Here’s another piece from the early days of the Parlando Project that we’re re-releasing for this year’s National Poetry Month. This is the place where I’d often encourage you to listen to the musical performance made from this poem, but I also could see why you might want to skip it and wait for tomorrow’s.
The poem “Zeppelins” is by F. S. Flint, a too-little-known man who rose from poverty to help launch English language Modernism early in the 20th century as one of the original Imagists who shucked off the expectations of overused poetic tactics and filigree for what he called “unrhymed cadences.” As a piece of poetry, I think it still sounds modern, still hits this listener with an impact you can feel.
And there’s the rub regarding this poem. It intends to be disturbing, to communicate an intimate dread and revulsion. Not everyone respects Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow” celebration of utilitarian beauty for its insistence on simplicity. There are probably even some who won’t “get” Frost’s exuberant ode to the shaping of nature’s gusts to singing words. But neither of those poems will disturb you, and our lives may have enough disturbance that I can see one not wanting to seek out a poem that gives us more of that. Flint’s poem is the story of one of the first aerial bombing raids on a city, an attack in May of 1915 on London that caused around 100 casualties, including children.*
Furthermore, this poem from 1915 is disturbing for another reason: it’s still topical. It was so when I first posted it in 2017 — cities and towns were being bombed and civilians killed then. So it is today. As another bombing witness was wont to say: “So it goes.”
Imagism in action. Note how Flint intimately invokes confusion, dread, and fear directly in this rapidly accelerating narrative poem
So skip today’s poem if you don’t want to be subjected to that, if your life is already strafed. I’ll understand. Poetry like “Zeppelins” can serve as a powerful witness, we should respect that, but I can see why we may ask poetry for something else too.
The performance is available three ways. You’ve seen the picture of the lyrics video above, you may see a graphical player below to play the audio of the performance, and then there’s this highlighted link to also play it.
*I felt obligated to put an advisory on the video, not because I desire a world of poetry that cannot frighten or offend, but because such a piece may be too much for children who may be introduced to poetry during National Poetry Month.
One thing about the Christmas and winter holiday celebrations is that they can occasion the sharing of strands of different traditions. For the teenager in the house, hardly old enough to have traditions, it’s been watching Hogfather,* and at least for this year, as many of the Matrix movies** as can be found to stream. For the wife, it’s been revisiting a memorable-to-her Seventies’ Christmas TV movie The Gathering.***
The Gathering stars Ed Asner and Maureen Stapleton. The former not yet transformed from the comic Lou Grant of the Mary Tyler Moore Show to the more dramatic Lou Grant of the spinoff series, and the later known only to most as the ditsy wife of Archie Bunker. Both were capable actors, and the objective pleasures of this cheaply and quickly made TV movie are the scenes where the two of them get to show off some of the range the viewing public probably didn’t know they had yet. The script’s story by James Poe could be viewed as a blander suburban-set predecessor to The Royal Tenenbaums, with a thoughtless and self-centered older patriarch trying to reunite his varied family and his connection to them.
One lovely scene stood out for me, one odd enough that it could have made it into a Wes Anderson version. Male family members surround the partially redeemed patriarch Asner amid Christmas decorations in the old family home to enact what is presented as a family Christmas ritual. Adapting a broad Cockneyish accent, Asner recites a poem he ascribes to Rudyard Kipling while another family member, who well knows the piece, “bleeps” offending words with a little Zuzu Bailey Christmas ornament bell.
Readers here will know this’ll ring the Parlando bell too. I had to know more about this poem! First off, there’s no evidence that it’s by Kipling, though its audience would likely have been familiar with Kipling’s poetic style. Rather it’s an Edwardian parody of unknown authorship of an earlier Victorian sentimental poem by George R. Sims. Sims’ poem is a critique of the limits and constraints of the workhouse solution**** of poverty and vulnerable citizens without support, couched in a Dickensian weeper of a personal story by a poor man who the system has failed. The original aims to engender angry tears.
The parody on the other hand is a much more compact work, though too a critique of the same workhouse system and limits of charity. This work by an unknown author is meant to make one’s anger laugh at such human coarseness. It can be enjoyed, immaturely, as simple travesty, a variation of the “Jingle Bells, Batman smells…” substitution of sentimental holiday cheer with the lyrical equivalent of fart noises or singing dogs. But Batman is a fairytale character who wears his underwear on the outside of his tights, and riding a sleigh to grandma’s house is unexperienced nostalgia; while residents of a workhouse, or the unhoused modern equivalents, are actual fellow human beings who we emphasize with and aid imperfectly.
