A great broken world with eyes gone dim

I took yesterday off from the work of this ongoing project. I spent a good portion of it listening to music.

I said to my wife that afternoon: “It’s odd, but spending to much time composing music, performing, recording, and mixing it largely keeps me from listening to music I’m not working on. If I was a sculptor or painter I could listen to music while working, some even listen to music while writing,*  but you can’t listen to music while working on music.”

I awoke this morning early, bid my wife off to work and went for my morning bike ride. I returned, ate breakfast, and set to work on completing a long piece that I’ve been working on for some time this month. Such work devours hours.

It was only while taking a little break late this afternoon that I learned that what seems clearly to be a horrible injustice occurred last night in my town—so horrible and so near that I could not carry on with my day’s work. Yes, there’s another cell phone video capturing someone, yes, another Afro-American someone, losing their life during a law enforcement encounter. Same and different, each one of these. I will say that this is the third time in my city when I’ve thought that, as terrible and painful as this video is, that it will change the public’s outlook. Is it good or bad to say these are not numbing yet?

Or am I wrong to say this? Perhaps it is numbing. Like when your extremities grow cold in a northern winter. You don’t feel them going numb after all. The villain in the piece, the policeman with decades in a public service job, surely seems numb to the suffering he’s causing. Does evil flow both hot and cold in us?

How many will view this and swear, and then swear that they could never do what he seems to be doing, or at least never do it without copious anger. How many of us will not think about the other policeman, standing nearby, still in the portrait-mode frame. Will we ask ourselves, could we be him? Or will that question slide by us?

“What’s the broken world”  –  photo by Evan Frost for MPR News.

 

I’m a poet and musician. I run nothing, not even my own muses some days. Shelley aside, I’m not a legislator in session. I could do political analysis here, but choose instead to beg your indulgence to talk about how someone else’s words strike me a couple of times a week. However, I spent two decades trying to alleviate pain, fix people up, and keep people alive. My wife still does this work. It offends me when we fail. In the medical field we often know when we fail, and the philosophers kind or callous—who know that in a medical, mortal sense, we always fail—offer only partial relief.

Poetry and the power of music isn’t quite like philosophy. Music doesn’t want to be ideas, but their sound. It can express anger and sorrow and give it a towering spillway for those things to pour out. It’s not healing or justice exactly, but the sound of those things. And poetry is the literary art that uses words in the nearest same way.

If it’s not the actual, palpable, thing we need—if it’s not sorrow, anger, healing, justice—it may teach us to recognize those things, to see and join them in the souls of others.

Why say this? In the above I’ve tried to rationalize what I attempt to do, but tonight I doubt this too much to complete a new piece of music and write about it.

Last time I mentioned Charlotte Mew chose not the mention the specifics of a horrible war in her short poem. She could have written a poem longer than the Iliad  and not covered all the callousness and killing, the heroes and the folly. Only in passing, I mentioned that meant her poem of grief isn’t necessarily tied to World War I, or to Britain—but I wanted very much then to stress another thing about short, lyric poetry: that you can carry it with you, that it can change and grow as you take it back out of your mind during the dealing out of a day or more. So I carry this bit from her poem over, yet another day.

What’s little June to a great broken world with eyes gone dim
From too much looking on the face of grief, the face of dread?

We are the pieces of that broken world. Can you feel the broken edges?

 

 

 

 

*I used to listen to music when writing sometimes, but I can’t recall the last time I did that. It’s probably been decades. In my youth sometimes entire first drafts of some poem would flow out while listening to a piece of music.

A poem about grief for American Memorial Day: June, 1915

This Monday is American Memorial Day, a day dedicated to remembering those that died in my country’s warfare. At its onset it was a solemn day for decorating graves, but over time it has lost some of that focus, with celebrations touching on generalized patriotism or military service. It’s also the calendar marker for the beginning of summer. In my youth it was celebrated on May 30th every year, but it’s now a Monday holiday that floats around a bit—but the reason it’s placed at the end of spring still goes back to the original purpose: it was set for a time of year when fresh flowers were in season across the United States, flowers for decorating those graves.

And so it is that this ambiguity makes it odd to wish someone rotely “Happy Memorial Day.”

The Parlando Project has marked Memorial Day with performances of poems over the years, but just as the reason for the holiday is somewhat problematic for mere celebration, it’s not easy to figure what poetry to mark it. Long time readers here will know that there is plenty of poetry that speaks honestly about the experience of warfare, and that WWI produced a great deal of it. But in its specific way, Memorial Day isn’t really about that. It’s about the mourners and their duty.

