The Poet’s Voice

Stick with me here valued audience. I know awards speeches are not a popular genre. First off, everyone watching has just lost except for the speaker—not just the tuxedos in the hall, but anyone watching at home who aren’t important enough to be invited to the event. So maybe it’s safest to thank others effusively until your time is up and the music plays you off. A choice to make other points can be ineffective.

Yet, this isn’t the first time I’ve used an awards speech as the text for a piece, though the other two times they were speeches by actors, David Harbour and Viola Davis. Both of those speeches made claims about the value of dramatic art: Harbour making the claim that we may use make-believe heroes to inspire us to do necessary things, and Davis testifying that art, because it includes the illuminated communication of intense human experience, is the only complete way to explore humanity.

The Nobel Prize award requests an acceptance “lecture,” which sounds more high-falutin and boring than an acceptance speech. The literature winners often take the bait and tell us something about the value of their art—but it just so happens that I’m listening for that right now, because I’m not sure about the value of the arts of poetry or music, the things this project is made of, in the midst of this year’s multiple crises: a pandemic, an economic downturn that I fear we haven’t sounded the bottom of, a king of misrule, and a tragic occasion to consider remedies to racial oppression. When I talked about these things this week with friends, they reminded me, “And we haven’t even talked about global warming lately.”

The first section of today’s piece is taken from William Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Even a couple of decades later his statement was much loved in liberal arts departments as I was getting in touch with them in “The Sixties,” because we still hadn’t gotten over the fear we talk even less about: global atomic warfare destruction. Faulkner was a wordsmith to reckon with, even if he couldn’t figure out the plot of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.*  When I looked back at his speech this month, the line I open up with today grabbed me in 2020 as much or more than it would have back in the mid-20th century:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it.”

Don’t misread the end of that sentence. He is saying we can bear that fear (his contemporary fears, and ours) and go on writing. One may raise their hand before the Nobel-Dynamite-Prize winner Faulkner and ask: “Well, yes I suppose we could. But shouldn’t we be doing something else instead? A lot of people’s survival is at stake.”

The next section I quote from Faulkner’s speech tries to answer that. It’s a fine piece of writing too. If one abstracts the thought from the rhetoric, he’s saying that we have jobs in relationship to those that will be doing something else instead. This is akin to Viola Davis’ argument about art: no position paper, resolution, or negotiating point can fully connect one heart with another, and no struggle can see its way without full illumination of the human experience.

Is Faulkner right about that? I don’t know. It may not be right for you, but it’s a plausible idea for an old man like myself, one who lacks the social cohesion to build a barricade and the bravery to mount and advance over it.

Faulkner Stamp

An example of writers not being much good at other jobs, Faulkner was bad when given a job as a postmaster. His resignation letter read: “As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.” The Postal Service had its revenge in 1987. Faulkner’s price had risen by 20 cents.

 

The concluding statement in today’s piece is from another American Nobel Literature prize winner’s “lecture,” Bob Dylan’s. The inspiration for this came from a gift Dave Moore gave me this month, a small, handsome book containing Dylan’s lecture. When Dylan won the Literature prize there was a great deal of consternation that what he did wasn’t literature, possibly also not very good, but for sure not literature. Some commentators seemed to feel that poetry might not even qualify, wondering what novels he had written.** But never mind, song lyrics can’t be poetry can they?

In the concluding part of his speech Dylan cleverly concedes that point, and then collapses his wings around those objecting that performed oral poetry is not literature. That’s books, stuff written and read on paper. Suddenly they are surrounded with no retreat. Shakespeare*** wrote for voices and audiences in common. We only know his plays in page form from bootleg tapers. Songs, music, are like that too. They are alive, they live on the currents of breath. Literature is an artifact—a voice is the art, a song is the immediate fact of an experience. I, you, anyone, can doubt art in its absence, in silence—while fear likes that space just fine. But while a song is sounding in your breath and ear, doubt is beside the point. “Songs are alive in the land of the living” Dylan proclaims.

My performance mashing up these quotes from the two Nobel Prize speeches accompanied by my own music can be heard with the player below. If you’d like to read the entirety of these two speeches, Faulkner’s text is here, and Dylan’s is here (with a link to his own audio reading).

