire productivity was prodigious too. One stat that is often noted was that he once reviewed 19 books in one week.
History is unavoidably entangled with literature, so I’m often pleased to present poems that are personal witnesses to history. Today’s piece uses three texts written by Queen Elizabeth I of England, or rather by a young princess who wasn’t queen at the time of their writing, but was instead a political prisoner.
As someone who grew up in the U.S. I didn’t have a good grasp of British history for most of my life. Over the years I’ve picked up bits and pieces, but one element that I discovered was the degree to which that the era surrounding the vigorous birth of English literature was a dangerous, violent, unstable political situation. And the woman who would give her name to that era, was not protected from those horrors.
The story is complex, here’s the best brief summary I can come up with. Europe had been in the throes of religious-affiliated warfare between Catholics and the Protestant wings of Christianity mixed in with the usual imperial cross-conflicts for some time. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII had moved England into the Protestant camp largely so that he could divorce his wife and marry the woman who would be Elizabeth’s mother. That new Queen eventually was executed as Henry VIII moved on through his infamous marital history. At Henry’s death, his young male child and heir Edward became king in name, but with an adult Protector running the country, but that protector’s brother sought to marry the teenage Elizabeth and take over. That plot failed, and the Protector’s brother was beheaded.
On the sickly Edward’s death at age 15, Elizabeth’s older half-sister Mary (daughter of Henry VIII’s first, divorced, queen) became ruler of England, and she switched the country back to the Catholic side. Every time the state religion changed, suppression of the other religion occurred, and plots from the outs faction against the new establishment were rife.
Elizabeth was, on paper, next in the line of succession at this point, but aligned with the Protestants. This barely protected her and made her a target at the same time. And in 1554 a Protestant plot that aimed to unseat Mary and put Elizabeth in her place was discovered. Elizabeth was now 21, some suspected her being a participant, not just a pawn being moved surreptitiously to the queen’s row on the chessboard, and once more executions will be going forward for the discovered plotters.
Elizabeth was taken to the Tower of London. Her imprisonment began, interrogation was in store, even torture and execution were possible.
After several months in the Tower, a compromise was reached between those who wished to rid Queen Mary of the plausible rival and those that thought it better to not martyr Elizabeth. She was shipped off to a disused old castle, Woodstock, away from the court and other plotters. It could be said she was now at a royal palace, not the Tower where traitors were imprisoned and executed. In reality, she was still imprisoned, kept in the half-ruined castle’s gatehouse under guard.
The story goes that today’s poem was written in charcoal on the interior wall of that gatehouse by the imprisoned princess. As a poem it’s also a political statement, a rather clever one at that. On its face it’s not addressed to those who’ve imprisoned her, rather it’s addressed to impersonal fortune, fate. Like a candidate sticking to the message, she’s not charging her Queen and half-sister with being behind this, but she is calling out injustice. She’s not issuing a call to overthrow the government, but only slyly praying in conclusion that a just God may send “to my foes all that they have thought.”
In today’s performance I’ve framed that poem written on a prison wall with two other shorter texts: a couplet titled “In Defiance of Fortune” and an ending: three lines scratched into the glass of a window pane in the gatehouse by a diamond, an even starker statement by a political prisoner.
Musically, I’ve been thinking of The Byrds, and so it was time to break out the electric 12-string. I even thought of punning off the title of the half-ruined castle that Elizabeth was imprisoned at by referring to Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” musically—but in the end there is only an echo of that song’s chord progression left in my music.
There are more stories in the swerving era of revolution and counter revolution, secret police and royal executions. Elizabeth’s eventual reign doesn’t end the religiously affiliated plots. After her death and a new Protestant king, one of the last serious Catholic-affiliated plots against the government ends when Guy Fawkes is found watching over some great store of gunpowder in a crypt under the parliament building. An English holiday is born, celebrated on November 5th: a burlesque of treason or revolution, suitable for children. Effigies are burned, there are taffy apples, and fireworks smell in loud colors.
Arrest, torture, head on a pike, then centuries as the but of holiday villainy. Only Alan Moore can save him now!
