What if you were to find out that a famous, much-loved poem was not a singleton, but that it was instead part of a pair?
“The River Merchant’s Wife, A Letter” is perhaps the most famous Chinese poem in English, and it’s been widely anthologized since Ezra Pound published it in his 1915 collection of translations Cathay. It’s not hard to see why. It’s a lovely piece of free verse, and though it holds to the Modernist style of showing not telling its sentiments, most readers can easily divine the emotions of the young wife displayed in the poem, separated and longing for her partner.
Be patient with me, reader. I feel I must deal with a few peripheral issues with this poem, which I too admire, for as close as it is to many of its readers’ hearts, there are a few issues. While it’s reasonably frank in its Imagist way about a woman’s desire, one could look at it as an endorsement of patriarchal marriage, rather than a portrayal of two people at a particular moment of time.* One could conclude that the woman’s agency in the poem is limited to the feelings her tale evokes in us.
If you, like I’m sure some readers here and elsewhere are, seeking art as a break from social issues, there is also a literary issue, one of the nature of translation. I would discuss even more things I happen to think about when I consider this famous poem, but to keep this post to a reasonable length, I’ll just speak to the translation controversy.
Pound wasn’t a Chinese scholar, didn’t speak the language, and didn’t have any knowledge in depth about the history or culture of that vast country. What he was instead was a poet who had what musicians call, and I’ll repeat with punning intent, “great chops.” Particularly at the time literary Modernism was getting underway in the early 20th century, he had a sense of how to pare things back, to express something vital minus a lot of useless extra baggage. Pound likely recognized a kindred spirit in Le Bai,** the 8th century Chinese poet, and so thought it all right to speak for him in English.*** The poem he produced from Li Bai’s work is a loose translation, missing nuance that more informed scholars find in the original. There have been other attempts at better, or at least more accurate translations. None have produced as widely an effective poem.
But it was in looking at that this past week, while trying to better understand Li Bai’s work and intents, that I had a remarkable discovery. It was probably around midnight, when I should have been sleeping, reading a .PDF scan of a 1922 book of Li Bai translations by Shigeyoshi Obata.**** His translation of the poem Pound made famous is rendered as “Two Letters from Chang-Kan,” the first of which is Obata’s rendering of “The River Merchant’s Wife, a Letter.” But, But But—what! There’s another letter! Did Li Bai intend this to be from another persona, another river merchant’s wife, or is it a second letter written by the same character? Either could make sense. The situation is the same, absent traveling merchant partner, young wife left at home. The speaker’s mood has similarities to the well-known poem too, but there are differences. In my reading of more Li Bai poetry this month I’ve come to believe that he works in subtle associations, subtle parallels, implied metaphors not necessarily made into explicit similes.
Harry Partch kicks out the jams, Le Bai considers the abyss, Ezra Pound looking like he’s ready to write yet another crank letter to the editor
In this poem, the speaker is a bit more angry with the situation and more wary. She’s not fallen out of love, no, but her expressions seem to mix frank longing for her missing partner, with suspicion that it might not be mutual. Was Li Bai contrasting two women, or expressing that the human heart can hold all those emotions at once?
I’m indebted to Obata for making this Li Bai poem known, and since I know of no other translations, I based my version I use today on his English language one—though I, like Pound but having only my own talents—took liberties. I wanted to tell a story that worked as a song, one that would pull the listener in and bring forward in both the text and performance the wider meaning of what is said by the river merchant’s wife in this purported letter. So, my version has a stronger if not strict meter, occasional rhymes, and I try to emphasize those parallels that serve as images that I think are part of Li Bai’s poetic sense-making. Parallelism, refrains, rhymes—these are all musical tactics that can work to bring some things to the foreground that were undercurrents in Obata’s version of Li Bai.
My performance of what I call “The River Merchant’s Wife, Another Letter” is available with the player gadget below. As this is already a long and much-delayed post, I’m not including texts yet for this, but I hope the performance will work in its way.
*I’m sure some have written critiques on this basis, because there is matter there for this, including that the wife is a teenager (though the poem indicates the husband is roughly the same age.) I wonder if anyone has written that the husband’s absence is based on the needs of commerce, asking if this is a veiled attack on capitalism or a cultured acceptance of it?
**Li Bai is the now preferred way to write the poet’s name in western characters. Many works of Pound’s time use a different scheme to render the same poet’s name as Li Po. There are more variations too. Same guy. Confusing.
***Yes, one of the things I could talk about, instead of getting on to the pleasure of the resulting poetry, would be the cultural appropriation in that assumption. Big subject, worthy of a longer treatment.
****The Works of Li Po the Chinese poet done into English verse. Obata was of Japanese heritage, but writes he had access to Chinese-speaking friends and other resources while studying at the University of Wisconsin. When he encounters Cathay he realized Pound’s artistry, but also knew how loose Pound’s translations were, and how they missed certain cultural nuances. “I confess that it was Mr. Pound’s little book that exasperated me and at the same time awakened me to the realization of new possibilities so that I began seriously to do translations myself.” Despite reading both Arthur Waley and Pound’s Chinese translations as a young man, I had never heard of Obata, and there is little available in Internet searches to indicate he made any lasting impact—save for one thing: his translations have been used for settings of Li Bai poems by Constant Lambert and Harry Partch, which seems like remarkably rich company to the likes of me.
Continuing the countdown of the audio pieces with the most listens and likes over the past summer, we’ve reached numbers 7, 6, and 5.
7. O My Darling Troubles Heaven by Kenneth Patchen. I do wish I had more pieces with Dave Moore in them this summer. My summer schedule, my studio re-org, and various unscheduled things have conspired against us, and Rudy Giuliani has either not had anything to do with this—or has of course been involved. *
Still, it’s nice to see this piece getting a good number of listens. Patchen helped found the mid-century school of poetry read to Jazz backing, something now considered quaint, but at the time it was being done it was considered impossibly pretentious or inconsequential or narcissistically individualist by many.
