The Little Car

Poetry as an immediate witness to momentous history is not a common thing. Poems of events tend to autobiography, deaths, love, births, personal injuries and triumphs. Today’s piece has both elements—memorable on both counts.

Guillaume Apollinaire is a major figure in Modernism with an influence across the arts as a critic and theorist. He popularized the term Cubism, invented the term Surrealism, and using his own name “Orphism” helped explain and formulate abstract expressionism. In the era surrounding WWI his influence and omnipresence was stronger from his base in Paris with French-speakers than Ezra Pound’s was for English-speakers from London. As a poet Apollinaire bridges the 19th century Symbolists to the Dada and Surrealism to come, and though he wrote in French, many of the English-language Modernists looked to French models for their verse.*  While his work is experimental with form and language, it’s also very open-hearted and joyous in a way I associate with later 20th century American Frank O’Hara.

“The little car”  tells of a day of Apollinaire’s that would change his life. On that biographic matter alone it would be of interest to literary historians. But it also tells us about the early days of the most influential event in Modernism, the outbreak of WWI. Apollinaire’s poem is comparable to W. H. Auden’s better-known beginning of WWII poem September 1, 1939.”

So, let’s begin talking about the poetry as history today.

World War I started over a series of days earlier in the month of August 1914, kicked off by a ham-handed assassination in the Balkans at the end of June, followed by a slow enactment of various alliances and agreements plunging the whole world into warfare over the course of weeks (or in the case of the U.S., years).

Unlike the reputation of WWI as a brutal struggle of attrition between trenches, the opening August weeks were fast-moving. German troops cut through Belgium taking over that country in short order, putting them at the northern border of France as they met the French army. Large military movements and formations just slightly modernized from the Napoleonic era, that still included cavalry charges and fife and drum, met modern artillery and rapid firing weapons. Aerial bombings were introduced to warfare (though ground-based actions were more deadly to civilians). Soon amplified by propaganda, there are widespread accounts of bestial atrocities by the advancing army.**

Before the events of today’s poem, which self-dates itself to the end of August 1914 and into the following September day, during the Battle of the Frontiers, France’s army had suffered its largest single day of deaths and casualties in this or any war before or since, a staggering total of 27,000 killed in one day, with a figure of 300,000 casualties. The French army was reeling, withdrawing back toward Paris, which was the Germans’ objective in this first month of the war.

Apollinaire and his friend the artist André Rouveyre are in Deauville on the northern, English Channel coast of France. The poem doesn’t say, but I’m assuming they feel that the German advance is threatening their location, and so they do what threatened people unsure of the future often too, they head for home, Paris, not weighing that the French capital is the objective of that invading army.

The Little Car printed_Page_1The Little Car printed_Page_2

Here’s my new translation of Apollinaire’s “La petite auto” used for today’s performance

 

That they leave “a little before midnight” is not just an image of imminent dark change, it also may say something of a necessity not to wait, or perhaps a decision that traveling at night, as difficult as it might be with primitive headlights, may be safer under the cover of darkness.

The poem continues with a series of Symbolist images, assembled in whatever order, as a Cubist painting might be. These are not mere inventions. Although expressed symbolically, they are reportage. Indeed, some of the symbolic events which may seem mundane to us in our world, would be accounts of dreadful wonder in 1914: men fighting in the sky, submarine monsters of war—the masters/merchants of war with their opulent and extraordinary wares.

Another feature of this poem is that the text begins to wander on the page and eventually is laid out in a manner that Apollinaire called “Calligrammes” to form the shape of “The little car”  of the title.***  I’ve not included that concrete poetry text in my new translation for reasons of length and focus on the spoken potential of the piece.

The poem ends with Apollinaire and Rouveyre arriving in Paris on the afternoon of September 1st. I note the poem says they stopped for a bit in Fontainebleau, just south of Paris, which indicates that they took a round-about route that day since Fontainebleau is south-east of Paris though they were coming from the north-west of Paris.

The “mobilization posters” he speaks of that were being put up as they pulled into town tell of the irony of their route to escape the Germans. The German army is now threatening Paris itself, advancing to between 20-30 miles from the city, and legend has it that the French army was able to redeploy quickly by dragooning the entire taxi-fleet of Paris.****

What happened after the events recounted in this poem? Apollinaire fought in WWI for his adopted country France, and in 1916 was seriously wounded. Still weakened by the wounds, he’s felled by the infamous flu epidemic of 1918, two days before the end of the war that would reshape and extend Modernism, as Tristan Tzara would say in his moving elegy “He would have rather enjoyed the fact of victory.”

Many of Apollinaire’s WWI generation lived on as forces in my post-WWII lifetime, as still-living actors in the culture, but Apollinaire was not to be one of them. So influential as he was in the early-20th century’s cultural ferment, it could be said that his death during the war was the single most important cultural casualty, more important than the death of promising poets such as Edward Thomas or Wilfred Owen because Apollinaire, like another casualty, T. E. Hulme, was more than just a writer, he was a leader and promoter of ideas. You can make the case that his death is the same magnitude as some alternate-time-line where the world lost Picasso in 1918. Or you could make another judgement: he was so effective in the pre-1918 years, and the Modernist urge was so strong and then intensified by a world war that made the old artistic forms seem like a cavalry charge against machine guns, that his continued life was not crucial. That’s a cold debate. His friends sure missed him, and kept working.

