There’s a story that a poet once read a poem to a small group. There were a few murmurs in that small audience, that kind of appreciation — the kind that a not-uncommon everyday poet might expect at a public reading. It’s a sound that says “That certainly sounded like something. Might be good, but can I trust myself? That was poetry, and poets can be clearly beautiful without being, well, clear.”
Yes, there are poems that can cause amen shouts. Yes, there are poems where audiences will applaud. Some of those poems are useful, and isn’t that a kind of beauty? Yes it is — but I said this was one of those poems one more commonly hears when a poet reads.
This time, one listener in the small audience spoke up. “What does that poem mean?” they asked.
The poet looked at the honest questioner for a moment. Looked down at the podium. Paused a moment more. And then they simply read the poem again.
Note, the poet didn’t chastise the listener. It’s good when readers and listeners want to know what they can take in from a set of words and sounds. The issue here is that many poems are written by sincere poets who wrote and crafted a poem without being able to express what they labored to put in the poem nearly as well otherwise. The object of such a poem isn’t a summary, an allegory, or single thread of argument or narrative, rather it may be something designed not to be vague, but to exactly reflect differently as one stands around it.
Are we to comfort and remember the ghosts or be frightened of them? Yes.
I wrote the text for today’s performance. I accumulated a few lines in my head during a day — and then when I should have been going to sleep, they asked to be written down. Three revisions later and it’s at the version I performed today. I think this is a fairly plainspoken poem, but I know from experience when I’ve presented my work to other people they often find poems in this style baffling and ineffective, this even though they too are poets. I could write here about what they’ve suggested, and what I’ve resisted in those suggestions, but let’s defer that for now. I could also write about what engendered this poem, what the lines seemed to mean when I looked at them from a variety of directions, but tonight I feel the poem at this level of revision says what it should say as well as I can say it in its resonances and refractions. You can hear me perform “Ghosts” with the player gadget below. Don’t see any such player? Use this highlighted link and it will open a new tab with an alternative player so that you can hear it.
Tonight is Jazz Night here at the Parlando Project Top 10 countdown. I’m going to ask the folks who come here for the talk about words to murmur down quietly today as I speak about the music.
Funny how these quarterly counts sometimes become nice little “sets.” Both today and tomorrow’s segments as we countdown to the most popular piece this past spring are as good as any planned ones I could have devised. So, let’s get the musicians on stage!
7. Sonny Rollins, the Bridge, 1959 by Frank Hudson. Remember that the bold-face headings at the start of each entry in this countdown are links to the original post presenting them, where you can read what I had to say about it then. I had a lot to say about this one back in January, and so even though this is a piece where I wrote both the words and music, today I’m going to talk about how this (and many of our Parlando Project musical pieces) was realized.
With significant accuracy I hesitate to call myself a musician. My home instrument is the guitar, but even there my knowledge is not something to brag about, my skillset a bit unusual, but limited, and my consistency not up to a professional (or even many dedicated amateurs’) level. But I have a secret weapon: I can choose to compose or improvise (spontaneous composition) the things I present here. My Jazz guitar chops are not strong, but the chordal part was something I was able to execute. Listening back today to the second guitar part I improvised for this I think it was a good day with the wind at my back for me.
In another world I’d more often use other musicians who could add their skills to this enterprise, but logistically and financially the one-man-band approach is what makes it possible for me to express the variety of different musical ideas that I present.
To hear this or the other musical pieces here, use the player that may appear below, or this highlighted link.
6. Lenox Ave Midnight, an Extension by Langston Hughes. Another little miracle pulled from my limited, if a bit unusual, skill set? On a good day I can do a passible impression of a guitarist, but my keyboard playing is always naïve. The advantage I can find? Modern MIDI lets me use my mind where my fingers don’t know what to do. In a piece like this I figure out some kind of harmonic flavor by trial and error and my sketchy knowledge of music theory. I played that part and then improvised a right-hand part, editing on a MIDI “piano roll” to correct bad dynamics or altering notes I didn’t like. To an actual pianist this could be called “cheating.” To a composer, it’s called “composing.” You see, I use the term composer protectively, because I really do feel ashamed sometimes that I couldn’t play in real time with two hands the keyboard parts that to casual listeners make a sound like I could. And I think: to a real pianist realizing this simple composition would be a trifle. To me: achievement!
Near the end of this piece, to open up its musical world before I speak the two lines I added to Langston Hughes poem (the reason I call this piece “an extension”) I did something I rarely do here, which I personally try to avoid, because it really does feel like cheating to me. I used a couple of small loops of recorded melodic material from Apple Logic’s free-to-use loop library. My composer’s need here was that my simple and not very convincing saxophone part, that I did play on MIDI guitar, needed something to camouflage those issues.
