Summer 2021 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 10-8

It’s time for our quarterly look back at the pieces here the got the most listens and likes. We start today with the numbers 10 through 8. Each bolded listing as we count down from 10 to 1 is a link to the original post where I first discussed my encounter with the text used, and those original posts will also include the text of the poem used or a link to it.

10. I Am Laughing in the Dark Underground by Frank Hudson  The Parlando Project has from the beginning aimed to put other folks words to music we compose and play. Dave and I are both writers, so I could predominantly present work we wrote the words for here — but I find the encounter with other people’s words interesting for myself, and I hope it adds variety for you the reader and listener. Therefore, it was with some hesitation that I posted this self-written piece for the blog’s 5th Anniversary last month.

You can click on the bolded title above to read what I wrote about writing the words then, but in summary, this text came largely from my interrogating one of those vivid dreams that happen around dawn when you’re half waking and half still asleep. To hear the musical piece, you can use this highlighted hyperlink, or a player gadget that will appear below for some of you.

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9. They’re Not the Grateful Dead by Dave Moore  By chance the next piece as we count down to number 1 is by alternate Parlando Project voice and frequent keyboard-contributing musician Dave Moore, though I wrote the music, sing it, and contributed one verse.*  This one mentions a series of  dead-too-soon musicians well-to-little-known to folks around our age. Anyone remember that sacrament to saccharine paean “If There’s a Rock and Roll Heaven (you know they’ve got a hell of a band)?   Well, this is Dave taking a skeptical look at that idea.

There’s a player device that some of you will see to hear Dave’s song as I performed it, and if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlink is another way.

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By Moonlight a Goose Can Be A Swan by Heidi Randen 1024

“By Moonlight A Goose Can Be a Swan”  a late summer photo by Heidi Randen

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8. August by Helen Hunt Jackson  Speaking of deceased musicians, recent new member of the choir invisible Michael Chapman had a musical life that ran with some marvelously miscellaneous combinations. Early in his career a singer/keyboard player wanted him to join his backing band. Chapman would recount that he figured his own front-man career was launching just fine, and said no thanks. The keyboard guy? Elton John. Chapman was based out of Leeds in England then, and he wanted another electric guitar in his band. He picked up just such a fellow from Hull who had to be lured away from his band for Chapman’s. That guy’s name was Mick Ronson. Having been pried away from one band, Ronson soon left Chapman’s group for another, becoming the notable guitarist and arranger for David Bowie’s breakthrough Spiders From Mars band.

Musicians love those kind of stories, because it’s assumed that many will have “close, but missed it” tales of successful opportunities slipping from their grasp. How about writers? I give you Helen Hunt Jackson. Jackson was a grade school classmate of one Emily Dickinson. Like Dickinson she connected with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the late-period Transcendentalist critic, activist, and editor. Higginson, you may remember, later gets his knocks from history for not fully recognizing and promoting Dickinson’s unorthodox verse, though after Dickinson’s death he arranged and helped edit the publication of collections of Dickinson’s work that started Dickinson’s career posthumously.

Jackson on the other hand ardently pushed Dickinson to publish while she lived, and for that effort she got little support from the living Emily.

I first ran into Jackson around the same time I watched the often satirical Wild Nights with Emily  movie a few years ago. That mixed-bag film portrayed Higginson as a nincompoop and Jackson as a simpering all-to-Victorian fustian. I’ve read a lot of bad 19th century verse looking for stuff to use here** so I figured it worth the risk to look at some of Jackson’s own poetry.

No, it’s not Modernist before it’s time in the same way that Dickinson’s can sometimes strike you, but it can be more vivid and effective than many of her contemporaries with higher surviving profiles, and this sonnet “August”  is a fine example of that. Here’s the highlighted hyperlink to play my performance,  and some will see a player below that can do that too.

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*Dave, a keyboard player, led off his song with Nicky Hopkins, who’s one of the lesser-knowns in the grouping. As a bass player I couldn’t let that role in the song’s “catacosmic” band go unfilled, and so I added the Jaco Pastorius verse.

**My general read on the later 19th century was that the Modernists were correct in rejecting what poetry had come to by the beginning of the 20th century. Stale metaphor, simple messages, perfunctory expression, hard-walled gotta make my rhyme and meter exact verse — there was good reason to make it new.

