The Fisherman

Complaints about the size of the audience for poetry are far from new. So too, complaints about the quality of its audience. Throughout the course of the 20th Century, one increasingly common theory was to assume that a quality audience for poetry is likely incompatible with a quantity audience for the art.

We’ve just about used up two decades of our century, and that theory is still around. This quantity/quality audience-linkage belief is not always stated plainly, but it’s not hard to see its presence. Poets that rise to modest or surprising audience size will sometimes face some degree of backlash from critics. It may naturally be so that their poetry is less worthy by some criteria. This could be coincidental, honest criticism. It may be that it’s hard to find an audience for poetry criticism, as it is for poetry, so writing about better-known practitioners who have failed in some way helps grow the audience for the critic.

Another way to hold to this theory is to limit what poetry is allowed to do, to narrow its practice or even its definition. Spoken word or slam poetry? Not really poetry, or it encourages a poor selection of poetry’s virtues. Song lyrics? Self-evidently a different art, though given that the consensus canon of poetry is so different among itself, surely difference alone cannot be the criteria. Mix those two as rap or hip-hop and risk both  explanations of why it’s not poetry. Short, aphoristic poems? Too insubstantial. Long poetic forms once much in evidence, like the poetic epic or verse drama? No longer living forms of the art for the most part, if for no other reason than the type of poetic techniques the modern academic poet often uses can wear out an audience in a matter of minutes.

Myself, I don’t disagree or agree with those judgements in particular cases, and they could even be theoretically correct, I just viscerally dislike the idea that this thing poetry is so small and limited, that it’s a desert island disc for a few scattered islands, deeply loved by solitary coconut eaters with a very constricted shoreline.

When I break out of those narrow roles and rules for poetry, I will fail, and I do get discouraged. My limitations are bothering me two years into this project; and now 240 published audio pieces later, I may be running out of rules to break and the motivating pleasures of audacity.

William Butler Yeats with cat

Also dreaming of catching fish. Are cat pictures the secret to gathering an Internet audience for poetry?

 

Here’s a piece today using a poem by someone who somewhat agrees with me: William Butler Yeats. In one way it’s specific to him, and his time. I’ve recently honored two working-class sport fishermen in one of my favorite pieces so far this year, but the fisherman in Yeats’ title, the simple man working his craft on nature to help feed himself rather than for hobbyist enjoyment—well, he, even in a much poorer Ireland of 1916, is admitted as imaginary.

Otherwise, how about those folks listed in the middle section of today’s piece that are harshing Yeats’ mellow? How little imagination is needed to see them today?

I admire Yeats in this poem, embracing his failure, even though he brought immense poetic talents to his work, so much so that I should be embarrassed to admit to that admiration. In one way, the fisherman here is Yeats, casting with deft wrist or verse, but not in the course of the poem catching anything. There’s a saying with the fishermen in my family, “It’s called fishing, not catching.”

But the imagined fisherman is also that audience Yeats seeks. Maybe once, Yeats says at the end, maybe once,  he can please an audience correctly, with a single valid poem and valiant audience—even if he can only see that audience in his imagination. I surely hope (and Yeats’ life helps me here) that the singular fisherman is an image for a possible greater audience, and not a headcount. After all, to write for something as large as “his race” (by which he means Ireland), is too small a target to hit, while that tweedy imagined fly-fisher inside his jacket might possibly expand to more countries, more times, more genders. In Yeats’ case, as with all artists, he failed; but he failed reaching for a larger audience with a larger poetry, a poetry which he risked allying with other arts. Many of us will not be able to accomplish that failure, but I’m glad Yeats tried.

You can hear my try to alloy William Butler Yeats “The Fisherman”  with a rock band by using the gadget below.

 

Parlando Spring 2018 Top 10-Part Two

Continuing on with our count-down of the most listened to and liked audio pieces from the Parlando Project during the past quarter, we’ve now come to numbers seven through five.

