This project’s subtitle Where Music and Words Meet portrays its interest in the ways words, mostly poetry, might interact with music. How that works varies. I use different kinds of poetry, and different ways to combine those words with the music written for this project.
Song lyric writers, who intend their words to be sung from the git-go usually rhyme their lines, and most song lyrics are at least roughly metrical. That practice has continued even as free-verse without regular rhyme and strict rhythm became a substantial portion of literary poetry written for the page.
None-the-less, I find it’s often easier than you might think to sing free-verse. Here’s the text of today’s piece for our celebration of #NationalPoetryMonth: “Branches,” by one of this project’s favorites, Carl Sandburg:
The long beautiful night of the wind and rain in April,
The long night hanging down from the drooping branches of the top of a birch tree,
Swinging, swaying, to the wind for a partner, to the rain for a partner.
What is the humming, swishing thing they sing in the morning now?
The rain, the wind, the swishing whispers of the long slim curve so little and so dark on the western morning sky … these dancing girls here on an April early morning …
They have had a long cool beautiful night of it with their partners learning this year’s song of April.
One thing I notice right away that lets this take to singing: it’s ecstatic. Some of the sections of what has been our April National Poetry Month staple for the past few years, Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” are hard to cast into singing — even though that poem as a whole is very musical with its repetition and its outright references to musical pieces. Parts of “The Waste Land” use mundane dialog purposefully, and it’s difficult to sing that sort of thing without transforming its nature. “Branches” too uses repetition, along with sound-tricks like words that sound like what they are describing (swishing sounds like the word “swishing” for example). Repetition can stand-in for rhyme to some degree. Free-verse irregularity of lines is less of a problem than it might seem. Music is fully capable of filling in spaces where syllables aren’t, and it can be made comfortable too with melodic lines of various lengths.
Carl Sandburg himself is an interesting combination of words and music. Besides his early and vital contributions to American Modernist poetry, he was also an important collector and popularizer of American folk song both by playing and singing those songs himself, and by the 1927 publication of his significant early anthology of them The American Songbag. I haven’t quite nailed down just how important he was in those matters, but I think it’s possible that without Carl Sandburg there’d be no Woody Guthrie as he was, and going forward from that, no Bob Dylan as he was and is.
When performing them, Sandburg accompanied those folk songs himself with guitar
I’m not alone in liking to set Sandburg to music, though I’m not aware that Sandburg himself ever did, oddly enough. I perform his “Branches” today with just acoustic guitar, nothing fancy, just as Sandburg himself could have. The player gadget to hear me perform it is below, or if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlink will play it too.
Is he joining me in celebrating National Poetry Month? Last week Bob Dylan released a new song called “I Contain Multitudes.” It’s pretty good, mixing the elegiac mood and the bittersweet blues. Like Dylan’s other new release, “Murder Most Foul” from earlier in the month, folks quickly swept through the lyrics to collect and note the allusions. They found that “I Contain Multitudes” has literary references mixed in with the musician and cultural touchstones. Poets William Blake and Edgar Allan Poe get name-checked.
But for some reason, the main poetic link Dylan seems to intend was missed in most of the early write-ups I read. The song’s refrain, which also supplies the title, is a line from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” We’re going to fix that today.
Over the years of this project I probably haven’t presented enough Whitman. He’s the indispensable ice-breaker of poetic Modernism, even for those that didn’t attempt to closely follow his style. By writing in free verse with no set line length, irregular meter, and no need to make the rhyming word, he freed poetry to be infinitely expansive and did for poetic music what Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane did for instrumental music. Once this idea of freedom was demonstrated, any number of other Modernist approaches eventually developed, some of which don’t directly bring Whitman to mind as a model, though that doesn’t mean that they didn’t benefit from his revolution.* And some subsequent writers did show the influence of Whitman’s characteristic word-music: Carl Sandburg, John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Allen Ginsburg. Stop for a minute: all three of those writers—all examples where one can trace the lineage of Whitman easily—are influences on the language and expression of Bob Dylan. Whitman, like Dylan, loves the wide-ranging catalog, the linking of things plain and exotic, the workman’s comment and the sage’s koan.