Why does this bother me to do? After all sampled loops have been part of popular music since the hip-hop DJ’s started dropping riffs from vinyl records. Because I use “composer” as my excuse, my get-out-of-pretender-jail free card, I believe I (or at least some human present in the room with me in the creation process) should have played or scored the notes. I think the two short horn section loops used here sound fine, helped make this piece successful for listeners — but that’s why I feel guilty for using that tactic. Whoever played them, devised those short motifs, didn’t know what I was doing, wasn’t working in concert with my aims.
Now look, I don’t generally mind when other artists do this. Returning to words briefly now: I spent many an April here performing the words of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” which includes — even more than I imagined — squadrons of quotations and paraphrases from pre-existing works. Selection, curation, recombination, and recontextualization are easily defined as creative acts. Maybe my qualms and self-imposed rules in this have a most self-interested reason: I worry that the casual listener here will think I’m just reading poems over pre-recorded music, when I’m proud that I had to write and play and record the majority of the music on this Project, one track at a time.
Sonny Rollins, inspiring to me, yet my distance from that discipline shames me
5. Autumn Movement by Carl Sandburg. I stopped writing this post here yesterday, because what I had written so far seemed embarrassingly solipsistic, pretentious, and uninteresting to my audience, and yet also because some of the things I’m feeling as I write about my musical work are hard to condense into a reasonable length post — to be better, it would be even more. And so here we are at this, my presentation of a short nature poem by one of my heroes Carl Sandburg, illuminated by lovely music I made for it. How am I to feel about it tonight? Amazed that I, a non-musician, was able to make it? Or something that feels almost like shame or embarrassment that I present it publicly, when there are days I can’t play anything of any value? Knowing enough to know that what I know as a composer (little) and what I can bring to the composer as a player (limited). Knowing that at my age (old) there isn’t much lifetime to remedy those things.
This, though I cannot say I have sufficient understanding or skills, is where Jazz comforts me as no other art does. Jazz is always confronting the empty sky. Always a critique of silence — and able to the fears inside silence, now, not later, and with surprise and failure. There can be no surprise without failure. I’m a small man, it’s a big sky and a big silence. There are better musicians, better composers, but it’s a big sky and a big silence. This the musician’s and composer’s prayer: may music find a way.
Let’s continue our Top Ten countdown of those pieces that you liked and listened to the most this autumn. Regular readers here may not be surprised that death features in some way in each of today’s three poems, as illnesses, infirmities — and yes, folks I’ve known a long time dying — have been part of the year for me.
Everyone that dies or is limited by infirmities is a lesson, one you listen to more richly and intently as you get older. It’s a lesson that makes me press immediately against what limits age has put on me, gives me a sense to use what I have presently before it’s gone. Oh, I am sad that I’ll not hear Kevin or Ethna’s voices again, except in memory or recordings — thin mirrors those. Dave reminds me that it reminds him when I post older LYL Band recordings where he was able to pound and roll the keys. Our family continues to deal with my wife’s mother descending, as politely as she can carry it, into dementia. But those that go before us are meant to teach us. Don’t skip the lessons.
Why Now, Vocalissimus by Frank Hudson. When I posted this audio piece, shortly after I wrote it, I said right out I wasn’t sure what I meant by it. That state may be unnerving for a writer. After all, aren’t you supposed to know? If you don’t know, how can you present anything vividly to the reader or listener?
Well, there’s a theoretical structure, a mythological structure, that seeks to explain that. It says that we are conduits for muses, external things. We don’t have to be outstandingly worthy, exceptionally preceptive, or precisely eloquent, since we are in this scheme conduits of something outside us. Frankly, this can lead to a lot of bad poetry: inchoate self-expression bearing the costume of inspiration. But then everything leads to bad poetry — all artists fail as I remind readers here often. But what of us readers, us listeners? We fail too, grasping partially what much art conveys.
My understanding of what I wrote back in September has grown as I live with this set of words. Part of our job as living, breathing artists is to carry forward the work of those who’ve left off working. We are not just creators, but also carriers. So, if you write poetry, bring words down onto the page or speak your own words, know that I’m charging you to also preserve and enliven those others who have no voices left to carry the spark. And that’s what I try to do here with the Parlando Project.
Heidi Randen’s picture of a milkweed husk spoke to me this autumn.
6. The Shadow on the Stone by Thomas Hardy. A complicated ghost story, a complicated haunting. As I wrote when posting this, English poet Thomas Hardy had a dysfunctional marriage — and yet, like many folks forced by fact into the separation of death and mourning, he still felt the returning presence of the intimate dead.
