“No one knows the words to the second verse of the National Anthem.”
“Sure they do.”
“Oh? What’s the second verse then?”
We continue our celebration of National Poetry Month while tipping our hat to American Baseball’s Opening Day. Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry” seemed fitting, not just because she was a lifelong baseball fan, but because this poem of hers always seemed to me to be American poetry’s National Anthem. Like our constitution’s “More perfect union” the overall thrust of the poem is that a real, complete poetry is still a goal, still in process, and so in the meanwhile it’s OK to snub poetry’s failures, but to pass the time, OK too to enjoy its at bats anyway.
Partway through the poem Moore explicitly calls up a baseball metaphor:
the base —
ball fan, the statistician—case after case
could be cited”
Here’s today’s lyric video. Baseball has Blue Jays, Cardinals, and Orioles. Why not Cockatoos?
Moore has already given us the choice to “Not admire what we cannot understand,” but my estimate of what she’s getting at there is that hitting a baseball effectively at a major league level is extraordinarily difficult. The very best players ever to play over more than a century fail to do it about two-thirds of the time over a career. Careful records have been kept. Fans know this is so. Poetry too may be a sublime effort to try to hit the implausible cleanly to land in the improbable place.
It’s become a common observation that baseball has diminished popularity because of this, because one needs to endure so much failure and not-quite to get to the aim of the game. Perhaps poetry can commiserate.
Here’s hoping my home team’s opening-day rookie pitcher can throw implausible stuff this week. Gnomic fastballs. Hermetic curves. Enjambed change-ups. Surreal sliders. Let the opposing bards wave their wands and form nothing but wind, and all their strokes come up trite and merely sentimental. Let their bats hang upside down, asleep.
This performance from our archives has vocals recorded in 2018 by the then members of the Lake Street Writers Group: Dave Moore, Ethna McKiernan, and Kevin FitzPatrick. Two-thirds of that lineup have been called up to another league since then, the one where we have no statisticians or toads — you may have read our memorial pieces to them here this winter. And now it’s spring, even if we don’t understand. How can we admire what we cannot understand?
Three strikes and you’re out, but three ways to hear this performance. There’s a graphical player below for some of you, and if you don’t see that, this highlighted link. And if you want to see the lyric video that I just made that is part of the series of those I’m doing for National Poetry Month, that’s above.
*Joke footnotes — they always add so much to the humor — but I know we have a lot of foreign readers. American baseball games traditionally start with a singing of the National Anthem. Yes, just the first verse. Patriotism, but in a measured dose there. After which, the head umpire announces the commencement of the game with the cry of “Play ball!”
Given the everything I’d rate between losses, troubles, and mere distractions I’ve gone through since late last autumn, I’m not in a mood this week to do the traditional Parlando Top Ten list for the past season. These are the same issues in repertory that have reduced the number of new pieces I was able to present here during that time. You, the audience for this Project, have stayed with this: readership to this blog is growing, overall listenership to the audio pieces is slightly up. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. There’s more than three of you — I mean to thank all of you three times.
I know some of you do like these quarterly Top Tens, and I enjoy them myself — if only just to see what pieces from the variety presented here got the most response. That said, let’s rush through the numbers 10 up to 6 for the record:
You can see in those five pieces two from my memorial observance for the Irish-American poet McKiernan who I had the privilege to know and examine poetry with, and one from my February Black History Month celebration of Langston Hughes’ first poetry collection The Weary Blues. There in the middle, there’s one by long-time Parlando Project favorite Emily Dickinson. And my own piece in that group talks about the loss of Ethna and also my March memorial subject who Dave Moore and I also knew and worked with: Kevin FitzPatrick. If you missed any of these, each of that above list is a link to my original blog posting and the audio performance of it, just as the following ones bolded titles are.
We join the countdown to the most listened to and liked piece then at number 5.
Spring, a rebuttal.
5. Velvet Shoes by Elinor Wylie. A lovely, graceful winter poem by a too-often-overlooked poet from “The Last Twenties” in our previous century. I like the music and performance I created for this one just as much as I did when I created it back around the beginning of 2022.
One would think I’d be through with snow experiences this far into spring, but my morning bike ride today was in big wet flakes and a cold enough north wind. Wylie’s velvet snow is more the dry January sort, but then appreciating snow for its beauty qualities may be best done in past-tense. If so, you may enjoy listening to this one in what I hope is a pleasant spring.
4. Lenox Avenue: Midnight by Langston Hughes. “The rhythm of life is a Jazz rhythm” says the first line of Hughes’ poem. I did my best to honor that injunction from one of the first Afro-American poets to unabashedly celebrate that musical form. Although I’m a vary unskilled keyboard player I was able to compose a satisfying two-handed part using MIDI as a scoring tool. I wanted a saxophone solo too, which you can hear a bit of in this performance, but I just couldn’t score or execute enough articulation to “make it.” The piece’s final horn section flourish is one of my rare surrenders to using a sampled musical phrase.