 

 

 

*A Hollywood anecdote had Faulkner, who was working as screenwriter for hire in the 1940s, getting stumped about the famously convoluted plot of Chandler’s detective novel he was adapting for a classic 1946 movie. A point about an early murder that deepens the plot was unclear. “Yes, but who killed General Sternwood’s chauffeur?” he queried. Chandler replied: “Dammit, I don’t know either.”

**I found it interesting that novelist Faulkner more than once refers to poets as he speaks about the writer’s task in his speech.

***And Dylan closes with Homer, the blind one in the silence of sight, who didn’t ask the muses for paper but the music to tell the story.

from Tennyson’s Ulysses

Here’s a piece to celebrate the announced discovery of the oldest intact shipwreck, a 2,400-year-old Greek ship discovered in the Black Sea with its mast, rudder, and even a rower’s bench still in place. This can’t be fully romanced into being Ulysses’ ship—it’s centuries newer—but it does give us an object, beyond the stories, to remind us of ancient sea voyages.

“Tales of brave Ulysses, how his naked ears were tortured by the sirens sweetly singing.” This vase depicts a ship like the one in the shipwreck.

 

Tennyson’s Ulysses is one of his best-known shorter works, and one I was a bit surprised to find still survives on the seabed of modern teaching syllabuses. I expect that many will read “Ulysses”  as a complement to Tennyson’s American contemporary Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamus”  which we’ve featured here, as a pledge from one who is old and past their expected prime to continue to strive. After all, the most quoted section, the one I used, starts right off declaring “You and I are old.”

Well for someone my age or Dave’s—that is to say, old—this understanding might seem natural.*   Indeed, as we recorded this last week, we too were not “that strength which in the old days.” But if one looks at Tennyson’s “Ulysses,”  both biographically and mythologically, there are some surprises to be found.

Would you be surprised to learn, as I was, that this was not some later work by a long-lived poet (as Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamus” was),  but instead the work of a 25-year-old? Odd that in our modern times, where we often expect authenticity in our poets, were the poem is expected to be biographically true to the author’s own experience. But of course, it isn’t rare for younger people to feel old and to feel an age is past. Tennyson chose to make his poem’s speaker aged because it did represent something he felt after the death of his close friend Arthur Hallam (the same friend that his book-length epic elegy “In Memoriam A. H. H.”  was dedicated to).

If one looks at the poem and sets aside preconceptions, you may find, even in its oft-quoted concluding exhortations I used, an undercurrent from this inspiration. Not only is this Ulysses a hero well-past the age of his greatest physical vigor, he’s demonstrating in his concluding speech two other characteristics. He’s looking backward to look forward. He recalls his Homeric feats, acts that in that story literally had heroes that “Strove with Gods.” He reminds his crew, in effect, “Look, we are the generation that knew Achilles personally, not the modern folk who only read about him.” Which brings us to the subject of his crew, the men he’s addressing in this exhortation. Homer’s Odyssey  is clear on what happens to them, after deadly battle followed by deadly mistakes: they were all killed, long before this poem begins. Like Tennyson after the death of his friend, those who know, those who shared and could testify to Ulysses soul, are gone. So, when he asks to set sail in that boat, there will be no rowing soldiers on those benches sitting well in order, except in his soul.

So, he’s crazy? Deluded? After all, he’s plainly talking to those that aren’t there. Well this is a poem, a work of art. Ulysses might never have existed, or might not have existed in the way we know him if not for Homer, who also might not have existed. And Tennyson and his friend Hallam? We can pretty well know they existed, even if anyone who could say of the eventually long-lived Tennyson “who we knew” is now dead, and so closely equal to the imagined. This is a poem about the hereness of the not-here.

I was telling my son the other day, “Death is the leading cure for immortality,” but sometimes the cure doesn’t take. I can’t say that the LYL Band’s performance of this part of “Ulysses”  is immortal, but we do strive to seek to find and not to yield. Hear it here:

 

 

 

*An example of the waterworks potential for this poem when read by Helen Mirren, making Stephen Colbert cry.