5. God Made Mud by Kurt Vonnegut. I decided to present several short excerpts from Vonnegut novels that work as poetry this fall on the occasion of the 99th anniversary of his birth. The LYL Band had recorded them well over a decade ago, on the week Vonnegut died. Why didn’t I wait for the nice, round 100-year birthday? See the start of this post for why.
In Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle the text I used here is the last rights of an imagined religion. Like the theoretical/mythological structure of muses directing us to write poetry, Vonnegut proposes a useful if compressed Genesis story that asks us to recognize that the nagging mystery of death is no harder to explain than the overlooked mystery of living at all.
Long time readers here will know that one of this Project’s ideas is “Other People’s Stories.” I’ve chosen to make that one of its principles for a couple of reasons. First, the Internet is full of folks telling their own stories, and this is fine (after all, to me those would all be “Other People’s Stories”). I wanted to do something different, to focus on how you and I experience a variety of words from a variety of writers with a variety of outlooks. The second is that I’m rather uncomfortable with promoting myself. That one’s complex.* Like most writers or composers or artists I think my own work has value at some percentage over half the time. Which then, mathematically, allows that I doubt its value, or my handling of its value, or the costs of declaiming its value to the universe a bunch of the time too.
No one creates without the first thought. It would be impossible. And no one who cares about what they create, about their audiences, or about how much craft and care can be devoted to any art; without seeing the faults, the missed communication, the needs for just one more revision or tomorrow for any work.
Many of us create instinctively, because we have to — but sharing that work is a choice. I’m nearing 600 Parlando Project audio pieces presented here. I could have presented at least half or two-thirds of that easily with things Dave or I wrote, but I made a different choice. It’s less conflicted for me to publicly look at, to be honestly surprised and delighted at Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, Sara Teasdale, or Du Fu; and then to share that with you.
But there’s a problem with “Other People’s Stories.” I’m likely not understanding everything those authors intended.** And they’re their stories, their visions. I’ve talked recently here about how when I translate a poet who wrote in another language how I want to honor their work and transfer accurately their particular powers, and yet then become tempted to break off into something their work makes me see through my own eyes.
A long prolog to presenting today’s piece, one I wrote and titled “Ethna’s Dream.” Ethna is Ethna McKiernan, a poet who I used to meet and talk about work with once a month or so, along with two to four others. Ethna cared and crafted her work over decades, and in her life did other useful work: running an Irish heritage book and art shop, working with the homeless. She’s currently in hospice, comforted by family, and the reports are that she’s now mostly in an out of what appears as sleep.
I couldn’t call Ethna a close friend. I always sensed a distance there. I think often of her none the less these days, and of every rudeness, awkwardness, or self-dealing on my part around her; and those or any number of things could have caused that. The very fact of writing a poem about her death, her dying, that mostest personal thing, seems problematic.
So, when you listen to my piece “Ethna’s Dream” you now know all that. This is not a poem about those things I’ve discussed in prolog, or at least I hope so. Instead, my intent is that it’s a poem about what we should treasure of that sharing of the unconscious that we have with artists (including those whose main art is just living). What I present in “Ethna’s Dream” is not a romantic, imaginary, sentimental metaphor in my own mind — though it may attract or repel you if you see it as such — it’s more at the essences of what we do, share, and take with art.
There’s references to Bottom’s speech in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Am I prettifying myself up with pretentiousness, or comparing myself to the foolish play character? I wrote it, and yet I can’t tell.
*One problem, leading to one fear, is that when offered the chance to promote myself I see myself as overdoing it, and coming off as a self-absorbed narcissist that runs on too long about the arts I work in, prattling about the obvious and the obscure in equally embarrassing ways. If you’re still reading at the footnote stage, you may have forgiven me for that.
**Beside just plain embarrassment of ignorance, we now more often talk about cultural appropriation in regards to this. The travesties of cultural appropriation are real, but my belief is that they should, must, be risked.
Wait, before I reveal that, let me take a moment to describe what the Parlando Project does: we take words, most often other peoples’, most often poetry, and combine them with original music and present them to you as audio pieces.
I’ve chosen to use other peoples’ words almost entirely because I’m most comfortable writing about that transaction between a writer and myself as reader, composer, and performer in the midst of passing something on to you as another reader and listener.* The project doesn’t use poetry for every audio piece, but I like pieces with some mystery and ability to create an impact in less than 5 minutes, and poets are the ones that do that.
The music you hear is created for this project. I don’t use library music or borrowed music, and except for computer drums, I don’t use samples or canned loops. For better or worse, most everything you hear was played or scored by a real person.**
I don’t always make these combinations of music and words “songs” in the traditional sense — though our modern sense of song has changed so much in the last few decades that “song” has become a much looser expectation anyway. I try to make my musical settings as varied as I can, which means that I expect some will be more to any single listeners’ taste than others.
