Sail on, Oh Ship of State!

Claude McKay led an outsiders’ life, Allen Ginsberg became a near celebrity bohemian whose outsider status changed over his life. The author of today’s poem in our Independence Day series was more well-known than Ginsberg in his day, and he was as far from being an outsider as any American poet could be. At one time, as many knew and read his poems as Edgar Guest’s, and he was a much better versifier.

So, do you know today’s poem from the above title, or from the name of the longer work from which it’s excerpted, “The Building of the Ship?”   It’s highly unlikely that you would. The American writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow went from being the stuffy square’s square, the kind of writer that Modernists didn’t want to be, to a forgotten man, the writer that no one remembers even to reject. He was a civic poet, a poet’s role that no longer exists in white America. Along with a handful of other men, most of whom he knew, he sought to create an American poetry in the first half of the 19th century when the American experiment was still new. After all, when he was born in 1817, many who celebrated July 4th were around for the July 4th!   And for much of his life Longfellow lived in a house that George Washington had lived in while commanding the American Revolutionary War troops.

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George Washington lived here, and later so did Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And a child named Darby Vassall. Haven’t heard of that last one? Read on.

 

In 1855, an elderly man visited that house where he had been born in 1769, meeting with Longfellow there. The man’s name was Darby Vassall, and this was the nature of his birth: he was born to enslaved Afro-Americans owned by the owners of that big house, which made him a slave by law from birth. When the Revolution came, his masters sided with the British, and so after the Battle of Bunker Hill, the owners skedaddled off to safer British-controlled territory. This left the house available for the new Revolutionary Army’s commander, General Washington, as spoils of war. Washington left his short-term smaller quarters and went to the big house to move in.

And here’s the story Darby Vassall liked to tell about meeting The Father of Our Country. There he was, six years old, and the revolution had by accident empirically freed him. He was swinging on the gate of the very house Longfellow now lived in, a time-honored childhood pastime then and now (see also sutures and Colles’ fracture.) General Washington, impressively tall for his time, and like the house’s absent owners, a rich slaveholder who traveled with an enslaved manservant, asked the boy if he would like to work for the new occupant, this man who’d become so honored and famous that people even now buy his portrait for something between 25 cents and a dollar.

Darby kept swinging, sizing up the tall white man, and then asked “How much are you paying?” Darby says Washington kind of lost interest in the conversation at that point—because, you know, slavery. He looked like a gentleman Darby later recounted, but “He was no gentleman.” Now that’s an Independence Day story!

We don’t know all Vassall told Longfellow about the house Longfellow now lived in, but the stories must have been interesting. The best-selling author blew off a meeting with his publisher to hear them all.

Have I forgotten to talk about Longfellow’s poem? No, this is another poem for our July 4th series. It comes at the end of a much longer poem Longfellow published in 1850, one that less than nobody reads today. The entire “The Building of the Ship”  is an allegorical story of a venerable ship builder* who with the help of a crew including a younger apprentice builds a ship for a merchant, more magnificent than any the builder has ever built. While building the ship, the apprentice and the master ship builder’s daughter fall in love, and the old master promises that on the day the ship launches his daughter and the apprentice will be wed. After many supple verse lines detailing the construction of this ship,** it’s complete and it launches with a epithalamium in which the new and lovely ship is embraced as a bride by the timeless, older, gray sea.

If the poem ended there it’d remain a curio of interest to scholars today, a romance in a European style adapted with distinctive American details and accomplished in English verse with a difficult rhyming scheme that never grates or seems fake, the sort of thing that is easier to do in French or Italian.***  But Longfellow had an envoi of sorts. The ship, as all man-made things do, would eventually wear out and come to a wrecked end. A downbeat, look-at-oneself-through-the-grave warning that would also not be out of place in romanticism.

This whole poem, along with that ending was sent to the publishers.

Then Longfellow called it back. He had a revision, with an entirely new ending. You can read the old ending and the story of the last-minute revision here. Not only is the new ending upbeat, it seemed to retroactively change the poem that proceeded it. That boat-like-a-bride thing was still there, but the ship was named “The Union,” and in those manifests of the things that made the ship, the entire young country seems to be the source. The Union becomes not just a marital union, it becomes the United States.

Here’s where that civic poet role comes into play. In the dozen years leading up to the Civil War, the delicate balance of slavery’s evil in a democratic country was becoming harder and harder to keep from spilling, the compromises seeking to keep the country in existence more and more difficult to negotiate. Longfellow’s new envoi, the one that I perform today, may seem anodyne if considered as an abstract statement of patriotism, but in 1850 it was a considered second-draft meant to say that ideals of the American experiment should continue, needed to continue, because those ideals, those plans, however imperfectly applied are contagious (in a good non-Covid-19 way). Enough for a small 6-year-old to stand up to Washington for example.

Now if we are to consider inspirational Afro-American patriotism, the best story that is likely not true is that Winston Churchill once quoted in a public speech Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die,”  a Black man’s valiant ode to self-defense written after the deadly “Red Summer” of 1919, but then applied during the darkest days of Great Britain standing against Nazi-occupied Europe. No one has such a transcript or recording. But there is  a recording of Churchill reading a section of the abolitionist**** Longfellow’s envoi during that time in a speech of endurance in 1940.