Pop and Apollinaire

Dionysus and Apollinaire.

 

Musically I’ve had this thought lately that I’ve avoided use of some of my most basic musical genres. And Iggy and the Stooges are the definition of that. They started as an art project, making free-form noise on stage, with Iggy Pop, a converted blues-band drummer as their front man. Somehow they decided that the most elemental and elementary expression, however untutored and unvarnished was the way to go. Iggy Pop’s lyrics were the Blue Undershirts  of 60s rock, the rejoinder to “you call that poetry.” A song such as “1969”  from their debut LP is a bored and hedonistic critique of a year deep in another war, cultural and shooting. Robert Lowell it’s not. It’s really not. No, it’s really really not.

For this performance I’ve enlisted my son, the “in his first year of it” bass player and singer, who from his interest in punk and indie-rock can explore that aesthetic with a fresh set of fingers. Conceptually, this song is inspired by the Stooges “1969”  because here we have (with “The little car”)  two songs about war across a nation,***** but in my tribute I simplified the Stooges’ typical 3 chord trick into a 2 chord chug. Of course, to my son the Vietnam era is exactly  as old as WWI was to Iggy and the Stooges. All wars should be so old.

Here’s the text of “La petite auto” in French with the calligrammes section.

The player for our performance is below. Click on play and turn it up.

 

 

 

*And the French in turn sometimes looked to American Walt Whitman, who never found full favor with the English language avant garde, making the French vers libre writers  poetic money-launderers!

**Posters about the evil Hun that I happened across in visits to the Iowa Historical Society museum in my childhood impressed me with the arbitrariness of racism: roughly as subhuman as any Jim Crow or evil-Asian propaganda. When you ascribe evil to an other, skin pigment is just a convention that you can work around.

***E. E. Cummings was heavily inspired not only by Apollinaire’s dropping of punctuation, but his freeness with placement of text on the page.

****The taxis that saved Paris legend may not hold up. But my favorite part of this linked story? The account that the taxi owners kept the meters running and presented a bill to the government after the battle. Paging Joseph Heller or Milo Minderbinder to the white courtesy phone.

*****Or not—at least by intent. On the rattling plastic luggage record players of the time, I always heard Iggy Pop’s opening lines in 1969 to be “It’s 1969 OK/War across the USA.” Some cover versions say I’m not the only one who heard “war” as part of the folk process. The published lyrics and close listening with headphones say Iggy was singing “All across the USA.” Well, excuse me while I kiss this guy. The Iliad  was carried by an oral tradition long before it was written down. Regression analysis says Homer wrote it about some sunny Mediterranean partying and dancing. The homoerotic and warfare parts were just misheard by the folks in the back row.

Parlando Project Winter 2017–the Most Popular Piece of the Last Season

The last few days I’ve been looking back over the past three months at the audio pieces that received the most listens and likes from visitors here, and we’ve now counted up to the post revealing the most popular piece.

But before I get to that, let me let newer visitors here know what the Parlando Project is. For the past few years I’ve been experimenting with the ways that words can be used along with music. Most of the words are going to be poetry, if only because I like shorter pieces for this, and poetry accommodates that desire most easily. The music? My goal is: as varied as we can make it. The “we” here are largely myself and Dave Moore, who I’ve played with as the LYL Band since the late 1970s. Dave also is the alternative voice of the Parlando Project, one that’s read or sung several popular pieces during the history of this project.

Dave and I have also been writers (Dave’s also a cartoonist) since our youth, but this project is not, in it’s greater part, about presenting our written work. Rather it’s about looking at a variety of other people’s experiences and expressions, reacting to them, and seeking to embody them in a way we hope you’ll find interesting.

Do we turn the poems into songs? Sometimes. Sometimes they were, or were meant to be, songs anyway (Tagore and Campion for example). But often we aim for something that is cast between spoken word and chant. As best as I can figure out, this is akin to what William Butler Yeats once aimed to do with poetry and poetic drama, and he thought William Blake, Sappho and the Celtic bards did the same. And for myself, in addition to those Yeats pointed to, it’s my spin on what Jack Kerouac, John Lee Hooker, Allen Ginsberg, and Patti Smith (along with others) did.

Rap/Hip Hop does this too, but as varied as those artists’ approaches are, most of their tactics I can’t make work for me. No disrespect, it’s just my limitations.

Well, here’s the Parlando Project’s most popular piece from the last three months: Tristan Tzara’s “The Death of Apollinaire.”  It was number 3 last September, so it’s been getting the listens since last summer, yet it’s not one I selected because it was well-known or sure to be popular.