Helen Hunt Jackson’s August

Let’s start another roundabout Parlando story. We’ll move from one less-famous poet to another lesser known one through a third one. You’ve heard of the third one.

When I was a teenager and started writing poetry I was quite surprised that I did that. Surprised, and impressed with myself. Writing poetry wasn’t something anyone else I knew did; that meant that the nature of my achievement was clouded, obscured. That singleness added to my sense of achievement with those first poems. I recall sending off a poem to something that presented itself as an Iowa poetry contest. My expectations with that weren’t clear either, but eventually I noted that I wasn’t contacted as the winner.

I considered that result. I thought I was writing poetry and was therefore in the cohort of the greats in poetry anthologies and textbooks. Yet, apparently, I wasn’t even the best poet in my small lightly populated state in a random year. Puzzling.

Well, I was  in the cohort of those that wrote poetry, I just didn’t grasp then how large the numbers that unusual choice would total up cast against the population of the world. I have the same blank opportunities to solve when writing a poem — then as well as now — as prize-winning poets, or those who have reached the minor levels of success poetry is allowed in our culture. What achievement the result reaches — or the different, more quantifiable, question of what level of recognized achievement it reaches, that’s what differs. Still, I’m their equal before I begin.

Emily Dickinson may have had similar questions. When she reached out to Thomas Higginson, the Atlantic magazine contributor, with her packet of verses, she presented herself as wondering about the level of achievement she had reached. Many wonder now if she was being coy, but do we know what she knew, or what she suspected about her poetry? Dickinson’s situation was different from mine* in that though she lived in a smallish town, it was a college town, and so we know that some others in her circle had literary interests, even if her immediate family apparently didn’t. Her friend, eventual sister-in-law, neighbor, and increasingly suggested love interest Susan Gilbert wrote poetry and read Dickinson’s verses. Dickinson also made a habit of sending some of her verses in letters and with gifts to others, though I don’t know enough about how they reacted to that verse. Higginson testifies that she tended to wear people out.

But Emily Dickinson was not the most successful poet from her small town during her lifetime. Another woman, almost exactly the same age, eventually became a well-known writer and poet in her time.

That writer, born Helen Fiske, was a grade school classmate of Emily. Unlike Dickinson she fell into the usual path of marriage and motherhood, marrying at 22. Her first husband Edward Bissell Hunt may have been a remarkable person himself. Dickinson herself thought so. Dickinson wrote in a letter after meeting her friend’s husband that he “Intrigued her more than any man she had ever met.” Edward Hunt was a military engineer, and when the Civil War came, Edward Hunt set to developing some sort of self-propelled torpedo. It was while working on that secret weapon he was killed in an explosion at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Eventually she remarried, adding the second married name as Helen Hunt Jackson, and became a successful writer. Among those that spoke well of her poetry was Ralph Waldo Emerson and that same Thomas Higginson who Emily Dickinson reached out to.

Wikipedia says that Louisa May Alcott, Sidney Lanier, James Russell Lowell, and Christina Rossetti all had poems anonymously included in this collection too.

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In 1876 while visiting Amherst Fiske sought to encourage her childhood friend to submit a poem to an anthology she was working on that was to be called “A Masque of Poets.”   This anthology had a gimmick: none of the included poems was to have an identified author. The reader was going to have to encounter the poems each without the authors reputation or a preconceived notion of what that author would be on about. As it turned out, Helen Hunt Jackson had to work hard at convincing Dickinson to allow one of her poems to be included. In the end, Dickinson’s poem was given a special place in the order of this book, as the last poem in the collection (other than a long verse novel that makes up the last half of the book).

We leave this part of our story with an oddity: Emily Dickinson almost never saw her poems in print while living. Perhaps the most widely seen exception to this was her poem that appeared without her name in The Masque of Poets, and this happened because of the efforts of her friend and successful poet who we now have forgotten. What Emily Dickinson poem was it? The one that begins “Success is counted sweetest/By those who ne’er succeed…”

Sucess is counted sweetest in Masque of Poets

Here is Emily Dickinson in print. But no name.

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So now let us return to Helen Hunt Jackson and her poetry, now little known and even littler read. Today’s audio piece, “August”  is from her sonnet sequence containing a poem for each calendar month. Here’s a link to the text of the sonnet.