At number seven this time is an example of how the Spotify listeners differ from the blog listeners. This piece received only a handful of listens on the blog this past spring, which isn’t unusual, as “Sky”  was posted there last summer, and blog users tend to listen to the latest posts unless brought here by a search engine. On Spotify though, “Sky”  has seen steady action, and enough plays there to make it one of the most listened to this spring..

I like the idea and outcome of looking at the Midwestern sky that multimedia artist Laurie Anderson explained in an interview that I quoted to make the words for this piece, but I’m not sure what attracted all the action on Spotify for it. Is it the short, somewhat generic, title perhaps? As we’ll see later this month in the countdown, another of the Parlando pieces with a one word title was very popular on Spotify in the past few months.

Well, no matter blog readers, here’s “Sky” brought to your attention by the listeners on Spotify.

 

 

One of the Parlando Project principles is “Other People’s Stories.” There are a good number of Internet locations where people post their own poems, and blogging in particular is often autobiographical. I could do the same, but I have a contrarian streak, and I find responding to other people’s words and figuring out how to perform them interesting.

I don’t dislike autobiographical blogs, I subscribe and happily read a handful of them myself. If prodded, I can go on way too long about myself, just as I have a tendency to do on any subject, and having had my first poem published almost 50 years ago, I’m certainly not against revealing my own poetry. “Other people’s stories” is a choice I find helpful, that’s all.

I will use my own poetry/lyrics in the audio pieces here from time to time, though I like it when they are my words about other people, such as the number six most popular piece last spring, “Anglers.”  This is the story of my father and his youngest brother’s sport fishing, something they spent many pleasant days doing before my father became too old and frail for his beloved outdoors. Those days seemed timeless even as they were occurring decades ago, and those lakes have become mysteriously reflective in memory now. So, in writing of them I added notes about passing between dimensions.

I’m proud of how this came out, and glad so many have taken the time to listen.

 

 

These Top Ten lists often include well-known poems by well-remembered poets, but that contrarian streak in me likes to look at those less remembered and see what might be of interest there. Richard Aldington is one such case, a writer who was active in the pre-WW1 London circle that created Modernist poetry in English. Coming in at number five on this spring’s list is this charming poem of his “The Poplar.”

David Todd asks Athen GA artists to sketch eclipse

62 years before REM was formed in that town, astronomer David Todd asks artists in Athens Georgia to sketch the June 8th 1918 total solar eclipse. Note the ads pitching goods to WWI soldiers. “Delmer’s Lunch – Run by Americans”

 

Since it is easiest for me to use poems here that are in the public domain, the newest ones are often from that Modernist revolution that occurred in the first two decades or so of the 20th Century. There are weeks when I think I must be living 100 years ago more than in 2018, as I look for and read poetry from that era. Do I find this a refuge from 2018? No. The horrors of WWI (which impacted Aldington, who served, significantly), the realities of racial, class and gender attitudes then, mean this was no golden age. But what does surprise me reliving the genesis of English Modernist verse as I read their work now, is how they employed broadly accessible images in their Imagist poetry.

The post-1920 High Modernism that was largely used to represent the Modernist movement when I first encountered it is full of obscure references, exotic words and locations, events so far into the imagination and the special dialects the poet chose to reflect those inward locations, that a reader is confronted by a world they can’t comprehend the landscape of, much less the meaning of what occurs there. There can be beauty and insight in this, but it’s a world that assumes one will come prepared, well-equipped with poetry expedition gear and maps.

But before all this, as Modernism was forming itself, the poems are still in a world much like the one inhabited by the general reader, like this graceful and musical one. Give a listen to Richard Aldington’s “The Poplar”  below.

 

 

 

Other peoples stories. How can I connect sky-watcher and eclipse sketch promoter David Todd to poetry? Todd was a pioneer of “eclipse chasing” as well as a theorist of life on Mars. His wife, who documented his trips to view eclipses was Mabel Loomis Todd. Back in the 1880s Mabel had a scandalous long-running affair with Emily Dickinson’s brother, who lived next door to Emily. After Emily’s death, Mabel Loomis Todd was the person who saw to the publication of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. And when we return soon to continue our count-down, we’ll have a poem from Emily Dickinson.