Tristan Tzara by Robert Delaunay

Accessorizing with knitted wear was the most important artistic dictum of Dada

Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of Dada, is not that widely available in English, and even the subject of this elegy, the influential Polish-French writer and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, has a fame that doesn’t transfer with full brightness off the European continent. I did my own translation from Tzara’s French for this piece. And though I’ve attempted to do this, off and on, since my youth, translating Surrealist, much less Dada, poetry into English has it’s extra complications: to what degree is an image meant to be impenetrable and random, meaningless as a stance; and to what degree is it instead a shockingly fresh juxtaposition?

I have a prejudice for the later. When I am translating poetry I take it for a given that I will not be able to convey the auditory music of the original, though I try to retain the musical development of its statements, and above all, I try to find English words and idiom that will grab the English-speaking reader’s interest with vividness.  This approach has it’s dangers, as I’m not enough of a scholar of the lives of writers or of the their languages to make the most informed decisions, but in the case of “The Death of Apollinaire”  I feel this leads to a very effective and affecting statement about the death of an artist still suffering from his battle wounds just after the end of the WWI.

My limitations aside, I hope I was faithful to Tzara’s voice, and I hope you’ll find it moving too. You can listen to it with the player below.

New pieces will be coming soon, so come back and check, or hit that “Follow this Blog” button up near the top-right to get notices of new pieces.

The Death of Apollinaire

This is an elegy, not a love poem, but then an elegy is a love poem that replaces the focus masking the complexity of love with the common mystery of death. Even the images and incidents can have an eerie similarity, as an absence may be at the center of either.

The author of today’s piece, Tristian Tzara, is as much as anyone the founder of Dada—if that absurdist movement can structurally support a founder. Like much of the early 20th Century modernist movement, the horrors and changes of WWI accelerated Dada’s development. Proudly anarchistic and rejecting the whole lot of social norms and artistic traditions, Dada was at turns playful and bitter about a European world order that that was itself disordering everything on the continent though modern warfare.

Tristan Tzaratzara_by_picabia

When I look inside the back of my guitar amp,  do I find? Picabia’s portrait of Leo Fender, or a tube socket schematic?

As we’ve learned in earlier posts here, a whole generation was mobilized as part of The Great War. The teenage Tzara, residing in neutral Switzerland, escaped this, but he apparently tried to gain funds from both sides’ propaganda arms to fund Dada activities—which would be just the kind of audacious prank that Dada loved.

The subject of today’s piece, Guillaume Apollinaire, was a slightly older member of that WWI generation who should have gone on to even greater things after the war. As I mentioned last time, he had invented the name for Surrealism, the modernist movement that was a post-war outgrowth of Dada. Before that, he had also invented the term Cubism. In France during this time, Apollinaire seemed to know, and was admired by, everyone: composers, writers, painters, theater artists, the whole lot of this vibrant cultural scene.

Swept up into the military by the war, Apollinaire was seriously wounded at the front and weakened by his wounds, he died during the great flu outbreak of 1918.

Apollinaire with WWI head wound

Apollinaire, his war-wound bandages “pendaient avec leur couronne”

His death then leads to Tzara’s elegy, today’s piece. Given Tzara and Dada’s reputation, I was worried as I started to translate this. Translation, particularly for someone like me who is not a fluent speaker of other languages, is already fraught with issues, but doubly so with writers who can use arbitrary absurdist phrases intentionally. When is something unclear, and when is it meant to be so? That’s a question you ask a lot with these writers. I have a prejudice for vibrancy, and if I feel there’s a good image or English phrase hidden in an unfamiliar language’s idiom, I will generally seek to bring it out, but I also realize that I’m fully capable of misunderstanding the writer’s intent.

With Tzara’s “The Death of Apollinaire”  I grew to believe that this was a sincere elegy for this much-loved artist among artists, and so, translated and performed it as such. Yes, it has its absurd images, but I chose to translate them with clarity in mind. Apollinaire died in November, and so I took the mourning images as a series of late autumn images, and presented them as such. I had the most puzzlement with the line “et les arbres pendaient avec leur couronne” which can be simply left as an unusual combination: a (presumably, shiny metal) crown hanging in a tree-top.  As I looked at “couronne” it appears that it’s used also for a laurel wreath crown, and for a funeral wreath too, and for a while thought “wreath” or “funeral wreath” would be the best translation. And then I considered the botanical meaning of “crown” applied to trees, and the follow-up line “unique pleur” made me think of the last leaves in autumn, a rather conventional image—but a great deal of what makes that conventional in English is the popular song “Autumn Leaves”  written originally in French by Surrealist Jacques Prévert!  My translation: “And the trees, those still with hanging leaves” takes liberties with Tzara’s words, in hopes that I might have divined his image. I’m more confident in how I translated the last line, “un beau long voyage et la vacance illimitée de la chair des structures des os” which I proudly think is superior to other English translations.

Musically, today’s performance is a mix of 12-string guitar in Steve Tibbett’s tuning, with electric guitar and bass. As always, there’s a handy player below so that you can hear it. If you like a piece you hear here, go ahead and hit the like button, but it’s even more important in bringing this work to others attention to share it on your favored social media platform. Thanks for reading and listening, and double thanks for sharing!