Trenches St Eloi

I was talking with my wife this weekend. She’s reading a memoir about current military deployments (and redeployments) and she said a Wilfred Owen poem was mentioned in it.

“Well, World War I was the last war to be covered by poets.” I replied. Which is not strictly true of course. World War II generated a number of poems I’d love to share here, but I have no time to try to track down the rights issues to use words that still may be under copyright. And I suspect other wars have generated other poems since then, even if I don’t know many of them. But that’s not what I meant.

World War I was the last war to be covered by poets.

What I meant was that WWI was the last war in which a considerable portion of the English-speaking public looked to poetry for meaning and consolation regarding the battles and their losses. I’m not sure if they looked to poetry more than journalism or political oratory, but I believe that poetry then still operated somewhat in the same theater as these other words when addressing current events. Longer forms of literature, such as novels, tend to lag events substantially, changing or fixing our view of things afterwards, instead of framing it while the picture is still moving. I think of two epithets, for journalism and then for poetry: “The first draft of history” and “The news that stays news.”

I think of two epithets, for journalism and then for poetry: “The first draft of history” and “The news that stays news.”

This morning, my son wanted to show me this brilliantly parsed cartoon summary of the Iliad. The narrator there has a lot of fun with the meandering and seemingly arbitrary plot of that Greek epic poem, but it struck me that it’s possible that the ur-version of the Iliad might have been written contemporaneously to the events, only to be shaped afterward like a collection of old news dispatches repurposed for later use.
 
So, this is a long tradition in Europe from Homer to the war poets of WWI, for the battles and the experience of the battles being reported in poetry.

Why has this use of poetry, to report current and crucial events, fallen away? The first explanation that occurs to me is we have other media to do this now. Film, radio, video, and now cellphones capture the moment without pretending to rely on subjective art. The Imagists who forged their poetic theory in the years around WWI, would seem to have lost their territory as their theory won the war. A cellphone or nose-cam video of the bomb exploding follows two out of the three famous Imagist rules: The “thing” is treated directly, there are no unnecessarily words (indeed there may be no discernable words at all), while more or less ignoring the less-noticed third rule (the one we at the Parlando Project keep pointing to and speaking about), the one that asks for musical phrasing.

Hulme's company in the trenches at St Eloi
This photo shows men in T. E. Hulme’s Artillery company at St. Eloi in 1915

  
Poetry, like painting, is no longer necessary for reportage. Modernists often chose to respond to this by a movement into abstraction, conveying thoughts in motion and novel conceptions, seeking to demonstrate what can be meaningful without meaning.

Today’s piece “Trenches: St. Eloi”  is attributed to T. E. Hulme, a man who helped form this Modernist revolution and died before he could live in it. I say “attributed” because, like Homer, he did not write it down. The exact attribution is “Abbreviated from the Conversation of Mr TEH” when it was published by Ezra Pound, and it may have been Pound who chose what to transcribe or how to lay out the transcription. My guess is that some of the language sounds like Hulme (the unusual, but so perfect word choice of “pottering,” the homey image of trench soldiers strolling compared to the shoppers on the busy London street of Piccadilly), but the overall arrangement sounds like Pound to me.
 
We know pretty much the where and when that is being talked about, more than we know of the actual history of Troy. Hulme got a chance to relate these details while in an English hospital after being wounded in the spring of 1915 in trench warfare in St. Eloi. He recovered, returned to the war, and to his eventual meeting with a German artillery shell that ended his life.

T. E. Hulme may have said it, Ezra Pound may have edited it and written it down, but to hear me perform it with my musical accompaniment, use the player below.

Frank Eli Hudson and Rye Whiskey

It’s election day in the United States, a day of great hope and fear. Yesterday I was on the shore of a great lake and the sunrise was a perfect unbroken horizon of a bright line with pink above that, and then graduations to blue rising up over our heads as high as we wished to look. At our feet, the lake waves came from wherever they come from and broke on the stone ballots cast on the beach.

