Acquainted with the Night

A few posts ago I said I was holding back some material, going instead with other pieces that weren’t quite as dark. One of the pieces I was holding back was this one: Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night.”

This is often thought of as Frost’s most harrowing poem, even though it achieves that effect descriptively, largely without explicit emotional terms. Some of its tropes have become standard “Noir” features since the poem was written making the nighttime despair, loneliness, and alienation especially easy for modern readers to “read.” Here’s a link to the full text if you’d like to read along.

Frosts Acquainted wit the Black Parade

Representative of Frost’s emocore period? Or if you’d like to see a video making the poem more Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, try this link.

 

So, we have the poem’s speaker (let’s call him Frost for the rest of this) walking alone at night in a city in that time which is past late but too dark to be early. It’s raining. He meets only one other person, a watchman, and avoids him. He hears but two things: his own steps, and at the poem’s high point, someone else’s voice. The poem ends with him noting a “luminary clock,” and a remark casual or crucial he says it indicates “the time was neither wrong nor right.”

The incident of the cry in the third stanza is the key moment in the poem, the most telling. It’s so quiet in the rain (so not a full-on stormy gale or thunderstorm) and the cry is so far away that Frost stops walking because the sound of his footsteps is the loudest thing in the night city. He wants to make out that cry, which I think is “interrupted” by his own solitary footsteps. And what does he discern in that cry? That it’s not calling him back or bidding him leave either. Whoever he’s walking to get away from, it’s not their voice, but he wants to know if it is.

This incident is highlighted too because the poem opens with the idea of constant walking: Frost says he walked past the city limits and back. I’m hitting a muted low string on the guitar in my accompaniment to try to suggest that footsteps effect, that Frost is in motion even if he doesn’t know where he’s going.*

The last external thing Frost notices in the poem is the incident of the clock. Interestingly he uses an odd adjective for the lighted clock: “luminary” rather than “lighted” or “luminous.” I assume Frost would like us to think of the clock as an auspicious authority, a luminary, not just lit. I should also note that some see the clock as the moon in this poem. I don’t. I think if he’d wanted to depict the moon he’d say so. The lit clock face is  moon-like, so I can understand that alternate reading, and what with its “unearthly height” Frost likely intends that overtone at least.

The poem is often read as a depiction of depression, and there I’ll agree as well. Depression is experienced by different people in different ways, but the situation here is familiar to me. Depression can confuse your judgement and ability to weigh things. Frost can walk all night because he is in some dispute with someone else (that voice he interrupts his steps to hear) but he’ll never figure it out even if he walks the entire dark city. He may step between self-pity and wanting to be seen as right, and self-abnegation and judging himself irrevocably wrong, but that only gets him out and back again. The luminary clock hands down it’s judgement: Frost, you’ll not figure it out tonight, which means you could return again to this night walk some other night—but it means also that one will be able to return, or turn elsewhere. Over time one may come to understand better that old acquaintance, the night. Roughly 30 years after writing this poem, Frost as a then old man said this to an interviewer “In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.”

In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.”

Some see today’s poem’s luminary clock moment as an existential consideration of suicide. The clock (or moon if that’s your reading) somehow prompts or symbolizes the decision that this night is not the time for that decision. There’s another way to read “neither wrong nor right,” that the clock** indicates only a moment as time, and Frost’s realization about life is that it goes on, that it moves like this poem’s night walk, that that is its meaning: it’s movement.

Let me just say a bit about the poem’s beautiful structure. It’s a sonnet, and it’s a format I’ve used a bit myself lately: four tercets and a concluding couplet rather than the Shakespearean three quatrains and a couplet. But Frost has used Dante’s terza rima scheme of interlocking rhyme in the stanzas, and this knotted interlocking reinforces the endless walking and knotted thinking. And as one more music-of-thought feature, the poem ends with the first line—it walks out and back again just as the poem’s Frost does.

