Dickinson’s “Bloom”

If I didn’t read the news, it would still be spring.

I’ve mentioned it’s been hard to produce new pieces here recently. While there’s a variety of reasons for this, here’s one: I’d planned a little series on May flowers. I was inspired by my wife’s love for our native northland wildflowers and some gorgeous photographs of cactus blossoms by Kenne Turner that I recently viewed on his blog. I had this witty little poem by Emily Dickinson with a not so obscure moral underneath about being an artist — Emerson with a dose of playfulness. I’d completed composing the tune for it. And I planned to pair that Dickinson with a couple of poems by the master of Chinese classical poetry Du Fu.

But I was only halfway there in how captured I was by transient beauty. Earlier this spring on my morning bike ride I started to mull over this line that hasn’t found its poem yet: “This spring is filled with bird-songs and the death of young black men.” So, the horrible and the hortatory were already mixing in my thoughts, while I have nothing but good will and empathy to claim there.

Everyday I try to will myself to make useful or pleasurable work toward this project, and this, among other things, makes me pause. Am I missing the point? Do I even know what the point is, or the series of points that lead to it? I feel bad for the limits of what I can offer, and then I feel bad for not offering that little. Still, I’m stubborn with this. I keep butting against it, trying to push it over or trick my way around it.

And Tuesday I did. Starting early, I recorded an acceptable performance of the Dickinson poem with my music, worked on music for the Du Fu flower poems, and practiced my understanding of how to perform a poem of Kevin FitzPatrick’s that I will present at a memorial event this weekend. A good day it seemed, even if I missed the day’s near-perfect spring weather outside — never mind, the internal weather of being able to create, to illuminate for myself and perhaps for others the work of Dickinson, Du Fu, and Kevin was pleasant and enough.

Never mind, as I got ready to go to bed after this fruitful day, and I caught the news of another rain of bullets. Grade-school kids!

Should I have something appropriate to say, something useful about that? The horrible and the hortatory. Something that isn’t so entirely obvious to some and beside the point to others? Long time readers here will know one motto I have here: “All artists fail.” I’m certainly failing here for some today.

So, you’re going to hear me perform this little poem about flowers, about the work that goes into making mere transient beauty. Here’s a link to the text I used today if you’d like to read along. Dickinson judges right off that she’s sure this isn’t some “minor circumstance.” And Dickinson would know. She knew her flowers, wild and cultivated, intimately.* She was a serious gardener of food and flowers, and despite her growing reputation for being some secular nun always in cloister, she purposely chose that outdoor work with plants over other household chores. She knew their use for food, she knew their use for transient beauty. Flour and flowers.

Her little poem goes on, and the little bud fights several ways for survival. I love the litigious line she uses in passing that she may have borrowed from her male family’s life as lawyers “Obtain its right of dew.”

Prowling Bee by Heidi Randen

A prowling bee “Assisting in the Bright Affair so intricately done…”

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My dear wife left me on the rise to her job with a hug this morning, wishing me success in being creative today. Was she being a “prowling bee?” If so, as another bard had it, “Sail on my little honey bee, sail on.”

To fail in art, as with Dickinson’s final judgement on our flower that blooms past bud, is a “Profound Responsibility.” If you’re working on art this spring, I’m not asking you to fail, or to be happy with failure — at least I never am. This spring is full of bird song and dead people, the lightness of flower petals laid on us are a suffocating “heavy brocade” as Du Fu had it in a poem of his, one I was able to complete a performance of. All I know and can tell you is how that feels.

To hear my musical performance of Dickinson’s  “Bloom” (Bloom — is Result — to meet a Flower)  you can use the audio player you may see just below, or if you don’t see the player, through this alternative highlighted link.

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*As I mulled over this poem’s presentation, I was reminded of how seriously Dickinson took her connection with gardens and flowers by Twila Newey musing on Twitter that Dickinson’s mature aversion to publishing could have been the result of her individual conviction that transient and intimate beauty, as in her garden, was sufficient, or even superior to a wider advertisement fixed in type.

Rain on a Spring Night (after Du Fu)

Early this week, Poet Jose Hernandez Diaz on Twitter put out a call for people to respond with their go-to poets in our troubled times. I’m always uneasy when being put on the spot for short-lists, because I’m by nature a person of various moods and needs. The poet I need today is not always the one I need tomorrow. And then, it’s the same or even more so with music for me. Perhaps some of that comes through here in this project’s variety?