Of course, motif sampling is now an oft honored tactic in the ongoing Afro-American musical tradition, so perhaps I shouldn’t view it as a failure on my part. On the audacity front: I decided to extend Hughes’ lyric which ended with “And the Gods are laughing at us” with a newly written affirmation from after the poem’s time of 1926, one that says that the young art of Jazz and of young writer Langston Hughes’ has answered those gods.
3. Sonny Rollins, The Bridge 1959. Staying with Jazz for this one, though with my own words straight through. There are beliefs — some sincere, some insincere — that Afro-American history is but a sorrowful tale, a grievance and a pandering response. If you can heartily do so, I ask you to improvise your own expletive response to the call of that fearful theory, one with as much eloquence and melodic force as you can deliver. Now our response may not be Sonny Rollins level improvisation. That’s not a reason not to — after all, Sonny Rollins wasn’t sure his improvisations were Sonny Rollins’ level improvisations. That’s the story in this piece.
I seem to lack the concentration, or the assured concentration of blocks of time, to do arrangements as full as the one I created for Frost’s poem right now. But you can still enjoy this one.
1. Stones by Ethna McKiernan. One answer to lack of compositional time is to write solo instrument pieces, which for me usually means acoustic guitar. Of the several pieces I did to introduce more of you to McKiernan’s range of poetry, this was the one that by far got the most listens this winter — in fact, more listens than any piece has received for more than a year during its first season after posting.
Before I leave you to listen to it, I want to say that beyond soothing my grief at Ethna’s death, that performing those pieces which used her words this winter made her seem closer than our too casual life connection sometimes had us. Wherever we voyage, the same waves lap the same sounds on the walls of our boats.
I’m posting a bit late in the day, but it’s International Women’s Day, and so today’s audio piece uses as a text a poem by a very international woman, Lola Ridge. Ridge’s poetry is perhaps best known for a fierce commitment to social justice and the situation of the poor in early 20th century America; but she was born in Ireland, left with her parents for New Zealand as a child, emigrated from there to Australia to attend college, and then to America, eventually New York City, where she mixed with most of the political and artistic radicals of the early Modernist era, including on the arts side: Marianne Moore, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Hart Crane, and William Carlos Williams and the rest of the circle around the NYC Modernist magazine The Others. Over at the Midwestern anchor of Modernist American poetry, it’s editor/founder Harriet Monroe was said to have called Ridge a genius, and she won awards and some favorable reviews in the years between the two World Wars.
Late in the 1930’s she apparently fell from the scene politically and artistically, and when she died in 1941 she was as poor as the people she wrote about, and then seemingly the subject of a rapid and rather complete forgetting for the rest of the 20th century.
Luckily our 21st century has become interested in reassessing the women who were on the scene a century ago along with the male Modernists, and there’s now a revival in considering her work.
Unlike some of Ridge’s poetry, today’s piece is not formally Modernist. It’s not only a sonnet, it attempts to present a passionate if conventional poetic argument regarding the abstract ideal of artistic beauty. Taken by itself it’s more Percy Bysshe Shelley than William Carlos Williams, but if we look just a little beyond its surface we can be reminded that Shelley was a thoroughgoing political and social radical as well as a Romantic era poet. Here’s a link to the text of Ridge’s “Sonnet to Beauty,” from a blog that does a great job of presenting sonnets and similar shorter poems, FourteenLines.blog.
Ridge’s poem starts by worshiping beauty almost as an awed acolyte unable to face the godhead. But in the midst of the poem, something strange starts to manifest itself: a buzzard (an ugly, carrion-eating bird) appears gussied up by “The wizardry of light” to appear “All but lovely as the swan.” I read this as Ridge saying that artists and society can fail, can deceive, can fake beauty.
A musical metaphor follows this that says despite the diversity of artistic endeavor — including false beauties or injustice like unto our buzzard — that beyond the dissonance and the harmonic stress of this dialectic, that the chords can resolve. The poem ends avowing that true beauty can still chime through ugliness, falsehood, and strife.
Beyond sonnets, I will now make a turn in this post before giving you a chance to hear my performance of Ridge’s poem. Let me quickly summarize the event I attended this past Sunday remembering Irish-American poet Ethna McKiernan. There may be more than coincidence that Lola Ridge started this off.
Ethna McKiernan reading, with lipstick, and Lola Ridge, I’m not sure.
Minnesota weather and continued Covid-19 concerns might have conspired to reduce attendance, as the side streets were still full of sloppy snow from Saturday’s snowfall.* I arrived early and helped the bookstore staff setup chairs. They seemed to be expecting maybe a couple of dozen, which may be par for a Twin Cities local-writer poetry reading, but both the event organizer and myself the bystander suspected we’d need to maximize the amount of chairs the space could hold. I think we were able to get nearly 40 folding chairs into the designated space, but as the crowd started to assemble, extra chairs needed to be rounded up and put in the various aisles between the bookstore shelves to handle those that kept coming in, and we had a few standees who fit in where they could.