Well, either judgement means you shouldn’t be listening to this, but some of you are anyway.
Another good reason to be glad for Dave presenting this is that it’s a further corrective to the Modernist Gloomy Gus tendency. Patchen’s critique of mid-20th century culture was plenty down-beat, and his personal life had enough depressing challenges to reinforce that. But! But! But! His statements of love, the necessity of resistance, and of the joy of art superseding some dreary cultural cod-liver oil pitches for it were about overcoming that—or at least fighting it to a draw.
Musically, this is an older recording where the LYL Band plays in its almost-Jazz mode, which fits Dave’s vocal where he told us last June that he was intentionally trying to recall Patchen’s own phrasing from when Patchen read his work in the post WWII era.
“If you see no hope at all, isn’t it sort of, well, a lie—all your talk about how human beings must love one another?” Painting by Kenneth Patchen
6. Grace Before Song by Ezra Pound. I presented three series this past summer where multiple posts presented different aspects of something. This charming poem was from the series I called “Before They Were Modernists” where I looked at work Modernists wrote before they found their place in the 20th century revolution in art.
Pound of course was the indispensable fomenter, editor, and promotor of literary Modernism in English, known for both his generosity and dismissive opinions.** But this early poem of his is a prayer written in metrical and rhymed verse, and it’s soaked with poetic diction and antique words. Still sounds fine when sung, and if sincere, the poem’s sentiment is admirable however expressed.
If you haven’t listened to it, go ahead and see if you agree.
5. Memory of June by Claude McKay. Speaking of graceful rhymed and metrical lyrics, this one by Claude McKay is full-throated and sounds great. In my post on it in June I wondered if the tantalizing line “for one night only we were wed” might have been an encoded cry of a gay black man who knew full well that marriage was out of the question. In each of these countdown posts, I start the listing with a hyperlink to the original post if you would like to read more about what I said about my encounter with the text at the time.
That’s still an interesting question, but no answer to it is required to appreciate the poem. As with so many compositions this summer I was meshing acoustic guitar with bowed strings and some of my sparse naïve piano.
*I probably should refrain from introducing the impossible to determine quantum state of an American political figure to this cultural discussion, as many of the readers here won’t even know who I’m talking about.
**and eventually, his active participation in Italian Fascism. If one decodes their way through all the masks, certain ugly prejudices and nutball ideals are present in the man’s art—and also beautiful distillations and perceptions that I can sit behind his eyes and share with him. This sort of thing is why I’m sometimes glad that I’m constrained to present here the work of the long dead. If Pound was alive, you and I might well feel it our duty to oppose him in total. As best as I can tell, Pound seems of little use to current English-language Fascists.
In the arts, Pound’s early 20th century Modernist opinions made him the Marie Kondo of poetry. “If it doesn’t spark joy, throw it out” was not one of the famous Imagist rules, but it could have been.
Here’s more of our “Before they were Modernists” series, another by Ezra Pound from his 1908 pre-Imagist collection A Lume Spento.“And Thus in Nineveh” is a curious short poem, kind of a humble brag where the speaker starts right out saying “I am a poet” but then goes on to assess that craft in a mixed manner.
In the following lines the poem’s speaker, perhaps Pound himself at this point in his young life, takes the personae of a poet in the ancient middle eastern city of Nineveh and makes these claims:
Poetry does not belong to the speaker. I at first took this as a reference to poetry being inspired by the muses, where the poet’s job is as an attentive transmitter of that, but on further reflection I think he’s claiming more that to be a poet is a sort of civic job.
The populace’s attention to poetry is mixed. They will celebrate a poet at their death, they seem to sort of expect poetry to be around, even plentiful, but in the auditorium where poetry is sung, they might just doze off.
“Surely someday the citizens of Nineveh will recognize the sublime beauty of your ironic yet rootsy banjo sonatas.”
Other poets are judged to some degree to be better than our speaker. The poet’s humble-brag makes a show of agreeing with that, those better poets are more subtle (perhaps not as vigorous and direct?) and their song has a “wind of flowers” (literally, flowery, all fragrance and filigree?) while our poet’s work is “wave-worn” (sturdy and long-tested).
And in a final claim, the poet says that the reason he’ll be remembered in the end is that his poetry is more full of life and experience than those “better” poets.
In summary, the poem claims that the true poet, or at least Pound’s expectations of himself at this point early in his career, has a calling, a job he’s been asked to do by a culture that may not consistently pay attention to his efforts. If he perseveres, he will only get his due appreciation at death when his efforts will be summed up.
The language is deliberately archaic again (Pound is still under the pull of the Pre-Raphaelites) and it’s distanced in another way by being set in the exotic Middle East, quite possibly in ancient times. This too may be part of the Pre-Raphaelite influence: Middle Eastern scenes and Biblical stories were a common subject for the painters in that movement. Why were the two particular proper names chosen? I’m not sure. Nineveh is legendary as an ancient city, but not the only choice there. I thought of Nineveh as the city that the Biblical prophet Jonah was supposed to go and speak to when he chickens-out and whale-belly-ins. If Pound thought of that too, then it could be more subtext for the idea that that poet personae should persist in heeding his calling. Raama is also a name mentioned in the Bible.
“You using prophets for bait? I’ve been having good luck with leaches, I’ll stick with those.”
I myself went through a period in my youth when I elevated the writer’s profession into something between prophet and preacher. That has a clarity, a purity, that is far too simple. However earnest and self-aware Pound was when he wrote this, what attracted me to it now much later in my life was the idea implied in the middle of the poem: that art’s job is asked for by a culture that knows somehow its value while commonly forgetting that.
Maybe there’s a new level in the final couplet of today’s poem? By persisting in working on art we are as deluded as an intoxicated person, we see our work through “beer goggles,” and all possibilities look more beautiful then, than in the cold light of day. We “drink of life as lesser men drink wine.”
