Tiresias

Each April, as part of National Poetry Month I’ve been recording a performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  and presenting it here in serial fashion. This year we’re performing the third section of the poem, “The Fire Sermon.”

When we last left “The Fire Sermon”  we were by the not-so-sweet Thames river where (as elsewhere in the poem) voices and diction were constantly changing. We don’t know who, or how many “whos,” were speaking in that segment, but the narrator in today’s section identifies himself as Tiresias. As we’ll soon see, Tiresias is as shape-shifting in body as the poem has been in voices.

Tiresias’ has many characteristics in the various mythological tales told of him. He’s able to predict the future, and he does this by studying birds (augury) and in particular by studying birdsong.*  He’s blind but is able to perceive things anyway through second sight and acute hearing. He’s said to have been given the gift (or curse) of an extra-long life. He also has the ability to talk to the dead, and in some stories talk to the living after his death. But perhaps the most remarkable part of the Tiresias story is that he was transformed from a man to a woman, and back again.

Tiresias_striking_the_snakes

Tiresias as he is transformed into a woman by Hera because he killed a female snake.

 

We open not with Tiresias introducing himself, but with his encounter with a merchant, who seeks some kind of meetup with the narrator. There are some who tell us the meetup locations suggested indicate that the narrator is being propositioned for a homosexual tryst. If so, this would be consistent with the closing song in the “Sweet Thames”  section, referring to heterosexual prostitutes and that section’s opening in some kind of any-affiliation “after the party” ennui by the river. And so the theme is set: “The Fire Sermon”  is going to talk about sex and what passes for love.

Now Tiresias introduces himself, and his sexual fluidity, as he begins to tell what seems at first a straightforward story: a typist has come home to her small  apartment. Hers is a low-paid job in the early 20th century business/bureaucracy, one often filled by the new “working woman.” She’s taking care of after-work household necessities, including collecting her drying laundry scattered across the room’s couch (which also serves as her bed), and fixing a meal.

Tiresias tells us he already knows what’s going to happen, and since mythologically he’s told the fortunes of kings and heroes, he’s sort-of over-qualified to tell this story.

And sure enough, Tiresias tells us a young man (carbuncular, i.e. covered with zits) arrives. He’s another wage slave, a clerk, who affects a silk hat that he thinks makes him look like a wealthier man. The typist and the clerk have a meal the typist has cooked and then he, hurriedly, unromantically, and with no real consent, jumps her bones.

And here Tiresias tells us he’s not just seen this all before (in both senses of the phrase, as someone who can predict the future, but also as a demi-immortal for whom this story only changes costumes and scenery as it repeats) but that he’s experienced it as both genders.

And then it gets weirder. That back-story of Tiresias’ own history with sexual exploitation is told in a long compound sentence in parenthesis. Today’s section then ends with an unstated someone who “bestows one final patronizing kiss, and gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit” out of the apartment. Is that the young man carbuncular, or Tiresias, or are they one in the same? And for that matter what of the woman, the typist?

As they used to say in serials, tune in tomorrow, as our story continues. To listen to my performance of this segment of “The Waste Land”  use the player below.

 

 

 

 

*And birdsong acts as a bridge between our first segment of “The Fire Sermon”  and this one.

**There are a great many interpretations of “The Waste Land”  and its sections. Mine is far from the most learned. I could use footnotes to try to explain every reference and connection in the poem—at least until my learning and research ran out—but I’m choosing to resist cataloging all the connections and references, so that we can appreciate the poem as an impressionistic, imagistic, musical suite of scenes, voices, and songs. If you’d like to read along, here the whole poem.

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Twelfth Night

As we near 170 audio pieces posted here, we now get our second set of Shakespeare’s words, but instead of one of his sonnets, here’s a short scene from one of his plays (Twelfth Night)  which, by his design, includes a song.

The play’s title indicates it was an occasional piece for an English holiday that takes place on the 12th day after Christmas. I read that the traditional English Twelfth Night partakes of various “floating” winter/winter solstice traditions, some dating back to Roman Saturnalia, with much party-play acting of role-reversals, selections of short-term random royalty, eating, drinking, and song.

Here in modern commercial America, the extending of Christmas is via a prelude, with ever extended shopping days before the holiday; but in the past, Christmas was instead broadened after the December 25th date, with the “Twelfth Night” being the end of the “12 Days of Christmas”—yes, those same 12 days the famous listing song counts off. Given the dreary length of winter in northern climes, the holiday season was sometimes extended even further to February 2nd, Candlemas.

And it was on Candlemas, 416 years ago that Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night  was first performed. The play has a complex series of plots, but the one central to today’s audio piece is that of a young woman, Viola, who’s been shipwrecked in a foreign land, has taken to dressing as a man, Cesario; and while still disguised and cross-dressing, she has fallen in love with Orsino, an older Duke of the foreign land. Orsino is sad because he’s in love with Olivia, a local lady, who refuses his attentions. Only one thing keeps Orsino going in his melancholy: music.