So, I cast about this week for a poem that spoke to that, and I found this poem by someone that this project has presented before: British poet Charlotte Mew. She was an unusual person when living, and the case of her poetic legacy is unusual too. Her poetry received some small amount of interest in the London scene around the time of WWI. Thomas Hardy, Walter de LaMare, Virginia Woolf, and even the American Ezra Pound recognized her work’s value, but this those-that-know praise never developed into any appreciable readership in her lifetime. Culture was still a bit of a boy’s club, and with the explosion of Modernism going on, you either planted the make-it-new bombs or faced being obliterated by them. Mew didn’t fit in any movement, and after her death, forgotten happened with efficiency.

Today a handful of scholars seek to make the case that she’s greatly underestimated and that her work needs to be reevaluated. They have a case which can be made with considered reading of her poetry. It doesn’t sound or work like anyone else’s.

young Charlotte Mew

Mew wasn’t just strikingly original in her poetry. Most pictures show her presenting androgynously.

 

So, here is one of her poems about the experience of mourning during wartime, written, just as it says on the tin, in June 1915 as the massive extent of the casualties and stalemate in World War I was becoming inescapably apparent in Britain. Here’s a link to the text of this short poem.

Recent readers have seen that I’ve been writing recently on how poets who write short lyrics sometimes get underestimated. We readers might flow through the poems like we would paragraphs of prose, appreciating perhaps a bit of the poetic rudiments of rhyme or meter. This can go by so fast that there’s no time for more than surfaces, but great lyric poems can have depths that ask us not only to read them, or even to say them or sing them once, but to consider them for longer than the minute it may take to get through them a single time. A lyric is portable. Carry one around for a day or so, and it may enlarge.

A lyric is portable. Carry one around for a day or so, and it may enlarge.

Many Modernists sought to slow us down deliberately to oppose this one-and-done tendency. Obscure imagery, typographical variations, or syntactical sabotage are deployed for this. Mew goes in only for a light touch of the last here, with complex sentences that seem to end up somewhere else from where they begin. Her language here is quite plainspoken. There’s some interesting choices being made in the music of thought, with simple words being repeated to depict the stuck-ness of grief. I like the powerful simplicity of the repeated word “broken” here. Also notice the concise depiction of grief is externalized, depicted to a large degree by the seeming opposite in the child and the spring scene. Though not a recognized, full-fledged member of the 20th century Modernist flock, Mew’s poem of mourning and grief is not done in the Victorian manner. Even when she uses explicit emotional words, something done but twice, they are “the face of grief” and “the face  of dread.” She may have rightfully believed that a contemporary British reader would understand the wartime context of this poem, but in the Imagist manner, “June, 1915”  doesn’t say “war,” instead choosing to drill down into the charged immediate moments.

There’s no showy “stop and see how clever” imagery here either, though do not rush through consideration of the line contrasting the springtime child whose sunny lane is “as far away as are the fearless stars from these veiled lamps of town.” This line worked powerfully for me early in my appreciation of this poem, yanking the alienation between the child’s state and the mourners state a distance of light-years apart. I’ll note that a specific of Mew’s London times in the spring of 1915 has become obscure to us, but the “veiled lamps” aren’t just misty eyes, for on May 31st of that year nighttime Zeppelin bombing raids on London had commenced and blackout precautions were being practiced.

Mew could have chosen to make this poem itself as specific as its title. She didn’t. While I find it very appropriate for Memorial Day, the complex moment of this poem, so starkly told, is not even limited to the wartime dread and sorrow that engendered it.

How about the ending? I sensed an undercurrent, even an intent, the first time I read this that the child’s small eager hand isn’t just thinking of the first June rose, but is about to pick it, to turn if from a living, pollinating plant to decoration—that he innocently is aping the harvesting of souls in The Great War. If I may own the poem, I still want that there; but upon further review I don’t currently believe that was Mew’s intent.

Mourning. Grief. Dread. Part of the borderless human condition. Timeless because of its forever, returning briefness. To know this is a bare consolation, as memory is.

You can hear my performance of Charlotte Mew’s “June, 1915”  with the player gadget below.

 

 

Soon Be Gone

I start off talking about the words or context in which I experience the words, mostly poetry, that are used here. That goes on, and I notice that I’m getting near to—or even above—what I consider to be reasonable length for a blog post (around 1,000 words*) and I haven’t mentioned the music.

In the end I’ll often mutter a few things about the instruments used, urge you to listen—and roll the footnotes!

So, let’s start off today talking about the music for a little bit. I enjoy the variety of musical contexts I use for the words here. I have wide musical tastes, and yet there are still genres and sounds I haven’t yet used that I will use as this project continues to push toward 400 audio pieces. Inexpensive technology has offered an enormous audio palette to a composer/musician, unbelievable sounds and resources compared to what was available even to the commercially viable counterparts of my childhood. And yet all these possible variations are not used. How curious. How self-limiting.