We are riding a great wave of change sweeping from wherever it comes from to wherever it goes. I feel our country has become both more perceptive and more blind,  in what is too close to equal amounts. I do not know what part of that proportion of blindness is mine or yours. Perhaps until we see, if we ever see, we will not know.
 
We’ve talked about myths here before, our big stories that explain ourselves. When Homer sang his myths he was said to be blind, and myths are often blind. When John Keats read Homer in Chapman’s translation, he wrote about it in a fine sonnet almost exactly 200 years ago, but oops! he put the wrong explorer on that Pacific-viewing peak. So clearly a mistake that a friend pointed it out to Keats immediately, but in the end, it harms the poem in only that simple and clear “wrong guy, Johnny!” way. People who know about these things might note that Chapman’s translation of Homer, published 400 years ago this year, is a bit loose as well. Homer’s music is always very hard to translate, but they say that Chapman added some additional material dear to his own philosophy.

Let’s just leave it at this for now: little or big deviations from the truth make up many, perhaps all, myths, those explanations of ourselves. We grow blind and perceptive at the same time.This piece, Frank Eli Hudson and Rye Whiskey, is as much true as my proportion of blindness and perception can make it now.

My appreciation of what was called “folk music” in the US in the mid 20th Century was founded on an appreciation for “authenticity.” “Authenticity” is a particularly hard to define myth. If I can distill it briefly, “Authenticity” believes that certain emotions and feelings are more perceptive, closer to the truth of things. So, to portray those emotions and to share them through art allows one’s audience to see and share the truth of things. The 20th Century American folk music circles search for authenticity is not much different from hard-core punk later in the century (the two musical movements have many parallels).

I saw the folk song Rye Whiskey though that shared myth of authenticity, just as the piece recounts. On the page, and as performed by many folk-revival singers, Rye Whiskey seems to call on harrowing emotions. However, for a time this year it occurred to me to see what I could find out about my great-grandfather for whom I was named, A decade-old report from an uncle that he liked the song Rye Whiskey was one thing I knew.
 
Around this time a co-worker thought my son, who likes math, would be interested in some sets of numbers relating to a deck of playing cards. I told the co-worker that some of that material was used in a hit song of my youth, The Deck of Cards. Turns out The Deck of Cards was a hit not once, but several times, and that Tex Ritter had been one of the earliest to have a successful cover recording of it.

On the other side of Tex’s A Deck of Cards was Rye Whiskey, a  that song that was part of Tex’s repertoire for a long time, going back at least into the 1930s. I can’t say for sure where Frank Eli Hudson heard Rye Whiskey, but Tex Ritter would be an odds-on favorite.

The Deck of Cards was not “authentic” folk music. Robyn Hitchcock once did a parody of it that is hilarious. And Tex’s version of Rye Whiskey?  Well, listen to the piece as played by the LYL Band to hear what I found about how my great-grandfather, authentically living in that “Old Wierd America” that Greil Marcus writes about, might have experienced this song. The gadget to play Frank Eli Hudson and Rye Whiskey should appear below.

 

 

After you’ve heard my tale, here are some versions of Tex Ritter singing this authentic American folk song.

Blues Summit in Chicago 1974

Let’s continue for a one more episode on the theme of the musician, but since here in the Parlando project we believe music and poetry to be naturally joined, let us go there though a poet.

Decades ago, in a small Midwestern classroom, a teacher wrote on the chalkboard “It is better to read (or study) Homer than to be Homer.” I do not remember the teacher’s name. I do not remember who was the author of this epigram–though I have vague memories that the teacher wrote that down too—and no amount of modern web searches have ever been able to give me the source of it. But except for that one ambiguous word (“read” or “study”) I have never forgotten that line. Perhaps what helped me remember the line is the teacher gave us no context. I simply encountered what they had written on the blackboard.

Though I’m going to violate that impact here in regards to that epigram, I endorse it with the Parlando project’s audio and podcast element, where the audio pieces are meant to stand alone without resume or external authority. None-the less, if any readers here do know where the Homer epigram I remember came from, I’d like to know.

