Stopping by a Woods with Bad Cellphone Service for National Poetry Month

A couple of posts back I suggested we do more than poetry prompts or poem a day writing challenges for National Poetry Month. Here’s a demonstration of an idea that’s half-way there. While still a poetry writing prompt, it also acknowledges the tradition we’re working in.

Write a parody of a poem you like, you dislike, or you just have heard too too-often that you want to mess with it.*

One of the first teenage poems I wrote decades ago was a parody of Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn”  titled “Ode to a 1953 Automobile Ad.”   I loved Keats’ poem, and while I wanted the smile that my title could engender, my parody was more at pointing out that Keats’ painful air of not-quite-realized truth portraying beauty wasn’t just a 19th century thing. Like most all of Sappho, that one may be lost to the ages, but here’s one recent enough to have been performed in the early years of this project: “Stopping by a Woods with Bad Cellphone Service.”

Did I like, hate, or just want to mess with Frost’s Stopping by a Woods on a Snowy Evening?”   Maybe a little of each. Long time readers here will remember that I disliked Frost in my youth. I thought then he was spouting platitudes, but I was wrong on that. When I presented Frost’s “Snowy Evening”  here years back I said that the most important thing in the poem has been little realized. The poem’s speaker isn’t being tempted by wasting time admiring natural beauty. He’s not seeking Transcendentalist truth by closely reading the book of nature — though Frost does read the book of nature, his readings are unusually dark. Those are common understandings of Frost’s poem, which do sort of find the poem’s ending as a platitude: “You know what you need to do, get to work.” So is it darker? Is he basically being tempted to crawl into the woods and end it all? Not quite that either. The most important fact in the story of this poem is that the speaker is lost  on a rural road in the early 20th century on the “darkest evening of the year,” which would be utter darkness in the days before electric light. There’s no beautiful Currier & Ives woods. It’s so deserted and without information you can hear snowflakes rubbing on each other. The famous opening is (with added italics) “Whose woods these are I think  I know.” Not really knowing = lost. When he decides to press on, it’s the act of acting without there being any knowledge that he’s going the right way. The poem sounds beautiful, and that ennobles that act, even if it says the speaker may have been foolish and is risking acting without knowledge at the end.

Frost Drake

April is National Poetry Month, and spring is here. Two gentlemen are unbuttoning their coats.

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My parody is more lighthearted, and is set in the 21st century, but like a lot of jokes the situation isn’t pleasant. By writing a parody you are acknowledging the poem and your knowledge of it — so even if your parody is meant as a corrective to make the reader never read the original poem the same way again, you are engaging in the type of activity I’m urging more of this Poetry Month: that we should encourage more expression not just by adding to the sum total of poetic examples of it, but by acknowledging it in others.

Three ways to hear The LYL Band rip into this snowy poem: this is the link to a lyric video, or (for some of you) a player gadget below to hear just the audio, and finally there’s this fallback link that will play it also.

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*There’s a long tradition of this in poetry and songs. It’s not just Weird Al. In my youth they were called “answer records” — and later on in hip hop, a “dis track” might twist someone else’s rhymes or musical samples in service of dialectic. We’ve presented some poetic “answer records” here. Like this famous set of poems here and here. Or this quippish answer I appended to another short poem.

I also sometimes make moves that feel a little like parody in some of my looser or “after” translations of older poems. Here’s one example. And another. And one more. These aren’t meant to be “funny ha-hah,” but there’s a pleasure in finding history’s cultural “rhymes.”

Coyotes

Today let’s examine the place of hands and humor in poetry and music. Let’s start with hands, before we turn to the subject of humor and a poem about farming.*

You just heard alternate Parlando Project voice Dave Moore last time here, but besides letting you get a break from my vocals, Dave has played keyboards with me since the late 1970s as the core of The LYL Band. That’s a long piece of work, particularly in that I’ve needed him more than he’s needed me with this. Here are the basics of that: I’m a poor rhythm guitarist. I like to add color and decoration whether the song is fast and loud or quiet and moody. Groove, beat, a solid march of chords to carry you along? Not in my wheelhouse. The LYL Band has had other guitarists over the years to handle some of that, but most of the time it’s been down to Dave for the chords and groove. Back in the earliest days of recording us, when four tracks were a fresh luxury, I’d put Dave’s keys on the same track as a drum machine, sure that he’d be solid as the machine.