More than typical bookstore poetry readings, I suspect most of the crowd knew Ethna for a long time. And that may have given a boost to the eight poets who read poems of Ethna’s, a smattering of their own, and gave short thoughts about her as a writer and a person. So less a usual public reading where some poets might be nervously trying to consider how they would come off presenting their work to an audience which might not know it, and more like an experienced and informal poetry group of long-time colleagues.
Several of the readers were members of other periodically-meeting writer’s groups that included Ethna, like unto the Lake Street Writer’s group that Dave Moore, Kevin FitzPatrick, Ethna, and I were decades-long members of. I’m sure that if Kevin had lived, he would have been a valued part of this event, as Ethna often credited Kevin as an influence on her writing — but he died a few weeks ahead of Ethna. I tried to make myself useful by playing stagehand and raising and lowering the mic stand for the variety of readers.
Many of the readers spoke of Ethna’s work with homeless outreach, and read some of her poems that dealt with that work, something that echoes today’s poet Ridge. Though the audience was entirely masked, a few noted that Ethna was a stickler for always putting on lipstick when out in public. For all anyone knew, what with our Covid era masks, we all were wearing lipstick! Who could see — but I believe all of us were remembering Ethna.
Covid-era ambiguity: “Lipstick? We were supposed to wear lipstick?” A portion of the crowd at the “Remembering Ethna” event last Sunday.
So, as I speak of a woman who promoted culture, wrote beautiful poetry, and was committed to helping the economically desperate, I will now leave you with a piece using the words of another woman who a century before us did the same. You can hear Lola Ridge’s “Sonnet to Beauty” with a graphical player below if you see that, or if you don’t, with this highlighted link.
*My friend and participant here in the Parlando Project Dave Moore was unable to attend due to concerns with the street conditions. I’ve attended two other book-launch poetry readings given by Ethna herself, and this Sunday’s was the smallest crowd of the three. Consider though that most of those who knew Ethna are “senior citizens,” and some are frail as well.
This winter readers of this blog got to follow my own celebration of the work of Irish-American poet Ethna McKiernan. That was my memorial to her fine work, by which some of you now can know her. I realize that the Parlando Project has a world-wide readership, but for those of you that are in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area there’ll be a live event to celebrate her and her work featuring a number of her Twin Cities area poetic peers.
This will be a bittersweet occasion for me and some others, as Ethna and Kevin FitzPatrick used to do a poetry reading around every St. Patrick’s Day in March, and now of course both of them have died., turning them into memories and their words.
I assume McKiernan’s selected poems collection Light Rolling Slowly Backwards will be available at the event. If you’re not local, here’s the publisher’s listing.
Here’s one of those pieces I did this winter with Ethna’s words and my music. Player gadget below for some ways you may be reading this, or this alternative highlighted hyperlink if you don’t see that graphical player.
I’ve promised one more piece using texts taken from Irish-American poet Ethna McKiernan, and here it is. There are a couple of reasons why I left this one to the end of this series memorializing her work. The first reason: the poem’s persona seems to speak of her approaching death. The second reason: I don’t know if McKiernan actually liked or rated it as highly as I do. Let me make this plain at the start: I think this is a great poem, and I’ll go into why in just a bit.
I believe I encountered “Wolves” at the same writer’s group where I heard other work Ethna was working on in draft form.* These things make my performance today particularly fraught with issues. I only take this step of releasing this performance today because of my admiration for the poem, and my feeling that some out there in the rare and appreciated audience for this Project will welcome it. “Wolves” has what poetry often hopes for: it is beautiful and yet harrowing, and its experience is vivid while not guarded inside defined borders.
I hear the snow crust crack
into spider-fine antenna lines
with every thudded footbeat. It is so still
that their light scratch of nails on ice
rasps the air like flakes of metal filings.
Let’s grab this text as it grabbed me, even on first hearing, with the opening statement: “I hear the snow crust crack / into spider-fine antenna lines…” The meter has a lope of accents that appeals, the internal rhyme of “fine” and “lines” separated by the chime of the assonant “antenna.” The three strong accents together in “snow crust crack” which allow “crust” to not get the full stress it would normally get appeals and announces. “…with every thudded footbeat. It is so still / that their light scratch of nails on ice / rasps the air like flakes of metal filings.” follows — and if you’re not captured yet by this poem’s story, I can’t think of what language can do to do that.
This opening almost registers as synesthesia, as the sense invoking words rush in. “Snow-crust crack” is visual and auditory together — and for a winter clime resident, you feel that texture in your own feet too. Besides the word-music the visual of “spider-fine antenna lines” has the sense of the spreading broadcast of the wolves’ approach. The ordinary snow-surface footfall of a “thudded footbeat” made by the furry pads of the wolf would be only present in an unnatural silence — and then the quiet but more plausibly audible sound of talons on ice. The shivers of it, nails on blackboard-like, invokes the winter.