Foolish? Well, so be it. This is the fool we choose to be.
The musical setting today is a languid mix of guitars, fretless bass, and vibraphone. The player to hear my performance of Pound’s “And Thus in Nineveh” is below. The full text of the poem can be found here.
Here’s the next in our occasional series “Before They Were Modernists,” a performance of “Grace Before Song” by Ezra Pound. Like F. S. Flint’s poem from last time, Pound’s poem comes from the poet’s first book, in this case: A Lume Spento created before Pound and a small group of London-based writers settled on the set of ideas they were to call Imagism, sparking off modern English poetry.
In the A Lume Spento poems Pound appears to vacillate, at least in character, on the value of his poetry, and like Flint he’s showing the influence of William Butler Yeats and the Pre-Raphaelites who had influenced Yeats. The Pre-Raphaelite ideal was to look further back culturally than the 19th century for inspiration, so in A Lume Spento the soon to be “Make It New” Pound is often referencing Dante and medieval Provencal troubadour poetry.
Even if A Lume Spento as a collection was a retrospective statement of where Pound thought he was as the 20th century got underway, “Grace Before Song” seems to have stuck with Pound. It led off A Lume Spento and it retained its position in his later 1920 selection of early works Personae.
Choose your own adventure: Hipster wants you to see his book of poetry referencing Dante…
How does Pound present his task and the poet’s task in “Grace Before Song?”
First off, it’s a prayer, starting by addressing itself to a godhead. And there’s an element of modesty or at least fatalism/submission in it, beautifully so I think (even with the inverted/archaic syntax): “our days as rain drops in the sea surge fell.” That image is further developed by requesting that his song at least be fresh rain (“white drops upon a leaden sea”) and reflective, however briefly, of some higher reality (“Evan’scent mirrors every opal one”). The poem ends stressing that briefly part. In “Grace Before Song” Pound is expressly no Shakespeare making claims for the immortality conveyed by art.
If we think of the later Modernist Pound as an iconoclast, this early Pound presents himself as either the pious poet, explaining the world of God to man, or as the aesthete who believes beautiful artistic creation justifies itself as an expression of higher orders. From what I understand Pound at this point was more the later using the mask, the personae, of the former—but either stance opens the poet up to disappointment when their work is ignored by the “grey folk” of those leaden seas.
And in 1908, Pound is largely ignored. American publishers aren’t interested, and A Lume Spento was self-published in Venice in a tiny edition of 150 copies. The Wikipedia article on the book says Pound arrived in Italy with $80 to his name and spent $8 getting the book printed on some odd-lot paper in Venice. An inflation calculator says $80 is a bit over $2200 in current dollars, but the tithe to his art indicates the level of faith (self or otherwise) Pound had at this time. And then there is the account that Pound thought about chucking the page proofs in a Venice canal—now there’s a story that makes white drops into a leaden sea a concrete image!
My “studio B” (a 12’ x 12’ room where I write these posts and do much of the non-LYL Band recording) is now fully operational again, so I put it to work on this one. The cello part that sits in the arrangement over the low strings is from a new virtual instrument re-creation of the Mellotron that I obtained this month when it went on sale. Long time listeners here will know how much I love the Mellotron, which doesn’t sound like “real” strings, but does sound like a real Mellotron.
You can listen to my performance of “Grace Before Song” using a player gadget* you should see below.
*I’ve just been made aware that the WordPress app for IOS doesn’t display the player, leaving those of you who read these posts on the iPhone WordPress app puzzled as to what I’ve referred to above. If you’d like to hear the audio pieces you can see them in the mobile version of Safari, but this is a good time to remind those who like to listen to the audio that the Parlando Project audio pieces by themselves are available as a podcast on most podcast apps including Apple podcasts or on Spotify in Spotify’s podcasts section. Just search for “Parlando Where Music and Words Meet” to find them.
A bit earlier this month we presented a landmark very short Imagist poem, Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” 14 words, and a prime example of the Modernist’s reaction to the rhetorical flourishes of a worn-out 19th century. Today I’m going to release a Robert Frost response, a 47-word rejoinder, a spring poem with some winter snow left in it.
Frost was born 145 years ago this week. His relationship with Pound is complex. On one hand Pound could view himself as responsible for launching Frost’s career, writing the first substantial review of Frost and seeing to it that his poems were published in Poetry magazine. Without Pound’s endorsement, Frost had submitted poems there which had been rejected.
Frost tells the story of their initial meeting, with Frost’s first book A Boy’s Will so newly published in England that he himself hadn’t gotten a hold of a copy. F. S. Flint (a too-often-forgotten pioneer of British Modernism) had met Frost at a bookstore reading, shortly after Frost had moved to England. Flint noticed Frost’s American shoes and insisted that he must meet his countryman Ezra Pound, now also residing in London. Frost later went to Pound’s apartment, and this is how Frost recounted their meeting:
[Pound] said, ‘Flint tells me you have a book.’ And I said, ‘Well, I ought to have.’ He said, ‘You haven’t seen it?’ And I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘What do you say we go and get a copy?’ He was eager about being the first one to talk. That’s one of the best things you can say about Pound: he wanted to be the first to jump. Didn’t call people up on the telephone to see how they were going to jump. He was all silent with eagerness. We walked over to my publisher; he got the book. Didn’t show it to me—put it in his pocket. We went back to his room. He said, ‘You don’t mind our liking this?’ in his British accent, slightly. And I said, ‘Oh, go ahead and like it.”
Even in prose, there’s some Frost-ian ambiguity it his account. He notes in passing that the American Pound was putting on a British accent. And his sly quote of Pound “You don’t mind our liking it” before Pound has read it—a subtle dig at poetic politics that—and who’s the “our” here. Pound (and Flint too) were promoting a poetic movement, Imagism—poetry that used direct, concise treatment of “a thing” without any extra words whatsoever.
Frost never liked a movement that included more than him.