Now I’ve caught up any new visitors on the Parlando Project concept, we can complete our Winter ’20-’21 Top Ten Countdown with the most popular piece.
1 End of the Sky by Frank Hudson (after Thinking of Li Po at the End of the Sky by Du Fu). OK, this one used my words, though I based it off a classical Tang Dynasty Chinese poem. Since I wrote it last autumn, the meaning I extracted from Du Fu and attempted to convey in my modern English extension of his poem has only deepened in resonance for me personally. When it was written I was thinking about a small group of poets that I’ve met with every month for more than 40 years to discuss our work. I’m the youngest in that group by a short interval and we had all been writing for more than a decade when we first met.
More than a half-century of writing for each of us, yet I think of myself as less accomplished than the rest of the group — viewed objectively from amount of publication and such this is certainly true — but I wonder too if they ask their own version of the questions I ask myself about what’s valuable to say and what we may construct to justify a readers time and attention. Du Fu seemed to be dealing with some of those feelings in his poem addressed to fellow poet Li Po.
The poem’s statement, my attempt at faithful translation from Du Fu’s Chinese: “True literature doesn’t care if it is popular, and/It is only demons that care about a poet’s failures!” is one potential answer to those concerns. Poetry may be what we most care about, but the world cares less than that, and in that is a freedom. “How much difference does that make at this late date?” I ask in addition, a line only implied in Du Fu’s poem. And at the age of the poets in my group, “late date” is a general concern.
Since I wrote it, how has this poem changed for me? Those general concerns have been promoted in imminence. I’ll say in too-brief: two are dealing with existential illness. Loss can be at any hand for all of us. Will it, or any of us, be patient?
Du Fu’s poem concluded with an understated but devastating conclusion, something I often find in his work. He writes, our creations and our cares about our creation are like a customary gesture that would’ve been known to poets of his time and place: throwing poems as a gift into a river where a Qu Yuan, a Chinese poet from the past had leapt to his death.
They both ran out of patience. Do you see some resemblance? Qu Yuan and John Berryman, “…who was once handsome and tall as you.”
My modern English solution to my poem’s ending echoes Du Fu’s superficially, but differs in detail. This is what I meant to convey in my conclusion: Berryman’s mental illness and chemical dependency — fed by his doubts, feeding his doubts — weren’t his art or some driving force for it, for they understood none of that.
Say that, then, to your doubts: you don’t understand my art! Work instead to make your work more whole for yourself and for some potential audience, no matter how small. All doubt and self-abnegation can do is take away — and life and fate will do that for you anyway, it doesn’t need your help.
The player gadget to hear my performance of “End of the Sky” is below. If you don’t see the player, this highlighted hyperlink is an alternative way to play it.
*When I write or talk about myself, and later look at what I said or wrote, I almost always cringe. In only a short remove of time it seems disproportionate, self-involved, and vain. Every artist must have, at least episodically, some level of elevated self-regard, but for me that self-regard is always being chased by another that reminds me of my follies. I’ve lived a long life, and neither of those two have stopped running, an endless chase, which has allowed me to create — but as the pursuer and their prey, I’m often out of breath by the time it comes to talk about or promote it.
**Early Parlando Project pieces were often live band recordings, but with age, change, frailty, and finally the Covid pandemic, they’re increasingly all me multitracking myself. Computer drums are a compromise I’ve perhaps too easily fallen into.
Creativity is escape and sticking-with-it, avoidance and attention. Routine can take you to your place reserved for freedom, you may believe you’re going to the same place, and then something else happens.
Every so often I present a set of words I wrote here rather than following my usual practice of using other people’s words and “other people’s stories.” I didn’t plan to do a piece of mine here, though I did plan to revise this poem from 2016 yesterday. Sticking-with-it.
But first, I thought I should take the opportunity to play a little acoustic guitar in a quiet house on a cold grey day. Avoidance.
This is one of the good things about my multisided creative life. If I put off or am outright avoiding one side, for example, writing or rewriting my own poetry, I may flee to my music side, to the shear tactile pleasure of playing an instrument. Or to the poetry written by others and this project. Escape.
So there I was at the guitar. I tuned it to “double drop D,” and because the guitar that was at hand has too narrow a neck width at the nut to suit my less flexible older fingers, I capoed up to the second fret which gave me a little more room. From there, by ear I started to work on some chord forms that sounded interesting together in this alternate tuning. This is one of the virtues of altered tunings on the guitar. I have some understanding of the guitar’s conventional tuning, but an altered tuning requires new exploration.