Of course it was deadly serious for Fawkes, ready to kill in defense of his oppressed religion, and deadly serious for the government, ready to execute him for such a plan. Someone—do we call them Fortuna or God—had a joke to tell us. As Fawkes was led up the execution platform, he tripped, fell off the platform, and broke his neck. History, like literature, has so many sad stories, some uplifting ones, and then again some jokes.
To hear Elizabeth’s prison poem performed, use the player below. Want to read the texts and a few other poems attributed to Elizabeth, they are available here.*
This is another time where I present a piece by a lesser-known writer, though one who seemed to be on her way to overcoming artistic and social obstacles in the 1880s. Amy Levy was something of a prodigy, publishing work in her teenage years, achieving admission to Cambridge (only the second person of Jewish heritage to do so), and then while in her 20s carving out a career in journalism, fiction, and poetry. A feminist*, she had made connections with the cadre of those that would soon be called “New Women,” and Oscar Wilde was impressed by her keen powers of social observation and sharp concise prose.** In quick succession she wrote and published two novels and two books of poetry that seemed well enough received.
Of course, she had obstacles, not just the universal ones of art, but the additional burdens of anti-Semitism, misogyny, and what appears to be a lesbian orientation, which only makes her achievement as she reached the age of 27 seem just that much more impressive.
Amy Levy “Talkative, good-looking in a way, and full of the restlessness of the unhappy.”
At that point she had completed another novel, and in the summer of 1889 she was working on reviewing the proofs of her third book of poetry “A London Plane Tree.” The poems, if not exactly avant-garde, were spare and modern enough that they wouldn’t sound outdated in the coming century.
The front piece of the original 1889 edition of this book of Levy’s poems. Does anyone know what structure is pictured?
Today’s piece, “London In July,” is from that collection. It’s a love poem, a common enough subject, and its language is plain and unshowy, but consider what is being described. It starts by saying that the poet thinks her senses are “cheating,” that they cannot be relied on to represent reality. “All the people” she sees in London (presumably men and women) appear to her as having one person’s face.
The second stanza/verse hints at what face she’s seeing on everyone. It’s just a dirty-patina urban London summer day, but against this background, among the millions in the metropolis, she sees only what she must see: her beloved. She reminds us, her beloved is a London resident, she doesn’t leave for a country stay even in the heat of July.
In the third stanza, this situation has become a puzzle, a maze, and the size of the city a “waste,” as she only wishes to be were her beloved is.
And the city’s crowds, wearing the beloved’s face, are mocking the poet. Crying out to others in the crowd and market, yakking on about perhaps where they’d like to be rather than in the hot city this July: beside some rural stream, or at the seaside. The poet concludes: I’m not leaving, this city contains her. Hidden somewhere in its essence and hot summer, there is my beloved.
Perhaps the most striking thing, beyond the hallucinatory picture that is being painted here***, particularly to audiences in 1889, would be the same-sex desire that seems plainly part of this poem.**** That’s masked by having me perform it.
So how did audiences respond to that? How did Amy Levy deal with that response? Alas, that’s masked too. After completing her review of the proofs, but before the book was printed, she died by intentionally inhaling coal-gas in her room as the coroner judged it: “Under the influence of a disordered mind.”
I once again remind you that the first duty of an artist is to survive.
For a fairly simple musical concept I had trouble realizing the performance of this one. A pair of violas and three violins establish the cadence of the piece, playing unison lines in various registers, but then the electric bass plays a line that doesn’t consistently relate to the bowed strings key-center or root notes. I was trying for an unsettled rub between the bass and the strings. At one point I had an acoustic guitar part that tried to tie those two parts together, but I couldn’t execute it well enough, and conceptually I think it may work better to leave the contrast between the bass and strings unresolved. I’m past the point of deciding now, you decide. To hear it, click the player below. The text of the poem, is here.
*Her first major work was a poem presented in the voice of Xantippe, the wife of Socrates who appears there to have founded mansplaining alongside philosophy.
**Among her crew: Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl) and Beatrice Webb, a founder of the Fabian society and the London School of Economics. She met Thomas Hardy and during the summer of 1889 she met Yeats who wrote later that Amy Levy was “Talkative, good-looking in a way, and full of the restlessness of the unhappy.”
