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.
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.
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.
I was at the Midstream poetry reading series last night, and by choices, I therefore had to miss out on the wisdom that would be passed on by the elder chieftain of my nation who was speaking in the same town that night.
It’s often thought that age heightens certain perceptions, certain outlooks. In age one has a feeling for repetitions, the way that ox-turning time keeps bending back on itself so that the place one is plowing is beside the past and the future is just one row next over. There’s also a lessening of thought of one’s own self, which after all is a diminishing asset, one’s storehouse filled only with memories that the rats nibble at all night long.
So I missed what our aged chieftain said. From these considerations of age I’m sure he could hardly find time to speak of himself, which matters less and little; and instead he likely spoke from his heart, wise from his own failures far exceeding those of the younger ones, of how we can forgive and remember, and how our nation can continue to be born, cared for, urged on.
Instead I heard fellow poets read. Oh, we fail—as all artists do. We talk of ourselves, even us older ones. And when we take a break from that we talk of others imperfectly. We speak too softly, too loudly. We forget to reach for the music, or we do stretch for it and then fail to hold onto it. We search for beauty and come up with the same things over and over again, and how can we make that interesting? We are gloomy, forget to laugh, and hold our work back for funerals.
A graphic representation of the wisdom of poets such as myself
It was an older crowd last night, almost enough to make me feel younger for the couple of hours we were together. Today’s piece, Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Autumn Day,” as much as Shakespeare’s piece from last time, seems to speak of the experience of age, but Rilke is much more directive. One doesn’t often see a poem so full of “You” statements as the final stanza of this poem is. I’m not sure of the idiomatic nature of “you” in German, the language Rilke wrote this in. There’s some sense that the rhetorical you in the poem may be directed at oneself: so Rilke speaking to Rilke; but as I read this poem, I can’t escape the sense of Rilke speaking to me, and as I perform Rilke’s words in my translation, I expect that you, particularly if you are an older person, will hear it as speaking to you, so concisely do those last five lines seem to outline this stage in a lifetime.
If you’re curious to see a number of other translations and the original German, see this link.
But here’s why you come here and have read this far into this post: Rilke wrote this in his 20s. These are not the biographical autumnal musings of an older man, and I’m not sure it’s even a poem adopting that persona. I almost translated the title here as Harvest Time but chose to stay with “Autumn Day” because the copious other English-language translations used that for the title and using a different title would not allow searchers to find my fresh attempt to carry Rilke’s work into English.
Those who’ve followed my previous translations from other languages will know that I stress trying to express the imagery the author uses in a way that communicates to the modern English reader. Since that is my prime concern, I don’t make much of an effort to try to reproduce any of the word-music from the other language, but this time I did keep to a feeling of iambic pentameter for word-music’s sake. Much of my difference from other translations* was trying to sharpen the harvest imagery Rilke uses in the opening seven lines. The overall effect I aimed for was to clearly convey the weight and fullness of harvest bounty.
The final five lines converge more into a consensus with the other translations. One divergence: I read in one German speaker’s comment on their translation that “Alleen” (translated by many as alleys or avenues) was what they would call the tree-lined boulevards predominate in Rilke’s time. Not only did this strike home with me, who bicycles each day on tree-lined streets in my own town and time, but it seemed to be the linkage called for with the poems final image of following the restless wind-blown leaves on the pavements.
So back to this poem that may be read as a meditation on later life written by a 20-something. I think Rilke was trying to convey the harvest feeling, the fall into wintertime and that cyclical fallow season. Even as a young man he was able to convey this feeling an old man might appreciate. He didn’t need to be an old man to know this, he just had to read the book of nature which is older than all of us.
I often laugh as I think I’ve come across some wisdom from old age. “Aha! I’m just a slow learner” I exclaim.
To hear my performance of my fresh translation of Rilke’s “Autumn Day” use the player below.
We’ve had Edward Thomas and Henry Vaughn waxing medicinal about autumn and affliction, and now it’s time to head back across the Atlantic to see what metaphor American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar brings to the season.
By coming to prominence in the 19th century, decades before James Weldon Johnson’s 1922 Book of American Negro Poetry signaled the tip-off of what became known as the Harlem Renaissance, Dunbar proved to Afro-American poets of the 20th century that it was possible to get over to the culture at large.
Paul Laurence Dunbar “Let the world dream otherwise…”
Like many cross-over artists, he did this by doing the established forms as well or better than the incumbents. One way he did this was by writing in regional black dialect, in poetry that is frankly hard for me to decode from my 21st century location. On one hand, regional dialect was all the rage in 19th century America across various regions and ethnic heritages, and there’s no reason that Afro-American dialect couldn’t be part of this—Oh, wait, there is a reason: white supremacy.*
Dunbar was born near the end of Reconstruction, right as the reaction to the possibility of full Afro-American humanity and citizenship was snapping much of his country back to a feudal system based on presumed, and if not presumed, enforced, inferiority. One can’t avoid the problematic nature of trying to portray a range of comic to simple-wisdom-dispensing Afro-American characters speaking a non-standard version of English in a context of a society that was fairly sure that was the extent of their intellect.**
Fitzgerald’s Auditorium later became Atlantic City’s “Club Harlem” and hosted jazz and R&B acts.