Two names surprised me* as I tapped in the poet names that came to my mind that day this month: Edward Thomas and Du Fu. We’ve dealt with Thomas here more recently, so today I’ll speak of Du Fu.**

Two things seem to connect me to this master of classical Chinese poetry: Du Fu wrote his best work as an old man (such as I am) — and that productive period coincided with a great governmental rebellion and crisis in China. When Du Fu writes a lovely nature passage, I always read it as the work of someone who is also seeing great destruction and violence in the human part of nature.

Du Fu, not an Asian-American, but his poetry sometimes speaks to my country none-the-less.

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In this troubled week I went looking for a poem I could get close to and perform, and I found this one of Du Fu’s. For practical reasons, I need to make my own translations of Du Fu from English language glosses (such as the ones found at Chinese-poems.com) and the difficulties of making a graceful poem in English out of an 8th century Chinese poem would seem daunting, but they attract me all the more. Obviously, there are great risks that I will misunderstand what Du Fu is trying to say — but not only do I accept those risks, I’ve been tempted more than once to transform key images from Du Fu’s time and place to contemporary America. For these reasons most of my Du Fu pieces should be understood as adaptations, the kind of thing that I’ve decided are best labeled as “After a poem by….”***

Here’s the English gloss of the Chinese I worked from, and for comparison here’s a link to another person’s English language translation.

gloss rain

This is the gloss I worked from for today’s piece.

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And here’s my “Rain on a Spring Night (after Du Fu)”  version used for today’s performance:

Rain on a Spring Night by Frank Hudson

I usually would work longer on one of these, but it’s been too long since I presented new work here.

I think of my opening section as a good faith attempt at an accurate translation into a working English poem. I used English syntax and conventions, added the poetic device of parallelism to substitute for the word-music losses inherent to translation, and tried, as I always do, to present vivid images.

The last section of Du Fu’s poem is where I likely diverge. I do sense a turn in the poem at this point, I think it’s possible Du Fu’s trying to contrast the peaceful rain following nature’s order in his opening. The (cooking? signal? lantern?) fire on the boat is the only human sign in the poem. Is that only coincidental decoration? The gloss’ final line is most difficult. A single image there comes through to me: that flowers, perhaps even fallen blossoms, are like the patterns on a brocade fabric. “Government city” puzzles. Like brocade on rich courtiers? Or is this spring morning near a capitol city?

So, my choice was to allude, somewhat obliquely as Du Fu seems to have done, and the final scene is designed to depict not peaceful spring and beneficent rain, but the aftermath of violence as we all to well know it now and here: the yellow crime scene tape, the flower memorials left. A rain of bullets is not a good rain.

My music and performance is very sparse for this, but I decided that’s starkness was effective. You can hear the performance with a player some will see below, or with this highlighted link.

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*I wouldn’t even have known their names, much less their poetry or something of their lives before starting this Project six years ago.

**I have to note his name was often spelled in the western alphabet as Tu Fu. Du Fu is supposed to be the better approximation, even though there are as many or more references to him as Tu Fu online or in books.

***I was aware of that sort of classification, but it was poet Robert Okaji (who has also produced graceful work in English from classical Chinese poems) who cinched down that tactic for me. Another thing that informed my practice here is my love for “the folk process” transformations that folk music lyrics go through. In that latter example, a tale of an unfortunate British Isles rake easily becomes the tale of a dying cowboy on the streets of Laredo Texas, or a run-of-the-mill elusive bad-boy-robber ballad gets pared down by a colonial subject whose nation has been dehumanized into the tale of a shape-shifting were-fox.

Hortensia

This has not been a month conducive to producing new content for this project, and I’m not sure about July and August either. At some point I’ll probably talk about some of the reasons for that, but I thought it’d be good to leave you with one more June piece, and it’s a fine summer song by a voice this project hasn’t heard from enough lately: Dave Moore.

Dave and I first performed as The LYL Band about 40 years ago, and we’ve kept at it over the years. Our typical encounters this century have been a sort of two-person song circle with each of us alternating in presenting a song, a piece most often completely new and unknown to the other. These first takes* get recorded, and one of them is today’s audio piece.

First takes with unknown material is not the way most bands work, and certainly not how they record. Bob Dylan worked with unknown, fresh material and new-to-it musicians in his classic years (and may still now, there’s just less documentation), often providing at best chord charts for assembled musicians or brief run-throughs. But Dylan would do multiple takes even trying different studios or musicians over time, trying get the right take.