Listen carefully for those claws on the ice.
I could go on, but I think any listener who is pulled in by this opening will sense equally strong lines and images as McKiernan’s poem proceeds. The creative writers in my audience may benefit from analyzing for themselves why they work their attraction on us. There’s an overall effect of intimacy with nature in the midst of this poem: not a passive, uncomplicated, and easily beautiful nature, but one close enough to be (prematurely) incorporated with the poem’s speaker.
The cave mentioned in the poem means that this is almost certainly a persona poem. The voice we hear telling this story is not the literal biography of a modern Irish-American woman who normally lived in cities, yet the astonishingly vivid images lets us doubt this just enough to not judge that outright. Even the most personal and revealing poetry can benefit from real and fantastical lies.
I’ll not explicate the ending outright, for I want you to experience it in the course of the poem’s story. I’ll only say that it could possibly be why McKiernan did not select this poem for wider distribution while she lived. “Twist endings” can cloy or leave a reader/listener feeling tricked, but my judgement says this one only enriches what’s sensed as the description of the poem’s scene has unfolded. Like many a good ending of a great short poem, it may make us want to read/listen to it again immediately.
Before I direct you to my performance of Ethna McKIernan’s masterful “Wolves,” I’ll leave you with one thought the context of this poem leaves with me beyond the poem’s own effects: what might your art do that you don’t necessarily realize that it can do? For it’s a mystery to me why this wasn’t in a final selected poems. The poem seems to me to be fearless and exact, but the self-editor may have been frightened or dissatisfied.**
*Just before I published this post I thought to do a final string-search for the opening lines of this poem — and found that it had indeed been published in The Poetry Ireland Review of January 1984! This published version uses exactly the text used for this performance, and you can find that text via this online link. That publication date is much earlier than I would have expected it to be. Did I somehow run across it — not as a draft as I recalled inside the Lake Street Writer’s Group — but in a publication that might have been shared with the group?
On publication it was titled “Letting Go the Wolves.” I had recorded the performance you can hear above a decade ago thinking the title was only “Wolves.”
**Another, if unlikely, possibility: Ethna may not have secured rights to secondary publication, though the grant of such is traditional within small-press poetry. As much as the wolves in the poem, I may be clambering on top of thin ice in presenting this poem, even though I only want to point out its value. If I haven’t made it clear recently: The Parlando Project is not even a non-profit organization — it’s a no-profit organization.
Here’s my performance of another poem from Irish-American poet Ethna McKiernan’s final collection Light Rolling Slowly Backwards. In McKiernan’s later years of life she did social work with people who were homeless, and she dedicated Light Rolling Slowly Backwards to “the hundreds of homeless clients I’ve worked with through the years — to their resilience, courage and care for each other.” Given that Ethna was somewhat frail even before her final illness, I marveled at her strength in taking that work on.
Why this one to start reading McKiernan? She herself created this “New & Selected Poems” book before she died late last year.
When I first encountered “Oh, Maria” in draft form as a member of the Lake Street Writers’ Group I couldn’t help but flashback to my time working in Emergency Departments as a young man. As one side-point Ethna’s poem tries to convey the feeling of being next to someone experiencing a sudden, and unexpected death. I’d summarize those memories of mine as being full of intense experience, intent action, and if stabilization isn’t achieved, a solemn ceasing. Ethna’s account adds poignancy because it’s missing that middle part. I ached with her both as she feels guilt for not immediately recognizing the mortal nature of Maria’s incident — and then comes the line as she considers if she should have performed CPR: “If I remembered, God help me, how.”
I probably did my usual awkwardness in responding to that first hearing, perhaps mentioning how it reminded me of my experiences — something which was likely no help in her revision process. I think I did express that her missing the initial diagnosis of what was happening was not only forgivable, but par for the course. Could that have been worthwhile?
Indeed, my experience was that most people, even people who are otherwise medically trained, are likely to get this wrong in some way. Although my experience is now decades ago, I’ve seen CPR being performed on breathing people with a pulse — which is not a good thing. And effective CPR requires a degree of skill and frankly cold intent that is hard to practice outside of repeated actual events. Given that I last worked in an Emergency Department more than 30 years ago, and last went through the practice-with-dummies certification around a dozen years ago, I myself would likely not be the best person to be next to you if you were to experience a cardiac arrest.
If you ever take, or have taken CPR training, pay attention to that first step of assessment. It’s important.*
So, besides the imperfectly empathic personal reaction I had, this poem’s core matter is Ethna’s continued sharing of the experience of those without homes, which exceeds even my old ER experience with our un or underhoused “regulars.” Notice the subtle point Ethna weaves into this poem: she expects that Maria is severely intoxicated when she collapses, and then she concludes her memories of this person dealing with complex problems imperfectly in the telling line “I laughed at your antics weekly.” What were the antics? Maria might have had a sense of humor, that could be part of it. It’s also possible, even probable, that Maria’s human attempts to deal with the difficult state of homelessness and its context were at times comically imperfect or ineffective.** Ethna knows this from her intimacy with Maria, just as you know it with those you have in your lives. Intimacy isn’t just the experience of joyous connection, it’s the experience of our misapprehensions too.