And to some degree this soon led to a break between the two poets. Pound thought that Frost fell short on the “use no extra word” dictum of Imagism. He apparently offered to help Frost learn to excise those surplus words—and though similar offers from Pound were taken up by literary giants like T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemmingway, Frost refused it.
There was a second catch. In Pound’s review that launched Frost, Pound wanted to make a point of Frost’s rejection by American editors, and he was loudly saying this in an American magazine (one of those that had, in fact, rejected Frost). Many musicians and music fans will quickly recognize Pound’s move here. This is the punk/indie/”street cred” claim. This artist has too much honesty and individualism and lacks the subservient guile to please the suits and the mainstream! The problem here was that Frost was a middle-age man with a family—he wanted to cross-over to those editors. Frost thought Pound was pulling this move to show what a discerning critic he was more than to promote Frost as an outsider artist.
But note too in Frost’s account of his first fateful meeting with Pound, the subtle admission he makes about himself. “Oh, go ahead and like it.” He wanted, needed the help—by any means necessary.
Oddly, if you were to read Pound’s short review today, you might be surprised that it worked to launch Frost at all. There are condescending elements, Frost is almost treated as some idiot-savant country bumpkin. And worse for Pound, he goes on record as the first man to misread Frost as simple and earnest (the same mistake that I made as a teenager, but then I’m not Ezra Pound).
A patch of old snow, blossoms on wet dark bough not included
Here’s the text of Frost’s poem I use today and here’s Pound’s 14-word Imagist flagship. Look at Frost’s first stanza. Sure, Frost’s is rhymed and metrical, though Pound uses a near rhyme that many miss. If Frost ended there, his poem is purely Imagist. “Old” in front of snow isn’t a wasted word. We need to know it’s spring now, and that the snow is past its sell-by date. And it’s an interesting choice to say “blow-away paper” instead of blown-away—more immediate, and it indicates that its transient nature is inherent, not something acted upon from without.
Frost’s second stanza? Pound’s editor’s pencil might have suggested he’s restating the image from the first stanza, but Frost might have countered by noting that he’s making clear this isn’t just any crumpled scrap paper the snow is being made equivalent to, but a newspaper or other publication, with “small print.”
Here’s the Imagist difference. In conventional poetry, the images, the similes and metaphors, are only decorative—look, clever I can compare this to this. In Imagist poetry this comparison shouldn’t be just decorative—it’s the meaning of the poem. This last edition of winter is “yesterday’s papers.” And bilaterally, wrong-headed reviews in Poetry? They will pass like the lonely grimy snow-bergs.
The last line, “If I ever read it,” is Frost’s touch. Pure Imagism doesn’t like to draw conclusions, even enigmatic ones. Does it mean one thing? I think it predominantly says, it’s the past, I’ve endured, it’ll soon be gone completely. The poem first appeared in Frost’s third book, the first to be published in America not in England. Frost was on his way. But there’s an undercurrent—with Frost there always is. Is that small print an edition of The Book of Nature? After all, we also know this: winter will return, and should we not read what it has written to us?
Frost will do that too in many of his greatest poems.
This morning I ask myself, what a strange way to spend a weekend full of news and melting snow, reading the small print about two poetic innovators at cross-purposes to each other.
Musically, I wanted to let loose a bit for this one. I’ve been playing acoustic guitar for many recent pieces, so I wanted an unleashed electric guitar. The wild spring bird-whistles near the end are feedback between the guitar’s pickups and the amplifier.
As we were going to school this morning, my son and I were listening to reports from the South by Southwest event in Austin this week. The guy on the radio was explaining that while SXSW has broadened over the years, it’s still the place to go for Alternative Music.
“I wonder where you go if you’re looking for an alternative to Alternative Music?” I asked out-loud. Not the most original thought, but I’ve never liked labels even though we all use them.
My son—who’s reminded me for several years now that he is not a Millennial—replied “Well, I only listen to lowercase!”
Proud of that boy.
Well of course, Alternative Music or Indie music, or whatever you call it isn’t really a Millennial thing. It’s more of an outgrowth of Generation X* in the last century. And that in itself was just the next name stuck on whatever Dave and I were doing 40 years ago when someone thought Punk was the label. And then, scratch-off the sticky paper from a Punk from those days and most likely you’d find someone who was once a young Hippie. And Hippies were just kids that Beats thought hadn’t wised up yet.
I don’t know all that much of what Ezra Pound thought of the Beats, but I recall in the 1950s Allen Ginsberg wrote Pound in St. Elizabeth’s hospital where he was serving his commitment as crazy, the alternative to his prison cage for WWII treason.** Ginsberg later met him in 1967 and Pound sorta-kinda apologized for the—you know, anti-Semitism and stuff.
But back in 1913, before either world war, Pound was trying to figure out modern poetry in English. If it would be, what it should be. He had some materials to reuse: medieval vernacular poetry, classical Chinese and Japanese poetry, some of the modern French poets, and he wasn’t the only smith at the poetry-forge either, Brits T. E. Hulme and F. S. Flint were working at this too.
Late 19th Century English poetry tended to be enwrought in the cloths of heaven, lofty abstract metaphors and repetitions of what were considered the usual Romantic poetic sentiments. Those poems sounded poetic, sure, but were they? But if so much of that was thrown out, what would be left, what could replace that?
In such a mood, in such preparation, Ezra Pound stepped out of a subway station in Paris. Something in the urban crowd he saw there struck him and he wrote a modest 30-line poem that is unknown to you and me. Pound did not like his 30-line poem. It may have sounded poetic, it may have looked poetic, but it seemed false. He wrung out the false and the result was two lines, the famous Imagist poem “In a Station of the Metro” that begins “The apparition of these faces…”
Ah dude, nice marmot! The young Ezra Pound
I’ve used an excerpt of an account that Pound published three years later about his experience and aims in creating “In a Station of the Metro” to begin today’s audio piece. I sometimes think of Pound as gruff, inward looking, full of unusual words and quotes from various languages I do not speak, a portrayal of a learned hermit that both of us want to leave alone. But if I’m to take him at his word as he tells this story, he is the transit-riding 20-something Pound, struck by ordinary daily beauty and not wanting to betray it with ordinary poetry.