Now we’ve both got some mileage on our hands, and Dave has encountered some issues with both of his arms and hands. He tells me that the fingers just won’t do what he asks them to do some of the time. He’s become more like me now as a musician: able to do some things, some days, within limits. My own hands have had problems too, which currently are no worse, and many days a little better. Oddly, writing and composing can let my hands weaken. To wrangle a guitar as I often like to takes not just flexibility but also finger strength which is best approached by regular use with a gentle uptake, not a two-hour live session where I need them to work right off after weeks of musing on poetry and tapping out a sonnet. I’ve been trying to carve out more time to “just play” in order to keep my digits loose and strong.

So, when Dave and I got together this month to honor our friends who’ve recently died, I assessed that my hands were ready to rumble by current standards; but Dave, while game, wasn’t sure. During the session, he did all right, even if he wasn’t nearly as strong as he was in our little band for years.

Now on to humor. Kevin FitzPatrick was a poet we got together to honor. We both knew him for decades, and Kevin even played a little blues harmonica with us a few times in the early days. One thing that Kevin’s poetry often used was his dry sense of humor. If his poems “had other people in them” the interaction between those characters was often humorous. Humor is like that, isn’t it? With poetry one can easily fill a chapbook with solitary musings, singing philosophies, and hermit’s prayers, but humor generally requires other people, our rubs, our missed and kissed connections.

Kevin’s final collection Still Living in Town  has several characters, but the central ones were his own persona, a city-living office employee and his life partner, Tina, a woman who had decided she wanted the rural life — and not a Walden cabin in the woods, but a farm growing a variety of produce and sheep.**  Kevin was in his 60s, but he was a big fit guy (he boxed and taught martial arts in his youth) and however urban his life had been, his character pitched in with the farm labor.

Kevin’s farm poems are and aren’t like Robert Frost’s to compare them to a famous example. That Kevin could approach a blank verse feel in some poems would connect them — but Frost, urban-born and professionally an itinerant teacher, liked to cast his persona in his farming poems as knowledgeable and in place with farming, while Kevin portrayed himself with beginner’s mind on the farm. Given that fewer living readers have any connection with farm work, Still Living in Town  invites us into that milieu wonderfully.

The poem of Kevin’s I used for today’s piece is looser metrically, but while it’s set in like weather to this current March (wheeling rain and snow and thaw) it most wants us to hear a little story about the two characters, the labor of farming, and yes, the humor in hands and their stubbornness.

Jazzmasters!

Jazzmasters! From the upper left: Jimi Hendrix without a Strat; Pete Townsend about to decrease the supply of used guitars; some guy named Jimmy James (wonder what became of him?); Frank Zappa, who didn’t say “The Jazzmaster isn’t dead, it just smells funny;” my Jazzmaster painted the homeopathic color Sonic Blue; Tom Verlaine, vanguard of the alternative nation which latched onto the bargain unwanted Jazzmaster in the 1970s.

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A few notes on the music. I sometimes create the drum tracks for my compositions before the live session begins. And since I’m usually needed in the guitarist role, I sometimes lay down the bass parts with those tracks ahead of time too. That’s how this piece was. On the day of the session, I sang and played the wailing lead guitar*** and recorded the reading of Kevin’s words live with Dave playing a baaing/buzzing synth part live. Dave’s part, subject to his current hands, didn’t fulfill all the groove chop I thought the piece needed. So I added a second guitar part doing my best at rhythm guitar on my Telecaster, but a lot of the final groove you hear is an electric piano part that I laid down trying to imitate my friend and partner Dave’s playing as I recall it from the past.

By now I hope you’re ready to hear the musical story of Kevin FitzPatrick’s farm poem “Coyotes.”   The player gadget is below for many of you. Don’t see that? This highlighted link is provided as an alternative so you can hear it that way too.

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*I have to repeat this one, which I read in a comment thread this month regarding the upcoming Hollywood Oscar awards event: “The only Oscars I care about are Peterson and Wilde.” In the context of Dave Moore, even the young Dave wasn’t likely to stand toe to toe (finger to finger?) with Oscar Peterson on piano. On the other hand, I’ll hop on top of Oscar Wilde’s tea table in my slush-muddy Minnesota shoes and declare Dave’s poetic wit with Wilde’s.