What I took that line to mean is not just that the life of an artist may be difficult or cursed by troubles; but the revelation, emotional resonance, and sensuousness of art when it is experienced, can easily be greater than the costs of its creation. Greater for even one reader. Greater than the author’s own understanding of that which is so close to them that they may not see all its sides and size.

So here’s a meditation on that idea. I wrote it after watching a re-broadcast of the initial episode of PBS television’s Soundstage which shares this piece’s title. I believe the producers of the TV show wanted to reproduce a somewhat similar gathering of older and younger blues musicians that resulted in an excellent LP called Fathers and Sons recorded in 1969. Musically, what they captured wasn’t at that record’s level alas, but it was well-filmed and that alone makes it worth watching, for there are small, moving, privileged moments between the musicians captured on camera. About halfway through watching it myself, I found myself noting that almost every musician on that stage is now dead, and it didn’t matter if they were the younger generation or the old guard. Some of the old guard outlived the young guns.

That’s part of the nature of a working musician’s life: there may not be a full measure of it.

And then I looked at the close-in audience filmed at the same time. Since they were my contemporaries I felt I could see through the period clothes and hair styles and make some rough but fairly accurate estimate of their class membership and likely demographic future.

Let’s just narrow our focus to one musician. If you could step back in time, would you ask Michael Bloomfield if it was worth it? “Hey Mike, I’m from the future and I know you’re going to die at 37. Would you rather have stayed in college now knowing that?”  How complex that question is for just that one instance, and equally complex in different ways for each of the musicians on that stage. I suspect some days they’d say “yes” and some days “no”—and much of the time they’d say (in so many words) that your question was beside the point.
 
Now ask yourself:  would you rather Mike Bloomfield had a longer life or you had recordings like Highway 61 Revisited, Super Session, or East/West to listen to? Assuming you weren’t Mike’s friend or relative, and that you know and have experienced his art, then honestly your answer is likely: you’d take the records.

And those college students in the bleachers? Maybe some of them became doctors, nurses, teachers, faithful and helpful friends. Maybe one day one of them will write something on a chalkboard like that epigram I read decades ago, and I will not be able to remember their name.

So to play The LYL Band performing  my piece “Blues Summit in Chicago 1974” click on the gadget below.

The Prairie

Do you know the artists who influenced the artists who influenced you?

I live in a city now where many streets and public schools are named for 19th century New England literary worthies. My son’s grade school is Whittier for example. And a few blocks over is a street I ride on to get to one of my favorite breakfast places, Bryant Avenue.

I can’t say William Cullen Bryant ever registered much with me as a poet. He was never Longfellow famous. My city has not only a Longfellow school, but several other streets and institutions named after Hiawatha or characters in Longfellow’s once ubiquitous poem. My father, even in his later years, could recite large portions of Longfellow poems. But Bryant is left, like Whittier too, in a state where his name is barely remembered and his work is unknown.

Coincidence of nomenclature aside, I would not have discovered “The Prairie”, this William Cullen Bryant poem, if not for an accident. Dave Moore, the musician and poet who often supplies keyboard parts, words, and is an alternative reading voice here, took a trip this summer to visit the large pre-Columbian mounds along the Mississippi river. He came back with tales and some writing about these remarkable large earthworks, some of which we have worked into musical pieces. Since I have not seen these great mounds, I had to search for words to borrow if I wanted to contribute. Bang! It turns out that Bryant had just what I needed, and it was very good stuff.

To explain these mysterious mounds, Bryant had to take on suppositions borrowed from some 19th century mythologies. Those mythologies are a complex subject, worthy of long post in themselves. In cutting his piece for length, I’ve excised most of that, leaving what I find is still vivid: what would these mounds have seemed like standing in the middle of unplowed frontier prairie, and what thoughts would have then flowed through this 19th Century New Englander as he beheld them?

Bryant is great at that. He channels a bit of Homer in his suppositions, mixed with a soaring American anthem. The strength of his writing here surprised me. Turns out, though I had forgotten and had not read Bryant; modern America’s great 19th century poetic grandfather Walt Whitman had read him, and he had picked up something.

Below is a gadget that should allow you to play The Prairie, taken from William Cullen Bryant’s poem about the great mounds