So maybe it was time for Bob to give a nod to Walt—and for me to do so too.
I’ve chosen today to present the last two numbered poems in Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Besides the “I contain multitudes” line, this selection also includes some other of Whitman’s most famous proclamations: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself,” “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” and “Look for me under your boot-soles.”
Barbaric Yawp in action: “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Well, maybe if you take off the hat and remove your shirt Walt.
Although I approach Dylan’s age, yet somewhat in arrears, I’m not going for the old-man lope of Dylan’s recent songs today.** No. It’s time to rawk! My personal index-thought as I composed, arranged, and started to perform this was “Whitman as if done by Iggy*** and the Stooges.” As with many of my index-thoughts in this project, I missed the mark, but that’s OK, maybe I came close to the bulls-eye of another target nearby. Since I long for the sound of a loose and loud rock band in these days of social distance, I tried to make one myself for this piece, even attempting to duplicate the kind of thing my LYL Band partner Dave Moore might have played on piano when that was possible. My shelter in place partner Heidi Randen kicked in some backing vocals on the chorus. It took me to this morning to get a time when I could crank a guitar amp to get the feedback and speaker interaction for the Ron Ashton-style guitar solo, which I scheduled between my high-schooler’s interactive telelearning sessions.
As always, the next audio piece will likely be different than this one, so check back (or hit “follow”) to see what the Parlando Project does next during National Poetry Month.
Like Thomas Hardy or James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence is another writer remembered more as a novelist than a poet, though he published multiple books of poetry in a variety of forms in the early 20th Century.
He’s hard to place in the various “schools” of poetry of his time. He was published in Imagist anthologies, but he is also sometimes grouped with the Georgian Poets who eschewed free verse, though he often wrote free verse. He sometimes wrote compressed epigrams like the one I present today. “Self-Pity” looks like a Modernist short poem on the page, but it doesn’t aim to work like most of those poems on the reader or listener.
Oh “Self-Pity” uses all the devices of poetry, save for rhyme. It’s loosely iambic with anapestic moments in meter, though the line lengths are uneven. This is consistent with much free verse, which still wants the beats of the words to be felt, without lock-step marching drills. It has a vivid image (the frozen, falling bird). It has a repetition (“sorry for itself”).
Why then does it seem different from other Modernist poems? Contrast Lawrence’s “Self-Pity” to two other contemporary-to-it very short poems: William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” and Carl Sandburg’s “Fog”.“The Red Wheelbarrow” puzzles readers to this day about its message, other than it wants the wheelbarrow to be clearly real. I think it’s about the beauty and dignity of work and its tools, but perhaps I’m wrong. You may not draw any meaning at all when you first hear or read “The Red Wheelbarrow.” “Fog” attracts immediately with its metaphor of silent fog and haunches-poised cat. It may seem to you at first a show of how metaphor cleverly works. “Wow, fog and a cat, I never thought of them together. Cool.” It’s only if you hold the poem longer in your mind and heart that you may ask why the fog/cat is at the harbor, that it’s not a pampered pet, but a feral or work animal.
“Self-pity” is more directive. Many who hear or read it will get the point the first time. Yes, that frozen dropping bird is a vivid image, but it doesn’t lead off the poem, it comes after half-way, and it’s meant to work not as something the poet saw, but as an imagined image to illustrate his point.
Which way is the right way to go about it? That’s for you the reader/listener/writer/performer to decide. The Internet tells us some folks find the direct and pointed message of “Self-Pity” helpful to them. I myself could stand to be reminded of it sometimes. Literary poetry of the 20th Century gradually made the decision to go with the non-directive imagery way, not with the more frankly didactic aims of Lawrence’s poem. Current writers and readers will get to re-decide this issue for our maturing, teen-aged, century.