The player gadget to hear my performance of “Acquainted with the Night”  is below. I wouldn’t decorate such a lonely poem with anything more than a single electric guitar this time.

 

 

 

 

*This is also the eventual decision in his famous poem “Stopping by Woods  on a Snowy Evening”  where I believe it’s key to that poem to recognize that he’s not considering tarrying there for some pleasant winter sight-seeing, but that he’s likely lost in a entirely dark rural road and he only thinks/hopes he knows whose woods he’s spotted as a waypoint in the darkest night.

**Yet another plausible meaning for “neither wrong nor right” would be that the traditional clock face might say half past four in the most deserted time of the night, just as it will say the same half past four when 5 PM quitting time approaches in the daytime afternoon. The clock’s face is ignorant or unreliable in that regard. It may be saying it’s time to end this night walk as the night is ending and life and people will return soon at dawn, in the same way it would be saying that it’s time to leave the work of trying to figure out the knot of the dispute before the poem starts, to clock out of the work of the night-office where that question was being worked on.

Frost’s poem doesn’t identify the city the walk is taking place in. For those that hold to the clock theory, London’s Big Ben has been suggested as the clock tower. John Timberman Newcomb in How Did Poetry Survive?  suggests the clock tower of the Metropolitan Life Building, which as the tallest structure in New York City when completed in the early 20th century was a lighted timepiece of unearthly height. Many smaller cities of this time would have had prominent courthouses or main transportation terminals with lighted clock towers too.

For the moon theorists, the time is usually assumed to not be the time of day but a more general “time,” though it’s fairly easy to tell the time at night with a full moon (it’s overhead at midnight, like the sun is at daytime noon). However, “high moon” midnight would not likely be as deserted as the night walk time described in the poem.

The Little Ghost

Tom Rapp is a singer-songwriter whose work I love, and whose 1972 joint setting of a Shakespeare and a Sara Teasdale poem is one of the inspirations for this project. Rapp had a favorite story about the earliest days of his overlooked career: while still a child he entered a talent contest in Minnesota. The story varies. He may have performed an Elvis Presley song. He finished second or third. Another Minnesota singer, a similarly young Bobby Zimmerman,* finished fifth. The Zimmerman kid eventually went on to have a career that outpaced Rapp’s.

But then, Rapp would always add, it was a baton twirler who finished first.

American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay is another poet who began writing and publishing early, sending poems to magazines when she was still a teenager. At age 20 she submitted one of her grander early poems to a literary magazine’s 1912 poetry contest, and that poem “Renascence”  oddly created considerable publicity when it didn’t win but finished fourth. She was a young, poor, rural kid and some said she should have won on the merits of her poem—even including the guy who won the contest, Orrick Johns. As with Tom Rapp, you may have to be a reader of blogs like this one to have some sense of who Orrick Johns was.

If you ever loose a talent or poetry contest, consider that baton twirler.

Millay suit and tie

Just kids. Whiten the background and Sinatra the jacket over one shoulder, and you’ve got that Robert Mapplethorpe/Patti Smith’s Horses cover a few decades early

 

After the contest and the brouhaha, a benefactor saw to it that Millay could attend college, and a few years later this other early poem of hers, “The Little Ghost,”  was included in her first poetry collection. “The Little Ghost”  isn’t the grandest or most incisive poem Millay would write, so even though I’ve done many Millay poems here, I had overlooked this one until I saw it this month over at the Fourteen Lines poetry blog.

My reaction is shared by most who encounter this poem: it’s charming and only a little bit chilling. Yes, there are a few mildly annoying inverted word order make-rhymes, but it’s the little details that make it work I think. That the ghost seems to enjoy the poet’s garden-work (gardening inherently partaking of the life-death-life cycle), that she enigmatically shows no sadness at being dead, that she (though immaterial) is gracefully careful of the poet’s favorite plant, that she walks away (though a ghost, and a ghost of a child) with the substantial while insubstantial bearing of a great lady.