***Part of what drew me to “A London Plane Tree” was a description of the poetry within as being an early example of Symbolist poetry in English. In terms of poetic language, I can’t quite see that yet, but some of the mood and sensibility in the pieces connects.
****Other than a frankly lesbian reading (which seems supported by biographical info) the only other reading I can see would be an esoteric one, similar to those that see a level in “The Song of Solomon” where the beloved is an incarnation of Israel or a state of union with the divine.
Even though music takes half the time and focus of this project, I find myself talking about it hardly at all, which is probably unfair here “Where Music and Words Meet.” So, today I’m going to talk more about music. If that’s not your interest, I’m still going to ask you to keep reading, as beside the music nerditry, I’m going to touch on other things.
It was my first concert, and so of course it must be memorable. It was at the big amphitheater in Des Moines, a place where about two decades later Ozzy Osbourne would have a memorable encounter with a bat. I was a young teenager, it was the Sixties, and my dad was going along for the concert with me, driving the two-lane roads from our little farm town, just the two of us in the usually crowded Plymouth station wagon with fighter plane wings and sparkle-threaded upholstery that was already tearing in places. I believe he asked me if I wanted to go.
Perhaps this was meant to be a father-son bonding experience. Maybe he’d noticed that I had this somewhat solitary interest in music, but I have my doubts. I had no demonstrable musical talents, and the only music I made was singing, which I did off-key. My father had a pleasant voice—my mother said it was as good as Perry Como’s—and I had heard him singing occasional solos or leading a congregation in church. I don’t think we talked much about it before, after, or during the nearly two hour drive that day.
Like I said, he asked me if I wanted to go. I was warned, or perhaps it was a stipulation if I accepted, that the concert would be long, and I’d have to be patient.
We went to our seats, far back from the stage, and I remember the slope of the seating and our height in the building as being oddly scary to me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I leaned forward in my seat I might tumble over the rows in front of me all the way down to the floor hundreds of feet below.
I came to see why I’d been warned about the concert’s length. It was perhaps two to three hours long, more than twice the length of a church service. I fidgeted some, but I also wanted to listen and understand the music, a performance by a massed choir and an accumulated orchestra of Handel’s Messiah.
In 1970 Jimi Hendrix died in someone else’s flat in the early morning hours of September 18th London time, of an accidental overdose of unfamiliar sleeping pills and wine. That’s a long time ago and stories differ, but it’s likely that a contributing factor was the ignorance, intoxication, or uncaring nature of that someone else. Like Handel, Hendrix had emigrated to England in his twenties to find success there. How complicated this was for Handel I don’t know, but I can speculate a bit with Hendrix.
When David Bowie died, a good deal was made of his ability to reinvent himself as a performer and artist multiple times. Of course artists invent themselves, at least most of the good ones do, but it is rarer to do that more than once or twice. But then in our twenties, artists or not, we all invent ourselves and find some accommodation in the world that we live in. To pull that change off even once should be remarkable, though some inventions are more striking and original than others.
Jimi Hendrix didn’t invent himself into moving to London, a couple of British citizens colluded to offer this to him. At the time Hendrix was having trouble with his invention of himself as a musician. His musical ideas were developing rapidly, and he had experience with the showmanship side of entertainment, if for no other reason than a short stint working in the band behind Little Richard, one of the most outrageous performers ever to tread the boards. Putting those two things together would be an invention, one he probably intended.
Britain poured gasoline on that fire, and I’ve always found some of that gasoline offensive. How much did the sideshow “Wild Man of Borneo” exotic-negro thing figure into his rise there? I’ll refrain from judging too much. After all Hendrix’s stage show at the time was not subtle, and the scene at the time expected spectacle not so much from elaborate stage sets and technical tricks as we see today, but from human movement and actions. My personal reading is that he wanted not so much the attention his act and stage persona invoked, but the safety of that ceremonial mask that would hide the fragility of its inventor. In off-stage interviews, even in his between song-patter, that inventor, still somewhat unsure of the work, would emerge.