“Self-Pity” was used in a Hollywood depiction of military training. I imagine a Pythonesque skit where John Cleese or Graham Chapman submits other poetry to raw recruits. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked!” “Suppose an opponent comes at you armed with plums. So sweet. So cold. What would you do?” or “You are a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
What do I think? After all, this is the Internet. I must have an opinion!
I’m eclectic. I don’t want poetry, or any art, to always work in the same way, to stop surprising me. If I could send myself back and offer advice to Lawrence on his poem, I’d tell him to spend more time on that bird before he tells us what the bird means. By not giving me the sense that a real human stood cold or bundled up or on the warm side of a window and watched that instant, that small bird, ruffling their feathers to hold what warmth was still there before the perch became its last, the poem loses potential power for me.
Thomas Hardy may have imagined his winter darkling thrush entirely as a useful image, but I feel that encounter with his bird. I’m convinced Rilke actually looked at an amputated and archaic torso of Apollo and wanted to see its present state fully before he delivered his reaction. I think Lawrence wanted to make a point, and that bird was a useful slide in his deck.
But that may be sentimentality on my part, and too much of that can be stifling and predictable. And perhaps the poem would loose some of it’s epigrammatic power. How often we see by opposition.
Musically, I spent a good deal of time on the drums/percussion for this track, trying to pull out the vibe of “Self-Pity’s” meter. With the rest of the music I tried to balance my reaction to Lawrence’s resolution while transmitting the assertion of the epigram itself. To hear it, use the player below.
Those new here may not know that the Parlando Project intentionally varies the words and writers whose work we present, and the types of music that we combine with them. We tend to use poetry as our word source, because compression and musical expression is baked in, but we don’t always use the most famous poets or poems (though I do enjoy trying to find something new in a well-known poem too)*.
Because obtaining rights to present poetry has difficulties, most of what you find here is from before 1923, but that doesn’t mean we won’t surprise or puzzle you with our authors. Today’s piece was written by Muriel Strode, who is an extreme case of biographical and critical obscurity. Almost nothing is known about her, and rather than Wikipedia, or one of the online poetry-promoting orgs or education sites, what info I could gather about Strode is largely from a single blog post.
As it often is with me, finding out a few things about someone opens up further questions. The bare bones reported in Terri Guillements’ blog post, partially informed by surviving relatives, is that Strode was born in 1875 in a rural township in Illinois, south of Galesburg where Carl Sandburg and Don Marquis spent their youth at nearly the same time. Her father was a “naturalist, teacher, and physician” and her grandparents were pioneer farmers and settlers according to Guillements. Her mother died when she was around 13 and her father remarried. At around the same time as her father’s remarriage, it’s said that she left home at age 15 (1890) to attend a business school, and a year later she started work in Long Beach California as a “stenographer and typist.” No context is given on this, but the remarriage and move far away from her childhood home happening at near the same time does lead one to suppose some friction.
The next markers in her life come in 1906, 15 years later. Guillements’ says Strode was able to buy two parcels of land in the Signal Hill area of Long Beach and the same year move to New York City. Also in 1906, Strode published her first book My Little Book of Prayer with Open Court Publishing out of Chicago. Open Court was the closely held venture of a German immigrant who had made it big in the zinc business, Edward Hegeler. Hegeler was a believer in something he called “the religion of science,” discussed briefly and tantalizingly in his Wikipedia entry, and Open Court worked to promote those ideas.
My Little Book of Prayer might seem puzzling without those connections. It’s not a prayer book in the usual American Christian sense. God, even implied, is not present in most of its entries, nor are any conventional religious texts or figures present to an appreciable degree. The entries are short, aphoristic, and poetic enough that one might consider it an early book-length work of American free verse. On the other hand, they don’t exactly seem to want to work as poetry as Pound or the English and European Modernists were re-casting it. My Little Book of Prayer reads more like a self-help book expressed in strongly worded and rhapsodic affirmations. The general attitude is the that with the too-rarely understood right goals and attitudes, human potential is unlimited. You start out thinking this is Stuart Smalley in 1906 guise, then wonder if you aren’t reading a follower of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and finally end up considering if you are reading a very concise American and female Friedrich Nietzsche.