There’s no redrum, no haunted charge to the living, no absolute-zero temperature of next to death. Millay doesn’t even make the revelation that the child is a ghost a held-off-for-the-big-surprise-reveal—that fact’s in the title and the first line. Still, in the moment the poem lets us experience, the poet doesn’t yet know what we know. That’s the little chill.

Some readers have said that Millay intentionally or otherwise put her own past childhood self in as an undercurrent of this little ghost, and that reading works too, though I don’t know that’s a secret meaning that one must get to fully enjoy the poem. What with the garden setting, and that annual reincarnation, I do get some sense of spiritual kinship between the poems living speaker and the ghost.

Did that inform the music choice? I am back in my South Asian mode today with hand percussion, tambura, and harmonium. The instrument in the right channel that sounds vaguely South Asian is an ordinary electric guitar, one with a vibrato arm that lets me get a bit of that characteristic pitch waver.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The Little Ghost”  is right below.

 

 

 

 

*Zimmerman changed his last name to Dillon and then to Dylan. My late mother-in-law used to tell the story of meeting Betty Zimmerman at a function decades ago, and as mothers in those olden days were prone to do, they got to talking about each other’s children.

“You may have heard of one of my sons. He’s Bob Dylan.” Betty proudly said.

My future MIL Maxine came back with: “Who’s Bob Dielan?”

When she told me the story some years later, she explained “I didn’t know! I didn’t have much time for music back then.”

Theme in Yellow

Carl Sandburg. I get the impression that he’s been filed away as a folksy peculiarity, a 20th century and less-original echo of Walt Whitman, an artist not worth considering these days. Readers of this blog will know I find him otherwise: a first-generation English language Modernist, just as concerned with making it new as anyone else in that movement.

Carl Sandburg guitar kids goats

The young Josh Homme and Kim Deal get lessons from some old flannel-clad grunge guitarist.

 

Here’s a piece using words by Sandburg for Halloween. I’ll note that almost alone among the first-generation Modernists he sometimes writes poems about, perhaps even for, children. “Theme in Yellow”  can serve as both. Of course, since we’re all “obsolete children” the audience isn’t limited to them.

Anyway, it’s a good piece for the holiday that’s about the whimsy of fear and how far from reach we can hold death. Oh, and in our modern America, it’s also about candy, for which the Jack O’ Lantern’s teeth were meant to warn us.

David S Pumpkins

David S. Pumpkins. Any questions?

 

Sandburg’s poem is just slightly old fashioned—the harvest festival aspects of Halloween are now abstracted from most of us, though it was in Sandburg’s personal experience. But we might still dress our stages with straw, and with cobwebs and lanterns, setting our fears as old.

May all your fears be old.

Today’s music has lots of electric guitars (seven tracks, four different guitars) mostly because I’ve been missing their sound. Lots of coordination to get all that traffic running—and I don’t know if I did right by it—but it was fun while I had time to make some noise this afternoon. You can hear the results with the player gadget below, and if you’d like to read Sandburg’s poem while you listen, it can be found here.

 

Beloved

Here’s a short piece I wrote about the intimacy of sound. Part of the idea I used for this came from a remark Bobby McFerrin made about music: that we hear it because waves of sound touch a sensitive membrane inside our ear. How intimate is that!

McFerrin and Ear Drum

Talking. Drum. Musician Bobby McFerrin and that tiny ear drum membrane that sound touches

Anatomically speaking, there is an accuracy there, but some would clarify, speaking strictly, that the brain is what gives us the sound we perceive, just as it does the seeing and so forth. Philosophers would also tell us that this distinction is important. They have made their case elsewhere, and I will not reiterate that here now.

There is a view that poetry too is about mental images. No doubt this is so. Language is full of strange ways of meaning to be understood. But all these exact pieces of information shouldn’t lead us to forget McFarrin’s point: when spoken, it’s still a sensual act. We hear poetry as information to some degree, but we hear it also as a musical sensation.