Well, there are reasons for that. While I admire musicians that push out the boundaries of what they do, the marketplace often finds such efforts self-defeating, and I don’t know that they are misreading substantial audiences in their verdict on that. I’d like the audience for what the Parlando Project does to grow. Indeed, reflecting on the amount of effort that goes into this, it’s nutty that it continues at this level for an Internet audience a thousands-time smaller than pictures of a sandwich. But I’m also grateful for an audience that can at least tolerate my musical varieties on top of poetic varieties. That’s you. You’re rare. You’re not supposed to exist, and yet you do. That’s the audience this project deserves.

Perhaps a more important reason is that technology, tools, resources—while they can extend what an individual musician/composer can do—in the end revolve around the axis of the abilities of that musician/composer. I’m far from a virtuoso on any instrument, some days I’m not even competent on my core instrument, the guitar. And then there’s a key problem I work around constantly: I’m a poor singer.

I use spoken word, chant, talk-singing, altered timbres, but real, full-voiced, pitched singing of melodies escapes me. A beautiful resource I don’t have available! This limit constrains me, frustrates me—though it sometimes leads me to work on ways of integrating poetry and music other than the existing traditions of art song.**

But some material must be sung. Today’s piece is one of those. “Soon Be Gone”  is imaginatively taken from an episode early in the adult life of my late wife, who left her Twin Cities hometown to follow a mountebank to southeast Iowa where he had a job offer to work as a radio announcer. It didn’t go well, or work at all really, and she traveled back north by north-west to home where she accepted my pretentions.

When I wrote “Soon Be Gone”  some years back, not long after she had died, and decades after the events, I made some choices. I think primarily from my grief, I wrote it from the view of the mountebank, who in the piece is reflecting immediately on his loss of her.

Soon Be Gone lyrics

“Hebrew sun?” If you’re facing north, one reads its daily path from right to left

 

The opening two lines of the bridge section before the final chorus are a variation taken from a translation of “The Song of Solomon”  which had a special meaning to my wife and I.***

As a lyric writer I often prefer to leave “the plot” of a song undetermined, and if it works “Soon Be Gone”  doesn’t require that the listener know those things. I mention this as a suggestion to writers here that compression and leaving out details could add a mysterious power to a song or poem. If your listener wants to connect, give them space to fall into your words.

farfisa where the action is

It’s an organ. And it’s LIVE! Forget the dance—run!

 

The difficult and ultimately imperfect task of recording the vocals for this piece aside, I did enjoy plugging my Telecaster into real cranked-up amps and doing the two-guitar weave at the center of this song. The other featured element here is a Farfisa combo organ**** (well, a virtual instrument recreation of one) which is a tip of the hat to Dave Moore who played one with the LYL band back in the 80s.

To hear the results, use the player below. I’ll be back with more poetry and “other people’s stories” soon.

 

 

*It takes time to create shorter posts about complex subjects, but I feel the author owes it to their audience. I’ve subscribed to about two-dozen blogs that I read whenever I get a break from this project, and nothing pains me more than a talented and perceptive blog author with more words than content. Although elaborative words strung together have their pleasures, I’m often in the mood to spend more time thinking and doing than reading. This is probably why I’m drawn to the compressed lyric form in poetry.

**I rather like art song settings of poems, though they often seem to me to be one solution to the problem of setting complex texts to music while there are others less explored (what we do here.) And since I can’t sing them, there’s little incentive for me to write complicated melodic lines for singers, which means that even if I had singers to write for I’d probably find that skill undeveloped on my part.

***For example, the 8th chapter in the King James Christian version which renders things this way: “Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death….”

****It’s falling back into the mists of time, but a player of a small electronic organ shaped like an elongated suitcase and fitted with a folding or removable set of legs was once a common feature of rock’n’roll bands. They were often played through overtaxed guitar amplifiers with only one hand playing arpeggiated parts like I use here. This sort of thing is sometimes associated with “garage rock” combos of the early 60s styled like The Kingsmen, ? and the Mysterians, The Sir Douglas Quintet, or Paul Revere and the Raiders et al. But that trope survived into the “Rock” evolution later in the decade too: The Doors, Country Joe and the Fish, early Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead and so on.

The Farfisa was an Italian-made-and-designed brand used in this role. Later in my century Phillip Glass utilized Farfisa combo organs in creating his version of composed music built on repetitive and driving organ arpeggios. The timbre of those combo organs always had me listening to Glass’ early work anticipating that they would, at any moment, break into “96 Tears”  or “Light My Fire.”