What do the 14 words of “In a Station of the Metro” tell us? It’s spring—for tree blossoms, like Meng Haoran’s famous short Chinese poem, are the central image. Perhaps there’s been a rain-shower while Pound was in the subway. He climbs up the stairs and unexpectedly the faces in the street are not cast down out of the no-longer rain. Perhaps the sun is peeking through. They are beautiful without saying, as blossom flowers are. As blossom flowers are, some would have been knocked down by rain, some nourished, and none will be even spring-forever.
To hear my performance of Pound’s account of how he came to write it, followed by the poem itself, use the player below.
**Pound had remained in Italy where he had settled before WWII. Enamored of various esoteric theories he thought congruent with Italian Fascism, he recorded radio broadcasts which were characterized as propaganda for the enemy during the war. Captured after the fall of Mussolini, he was at first imprisoned as a traitor in an outdoor cage.
7. A Poison Tree words by William Blake. When I posted this piece this fall, I remarked that Blake never seems that popular with the blog readers/listeners here. Dave and I have always sung Blake pieces since the early days of the LYL Band, and so we persist anyway.
Well, this piece finally allowed William Blake to break out. I can’t say exactly why, but I’m just glad it found an audience.
When I first encountered Blake as a young man, one of the things that I admired about him was his DIY/Indie spirit: apprenticing as an artist/engraver, doing his own coloring, writing his own texts, devising his own mythology, making his own prints. In the psychedelic Sixties there was this appeal because Blake was a visionary, the man who was reported out talking to angels in trees. Well those are the reports—but the work says he did a lot more than that, using his hands and applied energy. Reminds me of one of my mottos: Creative people aren’t people who have great ideas. Creative people are people who make things. Of course, you’ll need some ideas, some vision that we need to see—but sometimes you’ll come upon those on your workbench scattered and shining amid worn tools.
In pickup basketball games, Blake always played skins. Also no pants.
6. Gone Gone Again words by Edward Thomas. Thomas has been a blog favorite here ever since I followed the connection from Robert Frost to him, and discovered that I had unwittingly nearly reenacted his most famous poem “Adlestrop” on a visit to England.
Thomas seems to have suffered from depression and other issues throughout his life. I don’t think that sadness inspires deep poetry, so much as battling it does, and Thomas’ poem is a compressed record of that battle as well as his beloved countryside of England during WWI.
The return of the thin white duke, throwing darts at Blenheim oranges
5. Jade Flower Palace words by Du Fu. I’ve noticed that I was using a string section of some sort (or its Mellotron equivalent) for every piece so far. Finally, we break that pattern as a conventional, unadorned LYL Band rock-combo instrumentation is used in this live recording.
There’s something I feel in Du Fu’s poem that is very near to Edward Thomas’ that is just above in the countdown, so it’s a nice coincidence that they slot together in popularity this time.
During the Parlando Project I’ve taken to doing my own translations from non-English language sources, including this one. Particularly with classical Chinese poetry this is risky or audacious on my part. I’m not sure if I should be encouraged by the number of inaccurate translations that are out there, including some that are fairly well-known—for example: the Chinese translations of Ezra Pound, which I’ve loved even after learning of the translation errors present in them.
I sometimes view my task as translator like I view my job as a musician who wishes to cover someone else’s song without merely duplicating it. I don’t want to be unfaithful to what the writer intended, but I do want to express it, in my own country’s language, in my own time, to my own audience. To do so, I may pull things toward my own language and my own grasp of the author’s imagery to keep what comes out vital.
That may just be an excuse for my own weakness in foreign languages and other skills of translation. Still, though Ezra Pound’s “River Merchant’s Wife” or “South Folk in Cold Country” are not what Li Bai wrote, they are powerful works. But then, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” isn’t Otis Redding’s “Respect” played back faithfully either.
“There are many paths away from here. How long are any of them? None of them go on forever.”
As we enter the week in which we note the ending of World War One a century ago, I want to call attention to some the ways we’ve shown poets wresting with that war in their own time. It’s a longer post, but each one of these pieces presents something different for Armistice Day.
I didn’t start out to feature the WWI generation here. I first intended to include more modern poets’ words, but to do so I would have needed to try to negotiate the issue of finding the copyright holders and getting them to respond to requests for permission when I thought I’d located them. That turned out to be frustrating.
This left me with the pre-1923 generation, the original Modernists, as the most recent voices I could consistently present. Like many limitations this brought an unexpected return. This generation’s members were the pioneers in the new poetic voice that I had to deal with as a young man and young writer, and to some degree we’re still dealing with them now. Even the basic and incontrovertible truth that the majority of published poetry has been free verse in my lifetime is not some inevitable thing, someone had to suggest and prove its efficacy. And the kind of imagery we take for granted as allowed or desirable in literary poetry? That too is their doing.
WWI did not start Modernism. Americans and the French were experimenting with many of its tactics as early as the mid-19th century, and British Modernism was already emerging before 1914. But the events of WWI bent the development of Modernism by their tremendous gravitational pull. Sometimes directly, by poets and artistic allies who were killed, but also by propounding the idea that the established artistic order was incapable of describing the world of the first world war or it’s aftermath. Pre-WWI Modernists writing in English could be straightforward and modest in their poetry. They often valued shorter forms that assumed the elaboration would occur in the minds of readers rather than in endless lines on the page. Post-WWI, the longer poem and much more elaborate and opaque imagery came to the forefront, and the form of the irrational became a large part of the reflected world, even for writers outside the movements like Dada and Surrealism that were formed around that.
It’s been an adventure here reliving those changes. Some of the Parlando Project’s most popular pieces have come from that WWI moment, and here are the six most popular WWI poems we’ve presented here.