Jackson’s view of August is distinctive, and it’s far from upbeat for this last month of summer splendor. She starts by calling it silent** (save for the somewhat sinister connotation of insect hums). She calls what color August has “pathetic,” “vain,” and “artifice.” And loss of summer is at hand. Besides being widowed at a young age, Jackson had more than the usual 19th century history of young death of siblings and children. Perhaps that undercurrent of loss informed this cold pastoral of a warm month.

Content aside, this poem’s sound is exquisite, with assonance and internal rhymes richening it. Many lines break, or can break, in the middle, which I decided to accentuate in my performance. I found it a better poem than its forgotten status and elements of 19th century poetic diction would have it be.

The player gadget to play my musical performance of Helen Hunt Jackson’s “August”  is below for some of you. If you don’t see that player, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to play the performance. I’ve been working with some larger arrangements and noisier stuff in the past week, so it was a nice change for me to perform this piece with only acoustic guitar and a little subdued bass. Besides my music, I added one extra line of my own at the end of Jackson’s sonnet, my small exchange writ in water from one unknown poet to another.

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*Oh, there’s those little matters of differences in talent and level of innovation. But let’s leave that off for now.

**I am noticing much less birdsong in this dry August from the dawn choirs of let’s say June.

Dickinson’s Autumn

I sometimes wonder if I overstress the mysterious, even mystical, element in Emily Dickinson. Perhaps I’m overcorrecting for the too-limiting image of the charming eccentric writer of little poems that was her package-label when I first learned of her in the middle of the last century. I’ve since wanted to put the small print somewhere on the Emily Dickinson carton: contents may be unsettling during reading. Sold by weightiness, not boastful volume.

But Dickinson was at times a writer of lighter verse, enclosing seemingly cast-off poems in letters to friends. Her classmate (and in Dickinson’s lifetime, more literarily successful) friend Helen Hunt Jackson would write and publish casual poems about the seasons or travel. When Dickinson wrote this way, was she bending her art to expectations for women of her time, or was she expressing a playful side of herself? Humor, as in satire and incongruity, is an essential part of Dickinson’s verse, even her darkest verse. When it’s employed without mysterious, ambiguous themes, that same sense of humor can produce a poem like today’s “Autumn”  by Dickinson.

Even the part of me that loves to search for deeper meanings and undercurrents has trouble finding them in this poem. If forced to rely on that I could offer that her concluding remark that “Lest I should be old-fashioned, I’ll put a trinket on.” could be read as a comment on the loosening of plain-style 18th century Puritanism in Dickinson’s time. But let’s be serious: this is lighthearted, an example of the “happy Autumn” poem, and such things can make good songs.

Tree learning fall colors

Tiny clusters of turning leaves, like splatters on a green drop-cloth.

 

So I tried not to weigh this one down: major chords, acoustic guitar, bass, low Mellotron strings, and a touch of piano with the sustain pedal down. You can hear it with the player gadget below and read this short poem in its entirety by clicking this link.

 

The Parlando Spring 2019 Top Ten Part 3

Now we’re nearing the topper-most of the top in our tip-top count-down of the most liked and listened to pieces this spring. Wait—did I just turn into a mid-20th century radio host? Out! Out! Commercial spirit! Timeless poetry knows no acne creams, Yardley scents, Thom McAn Beatle boots or white Levis. Well, maybe some of the music knows them—but honestly, it interrogates those pop intentions and asks us to re-evaluate that intent in the context of greater artistic accidents consciously or unconsciously evolved from the Modernist revolts of the last century.

No, no. Not that either. I mostly just want to make things that haven’t existed before, mix the known and the unknown, like and contrast the unlike, let poetry talk to music, and let music not shut up but talk back. As I do this, I look at things you and I and many others have looked at before and see if they’ve changed. And then sometimes I look at those poets whose names and poetry were writ in water.

It just so happens that our next three pieces in our count-down are from such writers, poets unknown to me, many literature students, and likely to you.