In less than a year he took that still forming invention back to the US: the uninhibited, no-boundaries performer combined with the flash guitarist, and it sort of worked there too after the alchemy of his London sojourn. Not everyone was convinced state-side however. Early rock critic Robert Christgau capped off an often-perceptive report from the Monterey Pop Festival with this review of Jimi Hendrix’s American debut:
Hendrix is a psychedelic Uncle Tom. Don’t believe me, believe Sam Silver of The East Village Other: “Jimi did a beautiful Spade routine.” Hendrix earned that capital S. Dressed in English fop mod, with a ruffled orange shirt and red pants that outlined his crotch to the thirtieth row, Jimi really, as Silver phrased it, “socked it to them.” Grunting and groaning on the brink of sham orgasm, he made his way through five or six almost indistinguishable songs, occasionally flicking an anteater tongue at that great crotch in the sky. He also played what everybody seems to call “heavy” guitar; in this case, that means he was loud. He was loud with his teeth and behind his back and between his legs, and in case anyone still remembered The Who, Hendrix had a capper. With his back to the audience, Hendrix humped the amplifier and jacked the guitar around his midsection, then turned and sat astride his instrument so that its neck extended like a third leg. For a few tender moments he caressed the strings. Then, in a sacrifice that couldn’t have satisfied him more than it did me, he squirted it with lighter fluid from a can held near his crotch and set the cursed thing afire. The audience scrambled for the chunks he tossed into the front rows. He had tailored a caricature to their mythic standards and apparently didn’t even overdo it a shade. The destructiveness of The Who is consistent theater, deriving directly from the group’s defiant, lower-class stance. I suppose Hendrix’s act can be seen as a consistently vulgar parody of rock theatrics, but I don’t feel I have to like it. Anyhow, he can’t sing.”
That paragraph should hang next to the reviews of John Keats’ poetry in the all-time bone-head review hall of infamy, and yet Christgau has so much honesty that he makes it available on his website to this day, along with his later opinions. But it does point out a problem, that combining extreme showmanship with musicianship is an unstable combination. Music may be inherent to humanity, but for most audiences (including most music reviewers) the eyes ace out the ears in the race to the mind.
Hendrix himself was troubled by his invention and its reception. He may have wanted the mask of the showman at first, but that need seemed to fade as he asked himself what Jimi Hendrix 2.0 should be. It may have been presumptuous for Christgau to call him a “Psychedelic Uncle Tom,” but Hendrix’s Afro-American audience was slow to build. What seemed to be the forefront of his invention, the combination of the flamboyant showmanship with striking musicianship wasn’t entirely new, even if for most white audiences of his time it had stopped with Chuck Berry, who had never risked expressing the sexuality in Hendrix’s version—but there was something else there. Hendrix was inventing modern Afro-Futurism.
In saying that I’m going to (unfairly) ignore Sun Ra, and some of the occult religions and Rosicrucian-like beliefs that preceded Hendrix. That’s a big subject, but one I’ll ignore here not just for length, but because I don’t know how much Hendrix knew of these predecessors as he developed his next invention. Hendrix was living and intermittently performing in New York in the mid-Sixties during Sun Ra’s New York residency period, so I would think Hendrix might well have known something of Sun Ra, even seen him perform, but that’s not for certain. I’ve never seen Sun Ra mentioned by Hendrix, and none of the inconsistently available Sun Ra recordings are included in Hendrix’s known record collection. It’s also a reasonable belief that more of you may be reading this because I have Jimi Hendrix in the title than Sun Ra, and that says something about Hendrix’s eventual impact compared to the incomparable Sun Ra.
It’s likely that Hendrix’s source, besides his own imagination, was Science Fiction of the Fifties and Sixties. In order to be an Afro-Futurist you have to be intrigued with the future and other worlds, worlds like the vision in that rare barely-ironic Steely Dan song that says, “Any world that I’m welcome to, is better than the one that I came from.” Unlike Sun Ra or later Afro-Futurists, Hendrix didn’t express this vision with costumes; or with meaningful stage props as George Clinton would. Instead he expressed it with his least understood and appreciated talent, as a songwriter and lyricist—and that’s why Hendrix’s Afro-Futurism could be news to you, decades after his death. The cult of “Jimi Hendrix, the greatest rock guitarist ever” has a side-effect, it obscured his lyrics, which were often buried in the mix per Hendrix’s wishes (he shared Christgau’s opinion of his own singing voice).