6. Christ and the Soldier. Siegfried Sassoon seems to have been somewhat superseded by his friend Wilfred Owen as the representative British War Poet of the anti-war stripe. Owen may have “benefited” by dying in the war, rather than having the long career that Sassoon had. Sassoon was a highly decorated veteran of the trenches when he started to publicly oppose the war, and this lead to the danger that he could have been charged with treason, and a weird compromise was worked out where he was treated instead as a man suffering from mental illness caused by the war instead of being put up on trial, the kind of outcome that Joseph Heller would have relished writing of decades later. “Christ and the Soldier” is not politically anti-war, but it’s stark, darkly-humorous, and yet serious account struck me from the first time I read it. As WWI poems go, it deserves to be much better known.
You probably haven’t heard this one, so use the player below.
5. These Fought. Ezra Pound did not fight in WWI. Pound was an American living in England, which would have complicated his enlistment before and after America’s entry into the war, but in either case a determined man could have overcome those obstacles. Pound’s friend, and co-founder of English Modernist verse in the years leading up to the war, the lesser-known Englishman T. E. Hulme, enlisted, as did others in his wide circle of acquaintances. So, when this post-war poem was published, excoriating the waste and propaganda of the war years, it was in the context of a longer poem that it’s only a section of, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” In the entire poem, Pound, who’s personality seems to have been a strange mixture of generosity and egotism, stubbornness and self-admonishment, also charges himself with failing to decisively deal with the titanic issues of the war. I’d muse that this sounds like survivor’s guilt is mixed in with the contempt for the war stated after the fact. In Pound’s case, his self-correction found him supporting his next foreign home, Fascist Italy, against his native country’s side during the next World War. Ironically, this lead, like Sassoon, to the compromise of “Well, maybe he’s a traitor, but let’s treat him as crazy.”
Still, as a piece of invective, and as a condensed statement of art’s challenges in dealing with monstrous events, I have to hand it to Ezra for his set of words. Pound helped “popularize” the use of phrases from many languages in High-Modernist English language poems, much to the benefit of footnote writers, and in “These Fought” he drops a variation on the same Latin phrase used by Wilfred Owen in Owen’s best-known anti-war poem: “Pro patria, non dulce non et decor” in Pound, “Dulce et decorum est” in Owen. In either case, the Latin phrase, from Roman poet Horace, is about it being sweet and proper to die for one’s country, and neither the veteran Owen or the non-veteran Pound meant to endorse that phrase when they used it. In our 21st century world, large portions of proper Americans would agree with Horace’s original thought, and take umbrage with Pound, or possibly even Owen denying its validity—yes, I could see that being charged against even Owen who gave his life, however sweet or properly.
The gadget to hear Pound’s rant about the waste of it all is below.
This large American military cemetery engraved Horace’s maxim in 1915. And whether for solidarity, guilt, or respect for duty, many will endorse it still. Some will stand by it with their lives not just a chisel.
4. Trenches St. Eloi. Another poem by a front-line veteran of WWI, one who didn’t survive the war, and a man who was important enough to the founding of English language Modernist poetry that his war death might have alterned post-war Modernism to some degree. T. E. Hulme helped form Pound’s own views on how poetry should “make it new,” and was admired as well by T. S. Eliot, but his own poetry is now little-known because of its sparseness in number and length. Though he was known as a pugnacious talker in person, and was a writer of audacious criticism, his surviving poems have a shocking modesty about them, something I find quite admirable. Though he wrote dispatches to English home-front periodicals during his service (from those I’ve read, they support the English cause) this is his only poem about his experience of the war itself, and it was composed, or rather transcribed, while he was back in England being treated for battle wounds before going back to the front and his death.
To hear Hulme’s ode to soldierly persistence, use the player below.
3. The Death of Apollinaire. Speaking of influential casualties of the war, Guillaume Apollinaire, must be right up there. The man coined the names “cubism” and “surrealism” after all, and his verse influenced not only countless French poets, but Americans like E. E. Cummings. The exact cause of Apollinaire’s death is open to attribution. He was still weakened by war wounds when he was struck down by the infamous 1918 influenza epidemic just two days before the end of WWI. The poem used here is a surprisingly sincere elegy written by a frank shirker of military service, Tristan Tzara, who as a teenager fled the tinderbox of the Balkans where the world war started for neutral Switzerland, where he participated in the invention of Dada at the famous Cabaret Voltaire. Dada had no respect for the pieties of the warring parties, but Tzara’s respect for Apollinaire comes through in my original translation of his poem.
Thinking of Hulme and Apollinaire as front-line soldiers in WWI makes me pause and wonder at the differences in my own time. Can you imagine John Lennon and Bob Dylan serving as grunts in Vietnam? Or Damon Albarn and Jay Z being deployed to Iraq? Of course, there are differences in poet/critics and pop-stars however artistic the songwriters are, but still it’s a different world, and Modernist artists both reflected and helped to form it.
To hear my performance of my own new translation of Tzara’s poem about Apollinaire’s death in the autumn of victory, use the player gadget below.
2. Grass. Carl Sandburg didn’t serve in WWI. He was a Spanish American War vet however. His personal position on WWI is somewhat hard to figure. He was writing for the stalwartly anti-war IWW under a pseudonym and explicitly supporting there the radical IWW line that the war was the Capitalist class enjoying their profits in a cage match between the working people/cannon fodder of both sides. Yet also during the war he wrote pro-war pieces under his own name, taking the same stance as some other parts of the US left: that the Central powers were evil empires lead by ruthless kings that needed to be defeated by the democracies Britain, France and the U. S. In 1918, Sandburg published “Grass” and attempted to synthesize both sides of Sandburg.