**Other reoccurring characters weave in and out in the farm poems too — and while four-legged, the couple’s farm dog, the incongruous poodle named Katie, makes a cameo appearance in this one and others.

***The lead guitar part is played on a Jazzmaster, a famous failure in Fender’s otherwise wildly successful line of mid-century electric guitars. A couple of decades into its Edsel-hood of “what were they thinking” failure, unwanted used Jazzmasters became an affordable choice pragmatically chosen by some punk and alternative musicians. Even so, few think of a Jazzmaster for this kind of wailing lead guitar with a bit of funk flavor. As long as one is able to address the Jazzmaster’s bridge design issues, it can  do that sort of thing.

The Men in the Basement

Late last year I promised you’d get to hear some pieces based on the poetry of Ethna McKiernan. I thought about which one to start off with, and decided I’d perform this one for you first. Why? Because it may make you smile.

Regular readers here recently will have caught up with my connection with Ethna: how I heard her read work in progress in a small group of other writers who cycled through each other’s homes each month to do that. You’ll also know that the rest of the group was usually men in its later years.

When we met in Ethna’s our meeting would always start in her little kitchen. We’d stand near her sink and stove and brew up some tea and talk a bit about what happened since we last met, until our remaining writer’s group members accumulated. On one side of that room was the clipping and photo-decorated refrigerator door, a generalized cultural artifact, and on the other side a small table and chair. Her house was a modest South Minneapolis bungalow probably built in the last Twenties, a couple of blocks off of East Lake Street. Comfortable and reasonably roomy with the usual shelves of books in its main-floor rooms and a couple of wandering cats as one might find in a poet’s house. I never saw more than the main floor, but there was a second story up a wooden staircase, and as we shall shortly hear, a basement below. That all said, it seems Ethna wrote and revised mostly in that small kitchen.

Kitchens are a physical metaphor, the site of drudgery and giving, sustenance and routine. If I may gender a floorplan: the most female part of most houses.

South Minneapolis is Tough on Barbies by Heidi Randen

Approximately how some of us feel on winter days. If only there was some help…

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I remember hearing “The Men in the Basement”  at one of those meetings. Everyone enjoyed it, got it, right off the bat, which was far from a universal reaction to the work we shared. I heard her read it at least once at a public reading, and since it was included in her New and Selected  collection* published just before her death late last year, we can be sure that Ethna herself liked this poem and expected audiences to do so too.

Do women understand this poem more than men do? How the hell should I know, though I suppose some raise themselves to opinions on such matters. I myself found it easy enough for my anima to perform it, though maybe some listeners will find that strange. Again, how the hell should I know? Anyway, given that we all bruise, want, wonder, live together and alone — and sorry, buzzkill for this entertainingly arch poem, we all sicken and die — I don’t find it worthwhile to predict or expect right now.

Musically I made this one an assortment of sounds, and I even worried that I may have over-egged it with the variety, but I’ll limit my predictions to that you’ll enjoy meeting Ethna’s text today. There’s a player gadget below for many of you, but you can also use this highlighted hyperlink where the player isn’t shown to hear it.

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*That book, Light Rolling Slowly Backwards: New and Selected Poems  is a great summary of McKiernan’s poetry. Here’s a link to the publisher’s listing.

Love and Sleep — or I re-examine Swinburne, with a little sex in it

I have to hand it to the Victorians — when it came to the names of some of their poets, they seemed to know how to roll right through the evocative, and tumble ass over teakettle into camp.*  This project has touched on the Pre-Raphaelites, those 19th century hipsters with their love for the middle-parts of the Middle Ages, and one of their leading lights Dante Gabriel Rossetti had a moniker that seemed to mix angels and demons with some flowery notes. Or then there’s the pioneering Canadian poet who decided to flesh out Sappho’s fragments with his own poetry: Bliss Carmen. But let’s suppose you’re writing a comic novel set then. You want a character name that’s really, really over the top. If so, you might then independently invent the name Algernon Charles Swinburne.

Sorry, already taken.