It’s not uncommon for jazz musicians to do the same thing we do in their recording studio dates, though some feel that even with Jazz’s reverence for spontaneity that this is a practice brought forward for logistical and lowered recording-budget overhead reasons, not as a considered artistic choice. Miles Davis seemed to find this practice a considered choice though, and when one listens to a record such as Kind of Blue  we are likely to give some credit to that choice, which Bill Evans likened to spontaneous Japanese painting in the original LP liner notes. Later on, Davis took to the pentimento-practice of having everyone improvising on themes and then letting later audio editing assemble from the mass of recorded playing a post-recording compositional structure. A record like Davis’ A Tribute to Jack Johnson  assembled that way has a different vibe and timbre from Kind of Blue,  but it works for me in its different way.

Are Dave and I musicians like Davis and his band members? No. Nor are we musicians likely to be called to a Bob Dylan session (note to Bob: call us anyway). Most of what we record on any one day isn’t worth more than a self-critical listen on our own parts. And of the rest? There are usually rough spots that even a bit of focused audio editing can’t excise. And then, sometimes something like “Hortensia”  arrives.

If you accept (as I say often here) that all artists fail, then it can sometimes behoove one to make peace with failure. Do that, and then allow, then make possible, for the limited successes to arrive.

I often tend to overstate my guitar parts. I didn’t here. Dave’s keyboard skills at the time of the recording get some space, and while he’s not going to kick Bill Evans or Herbie Hancock to the curb, what he plays works. Dave’s vocals are usually more consistent than mine by a long shot, and his performance serves the song. I think Dave may have even improvised some of these lyrics during the performance — and this is the only performance of this song ever.  And that serves the song too.

You see, I hear this as a summer song, a song of long days, rich days, that are still days,  and must end in earth’s and fortune’s rota. “Now, sweet now” Dave sings. Yes.

Hortensia

I think I asked Dave what the song was about shortly after we recorded it. “The summer flower or the Roman woman?” I think he replied that it was more at something intuitive.

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You can hear it with the player gadget below. Don’t see a player? This highlighted hyperlink will also play it. “Hortensia” is longer than most of our pieces here, but sit back with a cool drink and listen. Thank you hearty listeners and readers for sticking with this project!

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*First, and in most cases, the only take. Since we haven’t focused on live performance much in our old age, we aren’t working up material for performance or developing a repertoire for that. Dave has been as prolific with words and with songs with his own music as I have been with musical pieces over the past few years. This means that there was always new material to be tried out, to be brought into existence, even if briefly and for one take.

Spring 2021 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 4-2

There’s another repeat author in this segment of our spring 2021 countdown of the most listened to and liked pieces here over the past three months. More than that, the number 4 and 3 positions are held by two installments drawn from the same poem, parts of my long serial performance of “The Waste Land”  that wound up this year. It makes sense then to deal with them together.

4 What the Thunder Said Part 1 and What the Thunder Said Part 2 by T. S. Eliot  As much as I enjoyed the challenge of taking on the range of Eliot’s poem and making explicit its implicit musicality, “The Waste Land” is not what many of us go to for poetry comfort food. The last section of the great poem was by all accounts written while Eliot was hospitalized with what is now considered depression. Most of his poem is a horror story, still and all twice-baked crafted, written by a man whose meticulousness had him working in a bank — and then revised by Ezra Pound, as merciless an editor as ever existed. That part of the poem can seem a cold-case puzzle to be solved, the likely source material for a volume by Dan Brown. It’s not.

It’s a series of songs made up of the overheard and the remembered bits caught inside Eliot’s educated mind, half in Parnassus and half in a Hogarthian vision of early 20th century London — and then we get to the last part of the poem, “What the Thunder Said,”  which is more Eliot’s own song, a long somewhat improvised song that was written, he later confessed to Virginia Woolf, in something of a trance, without even bothering to understand what he was writing. Up until then the poem, however despairing or dark, has been crowded: voices, characters, changes of scene. This last part is Eliot alone with himself. The waste land, the desert title-place that we only meet in this last section, isn’t the condition of post-WWI England or Europe, the waste land is Eliot alone with himself in only lightly-disguised self-pity, which eventually leads to a final expiation in its concluding portion.*  The accelerating four sections of “What the Thunder Said”  that I presented this past April are the journey of that mind.

You can hear the performances of Part 1 of “What the Thunder Said” here with this highlighted hyperlink, or if you see it, with the player gadget below.

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And part 2, with this player, or alternate hyperlink.

 

So, what’s the next poem in our countdown after all that sturm und drang?

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How Many Flowers

Seriously, singing poetry can be an even deeper inhalation of a poem. Here’ are my chords if you’d like to sing this poem of Dickinson’s.

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2 How Many Flowers by Emily Dickinson  Just Emily: gardener, avid botanist, Transcendentalist meditator, a legal mind filing a concise argument in the case of the universe, folding her words up. It takes me a minute and a half to sing it.