As we enter into the play with today’s audio piece, the “meta” gets laid on thick. Orsino, though unlucky in love himself, seeks to give the “young man” Cesario advice in love. And Cesario (infatuated Viola in disguise as a young man) tolerates this mansplaining in hope that Orsino might someday see something in her/him. And in Shakespeare’s time the young woman passing as a young man would have been played by—well, a young man passing for a woman. To simplify things, I read both actors’ parts myself in the audio piece.

As the scene ends, Orsino asks for an “old song” to cheer him up.

The song Orsino requests “Come, Come Away Death”  is so dour I wonder if Shakespeare is making more comedy against the excess of melancholy and the foolish suffering of unrequited love. It’s a cheery little ditty about refused love causing or requiring death, and the spurned lover wishing only that his grave be unknown so that there’s no chance his unresponsive sweetie will ever hypocritically mourn there.

Representative lyrics: “On my black coffin, let there be strown./Not a friend, not a friend greet/My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown.” If Judas Priest had recorded this, it certainly would have been brought up in the 1990’s trial where the heavy metal band was accused of driving listeners to suicide.

But, after all, Twelfth Night  is a comedy. No spoilers here, but despite multiple love triangles and more disguises and misunderstandings, fate is kind to multiple sets of lovers, something we can all wish for lovers this upcoming year.

twelfth night by Walter Howell Deverell

Melancholy Duke Orsino bids Feste to Kick Out the Jams while Viola/Cesario ponders gender roles

Since Orsino in the play’s text asks for “Come, Come Away Death”  to be sung, we know it was indeed sung with music in Shakespeare’s time, and there are several extant settings of it. The ones I’ve heard are in the Elizabethan style, usually for a high, plaintive tenor—and even when Elvis Costello sang it, it was in that manner. I went counter to this, taking a more rock stance, allowing the singer to mix some anger into his self-pity. To hear that, use the player below.

Love Song for a Woman I Do Not Love

One joy of this project’s exploration has been coming upon poets I know nothing about and acquiring their words in my bloodless version of that conqueror on the “peak in Darien.” Writing about Frost, Pound, HD and Eliot in England early in the 20th Century lead me to T. E. Hulme, an Englishman of pugnacious artistic pronouncements and surprisingly modest and moving poetry. And T. E. Hulme led me to F. S. Flint, another British writer and literary theorist in this circle in the years just before WWI.

Last month I introduced readers here to Flint’s amazing rise from Victorian poverty. In the interim I’ve been reading more of his work, including his 1920 collection of poems (he called them “cadences”) titled “Otherworld.”  Since Flint is not commonly studied or anthologized, each poem as I encountered in the collection was a fresh experience, no different than reading a new poet’s chapbook published this year. I could start a poem of his in “Otherworld”  about a confused midnight awakening, and come to find it’s a first-hand account of a deadly London air-raid by a German Zeppelin.

Today’s piece, in the same collection, held another surprise. It tells you it’s a Love Song, but contradicts that before the end of the title. What it is instead is an unstinting examination of the corrosion class and gender inflict on the grail of love. The singer of this song lays bare a combination of disgust at how he’s judged as a poor man, with an undisguised desire to own the things he does not have, including this other human being, the woman of the title.

Bright Coloured Cretonnes!

“Bright-coloured cretonnes…” What is the erotic despair of draperies and upholstery?

I can think of dozens of popular songs that deal in some variation of this, but it’s harder to come up with 100-year-old poems, much less ones as good as this one, that talk of this. Ignore a handful of references to the interior decorating trends of Flint’s time, and this poem could have been written yesterday, except few writers of any time would be as acute as Flint is in observing this.

What new poets of the Modernist movement do I get to discover and share with you in the upcoming year? I can’t be sure, but I noted that Flint’s “Otherworld”  is dedicated to Herbert Read, and from what few poems of his I can find online, Read seems just as fresh and fascinating.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Musically I’ve been telling myself I want to utilize some of the methods of hip-hop records, and yet each time I set out to do this, I get side-tracked by my own idiosyncratic musical muse. The melodic top line is my appreciation of early 1960s hard-bop organ playing. The bass part is a combination of a left-hand organ part with electric bass. Two bass lines shouldn’t work, but I think it does here. That’s not the only duality in this: the drum machine beat is augmented by some percussion which keeps the drum machine from ruling the groove “correctly.” The hip-hop rhythm flow eludes me again, though maybe I recall some predecessors like Dr. John the Night Tripper?

To hear my performance of F. S. Flint’s “Love Song to a Woman I Do Not Love,”  use the player below.