Here’s a chord sheet in case you want to form your own workhouse chorus to sing this one
In the 1977 movie, the missing but rhyming rude words of this ditty were assumed to be understood even if missing. In modern TV standards they’d all be allowed. Rude British slang probably even adds unintended charm to American audiences. “Beer” of course isn’t a curse other than to abstainers, though too much may be a burden to be coarsely unburdened of. “Balls” or bollocks are testicles, and patriarchally still somehow measurably more polite than the “c word” (also used more freely in British than American slang.) “Sods” is more obscure, but is short for Sodomite, which gets its suppositorian retort from the don’t ask, but will tell, crusty veteran.
Assault your tender ears with my performance of “Christmas in the Workhouse” using the player below. No player to be seen? This highlighted hyperlink will serve. I was aiming for a bit of the early Billy Bragg sound for this one, but I ended up somewhere else nearby. Wife and teenager were dragged away from their Matrix series home-viewing festival to play members of the workhouse chorus, so the least you can do is listen. Happy Holidays to all you intoxicated, genital flaunting, gender-queer, ass-owners who despite it all manage to listen to a variety of musical presentations combined with a variety of words — only some of which are solemn — here.
*A wonderful British TV movie presentation of an episode from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Unreservedly recommended.
**I saw the first one and liked it well enough to not have a great desire to see the continuations.
***Footnotes, it’s like even more gifts to unwrap after that package of socks — and wait…it’s… another…pair of…socks. Watching The Gathering made me grateful for the much higher standards expected of modern “event television” productions. The Gathering won an outstanding dramatic event Emmy for 1977, so it was considered good of kind for that era.
****Workhouses were a British invention to solve the problem of the chronically unemployed, unhoused, indebted, and sometimes frail or mentally abnormal citizens. The idea was that if you couldn’t scrape together enough to survive otherwise your option was to be sent via government edict to a facility where you’d be given enough to arguably survive under a discipline and order that might include being treated as inmate labor.
This sounds exactly Dickensian and out of the mouth of Scrooge before conversion, but this solution was also widely adopted in America. Even in my childhood I can remember driving with my dad past a local Iowa “county farm,” which was founded on the same principle. In practice these institutions varied from hell-on-earth abusive places through ascending circles of shame and shaming up to sites that, at least when under the best administrations, may have been not altogether worse to what came before and after. The degradation was often “designed-in,” as the workhouse was supposed to make even the worst of wage-labor situations look better than the alternative.
In some ways then, today’s piece continues my honoring of the life of Ethna McKiernan, who worked with the unhoused professionally up until the onset of her final illness.
It occurs to me that since I’m an English speaker this project focuses on poetry in English, and though I’m an American, I do give a fair amount over to it to poetry from England itself. But that said, even when I’m not working on a translation* some of that English language poetry is written by writers for whom English is a colonial language.
Irish writers certainly lead that contingent here. If only for Mr. Yeats, this is unavoidable. English language South Asian writers have appeared here too, though South Asian musical influences on me contribute more often. Jamaican Claude McKay reminds me of the easy intersection of colonialism and racism. Afro-American writing in general, even for the native-born American, is often concerned with the issues of colonialism, since it’s more than a metaphor to say that Afro-American communities are treated as colonies in America. If I offend or irritate some white readers with that statement, let me offer this question as a small balm: to what degree does American literature and American poetry, taken as a whole, have aspects of dealing with colonialism?
Those bearded Smith Brothers of American poetic independence Longfellow and Whitman both had to plead that American subjects and American civic ideals were worthy along with their verse. Emily Dickinson didn’t seem to care that she didn’t write quite like her British influences, but to not care in one’s independence is an anti-colonialist stance inherently, isn’t it? Even into my century, Eliot and Pound got to have the immigrants’ revenge: to sit in Europe and reform poetry in English, while obscuring their Missouri and Wisconsin roots. The eventual 20th century American hegemony obscures this accomplishment, but I’ve got to hand it to those two cheeky fellows.
So, who’s left out in the former English colonies here? It seems odd that I haven’t found an in-the-public-domain Canadian to present, given that I live in Minnesota—or Baja Canada as it’s been called. A single Leonard Cohen parody doesn’t seem to be enough. Well how about Australia? Irish-New Zealander-Australian-American quadruple bank-shot Lola Ridge can’t cover all this by herself! Well, there is one other, one that I’ll present again today: Kenneth Slessor.
Does this look like a sensualist to you? Kenneth Slessor, shipboard “With my hands in my pockets and my coat collar high”
What would one have to overcome to be a Modernist Australian poet in the first half of the 20th century? As an American I can only guess. For starters, remoteness would be a significant issue. These days, when I post around midnight here in the American Midwest, folks read these posts in Australia right off in their afternoon before my North American neighbors have awakened. But 100 years ago? As an American I can suspect there was little interest in London literary circles in that time about what they might be missing in the antipodes. If the Irish, descendants of enslaved Africans and Bengalis had to worry about being seen as inferior human species, the descendants of European settlers in America and Australia had the lower but still significant prejudices that they were rubes from the sticks who didn’t know enough to do anything worthwhile.