I had some fun in my original post on this imagining how close she came in her poetic diction to writing an early 20th century Imagist poem, but we may have little trouble translating on the fly from her 19th century-isms to the vivid moment she observes: the observed or unobserved flower, the present and presence — and the future, their scarlet freight. Like much great poetry, maybe like all great poetry it doesn’t need me to prattle on about it, it just needs you to sing it, to carry that scarlet freight.

The player gadget that many of you will see is below for “How Many Flowers”  by Emily Dickinson. Can’t see the player in your reader or browser view? Here’s the alternate highlighted hyperlink.

*Unlike the other 3 parts, the 4th part of “What the Thunder Said”  didn’t get the listens and likes to make this top 10, possibly because of its length or general disinterest or dismay from the audience in its rough, less-exactly recorded nature. Still the electric guitar playing that builds from about 3 minutes in and finally becomes the brief solo that starts at 4:45 is as pure a piece of musical-emotional expression as I’ve ever played.

In German November, or What? Nietzsche was a poet?

As a person educated in the mid-20th century this is what I knew about Fredrich Nietzsche: he was a philosopher who was all the rage in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century and he had this thing about achieving a more perfected human condition. Oh, I knew one more thing about him, something that discouraged all other curiosity: the Nazis liked him, saw him as an intellectual forerunner of their decidedly non-intellectual movement.

I know only a little more than that now. In the past few years it’s become accepted knowledge that the Nazi connection was to a large degree accidental. Nietzsche’s sister was his literary executor,* and she was a Nazi fan-girl who did a great deal to forge that linkage; and since the Nazis were nationalists, the available idea that there was a notable German cultural figure whose contradictory writings could dab some intellectual cologne onto their bully-boy stink was useful.

I vaguely knew that one of my childhood heroes George Bernard Shaw had admired him, but I had no idea how many leftist and anarchist figures rated Nietzsche. Remember Gustav Landauer, the German Anarchist theorist and grandfather of the famous director and improv comic pioneer Mike Nichols, brutally killed in the post WWI revolutionary activity in Germany? He was said to be influenced by Nietzsche too.

But this fall, while reading a blog I follow,** I learned another thing: that Nietzsche was also a poet. Which shouldn’t be news to me I guess, but it had never occurred to me, even though as a philosopher Nietzsche seemed to be something of a human quote machine who could turn out memorable phrases. And today’s text, “In German November,”  was the example that introduced me to that fact.

November Sadness by  Heidi Randen

Ah sunflower! Weary of cold and $%*@! snow.

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I know only a little about German literary Romanticism, but what I know makes Nietzsche’s poem part of that tradition: worship of nature, doomed love—Damn! There’s even a prominent talking flower for Odin’s-sake! This can seem very twee in summary, but Nietzsche redeems it with his gift for language and characterization. Unlike other translations I’ve done here, this one’s poetic images and plot moved rather easily into English.

This is autumn: it — it just breaks your heart.”

After the poem establishes its “This is Autumn…” refrain by opening with it, the first full stanza has a graceful post-equinox image of a now lower sun against a mountain that would please Wang Wei. The poem’s second scene, set in a orchard with post-frost fruit starting to rot mixes sex and death tropes effectively. And then there’s that talking flower.

It takes some nerve to carry that scene off both as a writer and as a performer. I felt I had to push myself as a singer to portray the sunflower, and part of the reason I’ve started to put chord sheets up for some of my compositions here is to encourage better singers to improve on my attempts.

German November My Translation for song

Simple chords, but this one has opportunities for a singer.

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Because Nietzsche’s German moves fairly easily to English my translation doesn’t differ that much from the one in this link, which also provides you with the original German. One choice/change I made: I wanted to emphasize the existential angst of the sunflower and to strengthen an image—and so the original German: “in ihrem Auge glänzet dann/Erinnerung auf” gains a repeated word “memorial” reflected in the dying flower/eye. I also thought the implied pause in Nietzsche’s refrain: “This is autumn: it—just breaks your heart.” could be emphasized further by repeating the “it” for a stutter effect.

As I mentioned above, I went for it in this performance, and given my limits as a singer it may not be to everyone’s taste, but it was the best I could do given the more limited recording opportunities I have these days. The player gadget to hear it is below. Thanks for reading and listening in whatever November wherever you are.

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*Nietzsche died in 1900, late enough to give his ideas access to the early 20th century’s cultural ferment, but with the benefit that the proponent of those ideas wasn’t around to contradict the uses interpreters put them to.

**Byron’s Muse. I like to think I’ve outgrown youthful goth romanticism, which fits badly with my aged frame and less virginal connections to death, but Byron’s Muse sometimes reminds me that artistically there is still some attraction there.