 

 

Maybe the strangest thing about this ship and it’s sailing on, even as the maker of the poem has slipped away from public consciousness, was “Sail on, O Ship of State”  being quoted in Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy,”  his excellent ode to the need to continue the American experiment, however flawed, because it’s flawed.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Longfellow’s “Sail On, Oh Ship of State”  is below. I’ll note that my performance has some flaws that I’m accepting for now in order to get this out in a timely manner, but the spirit is there. Happy 4th of July though it be just one date. May freedom and independence come to all of us. The revolution is plural.

 

 

 

 

*Though Longfellow lived and wrote much of his work in Cambridge Massachusetts, he was born and educated in Maine, and even at this late hour he probably vies with Stephen King and Edna St. Vincent Millay for the title of most well-known writer from Maine. Maine was a shipbuilding center in the 19th century and so the poems extended allegory of shipmaking was local color to Longfellow.

**I’m no expert here, but those who know about early 19th century American shipbuilding seem to feel that Longfellow got the details of ship design choices and construction right.

***Many prosody theorists think that rhyming English poetry is a mistake, as we have many fewer rhyming word-endings than other European languages. Longfellow’s poetry may not be to modern tastes, but one thing he did have was a non-forced and impressive “flow” in the hip-hop/rap sense.

****Among the favorable reviews from abolitionists: Thomas Wentworth Higginson said of “The Building of the Ship”  “The most complete and artistic which he ever wrote.” Lincoln was said to have quoted the envoi lines in private to his secretary as the Civil War broke out—and broke down in tears before he could finish them.

Poets and Presidents Day

I don’t know if we’ll ever have a person who spent serious time as a writer as U.S. president. Yes, most write—or co-write to some degree—books leading up to their candidacy, and some kind of post-term memoir is now expected; but I’m speaking of a sustained and serious attempt at literary writing.

In my lifetime we had one prominent candidate (Eugene McCarthy) who did write poetry in the mid-century modernist style, and a substantial “leading up to their candidacy” book of political history from John Kennedy, though there is controversy about how much of “Profiles in Courage”  was ghost-written. Jimmy Carter has published books of poetry after leaving office, but at least so far as I’ve sampled his poetry, it hasn’t stuck with me.

Other democracies may have better examples. Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic, and that winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature with a side job, Winston Churchill. Farther back there are more chief executives who could fill a shelf with their own books: Disraeli, Theodore Roosevelt.

Overall, I’m not sure that “men of letters” (a gender-neutral term doesn’t seem to jibe with that archaic phrase) are, as a class, good candidates for the Presidency. Writing is the perfect example of a one-person enterprise. To do it well takes a lot of effort, but most always it involves the writer setting themselves on that course by convincing themselves of it’s necessity and then carrying on with little assistance, at least until the publishable stage is reached. Leadership and coalition–building aren’t needed in those tasks. Vision is helpful in either field; but if we are to be honest with our selves, democracies only set much value in that in times of crisis.

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“I extend this laurel, and hearty handshake…”

 

Though neither sought to publish, the two Presidents whose birthdays have been merged into Presidents Day do have poems to their credit. George Washington, as a love-struck teenager penned an incomplete acrostic poem that was to spell out the name of the subject of his affections. Last year the Parlando Project turned it into an angsty soft-loud expression of that youthful boldness-fear, one that, surprisingly, remains the most popular audio piece we’ve ever done.  Here’s the player for “Frances,”  Washington’s love poem:

 

 

Abraham Lincoln, the great American orator and leader, wrote a three-section poem in his 30s while recalling the hometown of his early youth. We set part of this to music for his birthday earlier this month. It’s quite sad, in a mode that was somewhat common in 19th Century literature, but there’s reason to think that Lincoln wasn’t just striking a pose. It’s now commonly believed that he suffered from some level of depression in his adulthood. To hear Lincoln’s “My Childhood Home I See Again,”  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

 

 

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“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.

Hymn to Evening

I’m going to tell you a very sad and very wondrous story. A little over 250 years ago, when America was still a colony of England, a young girl about 7 years old was abducted in West Africa by men who took and sold human beings for profit. This enterprise then shipped her across the ocean along with other abductees. This business, a very profitable and respectable business of the time, was slavery.

The way this business worked then, those who were deemed useful for labor would be shipped to the West Indies. There some were put to work as slaves, and others were—to use the term sometimes applied to the harnessing of wild horses—“broken,” so that they could be more useful as laboring slaves. In this case, with this ship, it took those that were not figured to be the good laborers— the odd lots and freight salvage of their cargo—and carried them on to Boston in the American colonies.

Our 7 year old girl was one of those less valuable pieces of cargo. And when she arrived in Boston, she was also sick, and so she was sold to a family for a very low price, because the ships master figured that if he didn’t sell her quickly she would die and there would be no profit in her.