Our world is filled with information. We can sort it forever for meaning. But the feeling of our beloved’s voice on our ear is more than information or imagery. So is music. So is poetry.

Posts may be somewhat farther apart this month, but I remind you that we have well over 200 audio pieces available in our archives over on the right, where they are waiting for further listening.

For the American Hendrix

Today’s piece uses my own words to present some images regarding American musician and songwriter Jimi Hendrix. Just like William Carlos Williams meditation on a small plant last time, I pretty much follow the famous Imagist rules: direct treatment of the thing, no unnecessary words, and musical phrasing instead of mechanical metrical feet.

Each one of the images opens up what I hope is a rich question. It’s my hope that the resulting poem and audio piece assists you in remembering these questions that I see as posed in Hendrix’s life. Here is the poem I wrote and used with today’s music:

 

For the American Hendrix

 

And then he laid the guitar down, and set it afire

Which seems silly or sacred, depending on the art

He had only to keep himself alive, which would kill him.

 

He took every stop on the three 21 fret train tracks,

Slid between the rails, rode them underwater,

Understood the train-whistle called his ancestors

 

Living in the amplifiers, that he could not shake out,

That he could not know, that were here,

Before European words, that were here,

 

Brought in shackles, that were here,

Building in electricity, that were here

Now, for children who did not know they were children.

 

Voluntary orphans, immigrants discovering new worlds,

Walking on squatters’ land, not forgetting to bring their chains.

 

Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix plays for hippies in 1967. Do you envy them or feel superior to them?

In the first stanza, I remind us that Jimi Hendrix was a consummate showman, and that he used showmanship to wrest attention for his art, specifically when he appeared at his first significant concert as a bandleader at the famous Monterey Pop Festival and burned a guitar at the conclusion of a flamboyant act. I present this performance as being consistent to Hendrix’s commitment to his art, as a rock’n’roll musician, an itinerant life with associated dangers, which in his case lead to short life and career. Worth it? Necessary for success?


Hendrix ends his first American show as a bandleader with a sacrifice to his art.

The next stanza acclaims Hendrix for expanding the vocabulary of the electric guitar, using an image of the six-string guitar fretboard, which he transcended with notes beyond the temperament of the frets and though the use of feedback where the notes from the amplifier speaker reflect back to the guitar in the musician’s hands producing sustaining overtones that can be difficult to control but produce extraordinary effects. The question here: these sounds can be harsh, discordant, even painful, but do they too have a necessity?

Next stanza: this feedback is presented as Hendrix’s ancestry: part indigenous, native-American; part Afro-American, a descendent of slaves. This makes Hendrix the point where two arcs of American heritage cross: those that were brought to American against their will, like as to livestock; and those that that were already here and were supplanted by brutal or conniving invaders. The questions here should ask themselves, don’t you think?

The final lines move from Hendrix, to his audience while he was alive and performing: largely white, largely young, many taking a hippie bohemian voyage I liken to America’s famous immigrants, choosing to leave the world of their homes for some promised new world that cannot, and will not, be exactly as promised.

Whatever generation you reside in, you cannot get on a boat or plane to visit another generation’s time; but when you look at a picture or video of a crowd watching Hendrix play, consider those faces. They may be distracted by the day, transfixed or stunned, ignorant and seeking, intoxicated but intent, pleased and puzzled—they may not look like Hendrix, many will seem by their faces to not share his heritage, and none can know the depth of that heritage—and yet, they are dealing with the experience of his art. I ask you not to feel superior or inferior to them from the position of your age or the accident of your generation, but to instead to look to your own heart and ask if there you find some blindness or power, and then to ask, as the concluding words of “For the American Hendrix”  does: when coming to your new land, did you carry with you chains?

47 years ago today, Jimi Hendrix died, perhaps alone, perhaps ignored by his companion of itinerant convenience, trying to continue his art, ignorant of the strength of European sleeping pills.  To hear my performance of “For the American Hendrix,”  use the player below.