What if James Marshall (Jimi) Hendrix had expressed his SciFi interests with an electric typewriter instead of an electric guitar?
Here the LYL Band unmasks Hendrix’s lyrics to a song from his first LP.
One obsession in the Cult of Jimi is the question of “What would have happened if he had survived the night of misadventure 48 years ago?” He could have become a mid-level act beloved by other electric guitarists or those who appreciate musical originality like unto Jeff Beck, or he could have easily succumbed to the Seventies’ decent into poly-drug abuse and contractual obligation albums hammered out between hits on the pipe. Many guitar-nerds see Hendrix moving to the jazz-fusion genre that was forming at the time of his death, and speak longingly of the collaborations with Miles Davis and Gill Evans that were being mooted in 1970. But on the evidence of his last recordings, he seemed to be doubling down on the Afro-Futurism with his great lost album First Rays of the New Rising Sun.
Last night I watched Black Panther with my son, who had seen it on release and who wanted to show the movie to me. During the scene near the end, when the two warring kings are watching the sun over Wakanda my own soundtrack in the back of my head was still playing Hendrix’s “New Rising Sun.”
More than fifty years after taking the drive to Des Moines to see Handel’s Messiah, I was visiting London and went to Mayfair and a block of flats there. You enter and pay your admission at a desk in a somewhat cramped entryway, but upstairs is the expansive apartment that George Frideric Handel used as his home as well as his composition and rehearsal studio in the 18th Century.
And further on, you come into a second, smaller 20th Century apartment, decorated in a way I could remember from my youth, with inexpensive gee-gaws and accessories, a hi-fi given its special place, a home altar to the music it played.
This is the place Hendrix lived in for a little over a year while based out of London, the place that must have been even more precious to him that it does to any visitor grasping at their nostalgia for “Swinging London.” Many of you have a place like that in your own memories. Your first apartment, or the first place you lived in with a partner, that place where you invented yourself, or some first version of yourself. But Hendrix had an extraordinarily unsettled childhood, passed from relative to relative, a half a step from foster homes, maybe a single step from homelessness. He’d washed out of the army, couch-surfed a life as an unnoticed musician. Not only was this his first place of his own, it may have been a first candidate for “home” in his life, perhaps the only such place.
As it turned out, being an Afro-American big-deal in the small world of Sixties pop music could not supply that home, but his lyrics and the Afro-Futurism that he helped engender are rich with the dreams and visions of it.
Let’s return to sing the poetry of a man who’s far better known in Great Britain than in the United States, Edward Thomas. Thomas had a remarkably short run as a poet, only writing verse for about two years after befriending and sharing thoughts about writing and the observation of the countryside with Robert Frost during the latter’s stay in England just before WWI.
Thomas was no longer young when he started writing poetry, and he had scratched out a living as a freelance writer for several years before he met Frost. None-the-less, two years is a very short time to develop as a poet, and today’s piece “Gone, Gone Again” may show some rougher places commensurate with a poet who hasn’t fully developed his game.
As I worked with “Gone, Gone Again” as an audio piece with music, some of its odd poetic faults continued to jab at me, but as is sometimes the case with the Parlando Project, I grew to appreciate the poem and Thomas’ unique read on time and life more fully from the effort spent with it.
The poem’s meter is awkward and uneven, the rhyme unpredictable. A casual reader could hear it as doggerel. As the poem reaches its conclusion, with the only perfectly rhymed quatrain in the piece, the sentence seems twisted in order to make the rhymes.
How much of this is intended and how much of this is a beginner struggling with the verse? Who can say. From working with it, I think the rhyme scheme that refuses to be—well, a scheme—is likely intended. It does keep you off balance, but I think it’s effective. The meter with its odd steps, is likely just as intentional, though I’m still not sure it works as well for the performer or listener. Even in the performance you’ll hear today I didn’t reproduce Thomas’ text correctly, rounding off a few of the rough spots, and revising the last line of the fifth verse. Another musician who has worked with a great many poems, including a number by Thomas, gracefully manages to sing this poem unaltered, though I’m now somewhat attached to my “mistaken” changed line.