I’m not going to say that Slessor is Yeats, Pound, or Eliot to the world, nor is he Tagore to his homeland. I said this month you might not have heard of Lola Ridge, but I’ll guess Slessor is even less well-known to world-wide English speakers. He doesn’t seem to have had a particularly interesting life. There aren’t juicy stories about who he rubbed elbows or other bodily parts with. His poetic output is modest: his career poetry collection published in Australia is 100 poems. As far as his typewriter’s mileage reports show, he was a working daily journalist for most of his life, though that includes a very important to his poetry stint as the official embedded Australian journalist to cover his country’s participation in WWII.**
I don’t know how many of his poems are as remarkable as “Sensuality.” As I’ve apologized this month, my scholarship, such as it is, includes a shocking lack of wide/deep reading. What little scholarship I’ve read on Slessor doesn’t even care much for this poem of his. I may have a bad or non-representative taste, but to me it’s a remarkable poem formally, emotionally intense, and for an apparently heterosexual middle-class male the just-as-it-says-on-the-tin sensuality of it (expressed within the Modernist manner of largely avoiding labeled emotion-words) still surprises. I suspect that’s part of the poem’s lack of esteem problem, for even if it’s entirely Modernist in it’s word-music; Imagism and the Modernism that followed most often reduces the senses to sight with a side-dish of sounds. Taste, smell, and touch are numbed. If one of the singular symptoms of Covid-19*** is that taste and smell go away, then poetry has been suffering from this for a long time. Sight seems high ruler of sense in much poetry, the intellectual sense allied with visual art, reading and higher learning. So, a poem without that seems to have failed in presenting compelling images. I joke here a lot about the patriarchal assumptions positing “lady brains” that are not up to vigorous art, and yet now I must suggest that the male sensorium of a lot of English-language poetry is lacking in being able to draw meaning in from most of the senses.
It’s been more than 10 years since I first encountered Slessor’s “Sensuality,” and the performance of it I present today is from shortly after I came upon it. Open yourself to feeling it as you read the text linked here, or listen to my performance of it with the player gadget below.
*As I am right now: one from German, one from French—as well as catching up on some overdue work with a small circle of poets who’ve read each others’ work for some decades now.
I’ll often choose a piece to present here from an instant impression. I’ll be reading another blog, looking at a writer connected with something else I’m looking for, or paging through an anthology and there’ll be this poem that strikes me as more interesting than the one before or the next one after.
Somewhere last month that happened with this piece. You can find the full text of Charles Kingsley’s “The Poetry of a Root Crop” here. It starts off as a garden poem (I may have been looking for one of those) but it soon gets a bit strange. “Swede” is the British term for what I (and Swedish-American Carl Sandburg) would call a rutabaga. “Golden globe” is a turnip. The “Feathered carrot” is a nice image, I see the root tendrils—but by the second stanza we’re getting weirder: “angel’s alchemy” is somehow involved and “blood and bone.” I think of the orthopedic snap of crisp root vegetables and what, beet juice? Sure, it is rhymed couplets, but this is very modern imagery. I knew nothing of its author: I thought late Victorian or maybe one of the “Georgian poets” from around the time of WWI who often use modern imagery inside of traditional forms.
And then the poem starts to take on visionary or prophetic imagery. There are also elements in here, pace the “angels’ alchemy” phrase that call to mind esoteric terms of alchemy.* Where is this going? As the poem closes it becomes clear. This is a graveyard—and/or a garden. Which is it? I think it’s to be both.
By the time I’d finished reading the poem for the first time I’d decided I wanted to write some music and perform this. Those who consume the Parlando Project as a podcast hear only the short audio pieces, and I already knew this would be arresting there if my music worked out. But here, for my blog readers, I’d need to find out something about the author. Who was Charles Kingsley? I’d never heard of him, and it’s likely you haven’t either.
Charles Kingsley. If the British royal family is related to Odin, is there a part for Queen Elizabeth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
The weirdness didn’t end. First off, this poem was older than I figured it was. It was written in 1845. On first reading I would have guessed a contemporary of Yeats, but instead William Wordsworth was still alive. And Kingsley was strange. He was an ordained minister of the Church of England. He knew the British royal family and Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley. He was an early proponent of Christian Socialism, and he was an advocate for increased worker’s rights.
But he believed in a historic basis for the old Norse gods, and thought the British monarchy was descended from them. He attacked Catholicism and thought Emerson and the American Transcendentalists were poppycock. He was a defender of the brutal suppression of the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica.** If one wonders if that last was some technical or procedural objection, Kingsley’s Wikipedia page quotes what has to be the trifecta of a racist statement written in a letter to his wife after a visit to the County Sligo*** in 1860: “I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country [Ireland] … to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black one would not see it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.”