Same with poetry. We write it imperfectly, read it imperfectly. That is part of our human experience of it.
*Several decades ago a book called The House of God by Samuel Shem was written that was like unto a modern Machiavelli’s The Prince, only about practical hospital medical training instead of statecraft. In Shem’s book there is a list of “laws,” one of which is “At a cardiac arrest, the first procedure is to take your own pulse.”
**Dealing with homelessness either as one who has reached that state or, as McKiernan did, as someone trying to mitigate it, is much more difficult than dealing with cardiac arrest. In my couple of decades in Emergency Rooms, I’ll admit that in the course of a shift or two dealing with intractable problems and complexly impossible situations, the “break” of dealing with a crash-cart severe trauma case or a cardiac arrest with their steps of immediate choose/act instants was, strange as it might seem, a relief.
I’m going to write here a bit, but if you’re in a hurry, I urge you to do two things. The first is to simply listen to today’s audio piece. I think that will reward you. You’ll find a way to play that near the bottom of this post along with my second suggestion.
To a large extent this project adapts other people’s poetry in the process of combining it with music I write and record. Occasionally when I mention this, or when the more general topic of a difference between poetry and song lyrics comes up, there will be objections or distinctions brought forward: those two things (poetry found on the page and words designed to be combined with music) aren’t the same, they’re different.
I’ve written about this here in the past. My conclusions in summary: the thing we call poetry includes a great deal of unlike expressions,* and many are comfortable with that. Why chop off “song lyrics” as an appendix of non-poetry or not-quite-good-enough poetry? Well, if we do that are we forgetting that poetry across multiple cultures began as an oral presentation almost certainly combined with music? Why would that precedent not mean that literary poetry, however prized and skilled, has failed to sing or express its music explicitly?
So, if I move past those differences between poetry meant for the page and poetry meant for performance with music, and seek to test literary poetry in that context, what do I find? Well, a number of things that seem like problems with musical performance of Modernist page poetry are often less difficult than they seem. Poem doesn’t rhyme? That doesn’t help one memorize for unaided performance, but it’s not really a big deal. Uneven meter or line lengths? Modern musical expression has long slipped the bonds of straight beats or fixed length of melodic lines. One can even up shorter lines with musical elements too.
What is challenging? There are auditory challenges. Texts designed for performance often take into account pronunciation obstacles and allow space for breath. At least for myself there is a general difference in attention between words heard and words read in terms of attention. If a word or image requires one to pause for consideration on the silent page, there is an automatic “pause button” in our consciousness, and this is not so in the ear. The richest literary poetry may overwhelm us when listened to, though performance itself may also illuminate things we would never hear on the page, even after multiple readings.
In the context of today’s piece, let me speak of another issue. Work for performance, such a song lyrics, thrives on repetition, or refrains. Rhyme itself is one of those matters of repetition, even if it’s not required. Refrain draws our attention as it combines with the rest of the performed text, allows us to more fully absorb one part of what is expressed, and combines naturally with musical motifs that also repeat.
When I look through a poetry collection looking for Parlando candidates, the poems that use repetition will often be the ones that seem most suitable for performance — but that said, many pieces I’ve performed here have no refrain, no repeating chorus. Particularly with shorter texts this can still work, but piece after piece of poetry performed without repeating elements seems too much of avoiding that useful thing.
More than 50 years ago, a pioneering rock critic Richard Goldstein, published a book, The Poetry of Rock, examining the possibility that rock lyrics of that era could be considered as poetry. Despite the title, the book did not wholesale advocate for the conclusion that they were simply poetry. Instead Goldstein noted, as I’ll admit, that these two ways of encountering words lend themselves to different experiences.** One tactic Goldstein decided on when dealing with song refrains in his printed examples to be experienced as literary poetry was to not completely transcribe the refrains in his versions of the lyrics. Instead he might just put them once at the end of the set of words. Making them the final statement on the page gave them emphasis, as repetition in a chorus would, without overwhelming the expression of the verses.
Working the other way, as I will do today, one can reverse this tactic. One can simply repeat a stanza, perhaps the first one, as a chorus, or at the end. Or one can take a line and make it a refrain, as I did with Sheng-Yu’s “Lament” this fall.
The Poetry of Rock? A Celtic representation of the ouroboros. This is a mystical symbol beloved by Jung and alchemists that is often used in graveyards. What does it mean? Thoughts differ, so may I offer one: Death can go kiss its own ass.
Did you skip to here? That’s fine.