Anglers

Next weekend is the Minnesota sport fishing opener. Today’s piece, “Anglers”  is appropriate for that—but to that opener I’ll bring 8th Century Irish monks, a strange airship cosmology, a Nobel prize winner, and tenderly, a pair of brothers.

I wrote the words for “Anglers”  combining two things, one biographic and one literary, mixed with some phrases that occurred to me.

The biographic? My grandfather died when my father was a young man, shortly after I was born. My father had four brothers and a sister, and the youngest of his brothers was only a few years older than I was. My grandfather never lived long enough to teach him much, and so my father helped teach his youngest brother some things their father did not live long enough to do. One of those things was sport fishing. As my young uncle grew up, he and my dad became fishermen of the most avid kind.

Over the next fifty years, the two men fished many places in Minnesota, but most memorably for me, in Canada. Not just on the border lakes like Lake of the Woods, but halfway up Ontario to lakes above the little town of Redditt. Their base there was a rustic fishing lodge: log cabins, outhouses, small aluminum rental rowboats to which they’d attach a 1930s Johnson Sea-Horse outboard their father had bought decades ago onto their flat stern. Their routine: out with the dawn, fish until noon, pull in some inlet, fry up some fish for shore lunch, then fish again until late solstice dark. The poem I wrote doesn’t mention it but I was with them as a child on some of these trips, though fishing was not something I kept up with as I grew up and went East. The two brothers though continued their angling until my father before his death became too frail and sickened with senility to continue.

Johnson SeaHorse outboard motor

“Uncoiling the Sea-Horse.” My grandfather’s Johnson Sea-Horse outboard used by his sons

 

That’s the biographic. The phrases? I often write, at least in part, in my mind’s ear. Sometimes it’s entire first drafts of shorter poems that are composed there, other times it’s only beginnings or endings, or even phrases that somehow seem to mean to be in a poem. I’ve told myself an advantage of writing this way is that poetry often works best if it’s memorable speech, so composing this way pre-tests things by holding them in memory and seeing if they adhere.

As I get older it’s harder for me to memorize works in process, and this piece had only phrases and parts of the beginning and end stanzas in my head before I started my first paper draft. One of the phrases was the idea of the sport fisherman, the angler, being at right angles to the surface of a lake. Another was a phrase which occurred to me, “lattices of fishes,” which I simply loved the sound of, but it also seemed like unto the vertical angle from the surface of the anglers in their boat.

It was that angle word-play that brought in the literary. The anglers point up and down in their angle from the surface. What do they point to? And lattices, obviously there’s another level under the water-surface plane.

The literary? Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet, wrote a poem I much admired about a story from the medieval Irish annals. The story was some monks at Clonmacnoise in 749 A. D. observed an airship snagged on the tower of their monastery and a crewman of that airship who climbed down from it to free his ship.

Clonmacnoise tower

Clonmacnoise tower. Don’t snag your anchor on the weeds or rocks.

 

In combining the two, I created a cosmology where the air breathing anglers on the surface of a lake are like angels, or the crewman of that medieval airship, to the barely comprehending fish who are brought across to the airy world. And that echoed the idea I had developed in my head from the anglers pointing up 90 degrees from the surface of the lake in their boat. They are pointing to the heavens, a place we can no better understand than the fish can know about the world of our air-breathing.

And there you are, that’s the entire poem’s metaphoric magic-trick revealed. Yet that isn’t the poem, much less this audio piece that presents it. I still had to work on the language through several drafts, and I may work on it more after this presentation—but the poem and the audio piece is more than its images or its ideas, because a poem and a musical composition are both machines that think with sound.

So, listen to “Anglers”  using the player below. And please, let others know what we’re doing here. I would so much appreciate that.