So there you go: if you are a person of color, Irish, anti-colonialist, anti-racist, Catholic, an atheist libertarian, or I would suppose, a sentient chimpanzee, Kingsley is despicable.
Yes, these ideas caused, and cause, suffering and death, but his little-known poem brought me some pleasurable surprise. Big and little things.
Maybe I’m a bit glad that this poem is older than I thought. The vegetative minerals of Charles Kingsley are long absorbed into the earth, and I’ve performed Ezra Pound poems, so I guess you can put me down in the group that says the art can exist—at least eventually—separate from the artist.
Is the opposite so? The better, the more evolved, just, and righteous that a reader is, the smaller the number of poets they will be able to read?
**Wikipedia says Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Charles Dickens and Alfred Tennyson also served on a committee with Kingsley defending the actions of the British colonial governor of Jamaica.
***I’m moved to mention that within a decade, a certain young boy named William Butler Yeats was in that same County Sligo a lot during his childhood. Some chimpanzee, Kingsley. See Yeats moving poem in his primitive tongue: “Me Tarzan, You Maude Gonne.”
I’ve already talked here about doing translations from other languages into English and how it can be a strikingly intimate way to get next to another poet’s creative choices. Performance, or even attentive reading, can also bring on this effect.
Let’s take Shakespeare as a mere lyricist today. Of course, he’s a big deal for our English language, a writer from the days when it was beginning to resemble the one we speak today. For many he’s the writer of plays, with characters of which generations of actors measure themselves by the facets they cut from them. For others he’s the writer of sonnets, many of which work by complex arguments and compressed thought, making them memorable from line to line, even if it’s hard to grasp the entirety of even one of them. But occasionally* within the plays he becomes a lyric poet in one or both of the senses of the word: a writer giving us a complex emotional matrix of someone’s experience in a moment of time, and as a writer who expects his words to be sung to music.
Songs meant to be performed inside other, larger works can be problematic. They may refer to particular characters and situations, which when the song is presented separately, become unfootnoted puzzlements. This song doesn’t have much of a problem there. “Fear No More” is sung as a funeral song in the play Cymbeline, but it’s self-evidently that—a situation that is universal, just as the song admits.
So, as I do my task with this project, figuring out what sort of music to write and effect to try to present in performance, I need to read attentively. Though I have done this hundreds of times during the Parlando Project, I often find that no number of silent readings finds what route to take. This may be me, my wandering attention and self-centeredness, but for this one (as with many others I’ve presented here) the subtilties started to emerge as I come to grips with performing it.
On the surface one could say this song is making an argument: they’re dead—but you know life is suffering, so they are no longer suffering. It doesn’t take long to notice that surface is transparent and there are other things to see through this.
First off, many things here are bittersweet. The opening line, for a Minnesotan** “…the heat of the sun” isn’t something we fear or are even displeased by, even during an extraordinary hot spell. “Golden lads and girls” also, not exactly earthly suffering, and we’re given their end with the joke that they’ll come to dust like the occupationally dusty chimney-sweep. Yes, wages, clothing, eating, learning, loving (all referenced here) can have their struggles, their bad as well as good days, but on the whole we don’t wish to dispense with them.
As the lyric proceeds, Shakespeare slides into darker and darker territory though. Those that assume to be our social superiors are going to have opinions on us, and in some cases our rulers will be tyrants. We may be slandered and censured (apparently this could be done before Twitter). And given some storms in the upper Midwest this August, I’m reminded that summer lightning and thunder are not mere theatrical sturm and drang, but can be the light and sound tech-crew of destructive forces.
And the final stanza moves darker yet. Exorcists, vampires, zombies, and vengeful ghosts—but wait: these are all dangers to/from the dead. So, the whole argument of “At least they are now resting” is completely undercut. And it’s here that I started to notice that the singer who’s tasked with merging with the poet’s work is outlining an inconsistent but vivid life that’s not without agency. This vividness argues against its inconsequentiality.
Oscar Williams’ poetry anthologies surprised the mid-century publishing world selling quite well. These two thick yet inexpensive books were part the paperback library of my youth. Maybe it was the titles: “Master” and “Immortal” would be catnip words to an inconsequential young writer. Williams was an ad-man besides being a poet and editor, so this may have been no accident.
Shakespeare’s songs attract composers, and this one has been made into lovely art song, but I like to roughen them up a bit, and do so here with this acoustic guitar and voice setting. The player gadget to hear my performance is below. But before I go, I want to tip the hat to the Stuff Jeff Reads blog which recently reminded me of this beautiful and enigmatic lyric. And it turns out he and I both read it first thanks to the same anthologist, Oscar Williams, who issued some surprisingly great-selling mid-20th century paperback poetry anthologies.