Some Rainbow coming from the Fair

There I was, thinking it’s been over a month since I’ve presented an Emily Dickinson poem here. I didn’t start this project thinking that Dickinson would be so prevalent as a source for texts, but that’s what happened, and during the past four years my appreciation and wonder at Dickinson has increased greatly.

One thing I came to sense in her poetry that I had not noticed before was an air of the mystical combined with an almost psychedelic playfulness. This can be dark or light depending on the poem, but since many of the things I’ve been working on lately have been in a darker, more gothic vein, I thought I’d look more to the lighthearted side. I started a search for Dickinson and spring, and while I’m not sure exactly what keywords I used, this poem turned up very near the top, and it immediately captured me. I had thought I’d be searching for a while but found my next piece in less than 10 minutes.

“Some Rainbow coming from the Fair”  is not one of the most famous of Dickinson’s poems, nor has it been commonly set to music (unlike many other Dickinson texts). Here’s the full text and a picture of the manuscript in Emily’s own handwriting if you’d like to follow along.

It opens with two remarkable and attractive lines that don’t present a distinct image. I’m not sure which meaning of the word “Fair” we’re to understand in the first line. Fair as in a celebratory meeting or market (like a county or town fair) or fair as in beautiful, but rainbows and fair in the first line and we could almost be in My Little Pony land if Dickinson doesn’t launch us further out quickly into a “A vision of the world Cashmere.” I first thought of the luxurious wool,*  but she also could be using this word as an alternate name for the Asian region called Kashmir. Peacocks complete the luxurious imagery of the first stanza. In later context we’ll see that this is an image of wildflowers, but at this point we’re still in mystery and allure.

Next stanza is lovely in sound and more specific in what it pictures. Butterflies are butterflies, ponds have insect sounds again, and in an image that might make one laugh out loud, bees are “barons” out of their castles and on the ambling march.

Third stanza, robins have replaced the enrapturing snow that Dickinson so ably described in a poem many liked here last winter. She next gives us an orchis flower prettying up for an old lover, the exotic Spanish nobleman “Don the Sun” who is revisiting her in her swamp.**  The sensual and the silly playfulness keep mixing it up.

In context we now suspect that the poem is describing wildflowers in its more impressionistic and feathered images. And the final stanza marshals the spring blooms into an army. And then, like it started, the poem departs with two lines that end in mystery. What’s up with the flower children of “turbaned seas” and the “Circassian Land?”

Well first, flowers again.*** The spring flowering tulip’s name is derived from the same word as the Turkish word turban because the bud’s shape is of a like shape to the head covering. The Circassians and their native region in the Caucasus mountains were in the news at the time this poem was written. Imperial Russia had invaded the area, and the Circassians were fighting back.**** Some of the coverage dealt with atrocities including the enslavement of Circassian captives and captured Circassian women being held in Turkish harems. As we’ve discussed before, this last trope was an exotic/erotic fixation for some westerners. Circassians were geographically “Caucasians”—and in the archaic understanding of ethnicity of this time, Caucasians were held to be the prototypical white race. Therefore, beyond the usual fascination with underdog fighters against Imperial forces and humanitarian concerns with displaced refugees, there was this additional element of “White Slavery” and a frisson of the forbidden.

So this is a very particular and odd way to end the poem—but even if you know nothing of the current events of the mid 19th century, it does still convey that exotic flavor. A reader reading this without context may still find it an enjoyable spring celebration poem. It certainly captured my interest at first reading. But wait, there’s one more bit of context!

It may well have been intended to capture it’s reader, as it did me, in that it’s one of the poems Dickinson sent in a letter to her friend, sister in law, neighbor, and possible lover Susan Gilbert Dickinson in 1859. If you look at the end of that handwritten manuscript, it ends with this note:

Emily's Dear Sue Note

Dear Sue, I haven’t “paid you an attention” for some time. Girl.

 

 

As with all things Emily and Sue, there’s a gathering amount of modern speculation and scholarship to these matters. Just a little friend to friend note or a bread-and-butter obligation repaid to a sister in law? Or is this poem meant to be an encoded mash note to a romantic crush?

If it’s consciously or unconsciously erotic, one may be able to see that reading without strain. Cashmere as fabric for a vest or blouse. The pervasive flowers now as the beautiful reproductive organs of plants. And butterflies. The bees, are they singing Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee”  from a hundred years after Dickinson’s poem? That Orchis waiting for a lover? Oh, for certain. Sensuous feathers. The whole captive in a harem as role-playing. It’s not just the spring wetlands that are getting steamy in here!