To John Renbourn Dying Alone

A perennial question asked of songwriters is “Which comes first, the music or the words?” Here with the Parlando Project, the words often were written centuries before the music; but with the pieces where I write both the words and music, the method is for the music to come first with the words.

By that I mean, I tend to compose the words first, but the words emerge for me as melodies do, as a series of sounds that may precede any idea of their meaning. And even when I sit down to write “about” something, the improvisation of their melody can lead me to change what I am writing, even in the end, change what I believe I think about something.

While it’s a good assumption that my methods may come from my visceral attraction to music and poetry, this sense that the act of writing shapes, even reshapes, the thought is a common finding among writers. Have you ever thought yourself, “I didn’t know what I thought about this until I wrote about it?”

So where do melodies come from, whether they are melodies played on a string or melodies played on words? The answer, after millennia of human thought and knowledge gathering, is “We don’t know.” That area of knowing that it is, but not knowing why, is the genesis of myth.

The classical Greeks and their Roman inheritors ascribed these creative incidents to “the muses”—nine goddesses that could engender music or poetry in humans. Their stories told of the bad ends that would come to those who would mock the muses by claiming they could practice the arts without them.
This sort of thing gradually fell out of favor. Shakespeare in his 38th sonnet claims his beloved is as good or better a muse as one of the nine classical muses, and by the 19th century his humanistic idea that another human could serve as a muse to an artist became the common myth.

Nine Muses and Apollo

No, you didn’t count wrong. I think the 10th dancer is Apollo, wearing the knee-length number.

 

So, what use then is this old myth, the idea of an inexplicable outside source that informs artistic expression? Here’s one use I’m attracted to: it lets the artist relax a little bit about their efforts. Ever try to be inspired? That rarely works. Even the inspiration tricks that worked once, twice or twenty times may wear out and bring nothing. Have you ever been impelled with an idea, shape, thought, or melody when it’s inconvenient and unexpected? Ever beat yourself up when the ideas and expression just won’t come? Using the myth, the metaphor, of the muses you can get a handle on these things. This does not mean you don’t work at art. This doesn’t mean that discipline isn’t a valuable artistic trait. This doesn’t mean you sit on the mountain top and dawdle. Worshiping and honoring the muses just means if you sit on the mountaintop and nothing comes up, you might try the valley next time, but that “nothing” is not your fault. If you look for inspiration 365 days a year and it only comes around a dozen times, that’s a dozen more times than it would come if you never looked. If you look for inspiration only a dozen times a year, it will take 30 years to do what you could have done in one.

That is a long introduction to today’s piece “To John Renbourn, Dying Alone.”  John Renbourn was very good British guitarist and singer. Beginning in the 1960s, and with a small and wondrous circle of his contemporaries, he was fearlessly eclectic: blues, jazz, traditional British Isles folk music, American Appalachian ballads, 19th century broadsides, Asian music, modern singer-songwriters, or Renaissance tunes—all that could show up at a John Renbourn concert, or on one of his recordings.

John Renbourn

John Renbourn. The picture is silent because he could be playing anything on that guitar.

 
Two years ago this month, he didn’t show up to demonstrate once again his amalgamation of music at a scheduled date in a Scottish club. He was not mocking the muses—it was soon found that he had died alone in his modest home.

The day I heard the news, I hoped his suffering had been brief, or if not brief, useful. I thought of him like Frost’s solitary man in “An Old Man’s Winter’s Night,”  or my father imagined in “A Rustle of Feathers,”  or my own dear friend John who had died alone at home a few years earlier. I thought of John Renbourn and wished to apply this myth, this lie, of the muses to this man. An artist like John Renbourn, who informed us with his art, listened better to the muses than most any of us.

You can listen to my audio piece “To John Renbourn, Dying Alone”  by using the player below.