I can remember first running into the name in a poetry anthology while a teenager. I laughed out loud at its outrageousness. Algernon had been dead for a bit more than 50 years, but as we shall see, I doubt he minded my noting that. Honestly, I laughed for myself, but of course as a teenager who liked poetry I may have needed to laugh at that name out loud too. Young men in my place and time weren’t much for poetry, but I could suppose a name like John Keats could slip under the radar. Algernon Charles Swinburne, on the other hand, could have written poetry like Robert W. Service and he’d still have such a foppish name.

I went to read his poems anyway. Or I tried to. They didn’t seem outrageous to me — their effect was more at ornate, over-decorated boredom. And his poetry seemed to have nothing to say other than its fancy dress. In the years since, I’ve occasionally looked at a few Swinburne poems, and nothing has changed that opinion.

Algernon_Charles_Swinburne,_1862

Portrait of Swinburne by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Let’s forget poetry for a moment, what product does he use for that much body?

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This year while reading some accounts and memoirs of early poetic Modernists I did notice something odd. More than a few of them went through a Swinburne phase.**  I had known that the Pre-Raphaelites (Swinburne knew and was associated with them) and their “Forward Into the Past” revivalism of earlier literary and visual styles was an influence on some Modernists, but the things they sought to revive tended to be simpler than the mainstream Victorian style: old ballads, flatter painting, hand-hewn furniture, that sort of thing. Swinburne just seemed rococo through and through.

But there was another element that may have attracted them. Swinburne’s poetry was considered in the late 19th century to be, well, hot stuff, erotic, even transgressive. Swinburne’s contemporaries thought that Swinburne if anything reveled in those characterizations. Oscar Wilde (here we go again with the Victorian names) might be thought as someone comfortable with this, but more than one article I’ve read notes that Wilde said of Swinburne “A braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestialiser.”

School poetry anthologies skipped over that part, but Swinburne’s indirection in his poetic diction isn’t going to cause me to create a “radio edit” of today’s piece, his love sonnet “Love and Sleep.***”

So, what’s going on in this poem? S-E-X of some kind, though the down and dirty details are hard to suss out. A lot of what you may “see” in it is portrayed by implication and connotation. The “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” elements of the famous Monty Python sketch can be invoked in close readings here. I don’t want to play the Eric Idle character from that sketch for you, but I must risk being a mixture of risqué and ridiculous if I’m going to talk about what the poem does with language and imagery. Here’s a link to the complete text of Swinburne’s poem that I used for today so you can follow along as I go through the sonnet line by line.

  1. Classic mechanical clocks of that era might strike to mark the hours of nighttime. They don’t stroke. Make of this what you will.
  2. The lover, or perhaps some dream, imagining, or otherwise non-corporeal manifestation of them arrives at the poet’s bed.
  3. Flowers are invoked. Georgia O’Keefe, Judy Chicago, and Cardi B have yet to be born. Details in Swinburne’s imagery sometimes seem contradictory in a way I find hard to read. Something “pale as the duskiest lilly’s leaf” is hermetic. Is what is being viewed pale or dark?
  4. Erotic nibbling, or call for Van Helsing? You decide.
  5. Skin. Bare skin. Victorians are getting hot and bothered now. A lot of care in trying to describe the skin’s tone that just confused me. Wan (pale again) yet…
  6. “Without white or red.” Is Swinburne color blind? Is this night-vision gray? Even readers who are POC are getting confused here. One reading informed by those bestiality rumors: cephalopods. Students who find this post later: don’t put this in your essay, it will not help your grade.
  7. Well, the lover appears to be female, and she’s going to be allowed to speak. Thanks patriarchy!
  8. She speaks like a veddy veddy proper lady too — but apparently interested in “Delight.” Is that what the kids are calling it now?
  9. “Her face” is honey. Good, let’s keep this PG.
  10. Her body is “pasture” which borders on Surrealist de-humanizing imagery, though by implication this may be portraying the poet as a horny ruminant — so equality! If then: several stomachs. He can go all night.
  11. English poets love the word lithe. I’m not sure why, other than to prove they can enunciate without lisping. I don’t think Victorian English winter heating systems were well-ranked, and even in modern Minnesota we have our own personal erotic frissons with hands far from warm. Anyway, in Swinburne’s poem, the hands are “hotter than fire.” Let’s hope the beloved wasn’t chopping jalapenos in the kitchen before coming to bed.
  12. “Quivering flanks.” Good, someone’s having fun. “Hair smelling of the south.” In the mid-19th century Swinburne was living with William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti in a house in Chelsea just north of the Thames. Luckily for poetic romance, this was a few years after this smell that would have come from the south.
  13. Feet. Thighs. More skin. Swinburne may have had trouble describing it, but he knows it’s sexy.
  14. “Glittering eyelids of my soul’s desire.” The arrival of Mark Bolan is prophesized by Mr. Swinburne. Get it on! Bang a gong. Get it on!