*Besides being a dramatist, he’s also an entrepreneurial content provider for a new form that needs to please nobles who might get their heads chopped off—and then too, folks who couldn’t get good seats for the bear baiting and so had to make do with a play. Given that Elizabethan song had many clever lyricists, it’s not sure if Shakespeare wrote all the songs in his plays. We also don’t know the music composers, or their tunes for the most part. This particular lyric seems “Shakespearean” however.
**And likely too for an Englishperson, with a temperate-climate, but one that’s not too-often sunny. Winter’s “rages” aren’t without joy in Shakespeare either, like this song from another play.
Before we get to this gorgeous poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, let me talk a bit about what I believe regarding our experience of poetry. One of the reasons this project presents the (mostly) poems it uses as audio pieces is that I have a conviction that poetry has a word-music, a sound that is inherent and relevant to the form.
That doesn’t mean that poetry has to sound pretty in some immediate way, have regular meters, rhyme up, or even have some sense of “singing” imbedded in the authors intent. None of those things harm poetry in and of themselves, but all of them are just techniques of word-music, in the same way that the “rules” of music are discovered on a form that expresses itself in a variety of ways which may be successful with varied audiences.
Nor does it mean that poetry on the page isn’t a useful alternative way to experience poetry. Particularly complex poems, with subtle relationships, may more easily impress themselves when they can be comprehended in a non-linear way on the page where one may look up and down the stanzas and see relationships or indications of linkage. On the other hand, some complex and hermetic poems, or poems that use language in ways that are not in the form of ordinary literature, may be best experienced as we often experience songs or memorized verse (like nursery rhymes, folk sayings, or mnemonics) in a way where we encounter them more than once, in a portable form that we can hear in the background of other events and situations. Our memories as a playlist.
And now we return to Gerard Manley Hopkins and his poem “Inversnaid” after that preface. Is there subtle thought in it? Yes, there may be. One could write an essay on deep ecology based on it. I suppose it could be a metaphor for Hopkins theology and philosophy, of which I know enough only to say that he was self-aware and concerned in those areas. Essays could be written, perhaps whole books inspired, though because it’s a short poem, it’s possible that one can carry “Inversnaid” in a way that neither and essay or book can be.
But I’m not there yet with “Inversnaid,” and I’m only the near-partway into my journey with Hopkins. No, what this poem is for me yet is: beautiful, sonorous, passionate, intense—it affects me. Frankly, I see only a bit of its matter, a little more each time. It shows the way that poetry, while it can contain ideas certainly, isn’t about ideas so much as it’s about the experience of ideas.
Another remarkable thing about Hopkins: like his near contemporary Emily Dickinson, he wrote his poems largely without thought of publication, and the extent of his work was unknown until a 1918 collection was published after his death.
Though Hopkins was a 19th century poet, a Victorian by calendar, and “Inversnaid” is end-rhymed and follows Hopkins own appreciation for how English poetic metrics can work (ideas inspired from older Anglo-Saxon poetry) this is in some ways another Imagist poem before it’s time. There’s almost not a single emotional word in the entire poem. “Despair” and “bereft” do occur, but this poem doesn’t seem to be about either of those emotions except in contrast to them. Instead, like a good Imagist poem it’s about the immediate experience of a moment before those emotional words have appeared to frame or fence the experience in.
That Imagist effect is somewhat masked by Hopkins’ obscure language. This is a 12-line poem, not even sonnet length, written by a man whose shortened lifetime overlapped human beings whose lifetimes overlapped mine—yet there are more words than I, something of a language maven, didn’t know than one might find in an 16th century poem or the deepest subculture patois of a rap performance. Only the last quatrain stanza is in what one would call standard contemporary English.
One could intimidate a reader or listener easily by giving them a definition pop-quiz after hearing this poem. “OK, so you liked this poem! Well then, tell me what these words mean: burn, rollrock, coop, flutes, twindles, fell, degged, groins (stop snickering, this will be part of your final grade!), braes, flitches, heathpacks, and beadbonny.”* I’d be surprised if many American English speakers could define a third of these. Residents of the British Isles might do better, but would they get over half?
We’re in near “Jabberwocky” land here as readers. But we’re not quite as lost as listeners, because like Carroll’s nonsense poem, the sound makes us sense something of the intended meaning without dictionary. And the sound!
One could intimidate a reader or listener easily by giving them a definition pop-quiz after hearing this poem. ‘OK, so you liked this poem! Well then, tell me what these words mean: burn, rollrock, coop, flutes, twindles, fell, degged, groins (stop snickering, this will be part of your final grade!), braes, flitches, heathpacks, and beadbonny.”
This is really a proof-of-concept example of Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm” where unequal metrical feet are subsumed to attention to the set number of stressed syllables or words. And every one of those obscure words add to the sound so strongly as to be forgiven.
My performance of “Inversnaid” should be available with a player gadget below. Full text of the poem if you like to read along is here. Thanks for reading and listening!