In the end, the poem may stand either for spring’s desire and delight or the poet’s. And as I said last time, it captures you with it sound of thought either way. The player gadget for my performance is below.

 

 

* Dickinson might have had it in mind, as this textile from Asiatic goats had been introduced to western countries, and Massachusetts in her time had mills that wove it into fabric.

** The informal British English meaning for “bog” was not likely on Emily’s mind. However, one of Dickinson’s poetic heroes Elizabeth Barrett Browning had helped propagate the Latin lover trope with her publication of her love poems Sonnets from the Portuguese in 1850.

***Emily Dickinson was an avid gardener, and as a young woman compiled an elaborate herbarium classifying a great many flowers in her region. Whenever Dickinson mentions a flower you can be sure she knows more about it than the average person.

****These overseas battles were covered in the Springfield Republican,  a Massachusetts newspaper that was read in the Dickinson household and which was one of the few places that published an Emily Dickinson poem while she was alive. Alas for the Circassians, the final outcome of this invasion was diaspora and what in a quaint 20th century euphemism was called “ethnic cleansing.” And to think that I sought out this poem because I wanted contrast to other, darker stuff I was working on.

The Easter Flower

I could have chosen another poem for Easter, but besides this one’s song-setable qualities, “The Easter Flower”  is a poem about a Christian holiday written by a non-believer.

No, let me strike that casual term, “non-believer,” which doesn’t seem to fit McKay. He was a life-long radical, an unwavering believer in workers rights and social justice, always stalwart against colonialism and racism. As a radical, black, gay, immigrant man these beliefs were no simple balm to his soul, and by that I judge his beliefs to be strong and tested. McKay was also a confirmed skeptic, analyzing situations and sometimes changing his views on how these goals may be achieved, but that doesn’t alter those beliefs.

Now some of that may or may not resonate with you. Believers who do not share your beliefs can be rough companions to your reading or listening. Rest easy, this poem isn’t like that.

Here’s a link to the full text of the poem.

First off, like Wordsworth’s famous “Daffodils,”  this is a poem about a past-tense experience, something that exists for the poem’s singer only as a limerent memory as he sings of the flower. McKay who grew up in rural tropical Jamaica spent much of his life in more northern climes. The weather forecast for Minnesota calls for a few inches of wet snow for this Easter, and if non-tropical Minnesotans find this disappointing, all the more so for McKay.

So, the lily in the poem is likely a childhood Caribbean memory, and the plant the Trumpet Lily, the Easter Lily, is not native to these then English colonies. It was introduced there by a missionary who brought it from Japan in the 19th century. I don’t know if McKay knew that, but this flower he remembers at Easter time amidst thoughts of home is a colonial artifact as well as a Christian symbol.

Claude McKay and Easter Lily

Claude McKay and the flower of his complex memory

 

In the poem’s second stanza McKay modulates the flower memory, displacing the pale flowers in his mind by liking it to a formation of “rime,” the hoar-ice that forms along shapes when foggy water vapor freezes rapidly, uniting the poems present voice in a colder Easter with the warmer past. The end of this stanza and the beginning of the next form a vivid spring rebirth image, as devotional as any Christian mystic could have written.

And then the poem let’s us know that McKay isn’t a Christian. Indeed, at the time the poem was written he was an atheist.*  Therefore, the remembered image of the Easter flower is extraordinarily alienated from the singer. It’s in the past, in the ground of a country he no longer lives in, it’s a religious symbol not of his religion, it’s a non-native plant introduced by colonialists, growing in a climate of soft fragrant April nights, not a sleety cold northern city.

How easily we might skip through this poem, hearing but it’s lovely sounds and involuntarily resonating to the memories of a holiday with flashbacks of chocolate bunnies and jelly beans—or for devout Christians, one might hear only the inspiration of the image of the tomb earth giving way in resurrection. But that’s not this poem. McKay ends saying that he, “a pagan,” is overcome by this none-the-less, worshiping at another religion’s shrine. Why? From what? I think he chooses to make it undetermined. Homesickness even for a colonial homeland he felt he needed to leave is there. A certain ecumenical mystery too. The sensuousness of the flower is an undercurrent, the night smell of the flower has pheromonic power.

To hear my performance of Claude McKay’s “The Easter Flower”  use the player gadget below.

 

 

*In the last decade of his life, 20 years after this poem was written, McKay was attracted to the Catholic worker movement. After a period of self-searching he became a member of the Catholic Church.

See Emily Play: May-Flower

The great thing about Emily Dickinson and her around 2000 poems is that there’s always one you haven’t experienced yet—and just this week over at the Interesting Literature blog I saw this Dickinson spring poem. “May-Flower”  has Dickinson doing her most subtle music to accompany her most Blakean attention. Just like it says itself: it’s a “bold little beauty.”