OK, let’s get to the good stuff: this poem “Stones” appears in the new poems section of Ethna McKiernan’s Light Rolling Slowly Backwards. It’s a fine poem on the page, and I highly encourage you to experience more of McKiernan’s work there by buying her book or seeking it out via a library. Here’s the publisher’s link. That’s the other “ask” I have for you today. But “Stones” is also a poem of lyric experiences, it calls out to be performed with the context of its implied emotions shared in your ear.
And this I did. Besides presuming unilaterally to do that, I made one other adaptation in the piece for performance’s sake: I took a line in the final stanza and made it a refrain. Because that line is repeated now six extra times, I’m bringing it forward for you to make sure you notice it and its possible meanings.*** I could throw in some more paragraphs about what I considered those possible meanings to be as I performed this beautiful poem, but I’ll not do that today. May your ear link to your heart, and listen with the player gadget below —if your way of viewing this blog shows that — or this highlighted hyperlink otherwise.
*”Paradise Lost,” “Tyger,” “We grow accustomed to the dark,” and “The Red Wheelbarrow” are all worthy poems we might agree. Are they less different from each other than some random literary poem is from some song lyric?
**I may be repeating myself to say this here in a footnote — but that’s part of why I do the Parlando Project: because I expect you’ll experience the texts differently when you hear them performed with music.
Late last year I promised you’d get to hear some pieces based on the poetry of Ethna McKiernan. I thought about which one to start off with, and decided I’d perform this one for you first. Why? Because it may make you smile.
Regular readers here recently will have caught up with my connection with Ethna: how I heard her read work in progress in a small group of other writers who cycled through each other’s homes each month to do that. You’ll also know that the rest of the group was usually men in its later years.
When we met in Ethna’s our meeting would always start in her little kitchen. We’d stand near her sink and stove and brew up some tea and talk a bit about what happened since we last met, until our remaining writer’s group members accumulated. On one side of that room was the clipping and photo-decorated refrigerator door, a generalized cultural artifact, and on the other side a small table and chair. Her house was a modest South Minneapolis bungalow probably built in the last Twenties, a couple of blocks off of East Lake Street. Comfortable and reasonably roomy with the usual shelves of books in its main-floor rooms and a couple of wandering cats as one might find in a poet’s house. I never saw more than the main floor, but there was a second story up a wooden staircase, and as we shall shortly hear, a basement below. That all said, it seems Ethna wrote and revised mostly in that small kitchen.
Kitchens are a physical metaphor, the site of drudgery and giving, sustenance and routine. If I may gender a floorplan: the most female part of most houses.
Approximately how some of us feel on winter days. If only there was some help…
I remember hearing “The Men in the Basement” at one of those meetings. Everyone enjoyed it, got it, right off the bat, which was far from a universal reaction to the work we shared. I heard her read it at least once at a public reading, and since it was included in her New and Selected collection* published just before her death late last year, we can be sure that Ethna herself liked this poem and expected audiences to do so too.
Do women understand this poem more than men do? How the hell should I know, though I suppose some raise themselves to opinions on such matters. I myself found it easy enough for my anima to perform it, though maybe some listeners will find that strange. Again, how the hell should I know? Anyway, given that we all bruise, want, wonder, live together and alone — and sorry, buzzkill for this entertainingly arch poem, we all sicken and die — I don’t find it worthwhile to predict or expect right now.
Musically I made this one an assortment of sounds, and I even worried that I may have over-egged it with the variety, but I’ll limit my predictions to that you’ll enjoy meeting Ethna’s text today. There’s a player gadget below for many of you, but you can also use this highlighted hyperlink where the player isn’t shown to hear it.
I ran long the last time, let me be short today. Last week after Ethna McKiernan died, Dave Moore and I talked briefly, and I said that I was going to try to write something for Winter Solstice.
“Make it a happy one” Dave requested. I’ve written at length about the losses Dave and I have had with poetic colleagues in recent posts, so for those who want more details, I’ll refer you to the last couple of posts here instead.
How far did I get to that “happy?” Not all the way. The piece I wrote and you can hear my performance of today is more at bittersweet. I’ve talked to Dave about how I’m hearing Kevin FitzPatrick’s and Ethna’s voices, very distinctly at times when I’m quiet. And since I knew them largely as poets, I’m hearing them reading their poetry. I tell you honestly I don’t find this eerie at all. I find it comforting. I expect that those voices will fade with time, but right now to hear them keeps them with me.
I suspect grieving people have heard similar departed voices since we first began to speak, and that those voices would be more sure to come on a long dark winter night. But here’s my modern variation: due to the pandemic the last few meetings of the Lake Street Writer’s group happened over Zoom Internet videoconferencing. I became accustomed to seeing Ethna’s face after she began her cancer treatment on the same home screen I’m typing this on, and so now when I’m on a Zoom conference I sometimes expect to see her face again as one of the squares on my grid — and I will allow myself to visualize my expectation. You can read all 2916 lines of “In Memoriam,” and you won’t find Alfred Tennyson having that exact image to deal with.