*I say this because I think I’d have gotten four as an American English speaker, and only that many with help from my love for old English-Scottish border ballads. Perhaps I should be docked a point though, for in my performance I misread “degged” instead as “dregged,” a word which sort of made sense to me. Some have attempted a glossary for this poem, here’s the best one I’ve found in a quick search.
Robert Herrick wrote in the awkward 17th and 18th century era in English poetry where if you aren’t Milton you get tabbed in the minor poet folder. That didn’t stop Herrick, as he wrote a couple thousand of poems without ever achieving widespread cultural impact. There’s likely some overriding reasons why the gap between the inventiveness of Shakespeare, other Elizabethan poets and John Donne; and then Blake, Wordsworth and the Romantic movement was a fallow period for innovation in English language verse.
What poetry of Herrick’s I recall from my youth had a chaste lustfulness about it—a difficult combination to make work. I haven’t thought much since then about refreshing my experience of his work until I came upon this May Day poem looking for material this spring: “Corinna’s going a Maying.” It’s yet another carpe diem poem, a genre that can’t escape the imprint of the patriarchy on it.* But Herrick doesn’t really launch into the hard-core let’s get it on before we die argument until after a fair number of stanzas that are so much “Spring! Time to get outside and enjoy that frostbite is no longer the charm that nature has on offer.”
And yet this May, a springtime carpe diem poem has a different cast. We didn’t really folk-dance around maypoles much in our century, but this May we know we can not do what we didn’t do. Even the poem’s warning that our days may run out before we know our liberty, dark as that thought may be, is more present.
And yet this May, a springtime carpe diem poem has a different cast. We didn’t really folk-dance around maypoles much in our century, but this May we know we can not do what we didn’t do.
So mopey guy that I can be** I zeroed in on the final stanza, which seemed to have by far the sharpest lines, and if performed alone wouldn’t tax my listener’s patience. Herrick’s “Corinna” is written in rhyming couplets, which was in fashion in his age (as it is for Hip Hop now). Since carpe diem tropes go back to Roman poets, Herrick adopted to his English poetry some verbal riffs from Latin.
So, the die was cast. I would try to perform Herrick’s closing section as a set of blues stanza adaptions. The feel I fell into was my approximation of the Vee-Jay*** records of my youth that featured Jimmy Reed or John Lee Hooker. Unlike ex-big band blues shouter Joe Tuner, Hooker made his early mesmerizing recordings with just voice and electric guitar, but by the time he was recording for Vee Jay they often added drums and sometimes a second guitar to make the records more palatable to the R&B audiences of the late 50s and the early 60s. Which leads to a remarkable thing about Hooker’s Vee-Jay recordings: the singer/guitarist at the center of those recording dates wasn’t the most regular in his song structures. Rather he was steeped in the drifting Delta style where the little breaks and asides were thrown in at various times depending on the feeling he was building in any one take.**** This meant the drummer had their work cut out for themselves in those days before everyone would be asked to sync to a click track and verses are expected to snap to a fixed grid. That “backwards” style where the drummer follows the guitarist has a certain charm to it, and you can see its rock’n’roll descendants in the Rolling Stones and The White Stripes.
All that is to say that it took some precise work to do the loosey-goosey May Day take of what I call “Corinna, Corinna Let’s Go a Maying” even if I don’t sound much like Reed or Hooker. I doubt Herrick would mind too much, after all he was adapting Catullus and Ben Johnson for his times, just as John Lee Hooker was adopting his style to the space and tail-fin age. The player to hear my performance of the final section of Herrick’s poem is below. The full text of the Herrick poem is here. Just jump to the final stanza if you want to read along to my performance.
*Are there any poems written to men from a woman’s perspective that make the argument that they need to get busy with the woman poet because, well, you’re aging and death awaits all? There are male to male poems that fit this genre (some of Shakespeare’s sonnets are examples), but I can’t think of an example by a woman off hand.
**Sometimes I wonder if I hold with songwriter Townes Van Zandt who famously stated, “There’s only two kinds of music: the blues and zippety do-dah.”
***Chicago-based Vee-Jay preceded even Motown as a black-owned record company, and besides recording R&B, jazz and gospel they were the American label that cut a deal in early 1963 to release records by The Beatles. You’d think that would be the beginning of a great success story. That’s not how the record business works.
****Lightnin’ Hopkins was another. Jas Obrecht in his book Rollin’ and Tumblin’ quotes ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons with this tale of a recording session: “We were playing a traditional blues and we all went to the second change, but Lightnin’ was still in the first change. He stopped and looked at us. Our bass player said, ‘Well, Lightnin’, that’s where the second change is supposed to be, isn’t it?’ Lightnin’ looked back and said, ‘Lightnin’ change when Lightnin’ want to change.’”