For today’s audio piece we feature Fred “Sonic” Nietzsche on the keys. Makes me think of the Bonzo’s “The Intro & the Outro”—which is a very good thing!
None-the-less at the beginning of The American Century as education, industrialization, science, and an expanded political franchise were in motion, the book seems to have struck some sky’s-the-limit chords. The St Louis Globe-Democrat published this breathless notice:
If you want to know the greatness of a soul and the true mastery of life, apply to the Open Court Publishing Company for a slip of a book by Muriel Strode, entitled simply ‘My Little Book of Prayer.’ The modern progress of sovereign mind and inner divinity from the narrow cell of the ascetic to the open heaven of man made in God’s own image, is triumphantly shown in it, yet a self-abnegation and sacrifice beyond anything that a St. Francis or a Thomas a Kempis ever dreamed of, glorifies the path. To attempt to tell what a treasure-trove for the struggling soul is in this little volume would be impossible without giving it complete, for every paragraph marks a milestone on the higher way.”
How Strode hooked up with Open Court and its philosophy is one mystery. Even Strode’s southern Illinois childhood is not in Chicago’s orbit, and we know too little about her parents’ social class or connections. One theory that occurs to me is that somewhere in that Stenographer/Typist job title was an intelligent and ambitious woman who made social, commercial and philosophical connections with entrepreneurs and businessmen in those 15 “lost years” that may have been in California.
One piece of evidence for that: two years later she married Samuel Lieberman, “the president of an iron and steel firm in Chicago where Muriel had worked.”
Today’s piece, taken from her later work, 1921’sA Soul’s Faring. Instead of Open Court, this one was published by Boni & Liveright, a New York-based imprint much associated with literary Modernism.** By this point someone had dubbed Strode as “The female Walt Whitman,” and her free verse is, if anything, more unabashed and heroic*** than Whitman, which takes some doing. One has to be of the right mind to read much of it—it’s so over the top. The same Nietzschean philosophical concerns remain from her Open Court books, and the individual, roman-numerated, sections are barely longer at times than her earlier aphoristic “prayers.” There may be a growing mysticism entering into the work as well as elements that at times echo deep-ecology thinking about nature.
After reading three of her books, doing this research, and working on incorporating something I took from the XXXV section of her “Songs of the Strong” inside A Soul’s Faring, I still don’t quite know what to make of Muriel Strode. The gushing visionary true-believer attitude, even for a reader such as myself who enjoyed William Blake as a young man and who also appreciates Whitman is just so strong, and some underlying “Like attracts like” Law of Attraction elements seem unavoidable.**** So, I can’t say I’ve become a fan, as much as I must acknowledge her audacity and extremity of expression. Perhaps she’s best taken in small doses, in disconnected aphorisms?
In seeking to maximize that element in Strode’s poetry, I’ve adapted her poem, trimming even this already short work back even more, and turning one of its lines into a refrain. And for music? Well, I told you at the start we like to mix things up. Our last piece was orchestral, featuring strings and English horn, but today’s piece, which I call “I Am the Clod that has Taken Wing” in my adaptation—it’s metal, and of the sludgy type. Maybe in honor of Open Court and the Gilded Age Mr. Hegeler (who must be a Galvanized Age figure), it’s “Heavy Zinc?” Metal is a type of musical expression where you can say anything, no matter how outrageous, and get away with it; so maybe that fits in an odd way, which is what we do here at the Parlando Project. Here’s the player to hear it.
*If you’re not in the mood to adventure into this unusual story of a small town girl who makes her way in the world and some transitory literary notice, our archives here have lots of better-known poets from this same era and before.