“Grass” is sometimes considered a straightforward patriotic poem, a reverent poem about the ultimate sacrifice of veterans, and if read in such a context no one is likely to object. But listen closely. Even though he echoes Whitman’s leaves of grass metaphor, even if you may find it next to John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” in some presentation of poems about honored war dead where we might be implored to “Take up our quarrel with the foe!” One might even too-quickly think it’s akin to what Sandburg’s hero Lincoln would say in his Gettysburg Address, that we “cannot forget what they did here.” But, Sandburg’s poem’s point is literally the opposite of Lincoln’s: that we will forget what they did here.
How completely true is that forgetfulness as we approach the centenary of the end of WWI? A discussion point.
You could read “Grass” as an antiwar poem, saying that “It doesn’t matter how important and glorious they tell you the cause you are fighting for is, because the same or equivalent crowd will run things afterward and what you thought you were fighting for will be forgotten.” Speaking of WWI, 50 years after it started, Sandburg admirer Bob Dylan could sing “The reasons for fighting, I never did get.”
I just got done earlier this fall performing Sandburg’s “I Am the People, the Mob,” In that poem, Sandburg makes a subtle point. That thing the leftish political vanguard often bemoans about “the people,” that they forget the injustices committed against their best interests, is in fact how they’ve managed to survive and endure. If they remembered their defeats, their sacrifices, they might not go on, they could be immobilized in grief and despair. Is Sandburg saying the same thing in “Grass?” Is he saying “I was never sure if this was the rich man’s war fought with working man’s blood, or a war to save democracy. It’s over now and the rich and powerful will forget us as unimportant. Or perhaps it was a struggle so our imperfect democratic governments can continue in a long battle to perfect themselves, but that in the end is what we need to concentrate on.”
To hear the LYL Band perform Sandburg’s elegy to soldiers graves, use the player below.
1. On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli. These most-popular-here WWI pieces I feature today: it’s a rather downbeat outlook, even Hulme’s piece is not the sort of thing to inspire sacrifice for one’s country. Pound’s rant openly doubts the beliefs of some that did, and is unequivocal on the base motives of those who lead his host country in the war. WWI war poets did write poems that supported the war effort. A personal favorite of mine, Edward Thomas, volunteered and died at the front with a deep belief in the nobility of service that overwhelmed his suspicion of the war’s rationale. Pete Seeger’s uncle, Alan Seeger, wrote his fatalistic but heroic “I Have a Rendezvous with Death.” Another well-known poem in this mode is British poet Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier.” If one believes that any active deity must have a dark comic streak, Brooke dying of an infected mosquito bite while steaming to the front lines of one of the most horrific battles of the war could be part of your testimony.
Pound once had to explain that when he was critical of Brooke’s poems he was speaking of their old-fashioned prosody, not his character. When I saw this fragment found in Brooke’s journal after his death I saw an opportunity. What if Brooke’s observation of his fellow soldiers on their way to battle could be shaped to express itself in the mode that Modernists like Pound, Hulme, or Sandburg would have used? You can see the edits I made here, and listen to my performance of my setting of it with the player below.
Increasingly, I am comprehending the miracle of Emily Dickinson. Fifty years before Ezra Pound and T. E. Hulme constructed a compressed modern poetry replacing conventional imagery with fresh and direct observation, a woman in a rural town in the woods of Massachusetts had already practiced their innovations over a thousand times.
Through a series of happy accidents, Dickinson’s poetry was preserved and published at the end of the 19th Century, just before the Imagists launched their Modernism—but even then, she was still like one of those unexploded bombs dug up by a construction crew decades after the war. Even after publication, the framing of her poetry still obscured it. Her posthumous editors cleaned up her punctuation and gave the poems titles, and on the page they looked so normal. As these were poems by an Emily, they were clearly the work of a woman, and so they were read as women were generally understood, even when not pressed between the boards of a poetry book. And Dickinson herself designed her poems to draw you in with their modest length, their frequent use of pious hymn meters and stanzas, their homey rhymes. Even into my mid-20th Century lifetime, it was perfectly possible to be aware of Emily Dickinson’s poetry and not be awed.
“Hey Joe, there’s a big chunk of metal buried way down in the mud! Here, listen when I give it a bit of a whack with my pipe wrench…”
They still run across stuff like this from WWII around Europe. Decades old, and they can still go “Boom!”
Some early 20th Century Modernists looked more closely, and maybe saw some of what was there. Carl Sandburg straight-out called her an Imagist in a poem. I am unaware of how much attention the other early Modernists gave to Dickinson, but just on a promotional level, it might not be advantageous to talk much about poems written decades ago when your brand is “Make it new!” Remember too how Pound jabbed at Walt Whitman in his tribute poem: Walt Whitman you were a hacker out there in some unharvested forest, I’m a fine wood-carver able to bring out the finest detail. Dickinson’s near-rhymes and loose but familiar meters may have been read as imperfections to Modernism.
It took the last quarter of the 20th Century for Emily Dickinson to finally be seen, and we are still seeing more now as we look closer. What if, back in the mid-19th Century when Dickinson was creating this unprecedented expression, one had been able to talk with her about it? The value of writers’ groups, seminars, and MFA programs is not universally acknowledged, but most think these things at least have some effect on those who participate.
It just so happens, that occurred. Dickinson’s letters to Thomas Higginson give us some of her ideas, but as I read that correspondence I see Dickinson adopting masks, some playfully, some for protection. And Higginson, as varied as he was, was not, as far as I know, a poet, and therefore there was no chance that he would use Dickinson as a model for his own writing. But Dickinson’s long-time friend, neighbor, and sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson was a writer who dabbled in poetry.
Like Emily, Susan Gilbert was smart, was allowed some access to education, and wrote poetry
No other person saw as much of Emily Dickinson’s poetry while she was still alive as Susan. It’s also probable that no other person other than Emily Dickinson’s sister Lavinia (who seems to have had no artistic interests) was as intimate with the author. There is even speculation that there was an erotic bond between Susan and Emily. Besides the pant, pant passages in the letters between them, Emily praises Susan’s intelligence and cultural companionship. Given what must have been the loneliness of Emily Dickinson’s creative innovation, amplified by the cultural limitations for women in her time, we may all owe a debt of gratitude to Susan Gilbert in helping sustain Emily Dickinson.