The poem’s title may be an indication this is a dream or imagining. Those on the material plane could suggest it’s a report of the great lover Swinburne, post quivering flanks.

Now, can singing help this text out? That’s plausible, as song lyrics can escape close examination and play to Swinburne’s strengths in meter and rhyme.**** And absurdity and mutual laughter are not enemies of eroticism. I give you a testimonial, available with a player gadget below for some of you, or where that’s not seen, this highlighted hyperlink which will open a player in a new tab window so you can hear my performance of “Love and Sleep.”  A couple rough spots for the acoustic guitar track I had to throw down quickly, but I love the C# minor11 chord I throw in at the end, even if I don’t know what color its skin is.

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*By the 20th century Americans were much more straightforward with their name-branding. “Robert Frost” is the best name for that poet of New England’s cool stoicism. Ironic, what with the Anti-Semitism, but then what’s a better name for the poetic force that sought to revive the freshness of poetry’s texts, carefully weighing his words, than Ezra Pound. And for someone who would grow up to like the most honest poetry of the New York School, I can thank my family for Frank Hudson.

**As late as The Sixties, the anarchist and sex-very-positive  musical group The Fugs would perform a Swinburne poem just as they would perform Ginsberg and Charles Olson. Not suitable for the easily, or even not so easily, offended, The Fugs usually skipped the euphemism in their name, and as far as looseness in performance and vocal perfection they could make The Replacements sound like The Captain and Tennille. Don’t blame them, but they were a big influence on Dave and myself forming a band.

***Once again, I have to thank the Fourteen Lines blog for bringing this poem to my attention. This summer he’s had me look again at Joyce Kilmer, and now Swinburne. Well worth reading and following if you are interested in shorter poetry forms and expression. Like this project, Fourteen Lines doesn’t limit what they present to the poets they like the most.

****After all, pace Mr. Bolan: what the heck is “I’m just a Jeepster for your love” mean anyway? Did it seem exotic Americana to Marc? Just easier to scan than “I’m a Humbler Super Snipe for your love?” Perhaps, just as Paul  Éluard would have it, the beloved makes you “Speak without having a thing to say.”

Distance Blues (Theory)

Here’s another woman writing very compressed verse about life and love around a hundred years ago, during that last decade we called “The Twenties.” She’s Dorothy Parker, and you’ll often find her work filed under “humorist.” As I said a few years ago when first talking here about Parker, I suspect that classification tended to prevent her work being discussed as poetry.

Young Dorothy Parker

Let me extend Charles Mingus: If Dorothy Parker was a gunslinger, there’d be a whole lot of dead serious romantic poets

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That label, used to set humor aside from “important work,” like the idea that verse sung with music is unlikely to be real poetry, seems not just needlessly exclusionary, but ahistorical. The western classical canon didn’t make this distinction when the verse was in Greek or Latin. Maybe translation slows down the appreciation of the jokes in Catullus for example? Perhaps Parker’s real fault (other than being a woman who wasn’t publishing in poetry journals in this era) was in being seen as “only” a humorist, and one that tended to write, like several other popular female poets of her time, about the abundant absurdities in human romantic relationships.*

This April I finished my several-year serial-performance of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  a poem that wants to, indeed its innovative design is to, talk about a wide variety of things. Its middle part, like our middle parts, is very concerned with just such human miss-connections — but for good or ill that section is surrounded by an elaborate series of scenes time-adrift and spiritual that wear the mask of tragedy and religious/academic vestments. Does Eliot ever make you laugh at the absurdities? Well, there are a few sly jokes in it — but more in contrast, “The Waste Land”  is long, it’s elaborate, and for me it remains powerful assuming you can accept the way Eliot sung his suite of songs printed silent on paper. Is elaboration the superior art? You tell me. I think it has its powers, as does concision. Are we less likely to be moved or changed by laughter or tears? Again, you tell me, I don’t know.