It’s short and compressed, and if you read it quickly and silently it may seem slight and slide right by you. Spring, May, flowers, check. Robins. Yup, spring. Its abrupt ending might stop you for just a moment. It ends: “Nature forswears/Antiquity.”

Oh, I get it, the flowers in early May are new, there isn’t such a thing as antique flowers. Easy enough to see that—but the undercurrent is deeper, because this is another carpe diem poem, though this time without much bombast and no overt hey-baby-what-about… pickup lines. Yes, there are no old flowers, and so this flower will come and go with May.

Not many words in this poetry-machine, but without choosing any esoteric ones, Dickinson has made some choices that may arrest you the second time you read it. “Punctual,” the flowers know right when to be there. “Covert” those early signs of spring, like some advance spies. “Candid” for May, and spring fully here, no need to hide as a generic bud. Even “Dear” in “Dear to the moss” is a choice I wonder about. I’ve even read it incorrectly as “Near to the moss” once or twice, and sound-wise “near” works very well and is clear in meaning.  Does Dickinson want to pun on deer, another spring poem perennial? Does she want to pickup and connect that D sound from “Candid” in the line before it rather than predict the upcoming N sounds of “Known,” “knoll” and “Next?”

Which brings me to this: if you listen to the poem, or plant it in your own mouth, the sound is exquisite. Rhymes and near-rhymes abound without locking down to a scheme: “small/punctual/low/April/knoll/soul” and “every/beauty/thee/Antiquity,” and consonants and vowels are echoing each other too.

See Emily Play Games for May HD

Foreswears antiquity: I’m not sure if anyone who reads this will remember the poster I’m referencing here.

 

To perform “May-Flower”  I made some choices. First, to slow the listener down, and to give extra chances to hear that echoing sound-play, I repeated each line. And to emphasize the moment rather than its passing, I interleaved the first and second stanzas as responses to each other. In the last stanza, the responses are just additional echoes of that stanza’s lines.

For the music, I decided to refer to The Pink Floyd. No, not the auditorium and eventually stadium-filling rock band, but the original 1967 Syd Barrett-fronted line up, which was based more around the sound of that era’s electric organs with a taste of Barrett’s unique take on slide guitar. So, time to dabble and wobble organs and break out the Telecaster and a finger wrapped in a vase of glass.

Emily’s poetry-machine obliviates the need for dodgy recreational chemicals. Attention is the drug. This is not the first time I’ve referred to Emily Dickinson’s visionary side here. I see it coexisting with her skeptical wit. And this poem, for all it’s Blakean a heaven in a wild-flower aspect was also intended by the botanically knowledgeable Dickinson as a riddle, the correct answer is a particular New England wild-flower, the trailing arbutus.  See Emily play. There is no other day. Free games for May….

Here’s the text of Emily Dickinson’s May-Flower if you’d like to read along.

May-Flower text

This is the regularized version with conventional punctuation. Emily’s own was full of her dashes.

And here’s my performance of it with original music. Use the player below.

 

The Parlando Project Winter 2017 Top 10 Part 1

I’m going to do the top 10 list a little differently for the past fall,  doing it in parts, so as to not overwhelm visitors here in one post with more audio pieces than you might have time to listen to. I’m also a bit pressed for time right now, and this fits with my schedule as well.

In traditional fashion, we’ll start with the 10th most popular audio piece from the past three months, and work our way up the list in popularity judged by your streams of the audio and likes on the blog.

Number 10, we have my looser translation of Rainier Maria Rilke’s “The Dark Interval,”  which is one of five pieces that are returning from our last Top 10 from September.  I translated this a few years back, making choices at the time (as translators must) as to what the author was getting at in the original German, and what English could most effectively reflect that. Knowing just a little bit more about Rilke, I think I’d make some different, better informed choices now, but the choices I made then do make for a particularly apt Winter poem with it’s opening skiing metaphor that was my most audacious choice. Rilke’s lines “I can speak in many voices/but this voice shuts up quick.” remain personally meaningful.

Musically, this is one of the short and pretty ones, so go ahead and listen.

 

 

Number 9 finds the piece that remains a perennial on the Top 10 lists, a little angsty ditty written by a love-lorn teenager infatuated with a neighbor girl. Although he didn’t actually complete the piece, with it’s acrostic scheme that was to spell out the young woman’s entire name left abandoned partway through the last name, and even though he apparently didn’t get the girl, you have to admit it’s an ambitious move by a young poet or suitor.