**You, and the world, may have forgotten Muriel Strode, but Boni & Liveright were the first American publisher of William Faulkner, Ernest Hemmingway, E. E. Cummings, Jean Toomer, and Hart Crane and the US publisher of T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” So, between the boards, Strode was in high-lit company.
***There’s also an erotic element in A Soul’s Faring that might remind one of Whitman.
****What we know of Muriel Strode’s life story reads like a romance novel, doesn’t it? Here’s one more novelistic touch, and if you’re a skeptic about the “Law of Attraction,” you’d best ascribe it to a failure of authorship: those two parcels of land Strode bought before leaving California? Turns out about the time A Soul’s Faring was published, they found oil under them. Lots of oil. If you listen to today’s audio piece over and over, and perhaps play it backwards, who knows what riches will come to you.
In my episodic way here, I’ve touched on the rise of Free Verse in Modernist poetry. Free Verse poetry may still be rhythmic and musical, but it follows no strict meter, nor does it use any rhyme scheme. Now an established tradition, it came to poetry written in English in a non-straightforward way.
I think we can largely assign this happening to Walt Whitman, the American who was writing verse with eccentric line lengths and no rhymes by the middle of the 19th Century. Whitman did not immediately gain imitators in English, but French poets like Jules Laforgue took up the cause of Vers Libre later in the century. In Laforgue we can see a direct link from Whitman through his pioneering French translations of the American’s work.
The main thread of the Free Verse revolution for poetry in English then jumps to England, where before WWI Britons F. S. Flint and T. E. Hulme made common cause with American ex-patriot Ezra Pound. Pound must have certainly been aware of Whitman (more on this later) and though I’m unsure if Flint or Hulme knew of the American poet, all three shared an interest in Modernist French poetry.
I can only surmise, but in starting their Free Verse revolution, it may have been advantageous for this small group to present this as a French idea rather than as an American one. At the beginning of the 20th Century, France was an established cultural force, a place from where new intellectual and artistic ideas were expected to emerge—and in painting and music Frenchmen were the leading edge of artistic Modernism then in a way that Americans were not yet.
This strange path, from America to Paris to London misses one poet, a too often forgotten writer of Free Verse before the 20th Century, Stephen Crane. As a young man in his early 20s he was introduced to the just-published first collection of Emily Dickinson (1890), and mixing his take on Dickinson’s compressed musings on the infinite with the just-died Whitman’s Biblical cadences and love of parallelism, Crane in 1895 published a collection of short Free Verse poetry “The Black Riders.” Today’s piece uses the words of one of those short, untitled poems from Crane’s book.
Stephen Crane:. He’d written Free Verse when Ezra Pound was still weighing in with sestinas
If, a couple decades later, one of the short poems in “The Black Riders” was to appear in an Imagist anthology, on a quick glance or reading it wouldn’t look or sound out of place, but the pieces in Crane’s collection are not really Imagist poems, not even in the same way that sections of Whitman or Dickinson are. Crane’s “Black Riders” pieces are too full of abstract concepts and romantic notions—and even though Crane is questioning or mocking these concepts, he’s not presenting the issues through concrete new images as the Imagists would.
It’s interesting to wonder how Crane might have developed if he’d lived a full life, rather than dying at age 28 at the end of the 19th Century. Still and all, here was an American, in America, writing Modernist verse with Modernist attitudes while still a young man and with the 20th Century still on the horizon.
Musically, today marks a return of new pieces recorded with the LYL Band and Dave Moore. The music I compose and play myself can be created over a varied length of time, and in whole or in part, reconsidered and redone. The LYL Band on the other hand, just goes. When we did some recording this week, Dave told me he was waiting for another instance of us starting off something with no more than my announcing “G Minor.” Today’s Crane piece “The Black Riders XXXIX” is not particularly complex or unpredictable musically, but we needed to knock off the rust. To hear it, use the player below.