Frances Cornford is a 20th century poet that is close to unknown in the United States, despite achieving some degree of success in Britain. She’s sometimes classed there as a “Georgian poet,”* a grouping that like the Imagists produced several contemporary anthologies in that century’s teens and twenties.
It’s not a term used much in America, even in literary circles, as the 20th century Modernist revolution and American hegemony in general brought so many American voices to the first rank of English language writing. The closest to an American “Georgian Poet” might be Robert Frost, whose first book length collection was published while he was living in England and building a close connection with British writer Edward Thomas who was labeled a Georgian poet.
Georgian poets are often set in opposition to the Imagists and the Modernist movement in general, even though they shared the same times, events, and places with each other, and even though occasional friendships and other affinities might cross between the groups. As Modernism “won” the war after WWI and the crises of the Thirties and Forties, Georgian poets were often seen as too tied to old poetic formalism and nostalgia—and even more damningly, to not fully appreciate the absurdities and dangerous forces of the modern world.
Labels are after all just sticky paper, but in reading poets like Frost and Thomas, I don’t see a pure division. Thomas and Frost’s outlook is just as Modernist as any, just as bleak and unsure of any easy consolation.** What they don’t share with many Modernists is a conviction that seemingly random assemblages of images with obscure rational connections are a useful and powerful tactic in expressing a reality.
Frances Cornford has a singularly interesting back story, one that (so far) I only know the outlines of. On her father’s side she’s the granddaughter of Charles Darwin, one of the founders of modern science. On her mother’s side, she’s descended from William Wordsworth, a great reformer of verse in English at the turn of the 19th century. She seems to be whip smart, but her poetry may have a deceptive surface. Just to glance at it on the page or rattle it off the tongue, some of it looks and sounds like light verse, the kind of thing that might speak of little foibles and humorous misapprehensions. But then there comes a line that seems out of place, almost a mistake. When I first presented her earlier this month, the “sticks out” line in that poem was “O fat white woman who nobody loves.” Even if we may read that line differently than she intended, I think this smart writer intended for us to be surprised and arrested by it.
Frock coats to black turtlenecks. Frances Cornford: roughly like being a descendent of Dylan and Steve Jobs today.
Today’s Cornford piece, “Missing,” is even shorter. Two lines in (but ¼ of the way in this very compressed poem!) we might think we are about to get a piece of humorous verse musing about “just where did I put that.”
Wham! “Dead soldiers or unposted letters…”
If this was a Dada or Surrealist collage we might be forewarned by stylistic expectations, not just that a war casualty is about to drop into our short poem, but that it would be joined with something as mundane and as overlooked as an unsent letter. Like Cornford’s “Fat white woman” line it risks seeming like bad poetry or an example of egregious insensitivity.
But of course, this was a woman who lived through both World Wars. She named one of her sons after Rupert Brooke, the doomed Georgian poet whom she knew, and who would die in WWI. And that son then was killed fighting on the side of the republic in the Spanish Civil War.
Taken inside, as small, strange poems can be, Cornford’s “Missing” may make you see differently, think differently. Also, these poems have made me think again about the value of risking “bad poetry.”
To hear my performance of “Missing,” use the player below. I liked the simplicity of the music today, just strumming guitar and voice, as I worked on a more complicated piece that you might soon hear. Maybe you’ll like it too.
*In 1910 the British king Edward died and King George V was crowned. He lived until 1936, so his reign was a handy shorthand for a group of British poets whose careers emerged just before WWI.
**The group of American women poets, sometimes given the label “Songbird Poets” (Teasdale, Millay, Wylie, and to some degree Taggard and Bogan) who are favorites here have some of the same position and problems with “High Modernism”.
There’s a musical theme in today’s audio piece: things that pretend to be another instrument, and while they don’t quite get there, are still something else.
That low bowed-string sound that opens today’s piece? It should be no surprise to long time followers here that it’s a Mellotron,* the primitive magnetic tape ancestor to today’s computer-based virtual instruments. It doesn’t really sound like a cello as it lacks any variation of articulation, but it does have a sound of its own.
There’s no bass guitar (the cello part is solidly in the bass register anyway), but to add a little punch I added an emulation of the Fender Rhodes Piano Bass most famously used by The Doors. Used as The Doors did, it can do a fair job of sounding like the plunk of an electric string bass, but I filtered it here so that it sounds less like a real bass. And yes, there’s an old-style electric piano in there too, an instrument that doesn’t really sound like a piano, having more of a bell-like timbre. I love the sound of a real piano, but there’s something else in the electric piano that I like too.
And finally, there’s the instrument I wrote the song on: electric guitar. I don’t know that we still think of the electric guitar as a “not quite” approximation of a “real” acoustic guitar, but one can define it so. There was more than the usual unamplified leakage of the electric guitar’s strings into the vocal microphone when I recorded the live take of the guitar and vocals for this. Normally I’d consider that a fault and record a clean pass of the vocal without that extraneous noise, but I kind of liked the accident and decided to keep it.