But that was only part of what Dunbar wrote. He also wrote supple 19th century lyric poetry in standard English, as good or better than the “Fireside School” of East-Coast poets that were the standard for American poetry at the time. And it’s that side of Dunbar’s work that I present today with his poem “October.”
“October” is an extended metaphor nicely developed over 24 lines of rhymed and metrical verse. Dunbar alternates his rhyme scheme of ABAB to AABB to add some delightful variety. The autumn notes of harvest bounty and oncoming winter are struck and sounded cleanly.
It was only after enjoying it as a good poem in this style that I began to notice another context, an undertone. This had happened to me earlier this year when presenting a Dunbar love poem, “Kidnapped.” After performing that one, I moved on to ask: did the child of two formerly enslaved people write a poem about being captured like a butterfly and being taken far away from some home landscape? Yes, he did. Was he consciously encoding that undertone into a popular poetry form that could have been printed on a genteel valentine? I don’t know. It seemed a stretch as a conscious choice, if only because the undertone/metaphor wasn’t developed as fully as it might have been.
This time, with “October,” Dunbar does develop his metaphor, and I know of no document where he comments on his thoughts on this poem. Autumn’s harvest is presented as if it were an economic system, and dare I say it: as a feudal/sharecropper system. October is wealthy and in charge, and harvest makes her wealthier. She is presented as foolish with this collected wealth. The poet observer’s persona is not outraged by this however—indeed he portrays her as happy, carefree, joyous, beautiful. And the poem is also unambiguously beautiful. Is this personified red-headed October, collector of the treasure and bounty, deserving of unstated disgust or even envy? Is this an idealized Daisy Buchanan-like character?
Your eye (like mine) as you first encounter this poem may be on the signified season. We can’t be expected to see the fall of the year as a real person, with an actual role and privilege in a system, can we? Is it only unconscious sub-text?
Ambiguous as this is, this is part of the wealth of poetry. It can be enjoyed as word-music. Its metaphors can be admired for cleverness and their own silent music of thought. But it’s also the way for the moving minds and experience of others to be shared. It is the concise literature of the oversoul.
I performed my solemn version of Dunbar with acoustic guitar, piano and electric bass. If you’d like to check out the text of Dunbar’s poem, or follow along as I perform it, it can be found here. The player for my musical performance is below.
*I expect a percentage of this blog’s treasured audience just clicked off when I typed that phrase. If you, indignant, at least followed to this footnote, thank you, I appreciate it. I know that some of you come to poetry and music to escape the turmoil of politics and social problems.
**It’s hard to do, but some Afro-Americans managed to do it. I can trace the musical line of it anyway, from Charlie Patton to George Clinton to the hip-hop movement.
October 4th is National Poetry Day in the U.K. this year, an event similar, though more condensed, to the National Poetry Month in April promoted out of the U.S.
No one’s revealed why April for the Poetry Month, though Chaucer and T. S. Eliot may have put in their votes, and the reasons for the fall date for Poetry Day could be arbitrary too. But autumn would have an emotional claim. Fall is changeable in weather, an underrated Spring of warm days and cold shuffling themselves. It has its long-established events: school years underway, harvests and harvest festivals, the closing of summer venues, Halloween, Veterans Day/Remembrance Day. Fall can also be an easy metaphor for approaching death, but poetry is one buffer we use to handle that subject anyway.
John Keats wrote one of his last and finest poems to the season almost 200 years ago in the autumn of 1819. It’s full of the strengths of Keats’ writing. Even in his time Keats was both praised and dismissed for the sensuousness of his poetry, and not a line goes by without some sensation of taste, touch, color and sound, and all that is contained in beautiful word music and an off-balance rhyme scheme that may couplet-rhyme two lines together, or tantalizingly wait two or four lines for the rhyme.
Look at that great single-track behind you John. In only 160 years someone will invent the mountain bike
Even if some of his words are 200-years-old antique, or for us Americans, peculiarly English, he crams all these sensations in his poem without them seeming forced, as if they were special or unnatural “poetic” things. Many of the sense words in this poem are of ordinary manual labor: load, bend, fill, set, reap’d, laden, press, and borne.
Where he is outrageously poetic is that this poem is an apostrophe. The entire poem is addressed, just as the title says, as if the season was a person: “To Autumn.” A poet doing that today would, intentionally or otherwise, produce a humorous effect. Still, if we allow it, the second stanza gives us a leisurely fall, a farmer taking a break on a warm autumn day from rural labor, hiding in a barn, or taking a nap in a half-harvested field, but yet also returning to pressing cider from apples down to the last drop, and bearing away hand-gathered food on his head “like a gleaner.”