Thomas wrote “Grass growing instead” which would be consistent with a house abandoned an unknown time ago, but I sang “Grass growing inside,” which while a strong image determines it for long ago.
What then comes from repeated readings, or from the time I had to spend with this poem in order to turn it into a song? Thomas is playing with time. He starts off with a common trope: and end of summer poem. How many of us are having this same thought, “Where did the summer go?” Almost as if he’s leaving his own critical note, Thomas’ second stanza says right out, “Not memorable.”
And then he adds: “Save I saw them go.” Already, the poem starts its turn into a poem about survivor’s guilt.
In the next verse, we’ve gone from a ballad stanza style rhyme scheme, to a verse that starts with a rhymed couplet, followed by an unrhymed couplet. You really feel the lack of rhyme every time you sing or say “The Blenheim oranges/Fall grubby from the trees.” The curious pendant in me had to find out what a Blenheim orange is. It can’t be an orange, can it? As the sentry in Monty Python’s Holy Grail reminds us: “Found them? In Mercia? The coconut (like the orange) is tropical! This is a temperate zone.”
The Blenheim orange is instead an English apple variety. Blenheim orange is a flavorful name though. It’s even an alternate title under which the poem is sometimes published. Assuming intention, Thomas may have chosen it not just because the apple is named the same as an imposing palace in Oxfordshire, but because the palace, and presumably the name of the apple as well, comes from a battle that was already 200 years ago when Thomas wrote his poem, a key engagement in the European War of Spanish Succession.
This may be too subtle by half, a College Bowl or Jeopardy-level question about history that almost everyone in the audience will miss.
Here’s where the play with time part returns. The poem next visits an abandoned house site, a trope that Thomas’ friend Robert Frost would go to more than once in his own rural poems.
Thomas is writing his poem in the context of WWI. During his entire poetic practice, he was grappling with the question if he, nearing 40 years old, should volunteer for battle service in WWI. He’s considering this well past any illusions of a grand battle adventure. He’s well aware that modern warfare has turned technology into an efficient killing machine, in his disconcertingly brutal phrase, turning “young men to dung.”
How long as this house been abandoned? Since the war of Spanish Succession? Since the outbreak of WWI (which might be the cause that river barge traffic is absent and those apples falling unpicked)?
Here the poem completes its turn: a compressed meditation on the losses of the cycle of life with or without the fortunes of war, four warm months started us off, May to August; now life is four as well “Youth, love, age, and pain.”
Thomas’ conclusion is stoic, fatalistic. The final verse’s schoolboys are a rich image, at once nihilistic vandals and the reduction of reason and textbook learning to emptiness. In Thomas’ time, WWI has broken the world, and he eventually decides that the call of duty, however irrational, is the only way to take part in the mending and solace of tradition.
I talk-sing this for the most part, but it’s a fairly full orchestration that I mixed in the background of the acoustic guitar/folk music song I wrote for this. The strings are quiet, but I let an oboe, trumpets and a fluegelhorn come a bit forward at times. The virtual instrument versions of brass instruments don’t sound as authentic as strings and keyboard virtual instruments do, but I wanted a bit of that flavor in there anyway. To listen to “Gone, Gone Again (The Blenheim Oranges)” use the player below.
Here’s a story about a poem appropriate for this Memorial Day, though the story includes three Easter holidays.
First Easter: on Easter 1913 in March, a freelance writer, normally so pressed for a paycheck that he worked 15-hour days writing piece after piece, started off on a bike tour across Britain from his home near London to the south-western coast of England. Of course, there was a paycheck involved, a travel book was planned and resulted, which was called In Pursuit of Spring.
Can’t tell the model, but from the front it’s clear that Thomas was riding a classic English “roadster” on his tour.
This trip started in overwork and near the ending of a glum winter, and finished in May with true spring; and this bicycle journey allowed the harried writer to expend a bit more focus on his writing. In the book, his trip ends in Somerset England, but a packet of photos he took during the trip indicates that he must have somehow crossed the Bristol Channel to Wales, the homeland of his ancestors. A tell-tale photo with his handwriting on the back was discovered recently, saying it was taken near Tinkiswood, the site of a Welsh Neolithic stone burial chamber. A year later the site was excavated, and 920 human bones were located. Welsh legend has it that staying the night in the chamber will cause any surviving visitor to go raving mad or become a poet. That wasn’t included in the book.