Here’s my own text I performed from. Due to short recording opportunities, I worked out the drums and percussion, and then rapidly laid down a bass, piano, and then an arpeggiated 12-string guitar part to further establish a harmonic flavor. I had time to quickly improvise three passes of a lead electric 12-string part, and this was the best of them.
Then the last time I saw Ethna McKiernan, it was her book launch reading at Celtic Junction on August 6th. I recall she wore a brightly colored headwrap on those last Zoom conferences, and for the public reading she was all in bright red. I melded those two visual memories with our seasonal gift-wrapped packages in the poem.
So those are some of the consolations the poem’s title refers to. And too, one of the fine things in winter and on winter solstice is to be inside, in our lights, at home with our partners, family, house-pets, and welcome ghosts.
Here’s what I speak of in the final line: our lakes and ponds and the still parts of rivers have ice surfaces now. Whichever side of the ice you are on: under it and in the underwaters, or over precarious ice not thick enough to securely separate yourself from those cold underwaters — laugh with more than happiness, laugh with that knowledge that that ice is a fragile and temporary division.
I fear this is going to be one of those bad elegies, one where the writer goes on too much about themselves and not about the person who has died. I’ve already mentioned that I find myself unacceptable and self-absorbed when I talk about myself, and saying that again only digs the self-dug hole I’m going to speak from today deeper.
In the mid-1970s when I moved to Minnesota from New York I connected back up with Dave Moore who I knew from a year in my aborted attempt at college. Through Dave I fell in with a literary group that varied in size and was herd-of-cats led by Kevin FitzPatrick. The group had just started a little magazine they called the Lake Street Review, Lake Street being a long commercial and industrial street that ran east/west through the center of Minneapolis: bars, gendered barber and beauty shops, warehouses, grocery stores, used car lots, a high-towered Sears linked to a rail-freight line and distribution center behind it, neighborhood movie theaters and former such theaters now grinding porn, the recording studio where “Surfin’ Bird” was recorded, a small attempt at a non-suburban shopping mall built on the tract where tractors and tanks were once factory-built, a “hardly a foot we can’t fit” shoe store whose upstairs apartments housed Robert Pirsig when he wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Literary magazines generally preferred foreign words, or landscape landmarks like rivers, lakes, or mountains for their names. Yes, there were lakes at the west end of Lake Street, a self-improvement plan for nature dredged out from what had been swampy wetlands as part of a series of landscaped urban parks that circled Minneapolis — but let me be clear to those who aren’t from around here: calling an artistic enterprise The Lake Street Review was something of a provocation. This was a group of working-class writers with a non-academic outlook toward poetry.
The groups earliest meetings were held at a bar, and Dave noted to me that a large portion of the informal membership was made up of bartenders. Let me also set one other demographic fact: this was a group of men moving from their 20s to their 30s. Eventually the membership thinned out, and the remainder continued meeting in rotation in the members homes and apartments.
As the clan leader, Kevin was generally gentle and accepting. A high-school graduate, working in an urban ER, the again’er in me was attracted to the outsider stance, but Kevin also wanted the magazine’s public work to be acceptable to the parents and grandparents of us young men. The 1970s had still extended the “generation gap” of the 60s, so the “Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television” you also couldn’t say on the pages of the Lake Street Review. Feminism was mysterious, like women generally were to these young men, but those women were talking about it which made the mystery unsettling. Anything gender-queer was probably beyond the pale.
I liked those folks, but some of this rankled me. Kevin’s desire to speak across the generation gap as a poet was more noble than I appreciated at the time, but I wanted to go much more radically into discussions of sexuality and sexual roles than Kevin did, and what work I shared with the group privately I thought was underappreciated and misunderstood. I skipped off to two other groups sometime in the 80s, only to return to the Lake Street Writers Group after more than a decade away.
By this time the group had become smaller and more fixed in membership and was no longer concerned with the discontinued magazine. Four or five others, interesting writers and persons in their own right, were regulars, and then not; until by the last few years it became a quartet that would meet every month to share and discuss work in progress.
So when that group ended, it was Kevin FitzPatrick, Dave Moore, Ethna McKiernan, and myself. I’m not sure exactly when Ethna became one of the group as it was likely during my sojourn away from it. At one point she was one of two women generally attending, but as we contracted into the quartet, she was the only woman. As we aged it’s possible that this was less of a filter or division, even if it didn’t disappear. Another thing that happened as we condensed: the group had become predominantly Irish-American. Ethna’s father had been a force in the Irish cultural renaissance, something I was almost entirely ignorant of,* and Ethna’s speaking voice retained a distinct Irish pronunciation undertone. Kevin and Ethna took it upon themselves to establish an annual Twin Cities St. Patrick’s Day poetry reading, a reminder that non-descript leprechauns, green plastic hats, sham-shamrocks, and ever-filled and spilled red cups and flushed faces were not the sum total of Irishness.