Where is it that Parker fails if we are not to consider her short pieces, printed in glossy magazines as witty amusements, as actual poetry? Are her observations merely trite, just a chuckle the first time we hear them, and unrewarding beyond that? Does humor outdate faster than solemn meditations?

I’ll sing a couple, and you decide. Today’s audio piece is an old recording where I combined two Parker poems, “Distance”  and “Theory,”  with a bit of acoustic guitar blues feeling. Combining short pieces is a tactic taken by several of the Modernists of Parker’s era:** the idea is that short, epigrammatic poems can gain power if presented as a facet in a collection of other short verses. The player gadget will appear below for some of you, and if you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab or window to allow you to hear it.

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*Parker also ridicules patriarchal attitudes, which might have been minimized as mere jokes without consequence to assuage male privilege, but she’s also rough on some female-gendered behavior. This can be read by some as both-sides-ism, but maybe there’s also a reading that says it’s a more essential, radical critic of gender.

**I’ve been thinking about that tactic, used by poets Wallace Stevens, Alfred Kreymborg, Edgar Lee Masters, and others in the early Modernist era, and just now I recognized that the common practice of Blues singers of combining as series of floating or not directly related Blues verses has at least surface similarity. Perhaps this subconsciously led me to combining two Parker poems in my bluesy singing of them — but it could also be for a practical reason, one that may have obtained for some of the Blues singers: it made a piece out of shorter material that reaches a longer, desired length.

Mystery Baseball

OK, you’ve come to the place were music and words meet, and where the blogger never tires of drawing subliminal connections.

While writing yesterday’s post about the start of the baseball season, I began to think of American poet Phillip Dacey. Dacey grew up in T. S. Eliot’s hometown of St. Louis, though a few decades later. St. Louis was a town where if you wanted to watch great exciting baseball played in a brash and winning way you could watch the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards led their league 23 times and won 11 World Series titles over the years!

But, what if you didn’t care for any of that?

Well, you could watch the St. Louis Browns, a baseball team who never won the World Series, and whose play was so woeful in Dacey’s youth that their owner once sent a midget up to bat, not just to cheer up their meager fans, but in the sure hope that no pitcher could find the short crouching man’s epigram of a strike zone. Dacey once told me that getting into Browns games back then was easy for a kid, and I’ll add it was probably good for a future poet.

Eliot and Dacey

Looks like they’re going to call on a pinch hitter. Yes, here’s the announcer: “Now batting for Thomas Stearns Eliot, Phillip Dacey”

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That said, there’s no record if Eliot was a baseball fan before decamping to England, at least there are no real Eliot and baseball connections I can find from a quick search,* but due to that research I did read that Ernest Hemmingway, no fan of donnishness he, once slammed Eliot by saying “He never hit a ball out of the infield in his life.” But then watching baseball is not an athletic contest, anymore than watching bullfights and writing about it is. Literature isn’t about being able to get around on the fastball or launch angles off contact. Literature is about observing the material particulars of mysteries and being able to share that experience.

So, as evidence that watching a team lose in any way possible might be good for a poet, I’ll say that Dacey wrote a couple of good poems about baseball, and today’s piece is the one I remember the most. I heard him read it more than once, and since he was an excellent reader of his work one could open the question if it might have been his performance that sold the poem to me, so we’ll see today if it still works in my voice. If you’d like to read the text yourself, here’s a link to the poem.

In an interview later in his life, Dacey described how he came to write poetry:

In my mythologizing of that moment, I imagine the Angel of Poetry tapping me on the shoulder and saying, ‘Hey, Phil, you’re one seriously lost soul. Pick up a pen and write what I tell you. I’ve come here to save you.’  In short, I’m grateful to poetry for giving me the life I’ve had, and if I’ve worked hard at it over the years, it’s out of that gratitude, out of a wish to serve the art. Although my self-deprecating joke (but not entirely a joke) is that if I really cared about poetry, I’d quit writing it and just spend the rest of my life reading the poetry of the dead greats, who never have enough readers.”

Hmm. That last part sounds like a good idea, Phil. I wonder if…**

Ah, all these ideas, and now I’ve dropped the ball of trying to connect baseball and this Dacey poem with T. S. Eliot and “The Waste Land!”  OK, how’s this: when I return to Eliot’s landmark poem it’ll be in the section where Eliot’s narrator believes someone unknowable but sensed is near him in the Waste Land. Dare I say, not unlike the mysteries of the 10th baseball player somewhere on the field in Dacey’s poem?