The overworked freelancer who took this journey was Edward Thomas. Shortly after the journey completed, he met a then little-known American poet who’s work Thomas had reviewed perceptively. The poet was Robert Frost. Frost read In Pursuit of Spring and suggested that Thomas should write poetry.
“How so?” asked Thomas.
Frost told him that Thomas had already shown close readings of the book of nature and the rhythm of verse in passages in In Pursuit of Spring.
So, at this time Thomas began writing poetry, extraordinary poetry that is little known in the United States, but which is much loved by poets and readers in the U.K. Some of it so concise and so infused with deep attention to the natural world’s calligraphy that it rivals classical Chinese and Japanese forms.
And World War I breaks out.
I’ve already written about Thomas’ dilemma in deciding if he should enlist in the war, and Frost’s part in Thomas’ ambivalence, so here I’ll just say that Thomas did enlist. The records say it was in a company called “The Artists’ Rifles.”
Can Americans of our time imagine such a military organization? Of course, artists of all kinds have served in America’s military services, but I can’t envision that sort of name being used here in place of something like “The Screaming Eagles.”
Thomas’ company in training camp
The second Easter: the somber name today’s poem was published under was not his. Thomas in his manuscript simply wrote down the Eastertide date in 1915 when he apparently wrote the first draft of this, two years after he’d started the trip that had indirectly formed him into a poet. That summer he was even stationed for a while on military training in one of the towns he’d passed through on the bicycle journey.
But never mind the name, what a poem. It’s four lines, a single quatrain. Nearly every word is telling, even ones you slide over in the first line. Decades later Pete Seeger wrote a song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” condensing an episode from a WWI novel expressing a similar idea to Thomas’ poem. Seeger’s song is not long as songs go, but it’s a good length for a room to sing along with. Thomas’ poem has only started when it comes to its fourth line. The previous line breaks abruptly, enjambed, with “should,” and its final line reveals itself as it unwinds in heartbreaking fashion.
And Thomas? A third Easter: another spring, 1917. His diary entry in France wonders if the enemy is unseen in the fields ahead of him, which he still must view with the precision of a nature poet. He pauses to light his pipe. A bullet pierces straight through his beating heart that, will, do, never, again.
To hear my performance of the poem eventually published as “In Memoriam (Easter 1915)” use the player below.
I recognize that Memorial Day is an American Holiday, directly derived from the post American Civil War Decoration Day. I know this blog has a large segment of U.K. readers, so to explain: in the U..S. we have two holidays celebrating the armed forces, Memorial Day, which retains some of it focus on honoring the dead who served, and Veterans Day, which is the U. S. holiday that coincides with Remembrance Day. For readers on either side of the Atlantic who’d like to hear the LYL Band present a performance of an American poet for Memorial Day, here’s Carl Sandburg’s “Grass.”
I do make something of an effort to look for other folks doing something interesting with poetry and music online, and to check out the blogs of folks who’ve commented or otherwise contributed here. I really should be more consistent in doing this, but particularly this month as I’ve attempted to ramp up production of Parlando Project pieces as part of the National Poetry Month celebration, I’ve fallen behind. Come May I’ll have a lot of blog reading to catch up on!
As we read over the poems composed by the students, it was fascinating to see how many of them – the majority of the group, in fact – had fixated on the idea of more modern distractions from nature, and in particular, the role of smartphones in quite literally ‘filtering’ nature for us. While William’s poem admonishes its addressee to abandon books and ‘hear the woodland linnet’, the year ten pupils from Keswick School used their poems as a chance to reflect on the need to abandon their phones and enjoy nature in its own right.
I keep asking my middle-school aged son what his generation has decided the rapidly aging Millennials don’t understand and that his generation will have to fix. He looked at me funny when I asked him again this week
. “Is that some kind of Dad joke?”
Perhaps he just doesn’t want to divulge yet his generations secret plans to fix the worst mistakes of those who came before, or maybe he’s still formulating the answer. But one of the time-tested ways to look for answers or better questions is to skip back a few generations and see what someone observed and thought before those now running things made their decisions.