Will I ever get to Ethna in this post? To my shame, I will speak more in silhouette, about myself. In many ways I felt the junior member of this group. Kevin and Ethna has several collections published. Ethna got arts grants, had an MFA. Kevin and Dave had degrees from fine private colleges, I was a High School graduate. I gave up trying to publish shortly after my temporary leaving of the group, and it would have been understandable if it irked Kevin and Ethna sometimes that here was this opinionated yet apparently non-professionally serious person taking up their time. I retained a close friendship and collaboration with Dave outside of the group throughout the decades, and grew to understand and appreciate Kevin’s artistic goals, but no such closening happened with Ethna. I knew much less about the details of her life, and what bits I picked up second hand, sometimes from the poetry itself and not from her own conversation, indicated a life with more than it’s share of staggering life events. I also got a not-unexpected sense that men had been part of some of those staggerings, something that she didn’t express much directly in our group of three men and herself. Here’s a statement: I know more about the life-details of Emily Dickinson than I know about the life of a poet, my own contemporary, who I shared a few hours with every month.**
Kevin’s mature poetry never seemed to aim at beauty as such. It is a beautiful thing to find beauty were it isn’t. Ethna indeed aimed for beauty, sometimes comforting and sometimes fierce, and as the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there. Ethna got there some of the time, which is all we artists can do. Looking through her recently published Light Rolling Slowly Backwards, New and Selected Poems it is easy to find that she was the most skilled poet in our little group, which sounds like fish-in-small-pond praise — but if you (who don’t know us) were to read her, I think you might find similar achievement to whatever other poets you read. When I read Kevin and Ethna’s last books during my yurt retreat early this fall I observed that while I had heard almost every one of Kevin’s published pieces in Still Living in Town in early draft form, I hadn’t heard many of Ethna’s. I know she attended more than one group sharing works in progress, but the amount of work new to me was surprising. I do plan to share one of her striking poems with you soon, but let’s wrap this long introduction up and get to the final part of my countdown of the most listened to and liked Parlando pieces from this past fall.
Three Irish poets: Yeats, McKiernan, and Campbell.
2. The Folly of Being Comforted by William Butler Yeats. Ethna never simply said something like “Read Yeats!” but before I encountered her I didn’t think much about him one way or the other. Now over the five plus years of this project you’ll have heard the fruits of that influence from her in my many well-liked presentations of Yeats. As I said when I presented it, Yeats was making a very specific point in his poem relating to his own life. I chose in my performance to stubbornly ignore what Yeats intended his poem to be about, and to instead sing it remotely to her on her hospice bed with my own intent. If I snub Ethna in this eulogy, I’ll ignore Yeats too. No respect.
It’s a challenge for me to work out my approximations of Jazz when I’m playing all the parts one pass at a time while being far from a master of any instrument. When it succeeds, as some thought here, I try to combine my simplicities (unimpressive I’m sure to a skilled musician) into something that still pleases when heard together. The highlighted title above will link to my original post on this where I discuss Yeats’ intended meaning, but you can hear my performance dedicated to Ethna with a graphical player (if you see that) or this highlighted hyperlink.
1. Reynardine by Joseph Campbell. Before the depths of their illnesses, I asked Kevin and Ethna if they’d heard of this early 20th century Irish poet, and they both drew a blank, which I’ve now found is generally true about this overlooked and worthy of more study poet. If Ireland is thought known for exuberant and willing to risk excessiveness expression, Campbell is never more masterful than when he’s compressing things to a handful of words.
Reynardine is a supernatural story in three short verses. From what I’ve been able to determine (see the original post on this) the supernatural element may have been introduced by Campbell, who took an existing long-winded run-of-the-outlaw ballad, and boiled it down with a shapeshifter element. After he’d done that, the resulting folk revival song, one sung by many of the best revival singers of the British Isles, always includes at least hints of that element. My presentation uses Campbell’s original lyrics, which I think are superior to those usually sung.
As far as it’s popularity here this fall, this is an odd one. The blog post presenting it wasn’t read much at all, and the likes for my explanation there of how Campbell transformed the Reynardine story were low in number. But the listens to the song (as with all the audio pieces here, available via Apple Podcasts or most other podcast directories) were easily higher than any other recent piece. To hear it now you can use the player gadget if your blog reader shows it, or this highlighted hyperlink.
*I once joked, confessing my cultural ignorance there, that my idea of an Irish writer was Frank O’Hara. Joke or not, someone somewhere must have addressed what connections O’Hara’s poetry had with Irishness, but I haven’t found it.
** It was only a year or two ago, after my interest in Dickinson intensified that I found out that Ethna too had a deep appreciation for that genius. Of course, I have my portion of blame for this, just as with this inappropriate eulogy, but suspect she believed that I wouldn’t understand or have any sense of her experience or sensibility. I’d estimate she was wrong, but saying that only adds to my inappropriateness here today.