A little past half-way a pair of “real” violins doubling a new melody line come in, but since I don’t play real violin once more it’s a virtual instrument played on my MIDI guitar. Even in this simple section you can probably hear the difference in articulation from a modern VI instead of the Mellotron.**
Well, all this is backward from the usual post here, were we talk about the encounter with the text used*** and then have only a line or two about the musical process, but the Parlando Project isn’t about consistency—it’s more about its opposite. Which is part of why you, the listeners and readers here are different. If you were someone who likes but one kind of music or one kind of poetry, we could disappoint you here. Our way is not the way to do it for maximum audience size, but if you’re a writer or musician—and even if wise council may be to find your style and consistently present it—an experience of alternatives can enrich that.
And then too, think of all those failed, not-quite instruments that don’t actually sound like the real thing. They sound like the exact and different failures they are.
*It’s not actually a Mellotron: a rare, complicated and maintenance-requiring electro-mechanical instrument. The technology that greatly extended that concept, the modern “virtual instrument,” can more than handily represent it. Unlike the Mellotron’s single tape strips for each note, a virtual instrument can (all in software) represent different articulations and the various electrical subtleties of how the Mellotron was amplified and recorded back in the day. Even the peculiarity of the Mellotron’s notes being stored on strips of tape (not loops) that meant that after a few seconds the note would just end abruptly can be emulated or bypassed.
Music geek section: The Mellotron “VI” I used today is the M-Tron, who pioneered the idea of a software Mellotron. So far, I’m not quite grasping all its options, and I think I still prefer the Mellotron that’s part of MOTU’s Electric Keys collection.
**If you listen to “Endless Circle” from late last month here you’ll hear how today’s piece might sound with more realistic instruments: cello, violin, piano, acoustic guitar, and vibraphone. It’s very much the same palette as today’s piece. My frank opinion today? I prefer the musical accompaniment of “Endless Circle” and could never get a mix I was entirely happy with of “The Times are Nightfall.” But I much prefer the vocal performance on “The Times are Nightfall” and was unhappy with the vocals on “Endless Circle.” In each case, I settled for the best I could do that week so that Genevieve Taggard and Hopkins’ poems could get presented.
***Hopkins’ most famous series of poems are called The Terrible Sonnets not because they’re failed works, but because they are saturated with terror at failure and imperfection in human life. This poem has that too, but in its final section it seems to draft, in a New Year’s Resolution sort of way, a hope that personal discipline can lead one out of that state. The poem ends with ellipses, and I believe the poem may have been left unfinished by its author. My dictionary tells me that “ellipses” comes from the Greek for “falling short.” Even if unintentional, those things add meaning to the poem for me.
Though human discipline can do mighty things, it will fall short. Whether divine or personal, some grace, some mercy, some beauty in imperfection is necessary. Thus that blessing I give: “All Artists Fail.”
It’s time to look back on the past season and to look once more at the most listened to and liked pieces over that time. We do this in the classic count-down method, moving from the 10th most popular to the most popular piece.
This time I’m going to link to the original post each time so that you can read the longer discussion of my encounter with the text, but if you’d just like to hear the recordings of the performance of the poems, the player gadget following each listing will do that.
10. October by Paul Laurence Dunbar. When something makes these count-down lists it’s often hard to know if it’s the inherent interest in the author, the things I wrote in the post introducing the poem, or the qualities of the musical piece and its performance that account for that. In this case I think it could be a bit of all three. I wrote in my post about what I thought was an undertone in this seemingly happy autumn poem. Was that a misreading? I’m not sure, but it informed my solemn musical performance which may work even if you don’t share my sense of this supple poem.
I highly recommend translation as an exercise for poets. Not only do you need to achieve a Vulcan “mind meld” with another artist when translating them, but the mental muscles activated to find the best English word in sense and sound are great ones to develop for one’s own writing.
Three poets awaiting the invention of the MacBook and the modern coffee shop with WiFi: Rilke, Mallarmé., and Dunbar.
8. Autumn Day by Rainer Maria Rilke. Another translation that received good response this fall. Here I ascribe a substantial portion of that response to those looking for and appreciating Rilke poems, and finding some here. Of course, there may be many reasons for that desire to seek out Rilke, but I’m under the casual impression that he’s treasured for what seem to be life lessons to his readers. I noted in my post on this poem that it’s been a particularly popular target for translators, but you still may want to look at mine, or hear the way I performed it.
This poem of his is also an example of a theme: gardens and small agriculture, that I returned to again and again this fall. Perhaps it’s my own position in life’s passage that caused that, but there are a good number of autumn poems that are both about the experience of “cultivating one’s garden” and the valence of the ending of a growing season. Such is Rilke’s.