The family that bought this girl treated her unusually. They named her Phillis, as that was the name of the ship that carried her away to America, and as was the custom, used the family’s last name Wheatley for her as well. They taught Phillis Wheatley to read and write English, and then as she showed extra facility with language, they allowed her to extend her learning. By the time she was teenager she was reading not just the Bible, but Greek and Latin classics and the works of the leading English classical writers of the time. And something even more remarkable happened: she started writing like these men.

Nothing like this had ever been seen. An American, in the far-off colonies, writing like an educated Englishman. No, an American woman—wait, not just a woman, an African-American woman, a slave, someone’s property, writing like an educated Englishman!

Did the business of enslavement of Africans, the thing that brought this girl to America, arise because of a belief in the inferiority of black Africans? Or did the widespread belief that black Africans were mentally and spiritually inferior become widespread because it allowed otherwise moral human beings to take part in this repulsive practice? Whichever, Phillis Wheatley, this young girl, had become a wondrous rebuke to those ideas of racial superiority.

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First book of poems written by an African-American

 

In 1773, only 20 years old, Phillis Wheatley once more crossed the ocean and traveled to England, met Lords, Ladies, Counts and Countesses. A book of her poems was published there, the first book of poems by an African-American ever published. She was even going to meet King George, but she had to return to Boston before a date could be arranged. Back in America, as the foment leading to the American Revolution began, she wrote a poem to King George, reminding him that she was his loyal subject, but it might be wise to reconsider things like the Stamp Act that were riling up the colonies.

Yesterday, February 22nd was George Washington’s birthday, and three days ago I celebrated the holiday that replaced Washington’s Birthday with a piece based on a poem written by the teenaged Washington. After the Revolutionary War broke out, and Washington became the commander of the American forces, Phillis Wheatley wrote a poem and sent it to General Washington. Washington wrote back that he was impressed by her “great poetical talents” and suggested that if it could be worked out, he would “be happy to see a person so favoured by the Muses.” Alas, as with the King George, this meeting with the General (and slaveholder) never happened.

So here is Phillis Wheatley, a person who was abducted, torn from her family and home, sold for a pittance as damaged property, shipped across an ocean to a new land that speaks another language. She owns nothing, she herself is owned. And what then does she obtain? Poetry. The ability to speak fluently in the voice and art of this land of exile, and for a time, a measure of fame for this accomplishment. Is that enough?

I look at her words now, over 250 years later, and the style she wrote in is so mannered, often encrusted with the gilded and blushed Georgian portraits of Roman myths. I told you at the start: this story is sad and wondrous. We know, it is our obligation to know, the sadness of slavery, committed by humans on other humans. The wonder of what Phillis Wheatley was able to accomplish fades somewhat with time. As a small gesture to that wonder, today’s piece “Hymn to Evening”  uses a lyrical pastoral Phillis Wheatley wrote, wrapped in some music I composed and performed.

 

A few words about the music in this piece. The first line of Wheatley’s poem “Soon as the sun forsook the eastern main” somehow reminded me of an excellent if little-known Joni Mitchell song “Eastern Rain,” perhaps best known in an elaborate arrangement performed by Fairport Convention. I find that having an inexact memory is a benefit to composition, as my musical result has nothing in common with Mitchell’s, and the only thing I took from Fairport Convention’s version was a vaguely East Indian musical feel.  To hear my music and Phillis Wheatley’s “Hymn to Evening,” use the player below.

 

Frances

Here a piece based on a short, incomplete poem written by a teenager who went on to do other things. You can tell he’s a clever young man. He’s infatuated with a neighbor girl, but there’s no such thing as texting yet—no such things as telephones either. Thankfully, love songs are a well-established technology, so he sets to work on one.

To make sure that she knows he’s serious about her, and not the other young ladies he’s been seen cavorting with, he decides it’s not just going to be a poem, it’s going to be an acrostic. The first letter of each line will, if read downward, spell out her full name.
 
If John Lennon had wanted to write “Oh Yoko” as an acrostic, it wouldn’t have added much difficulty to his verse. Alas, our teenager’s object of affections is Frances Alexander. Well it could have worse, if he was a teenager who wanted to write a love song to the New Zealand singer who performs as Lorde, and wanted to use her full name, he’d have to write a 27 line poem to Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor.

He only needs 16 lines to prove his love.

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OK, he’s finished the “Frances” part, now onto “Alexander”

 

He gets to line 11. Gotta start with “X.” He grabs onto Xerxes, the famous Persian leader and general to fill out his acrostic, but one line later he runs out of gas and just drops the poem before finishing.

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Our poet got his face on some money too

 

Didn’t finish the poem, didn’t get the girl, but our teenager like Xerxes became a famous general and eventually his country’s leader. He’s got a birthday coming up on the 22nd, but they celebrate our boy George Washington’s birthday as a US holiday today.

In writing the music for this piece, I decided to just take Washington’s words seriously. Even if the sentiments he uses are somewhat conventional (the “my love outshines the sun” trope was old enough that Shakespeare made fun of it more than 200 years before Washington got to it). Love songs sometimes make no effort to be original, and if done well, the human commonness of the experience of love becomes the point.  Here, even if he was following his acrostic plan, young Washington takes a darker turn as he starts the second part of his poem, and I tried to bring that out in my version. To hear it, use the player below.