None of the chords I ended up playing would have been difficult to find or fret in standard tuning, but the altered tuning I was using has three strings tuned to the same note (though one’s an octave lower than the other two) and that not only makes it easy to get a drone going while playing other notes on top, but that trio of strings resonates sympathetically.*
I was quite receptive to the sound that was developing, and next to me as I played was the manuscript of the poem I planned to revise. Could the resonating chords be fit to it? Yes, it looked like they could. Attention.
Performing a written piece can be an aid to revision. As I worked on the music I was cycling through sections of the poem, and some lines began to volunteer themselves for deletion. The poem lost five lines, and it was the better for it. The ending wasn’t strong enough, so I added a couple of sensuous verbs which I think made it better. The line deletions happened almost without attention. I was years separated from when I thought they were a good idea to be included, and the repetition while thinking mostly about the music and its flow simply made them seem unimportant. The revision of the ending was a more literary endeavor, but by that point the music was coming together, and I came up with choices sharply focused on getting that ending “fixed” so I could record a finished version.
That piece I ended up working on, today’s piece “They Say Life is Precious,” was intended as a page poem, but the process I went through with it on Thursday made me think it works better as a performance piece—but even on the page I think it works better now because of the time I spent performing it as I composed and recorded the music.
We pay for life by filling it’s container, time, with attention. You can put money in there, but it can’t read what’s on the currency.
The acoustic guitar part didn’t turn out to be difficult. I recorded it and my vocal. The chords of the piece are E5, E minor 7, and two voicings of Bsus4.** To fill out the sound I added Mellotron violins and flute, a simple contra-bass part, and an upper-register fretless electric bass line.
Escape and sticking-with-it, avoidance and attention. By avoiding the revision and choosing to play guitar first, I accomplished the revision—and when I thought I was just going to play guitar, my composition routine refused to relinquish itself and drew my attention.
To hear my piece “They Say Life is Precious” use the player gadget below.
*Many musical cultures have instruments that use drones or sympathetic vibrations. South Asian music is full of them, but so to are Celtic pipes, Norwegian hardanger and any number of African stringed instruments. Even something as common as the piano when played undampened pulls up resonances.
**If there are any guitarists who want to try to play this, it’s a good introduction to altered tunes as the fingerings are easy. First drop your high and low E strings one whole step to D. To match the recording, capo the guitar at the second fret. The following fret-hand fingering positions are used: Chord E5 = 3rd string at 4th fret, 2nd string at 5th fret. Chord Em7 = 4th string at 5th fret, 3rd string at 4th fret and 2nd string at 3rd fret. The higher sounding Bsus4 = 4th string at 11th fret, 3rd string at 11th fret. The lower sounding Bsus4 = 4th string at 4th fret, 3rd string at 4th fret. Technically this Bsus4 also has the C# that makes it a Bsus2 as well.
A couple of days back the Parlando Project passed its first birthday. It’s eating solid foods now, and is making efforts to walk. I thought it might be a good time for some posts to catch up a few things.
First off, some of you may be new to the Parlando Project and its presence here on this blog. What is the Parlando Project? We combine music (various kinds) with words (various kinds, but mostly poetry). I’m the Frank Hudson in this blog’s domain, and I’m the “editor” of this Project, but Dave Moore (whose voice you’ll be hearing again soon) is the alternative reader and vocalist here, and the project wouldn’t be the same without him.
I ask you to note the “various” used twice above. I’m one of those rare people, who when asked what their favorite type of music is, cannot answer. Yes, I have moods when I don’t want to hear one kind of musical expression, or when I strongly desire to hear or make another kind, but overall, I can’t say there is one type of music I want to be gone from forever, or another that I will never listen to or try to make.
So please do not take any single example of our music as representative of what you’ll hear next. I like noisy and chaotic music and sweet consonant sounds, I like solo acoustic guitar, I like modern day composers who refuse to die, I like artificial sounds created electronically, I like the natural sounds of strings vibrating in air, I like things simple and I like things complex.
The same somewhat applies to the words we use. I have a certain framework that we use at the Parlando Project. We favor shorter pieces for example. We both like a darkly comic touch. We generally don’t use our own words, even though Dave and I have written our own words since our youth, and we’ll use some of them here.
Rather than add another “I” speaking to the mesh of the Internet, I want to jointly experience with you some understanding of what others have written and spoken.