Gleaner is one of those antique words. It was a practice in some places to allow the poor and those without land to gather what leftover grain might be left in the fields after harvest. Just this week I was reading on the always Interesting Literature blog that Keats may have had this practice on his mind as gleaning had just been outlawed in England, and that other images in the poem may have had social resonances with Keats at the time.
Painters whose names suggest a subject for their painting: “The Gleaners” by François Millet
The poem’s final stanza retreats with distant banners flying, a symphony of extreme audio dynamic range. The infinitesimal sound of gnats flying is a choir. The wind crescendos and decrescendos. Lambs bleat loudly and then there is silence. Crickets arpeggiate for time. Birds whistle, twitter and leave in the sky, migrating away, and the poem ends.
Keats himself ends as a poet, this being one of his last works. He leaves for Italy in hopes it will help his tuberculosis, which it won’t. He’s dead in about a year.
My music for this today is acoustic guitar with bass and some orchestral parts: winds, a couple of cellos, a pair of violins. The player to hear it is just below.
Here’s a #nationalpoetryday bonus, featuring a very different British poetry from about a century later, T. E. Hulme’s “Autumn.”Hulme was a too-little-known instigator of Modernist poetry in English, and like a lot of instigators he moved by opposition to previous schools. In particular, he disliked the English Romantic tradition of Keats, viewing it as too flowery, to full of images that were no longer real and which had become only conventional symbols.
Interestingly, in his “Autumn,” Hulme’s central image is similar to Keats: instead of a farmer taking a break in his granary or napping in a field, he has a harvest moon looking over a hedge like “a red-faced farmer.”
Here’s my performance of Hulme’s “Autumn,” which you can also listen to with the player gadget below. If you like this sort of thing, be sure to spread the word about what we do here at the Parlando Project.
As long-time readers will know, I only write a small portion of the words used in the audio pieces here. That’s not because I couldn’t—Dave and I have written poetry for about as long as we’ve written music—but because the Parlando Project is, in part, an exercise in how I react to and present “Other People’s Stories.” Trying to get inside the experience of other writers, trying to find a way to inhabit their words, this is one of the objects of what I do.
I’m not against self-expression exactly. If I was, I’d have fewer other writer’s selves to express after all, but the nature of what one artist draws out of someone else’s expression is interesting to me.
I wrote the words to today’s piece, “Old Michaelmas Day,” thanks to a blog post on another blog I follow. Earlier this month, I was struggling with a more complex musical part for Hardy’s “The Self-Unseen” when I took a break and read a new post over at the Daze and Weekes blog. It’s there that I read of a marvelous British Isles folk tradition having to do with Saint Michael’s Day (Michaelmas). Michael is one of the Archangels, the warrior among them who cast a rebellious Satan out of heaven. Since he’s an immortal angel, he has no birth or martyrdom day to celebrate, so his day on the old church calendar is supposed to be the very day he cast Satan down.
Let up Mike, I’ve had enough! Just don’t let me land on any prickly bushes OK?
But here’s where the myth gets interesting for me. In the Northern Hemisphere his day (September 30th on the Julien calendar, and either October 10 or 11th, depending on who’s counting, on the modern calendar) comes in the harvest season. In the British Isles variation on this, falling Satan lands on a prickly blackberry bush, and so mad at the prickles, or whole casting-down thing, he spits and or pees on the blackberries. And so, after Michaelmas, blackberries are no longer fit to be eaten, on the grounds of folklore, and all this expectoration and micturition.
It just so happens that my friend, and the better poet, Kevin Fitzpatrick has a great poem about blackberry harvesting, and in that poem Kevin refers back to a poem by Seamus Heaneym, also about blackberry picking. So, from another blogger’s post, about another country’s folk-legend with the Devil’s happenstance landing, and my memory of a friend’s poem, adding perhaps even a bit of Thomas Hardy or Seamus Heaney stuck in my ear, this piece was born.
In such a way, “Other People’s Stories” gets honored, even in the breach.
The Thomas Hardy piece got done, though I decided to go with a simpler folkie musical accompaniment there. For “Old Michaelmas Day” the music is more complicated, as it uses my more modern orchestral/electronic instrument ideas. The music consists of a conventional drum set and a series of staccato violin notes, bookended with some low, sustained piano notes in the left channel with higher register Rhodes electric piano on the right. And then, sweeping through it all, a close cluster of orchestra sounds, treated with constant and fast audio manipulation so that it sounds almost like a strange organ stop. As with many of my modern orchestra/electronic pieces it sounds like it uses “loops,” but also like many of my pieces, it doesn’t. Loops are easy to create and compose with using computers: import or create a few bars of a motif, and just tell the software to repeat as necessary. But in “Old Michaelmas Day” all the notes are played, with differences in timing, and with the notes themselves changing (albeit, there are only a small number of pitches used in the keyboard and violin parts).
This piece is another short one, so even if you don’t usually listen to music in this mode, give it a try, as even if you don’t like it, it won’t bother you very long. The player gadget appears at the end of this post. If you do like it, please help spread the word about the things we’re doing here, particularly on your blog, or on Facebook or other social media.