Today’s piece uses a poem by Susan Gilbert Dickinson that shows some of the same elements one finds in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Given that the prolific Emily Dickinson experimented with her expression, if “Crushed Before the Moth” was slipped into some complete poems of Emily Dickinson volume it would not seem entirely out of place.
What elements of “Crushed Before the Moth” are Dickinsonian? A short line length (six syllables, though not Emily’s familiar 6/8/6/8 hymn stanza). Alternating rhymed lines with unrhymed, though here first and third not second and fourth, and the rhymes are all perfect rhymes except the final “moth.” Even the use of a Bible verse (Job 4:19) is not unprecedented in Dickinson, who though a religious dissenter, was steeped in a Christian religious culture.
The poem begins, just as many of Emily’s poems will, with a close observation of nature. In Job, the moth is only a passing metaphor, in Susan’s poem it’s an actual moth, looked at closely enough to see the texture of its body in the evening. The moth is treated here as an Imagist would. It’s not some intellectual counter, a rote symbol only standing for something else, but an actual animal in an actual evening. The second stanza continues in the same vein, the moth the morning after, though with more characterization.
The concluding three lines, though they contain the only Emily-like slant rhyme, are the least like Dickinson’s poetry. That kind of envoi ending with a clear and orthodox moral lesson is not something Emily would write in her mature poetry, and the “Is this thy stronger host” line sounds unnatural and stilted.
Still, this might be the first poem ever written that imitates Emily Dickinson’s strengths and innovations. That Susan Gilbert Dickinson was a more orthodox Christian than her friend, and like all of us, not the genius that Emily Dickinson was, doesn’t keep her “Crushed Before the Moth” from being an effective poem.
I’m back to acoustic guitar for today’s performance of this piece, which is available using the player below.
As I’ve done most quarters, I like to look at the most played and liked pieces during the past season and report back here. Usually a few of the results surprise me, they aren’t always my favorite pieces or even the ones that I think came off best.
I do this in classic countdown fashion, so we start off with number ten and move in the next few days up to the number one. The audio pieces for the Parlando Project can be consumed a number of ways. Some listen to them here using the audio gadget on the blog, but others listen by subscribing to us through any of the leading podcast services. The audio pieces are the same, but the blog allows me to write about the pieces in a much richer manner than I can with any of the leading podcast services. However, if you, or someone you know might be interested in just the music and words, this is a handy way to get them on your phone or other handheld. So, if you just want the tuneage, search for Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, or any of the other podcast services. You should find our audio pieces in their podcast sections.
On to the countdown…
Coming in at number Ten is one of the two pieces from May that gathered enough likes and listens to make it, despite having a shorter time frame to do it in, “Letters to Dead Imagists and A Pact.” I often like to look at who influences the writers we feature here, and this piece lets me do that with short poems from two poets: Carl Sandburg and Ezra Pound. Sandburg tips his hat first to Emily Dickinson and Stephen Crane, while Pound, rather grudgingly, acknowledges Walt Whitman. Despite being contemporaries with similar lifespans, despite both having connections to the American Midwest, despite Sandburg’s use of the early 20th Century Modernist/Imagist poetic practices as promoted by Pound; these are two very different men outside of their work with pen and typewriter. Interestingly, it’s Sandburg’s work that has an obvious Whitman influence though it’s Pound that points to him. Though Pound thought Whitman too careless in his craft, he’s the one that chose to give Whitman his due here.
Speaking of Imagists, at number Nine, we have the poet Hilda Doolittle and her “The Pool.” Pound acted as a high-handed branding consultant would with her, reading her poetry and then scrawling at the bottom of her manuscript her new brand: “H. D. Imagiste.” Doolittle writing henceforth as H. D. went on to a long career, and I’ve read that Hilda herself didn’t care much for the connotations of her family name anyway. Maybe that marketing advice helped, but early H. D. work like “The Pool” is striking short poetry mixing concreteness and mystery, so maybe it was an inspired choice to use the short and less defined H. D. for a pen name.
Musically, I really like what I came up for this one too.
“Now is a time for carving…” Pound once decried “the exceedingly great stench” of Whitman’s poetry
At number Eight, let’s welcome to our stage the man who Pound said in our number-ten-holding poem “broke the new wood” in free verse poetry: Walt Whitman. What an odd image for Pound to use! In looking at why he might have chosen that image I found out that Pound’s family established itself in Wisconsin by building a thriving sawmill there, so it may be that Pound is liking Whitman to a pioneering lumberman, bold in seizing the ground and resources he found there, while Pound seems to say he pictures himself more as a William Morris style furniture craftsman or perhaps even as a skilled woodcarver.
Straining at connections, because I love this photo so much: folksinger Carolyn Hester once recorded Whitman’s “O’ Captain,” but the 3 session men behind her appeared on many great folk records of the 60s: guitarist, Bruce Langhorne; bass player Bill Lee, father of filmmaker Spike Lee, and in the middle. the harmonica player with the shayna punim cheeks is known to trivia buffs as the father of Jakob Dylan, the leader of the 90’s band The Wallflowers.
Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is one of a pair of elegies Whitman wrote responding to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and the one I prefer to the other: “O Captain! My Captain!” regardless of the feelings some have for that other Whitman poem’s use in the movie Dead Poets Society. Furthermore, Whitman’s lilacs here are one of the reasons that T. S. Eliot’s landmark of High Modernism “The Wasteland” begins in spring with that very flower blooming “out of the dead land.”
We’ll have numbers Seven, Six and Five coming back here soon. So don’t touch that dial—wait, this is the Internet, you can touch the dial any time you want—but do check back, as we continue our countdown of the most listened to and liked audio pieces combining various words with original music here over the past season.