Why is that? The Internet is full of self-expression. I don’t want to put that down, but I feel the various mediums the Internet carries to your phone, tablet or computer are awash in it. Even our literature has become primarily memoir in one guise or another. Well, I consume some of that, you probably do to, but I’m currently not in the mood to create more of it. Rather than add another “I” speaking to the mesh of the Internet, I want to jointly experience with you some understanding of what others have written and spoken. That’s what I seek to do by performing the Parlando Project pieces, and writing about them here.
A poet who Dave and I have known for decades, Kevin FitzPatrick, was once reviewed as writing “poems that have other people in them.” Kevin’s other people are real characters, they have their own lives and wholeness, they are not hand puppets speaking only the words he mouths for them. They, like Kevin, are sometimes funny and sometimes subject to their own misconceptions and foibles.
This is one of Kevin’s four published collections of poetry
Stop and think for a moment now of how few poets do what Kevin does. Perhaps, if you write poetry, you too, fall into that larger grouping, writing from your innermost feelings, allowing other voices to speak only as you would have them. At the Parlando Project I use the idea, the rule, “Other People’s Voices” to remind me of this principle. I join with you, the listener and reader here, in trying to understand those other voices, by merging our performance of their words with the music we create as an audience to them.
Just after the start of the 20th Century two teenagers met at the University of Pennsylvania. One was 16 years old, a smart and cocky boy without much in the way of money, who had somehow managed admission to the University at such a young age. The other was 15 and the only daughter of an astronomer and professor at the college. So devoted was the girl’s father to his astronomy, that it’s told that his wife needed to come by during the colder months with a kettle of hot water to unfreeze his eyelashes from the eyepiece of his telescope. This professor was the enlightened sort of early 20th century father who believed in women’s intellectual equality. He dreamed that his daughter would become another Marie Curie.
However, the two teenagers soon fell in with each other, and science was not in their bond. Poetry and the arts were. A year or so later, a new freshman arrived at the University to study medicine. That freshman was William Carlos Williams, and he would complete his studies and become a pediatrician and family doctor who practiced for decades in Patterson New Jersey while writing purely modern poetry. The boy and the girl fell in love, and were secretly engaged, knowing that the boy’s lack of money and established career would prevent the girl’s father from giving permission of them to marry.
The 1985 movie “Real Genius” is a documentary of this meeting between two teenagers in college.
The girl grew up and was sent to Bryn Mawr, a woman’s college that was known for having a tough “men’s curriculum,” following her father’s hope that she would become a scientist. There she met Marianne Moore, who also became a noted modernist American poet, but at Bryn Mawr she failed in her studies. The American oracle Barbie would later proclaim: “Math is hard!” and a career in science was out.
But wait. What of that cocky boy? Oh no, he’s gone to England! And double oh no, he now engaged to another woman there. After all this, we can now begin our story again.
This now young woman who had already met and befriended William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore, went to England to meet back up with the young man she had fallen in love with as a teenager. The young man was Ezra Pound, and the young woman was Hilda Doolittle—but she wouldn’t be much longer.
Sorry, “Real Genius” its really about how Tears for Fears was uncool, but now is kinda cool.
And here are the real and young Ezra and Hilda.
Pound was in England trying to stir up a poetic revolution, something that would forge past the reformation of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites and give poetry a fully modern cast. Hilda showed Ezra some of her new poems, and Ezra did three things that he would do repeatedly for other poets in the next couple of decades.
He immediately recognized that Hilda was writing the kind of fresh, spare, honest poetry that he thought necessary to break the grip of the past. He would see to it being published.
After admiring it, it took his pencil to it, and slashed out parts of the already concise poems. I can hear some of you drawing a breath on that, considering the sexual politics, ready to cry “Asshat!”—but that’s Pound, even with poets of genius: cut it, pare it down, make it new, not one extra word. A few years later he’d do the same thing to T.S. Eliot, and the surviving variorum manuscripts show why Eliot called Pound “The Better Maker” of “The Wasteland.” Pound’s editing pencil seemed to teach like the sensei’s stick, and once shown, poets like Hilda Doolittle and Eliot understood how to do the same thing themselves.
And then he took that editing pencil and signed Hilda’s poems “H.D. Imagisite.”
That last move was another part of Pound’s talents. He was probably more successful in launching other poet’s careers than he was his own. He had a shrewd promoter’s eye. “Imagiste” or “Imagist” was the name Pound would give to the modernist poetic movement that would during the years of WWI as radically reshape English poetry as the war would reshape the maps of the world, and here he was saying, rightly, that H.D.’s poems would be the ne plus ultra of that movement. As a name, H.D. was as pared down as the new poetry would be. If he’d lived long enough to see video screens with 1024 lines, he could have said calling them HD for “High Definition” was a tribute to his call for seeing things truly. And H.D. masked Hilda’s gender, still important in a world where women were widely thought to be incapable of great art. The former Hilda Doolittle didn’t object. She’d never liked the family name (“Do-Little” she thought it scanned) and besides, her sexual identity and friendship affinities were at least HD.