4. They Say Life is Precious. One of the principles of the Parlando Project is “Other Peoples’ Stories.” I don’t dislike memoir, self-narrative, words intended to establish or confess one’s selfhood. I couldn’t, or I’d have much less poetry to choose from to present here. But I feel that’s well served elsewhere, not just in literature but in blogs, podcasts, and social media. So, if and when we want that, we can find it. In the words of a wise boss I once had, it’s “ubiquitous everywhere.*”

What I do instead here is to encounter some other person’s words, see how they sound in my mouth, and ask myself what I hear, feel, and think when they are enthroned there.

I could suppose it’s a failure of a kind that a performance of one of my own poems is in this Spring Top Ten then. And indeed, I usually fall to using my own words when I find I’m behind in getting things posted because the research into the other writers adds to the tasks of writing, playing, and recording the music. “Well” I say to myself “At least I know that writer already.”

An unsafe assumption. We don’t really know ourselves effortlessly.

My favorite part of the music I did for this was the combination of bowed contra-bass with an upper register fretless electric bass part. What does that sound like? Listen below.

 

 

3. Everyday Alchemy. One of the things I love about this project is when I go crate-digging after poets I’ve never read and that I expect you haven’t either. Coming across this poem by Genevieve Taggard was one of those moments.

This is such a poem of sorrowful balance, yet it’s 11 lines contain a piercing analysis of society and its arrangements of obligations that are increasingly out of balance the farther down the chain one goes.

I’ve often spoken about the Confucian Odes  here, designated by the Chinese sage and his school as required instructional material for government functionaries. The Odes  are not, as educational poetry aids today might be, mnemonics of components, checklists or causes; but like “Everyday Alchemy”  they are mostly accounts of daily life near the bottom on the pyramid, a pyramid where the giant blocks of limestone are not lifted by alien magic.

If I were Confucius again, I’d select this poem as required reading. Anthology editors now, or of the future: include this poem! And in the meantime, you can listen to my performance of it with the following gadget.

 

Taggard's Bookplate

EX ARBOR, now dead with its ghost-pale sheets under a bookplate

 

 

2. Poppies on the Wheat. I reviewed the latest attempt at making Emily Dickinson cinematic this spring. TL;DNR: a mixed bag. The film had a consultant who’s a Dickinson scholar, something I’m not, and it’s likely they’ve read more and know more detail about Dickinson that I do. I wanted to cheer them on (forza Dickinson!)  and there were moments in the film where I could. But there were also moments, some of the funnier moments viewed (as intended) as comic bits, that made me feel like they were leading the viewers to misunderstand some of the characters I’ve covered in “The Roots of Emily Dickinson.”

I imagine the film creator’s response: “It’s a movie! Dramatic license! Evenhandedness isn’t entertaining!” Yup. Still felt unfair. It’s only after the movie that I’ve read more about and from Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the literary-connected “Preceptor” sought out by Dickinson who is thought to have misunderstood and underappreciated her genius. He’s used in the movie as a comic personification of The Patriarchy and White Privilege. The author of the second most popular piece this Spring, Helen Hunt Jackson gets one scene in the movie, where she’s portrayed as a vapid sentimental sort who Higginson prefers to the artistic rebel Dickinson.

Yes, that’s one of the reasons we so admire Dickinson, who is never sentimental, even if the 19th century seems to want and need sentimentality so badly. But that charge, of sentimentality, was also a sledgehammer used against most women writers of the age. The same slack I’d expect the film-makers would ask for in presenting their matter in the way present-day movie audiences might absorb it, is what I’d ask them to apply to Helen Hunt Jackson negotiating with her audience in her time.

Jackson’s “Poppies on the Wheat”  is a Wordsworthian sonnet whose argument in itself is a debate between practical commerce and the sentiments of memory and semi-wild beauty. Musically, it reflects a mood on my part this spring to put more focus on acoustic guitar. You can hear the result with the player below.

 

Helen Hunt Jackson defiant

Hard to tell personality from a picture, but those eyes and the start of a smile make Jackson look like she’s  about to dispute something or share a delicious secret.

 

That’s all but the most liked and listened to piece this spring, and I can tell you it was a run-away winner. Words from a famous poet or unknown one? Well, it’s sort of both. I’ll be back soon with that announcement.

 

*He laughed right after he said it, thinking it a fit pronouncement from the Department of Tautology Department.

Poppies on the Wheat. Before 1890 the most famous woman writer from Amherst wasn’t Emily Dickinson.