Speaking of players: to hear my performance of Phil Dacey’s “Mystery Baseball”  some of you will be able to use a player gadget below. Is that player invisible to you? Well, as Eliot will have it, “There is always another one walking beside you” and that’s this highlighted hyperlink that can also play this performance.

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*Parodic verses and humor articles yes — but nothing documenting anything in Eliot’s actual biography. And I found a few baseball fans whose opening day shares the month of April with #NationalPoetryMonth breaking out the famous “April is the cruelest month…” opening to “The Waste Land.”  Not that I would be so desperate as to stretch for a connection like that! So, you will not find me expanding my reach to suggest that Madame Sosostris’ Cards are not but tarot, yet also Cardinals, and that “The Waste Land’s”  Gashouse gang by the smelly river is a prediction of the rough and ready Cardinals team that would rise in the ‘30s. Students reading this blog for homework help, don’t drop those last two into your papers on “The Waste Land.”

**If you’re a poet, you are going to read that hyperlinked Dacey interview aren’t you? Dacey was a great teacher, you’re missing your chance if you don’t. Near the end he writes about an idea for a “poetry jukebox.” May I suggest this project is one, and it doesn’t even require a coin to be dropped into the slot.

Genius by Mark Twain

Last time, American satirist Mark Twain took aim at the pretensions of half-hearted sentimental memorial verse. Today’s barbs for bards are from a younger Twain. The text is taken from what was apparently a journal entry written on shipboard in 1866, before Twain was established in his literary career. Elsewhere on the web “Genius”  is identified as a poem, and perhaps in manuscript that intent is clear—but when I first read it, I suspected it could be notes for something not yet finished, or even cue-phrases for a humorous lecture.

150 years and the mystery of what it is hardly obscure the points Twain makes. The alienated, self-pitying, and intoxicated artist, damaged by a feeble market that is itself a claim to their originality, is a type we can still recognize—even for some of us, in the mirror. In my performance I chose to bring forward what I think is some ambiguity in the piece. Twain never quite shows the work itself is a worthless affectation, while indicting the affectations around the artist specifically and wholeheartedly. Yes, the poet’s rhymes are said to be “sickly” and “incomprehensible,” heavy charges laid on them by those “with sense” who are not hip enough to appreciate the “genius.” Every single poète maudit* since would take those charges as badges of honor. I sense some mixed admiration for this stubborn guy who sensibly should take available steady work as a sawyer, but instead sticks to writing.

Mark Twain 1863

The pen name was still fairly new, and the ‘stache hadn’t yet leapt to his upper lip, but here’s the twenty-something Twain.

 

After all, Twain himself was not far from that state. He was not yet a successful writer. He hung out with a group of self-described Bohemians in San Francisco. He lived in his Twenties a fairly reckless and feckless life, fleeing to the west from Missouri to escape the Civil War and the draft, fleeing Virginia City for San Francisco to escape a duel occasioned by a slanderous article he had published, and this particular journal entry had him on a ship heading to Hawaii, leaving San Francisco. “No direction home, like a complete unknown…”

And all his life, Twain was two, a man who clearly wanted success and recognition, but whose writing and outlook was distrustful of established norms, propriety, and shibboleths.

If “Genius”  is notes for a talk and not an intended page-piece, it points out that Twain’s eventual career included substantial work as a speaker who told humorous stories. We have a name for that sort of work today: stand-up comedian. During his time out west Twain met and befriended Artemus Ward, a man who has since been called the first stand-up comedian. They met in the mining boomtown of Virginia City, and the story goes that after Ward’s performance, Twain took Ward on a drunken tour of the rooftops of the town. Given their state, the risk to American culture of such an intoxicated lark was in retrospect considerable, so perhaps we should thank the town constable who along with a shotgun filled with rock-salt, ended that escapade.

So, Twain lived to write his books and to skewer poetry. The player gadget to hear my performance of Mark Twain’s “Genius”  (whatever it is, or was intended to be) is below. Here’s the full text of “Genius” as is appears elsewhere on the web.