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

We’re about to begin April’s National Poetry Month in the U. S., but I’m going to begin celebrating #NPM2018 today with a piece that’s a good way to start things off, the opening two sections of Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

Large-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-Logo
We’re aiming to present even more audio pieces than usual this April
Use the Follow button to make sure you get a notice as they drop

 

National Poetry Month isn’t just for American poems or for American poets, but if it was, Whitman would be all the more inescapable. In the middle of the 19th Century, he and Emily Dickinson forged two original styles whose sounds and tactics can still be found in contemporary verse—Dickinson, with small lines in small poems that bind-up with puzzles immensities; Whitman with long lines and epic poems that offer a catalog of exultation. One sees a single, small thing and says it represents the universe, the other beholds the diversity of the world and says it’s really one thing. Complementary opposites.

Both were working at a prodigious pace during the 1860s, during America’s great Civil War. On April 14th of 1865 Abraham Lincoln, the US President during that war, was shot. The next day he died. Within weeks Whitman had produced the first published version of this poem along with other poems about Lincoln and the ending of the Civil War which he published as “Drum Taps.”  It would not be like Whitman to hold his thoughts on those great events inside. In contrast, Tennyson’s epic elegy on the death of a beloved friend, “In Memoriam”  took him more than 15 years before he published it.

At over 200 lines in its entirety, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,”  taken as a whole, would exceed my usual mode here. I prefer my audio pieces more the length of the 45 RPM single records of my youth. So today, I present only the first two sections of Whitman’s poem. Whitman’s voice changes over the course of this long poem, but in these opening sections Whitman (albeit in free verse) is sounding somewhat like the poets his modernism would break from. Save for the absence of rhyme, his language here would not sound out of place in Tennyson (or even the earlier Romantics, like the Shelley of “Adonais.”)

Whitman's Parent's House

Is this the dooryard? Whitman was visiting his mother’s house when he heard Lincoln had died.
He stepped outside and saw the spring lilacs in bloom.

 

I did the same thing, presenting only the intro section, last April for the poem I believe is most responsible for April being National Poetry Month, T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland,”  which begins memorably “April is the cruelest month…” Those that can finish that first sentence may recall it continues “Breeding lilacs out of the dead land.” So, Whitman’s elegy and Eliot’s poetic apotheosis of High-Modernism written over 50 years later, both begin in April, and with lilacs.

We’ll be revisiting territories in “The Wasteland”  later this April, but today you can start where Whitman started his poem, and from where Eliot got some of his inspiration for his. Musically, this one is fairly simple, but I hope effective: acoustic guitar and piano with a little low synthesizer groan eventually joining in. Use the player below to hear it.

 

She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night

I said I would change things up last time, and by stepping back a few years, today’s piece does that.

How much different is “She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night”  from the last few posts? First off, we’ve left off from war. This is a love poem. Death appears in it only briefly passing—so fast it passes, as it can in a poem, you might not even notice it. And rather than being a piece by another poet, the words here are mine. We live here at the Parlando Project with the idea of presenting “other people’s stories,” but I also want variety, so I’ll make the exception this time, and present part of my story.
 
One of the modernist/Imagist ideas that Ernest Hemmingway liked to use in his early stories was to leave an essential detail out of story, and then to strive to write it so well that the power of that detail would become present subliminally.

Lovers Tryst

In a classical aubade lovers are always awaking in a field and forgetting to check for contact dermatitis

“She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night”  is an aubade, a traditional form of love poetry. An aubade features lovers awaking at dawn, and the poet lamenting that their night is over, so they must now part for their un-enchanted days. What do I think is different in my aubade?

Sixteen years ago, my wife died after a short and painful illness, not yet 44 years old. I cannot tell you all that means, but one thing I experienced in my grieving process was the question of where one goes from that stopped thing. After all, you are definitively stopped, you have no momentum in any direction, unlike in the normal flow of life. You can stay stopped, or move off in any direction.

I moved, and was moved, in the direction of falling in love again. There are some difficulties in that direction, knowing of love’s inescapable impermanence. Like the lover in an aubade, I knew now, deep in my soul and body, that love means that parting is intensified.

In the end, “She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night”  is a love poem that hardly mentions death. I was trying to do that modernist/Imagist thing. Is death still there?

Alas, the other thing that I left out, is that other person, lying beside the speaker, stuffed with dreams no doubt with all the richness, sadness and choices of their life. My love poem fails, as some do, in that respect. Can it remain unsaid my partner chose to move, and move me, as well?

Today’s piece is musically a bit different as well—there’s an antique 20th Century beat box rhythm used for one thing. To hear the LYL Band perform “She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night”  use the player gadget that should appear below.