I once thought that one of the marvels of Emily Dickinson is that she was able to create such revolutionary poetry without any supporting circle of fellow writers. She had poetic heroes: Shakespeare, Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but she never met them. Well, it turns out there’s a bit more to her story.

Last year I followed a thread that her sister-in-law, neighbor, and friend Susan Dickinson wrote poetry, and as a result performed one of Susan’s poemsCrushed Before the Moth.”  Interestingly, it sounds a bit like an Emily Dickinson poem. This year, I’m reading Genevieve Taggard’s biography of Emily Dickinson, one of the earliest written—researched in the 1920s when people in Amherst who knew Dickinson and her family were still living. And it’s inside that book that I met up with Helen Hunt Jackson.

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Helen Hunt Jackson: poet, novelist, activist.

 

Helen was the same age and a childhood classmate of Emily Dickinson, but she married a brilliant military engineer and left town.*  Taggard’s biography tells me that she returned to Amherst and visited Dickinson several times. By the 1860s Helen too was writing poetry. Like Emily Dickinson, Helen Hunt Jackson was connected with Thomas Higginson, the editor/abolitionist/feminist who Dickinson famously reached out to and corresponded with, and who helped edit the first collection of Dickinson’s poetry after Emily died.

Helen and Emily exchanged work and discussed writing. Genevieve Taggard even says that Jackson was selecting work for her first collection of poetry while visiting with Dickinson. Unlike Dickinson, Jackson aimed to be published, and did so not only in magazines but eventually in over 20 books.**  While Thomas Higginson discouraged Dickinson from publishing, Helen Hunt Jackson adamantly urged her to. Jackson midwifed the publication in an anthology of one of Dickinson’s poems “Success is counted sweetest”  the only poem of Dickinson’s published in a book during Dickinson’s lifetime.

Did their writing influence each other? It’s hard to say. Jackson certainly didn’t convince Dickinson to become a publishing professional author, but another woman of the same age and town selecting and publishing books of poetry had to encourage Dickinson at least as much as the far-away Bronte and Browning. On the other hand, it seems that Dickinson had already written a great deal of her now famous work before she renewed her childhood friendship with Helen.

I was intrigued to find out that Jackson wrote a novel in 1876 Mercy Philbrick’s Choice  which featured a heroine who was socially reclusive, wore white and wrote poetry that some think might be a novelized tale of Emily Dickinson. I skimmed through it this week. At one point in the novel, a friend of the poet character sends two of her poems to a noted editor who responds favorably, and my heart leapt up, as this sounded like a description of Dickinson’s famous letter to Higginson. There seem to be other tantalizing passages that could be a friend roman à clef’ing Emily Dickinson. But one has to remember that the novel’s author herself, Jackson, is a poet, from the same age and home town. Mercy Philbrick  could also contain elements of her own life and character. That certainly seems so of the title character’s poetry quoted in the book—it doesn’t sound at all like Dickinson.

So, here’s today’s piece, a poem written by Helen Hunt Jackson about an Italian wheat field. It’s kind of a revoicing of Wordsworth’s famous “Daffodils”  poem, but it has its own charm and details. We celebrate National Poetry Month here the same way we present poetry the rest of the year, a mix of the well-known and the forgotten. To hear my performance of Helen Hunt Jackson’s “Poppies on the Wheat,”  use the player below. Want to follow along with the text while listening? Here’s the full text of the poem.

 

 

 

*Emily met Helen’s husband Edward Bissell Hunt when the couple visited Amherst and Emily noted that he was one of the most fascinating men she’d ever met. Edward Hunt was killed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the Civil War while leading the testing of a top-secret weapon of his own design, a self-propelled torpedo. Helen remarried after Edward’s death extending her formal name to Helen Hunt Jackson, though she often published using the non-gendered pen name H. H.

**While her poetry is not well known today, Helen Hunt Jackson became a campaigner for Native American rights starting in 1879. In 1881 she published her first book under her own name, a book setting out the reasons for her cause A Century of Dishonor which she sent to every member of congress. Three years later she novelized about Native American issues and wrote a best-seller Ramona  which has been characterized as Uncle Tom’s Cabin,  only dealing with Native American mistreatment.