Let me admit that this post is unfair to H.D., the writer of the words of today’s piece. We’ve gone past my customary length limits and we’ve only barely touched on H.D.’s talents and extraordinary life. I’ll need to revisit her work soon and give H.D. her due.
What can I say about today’s piece “Heat?” Well it’s an appropriate July poem, and the titular heat, in true Imagist fashion is both a closely observed thing: actual summer heat, and an image that, without simile or extra framing, is imbued with complexity. Last episode we had Pound/Li Bai, two men, showing desire and longing in the “River Merchant’s Wife” with only a few actual named emotions or feelings. H.D., the better Imagist, shows female desire with not a single named emotion. The poem’s final phrase:
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears
and rounds the grapes.
is sensuous beyond words—it’s only 13 words to be beyond after all—and with four p and s sounds it holds four kisses.
To hear my performance of H.D.’s “Heat,” use the player below. And thanks again for the likes and the social media shares!
I’ve noticed that most of what I’ve written about this Parlando project in the first month or so has concentrated on words and the world they reflect; but Parlando’s subtitle is “The Place Where Music and Words Meet.” This piece has a simple musical setting, and yes I’m going to talk more about words, but the subject of “In Memory of Clarence Clemons” is a working musician and what a musician can do.
Clarence Clemons was a working musician his entire adult life. That’s an achievement. The number of people with a handful of musical gigs in their background (someone like myself) is much larger than the number of people who spend their working life doing that. The reason for that is that it’s a hard life, however rewarding in moments. Many of us who play music know those moments, and they are much intensified when those moments happen to be shared by other people. Drugs and sex are compared to that experience, but to many musicians they are pale shadows to that experience of musical communion. This is a reason why some musicians over-indulge in drugs and sex, to try to match, with quantity, that quality experienced when music is communicating. There is another reason musicians seek such salve. Being a musician is, over time, a collection of wearing days against those bright moments: the frustrations of every informal job with irregular hours, irregular pay, irregular working conditions, irregular demand for the music the musician plays, irregular co-workers and bosses, topped with the specific failures that can be the other side of music’s joys.
I did not know Clarence Clemons. I know next to nothing about his personal life, how he coped with or experienced these things. But I do know how that musical communion feels, both as an unfaithful musician and as an ardent audience.
In the early 1970s I was living in New York in a city that was suffering, and a large part of that suffering was racism and racial tribalism. It was like America—and the world I suppose—in general in that regard, but a little more intense. Some folks, I was one, tried to make life work despite this. This is the glory of humanity: suffering from such blindness and weakness—yet even with those handicaps, some, perhaps even most, try to make it work. Compared to this, art sometimes seems trivial.
Among rock critics of the time there emerged an implicit search for what was called “The New Dylan.” They had figured they needed to find “The New Dylan” because the old one seemed to not want the job anymore. Why was this important to them?
There is a famous maxim about rock critics “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Though no one knows who said it first, it’s been said many times because it points out a truth about how rock music was written about. Since it’s hard to write words about music—and particularly hard for non-musicians writing for non-musicians—rock critics, to a large degree, weren’t music critics. They were performance critics, fashion critics, social movement critics, and—here’s the biggest portion—lyrics critics. Because of that, “rock criticism” was largely the child of the emergence of Bob Dylan.
Since I have other points I need to make, I’m going to say this as briefly as possible. Bob Dylan utterly changed popular song lyrics. It’s impossible to underestimate his importance in this. There are scattered influences that Dylan had to draw on as he made his lyric revolution, but afterward his influence is everywhere. In ’60s and ’70s it was possible for a time to easily understand lyric writers were imitating Dylan, but as time has passed we no longer remember what those changes were.
So in the early 70s rock critics had no fresh Bob Dylan revolution to write about. They believed they had no one who was using words in an exciting new way reflecting new ways to experience the world. It’s a disrespectful joke to say this, but if Bruce Springsteen didn’t exist, rock critics would have to have invented him. In actuality, this was one cross Springsteen had to bear for the first decade of his career: that rock critics had invented him to fill their needs. The debate, of course, was held between rock critics.
I bought Springsteen’s first album in 1972 after reading about it in a magazine article that quoted generously from the lyrics. I’m sure the article somewhere must have used the term “The New Dylan.” Yes, I was attracted by the playfulness in the use of language, but I was also drawn to what was emerging as his subject matter: the honest confusion and struggles of life. To go beyond this writing about the lyrics, the article’s architectural ballet, I had to listen to the LP to hear the music. My favorite track turned out to be “Spirit In the Night,” which was kind of a Van Morrison groove, and in place of what would have been the obligatory guitar solo, a sax solo. That was Clarence Clemons.