I titled it with the love object’s first name “Frances.”  The guy went on to military and political success, capping it off eventually with popular success as a wordsmith here. You may have heard of him: George Washington

 

 

Rose3

“When the last rose of summer pricks my finger…” photo by Renee Robbins

 

 

Well, is it all going to be repeats from last time? No. At number 8 we have a newer piece, making it’s first appearance on a Top 10 here, William Carlos Williams’ “It Is a Small Plant.”

My late wife often found pleasure in looking at things closely. How intent and intense could her focus become, and what would that reveal? If she found out, she could never tell me exactly, only that she was drawn to do that. Many years ago, after her death, I took to digitizing the photographic slide prints that she took, some of which were as close to buds and flowers as her lens could focus, and the feeling of being behind her eyes, looking with her intent, fell over me.

Williams does something like that in his poem, which also cannot tell you straightforwardly what it apprehends, while the power of the seeing is overwhelming. I like the music I played for this one quite a bit, particularly the fretless bass part, an instrument that I took up this year, and have felt greatly rewarded by.

 

 

That’s all for today, but three more of the Top 10 will be posted here soon. And remember, we now have over 160 pieces posted, so if you’d like to see what else we’ve performed and interpreted, the Archives (to the right on the web page) will let you listen to other pieces.

It Is a Small Plant

September 17th is the birthday of the American Modernist poet and physician William Carlos Williams, and today’s piece uses the words from one of his poems “It Is a Small Plant,”  the best known selection from a sequence of poems Williams called “The Flowers of August.”

William_Carlos_Williams_passport_photograph_1921

Just because you have have a passport doesn’t mean you have to move overseas.

 

Unlike some other American Modernists—including two poets he met and befriended while a student at the University of Pennsylvania, H.D. and Ezra Pound—Williams spent most of his formative writing years in the United States, much of it in his native state of New Jersey where he practiced as a pediatrician. Like his fellow stay-at-home Modernist Carl Sandburg, Williams wrote poems the followed the new Imagist rules, at least at the start, finding them useful in breaking away from the old poetic styles.

One of those Imagist rules, the first one in fact, was “direct treatment of the ‘thing.” That doesn’t mean that you just directly state the message from your heart. Rather, it means that you honor and hone the image(s) that represent your meaning as palpable thing, not as mere poetic decoration for your words. “It Is a Small Plant” demonstrates that by spending nearly the entire poem presenting a description of a flowering plant.

In the series “The Flowers of August,”  each of Williams’ other poems are titled with the name of a particular meadow or pasture flower, but not this one. So, I suspect this is meaningful. The description of the flower here sounds a bit to me like the common bluebell, but it’s possible that he diverged from botany in service of one of the poem’s images, or that the omission of the flower name in the title for this poem made a point for him.

The other, more important, mystery is who the “her” that is inspecting the flower with the poet is, the her who regards the subject flower as “a little plant without leaves.” At first. I wondered if it was perhaps a young girl looking at the flowers, but I now believe that it’s the “her” featured at the poem’s close: summer. If that’s so, that is the reason the flower has no name, as the human name doesn’t exist for nature and for nature’s incarnation as summer. And in the course of the poem, summer then too cannot care about the anthropomorphic desires presented in Williams’ presentation of the image of the flower.

Violet

Unlike William Blake, William Carlos Williams didn’t see Heaven in a wildflower,
but he did see nature observing himself observing the flower.

I’m not a quick understander of poetry. In working on this piece, I read Williams’ poem, enjoying some lines in themselves. The ostensible subject seemed to fit with the season and coincidentally with some other pieces I’m working on—but I wasn’t sure what it meant. In the course of fitting it with music, recording the vocal, and then tweaking and mixing the music, I lived with this poem for a good part of the last couple of days, reading or hearing the words over and over.

If I had been too concerned with its meaning, I might have stuck with my initial supposition, that it was child apprehending the flower. I was pre-disposed to that on first reading, having briefly re-meeting Margot Kreil earlier this week, a poet who wrote an excellent poem called “Weeds”  which featured just such an image. But I was more concerned with getting the drums right, playing the bass, setting up delay divisions for the guitar lines, and marshalling my limited keyboard skills for the soft keyboard parts, and then making that all fit together.

Through you don’t have to go through those composition and production steps, this points out again one of the things that music can do to change the context for words when it’s combined with them. While music can emphasize some mood or presentation of the words, in the same way that suspense music makes a film clip of a character walking down an unremarkable hallway scary, it can also offer its art as a distraction from worrying about meaning too soon with a poem.

To hear my performance of William Carlos Williams’ “It Is a Small Plant,”  use the player below.