By 1972 you weren’t likely to hear a sax solo in a rock tune. The instrument was already in its long popular music decline from near ubiquity in ’50s R&B to now. Can you think of one significant current indie rock band with a full-time sax player?
About a year later the second Bruce Springsteen album came out: “The Wild, the Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle.” His lyric writing had improved, but musically this album is at a whole different level. His song structures are often through-composed, the playing is great, and the arrangements are sublime. The front cover of that LP is a perfectly serviceable sensitive-singer-song-writer picture reminiscent of an isolated frame from Van Morrison’s Moondance cover. Flip the cover over and there is a picture of the musicians who played the music. In the center of that picture (as is should be) is the young and dark face of David Sancious, who was the main contributor to those arrangements and that playing; and at the beginning of the lineup, standing next to Springsteen is Clarence Clemons, the second Afro-American in the band.
Integrated bands existed before and after this. It’s a common musician’s peccadillo, in their professional blindness, to care less about color and more about sound. But I’ll say this, there was such hope in that picture for me at that moment, living in that city that maybe didn’t even know that it’s sadness had roots in tribalism and hateful racial stereotypes. A couple of years later, while I was still living there, the Born To Run LP came out, with the iconic fold-out cover: against a stark white background, Springsteen leaning on the much larger Clemmons playing his sax.
So when Clemons died in 2011, all that came back to me in a rush. The words came out almost as you hear them here, and I recorded this performance myself over a humble bass and drum loop shortly after writing them. The way it came out was one of the things showed the way to the Parlando project.
So with the publication this week of Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, also called Born To Run, I thought it’d be a good time to share this early spoken word and music piece that speaks to these things. To hear it, click on the gadget that should appear below.
A few posts back I mentioned that the Parlando project keyboardist and alternative reader, Dave Moore had visited Native American mound sites along the Mississippi river this year. He’s working on a series of pieces* about the largest of the mounds, Cahokia in Illinois. Here’s one of them.
In that August post about William Cullen Bryant’s “The Prairie” I said that when Bryant wrote a poem about Cahokia he borrowed from “from some 19th century mythologies.” For focus and brevity, I left those myths out then, but I wanted to come back to this, because it’s important. In the 19th Century as US exploration and settlement moved westward from the eastern seaboard and these elaborate earthworks were viewed by folks like Bryant, there was a lot of unexplained mystery about them. And explaining mystery is the work of myth. Sometimes poetry joins in that work.
When poetry joins in that, explains mysteries, it faces great dangers. One danger is simple: their explanations can just be wrong. After all that’s another way we use the word “myth,“ to mean something that has been shown to be untrue. Bryant and a host of 19th century explainers of the North American mounds and their builders almost certainly fall into that trap.
You see, when these worthies saw the mounds they thought that they had to have been constructed by some people who were not Native Americans, or at least not the Native Americans who were soon to suffer occupation and displacement from those Eastern settlers. That’s another problem with explained mysteries. Sometimes the explanations are a little too convenient. You don’t have to think much to see the subtext here:
“Why, we don’t have to worry about displacing or even killing the folks who are already here, they did the same to those disappeared builders of these great earthworks.”
Myth gets complicated. We can see the ignorance, prejudices and racism that helped feed these 19th century settlers, but that doesn’t mean we can see our own current ones more clearly than they could see theirs. I often think of the title of the beautiful and wry Leonard Cohen’s first collection of poems “Now Let Us Compare Mythologies,” the title poem of which includes the line “I have learned my elaborate lie.”
One of the virtues of music is that it cannot explain mysteries, though it can sometimes help you experience them.
Now, back to Dave Moore’s piece “Print the Myth.” Dave wrote the words for “Print the Myth,” and he concisely goes into these issues. Dave is also the voice on this one. It was only my job to supply the electric guitar part. This is a live first take, spontaneously exploring how to present Dave’s words about the explanations for the mounds. As such, there are a number musical mistakes. My tastes allow for that. Dave himself thinks his performance wasn’t up to snuff, and I disagree thinking that the energy of the discovery overcomes the rough edges.
So if you want to hear a couple of poets and musicians constructing a way to tell the story of how the mounds were misinterpreted by Bryant and his contemporaries, click the gadget below to hear “Print the Myth.”
*Dave published these pieces in a chapbook Rhythmic Stories & Prehistoric Mythteries later in 2016. This book is not generally available alas. I don’t know if Dave still has copies, but if anyone interested could contact him through this blog.