 

 

 

*Was Twain skewering a particular poet, or a type? Edgar Allen Poe, the American poet of his time who lived and sang the “songs of a poet who died in an alley” would be one candidate. And it could be in some part a reflection of persons in the West Coast bohemian scene he was sailing from.

Mark Twain takes on Poetry: Stephen Dowling Bots

I’m of an age when thoughts of death could be excused as more a present issue than a youthful goth affectation. Covid-19, that hit dirge of the summer that would play at every party were there every parties, amplifies that. But the gothic was similarly close at hand in the 19th century when untreatable disease and violence were more common. We still associate poetry with funerals—though I worry too that we can compartmentalize it there—but in the 19th century this was even more so. Real and imagined elegies were all the rage for poets at any level of talent and fame. From extensive demographic research I believe it may be true that just as high a percentage of 19th century people died as nowadays;* but it did seem the opportunistic occasion for poetic mourning was more extensive then.

Now Mark Twain, a satirist, loved subverting the expected, and so in the course of his novel Huckleberry Finn’s catalog of expected human behavior and good taste overwhelming a more rational ethic, he stopped to parody such memorial verse with this tale of romantic death that failed to be, well, romantic enough. In the novel this poem is written by Emmeline Grangerford, who is described as a young poet who rapidly cranked out memorial verse faster than any undertaker or supple lyric muse could keep up.

In today’s audio piece I give some of the story of Emmeline’s poetic endeavor from the novel, and then sing as a folk song of the sadful death of Mr. Bots using for lyrics the example poem of Grangerford’s Twain has given us. The full text of the poem is here.

What is said to be Mark Twain’s guitar still exists and has been acquired by a collector. Small size guitars like this were normal for the 19th century guitar market in America. (photo by Bianca Soros)

 

Today’s music is just acoustic guitar. Although I originally intended a more elaborate arrangement, I think just guitar suits it well. As I came to the decision for practical and aesthetic reasons, I was reminded that Mark Twain himself was a guitarist.** Just before leaving for the West Coast where he would make a name for himself as a writer, he bought himself a used Martin guitar.*** He says he played it for men and women in the newly founded boom towns, and on shipboard as he sailed hither and yon. Twain’s account says he sang along with the guitar, but I haven’t found any accounts of what his repertoire was. It could well have been a songster’s mix of popular tunes of the day and what we now call “folk music” and I could purpose he just might have slipped in a few originals. Since one can’t tell how Twain would have performed “Stephen Dowling Bots”  as a mournful song, I claim my attempt as “close enough for folk music.”

You can hear my reading of how Emmeline Grangerford’s poetry is introduced by Twain and the song made from her memorial poem with the player gadget below.

 

 

 

*I can present the statistical charts and tables for this startling claim when it’s ready for peer-review. A counterclaim is based on the data that many people in our 21st century are not, in fact, dead at this time. (emphasis mine)

**One of Twain’s sisters was a music teacher who taught piano and guitar. Both instruments were often thought of as women’s instruments in that era, to be played in middle-class home parlors for do-it-yourself culture and entertainment. The supposition that Twain’s sister taught Twain how to shred on his axe follows that tidbit.

***The famous American guitar making company was founded by a German immigrant Charles Frederick Martin in 1833 (a year that’s still featured on a Martin guitar’s label.)  The Twain guitar pictured here is said to be from 1835, which would make it a “birth year guitar” for Mark Twain. Some collectors today seek out vintage guitars that are coincidental with their birth year, but I doubt that was a thing in Twain’s time. Further clouding the picture, the design of this guitar (particularly the headstock) looks more like the guitars Martin made later in the 19th century, and not those made just after the company’s American start.

President Declares Poetry an Essential Service

In a sharp turn-about that shocked many in our nation’s capitol, the President today declared that poetry is an essential service that must remain open during the current pandemic emergency.

“People tell me, that may surprise you, but they do, they say, you know Mr. President your speech is very poetic. I’m told I’ve been compared to the great French poet Ubu Roi, and you know that’ll surprise a lot of the so-called elites who look down on the way I talk straight in several directions. And I hear that Andre Breton had some very good things to say about my campaign. That Andre Breton is a smart guy, and I hear he’s a doctor too, so it’s especially good to hear that he supports me these days.

Ubu Roi Performance

The President also demonstrated there are plenty of ventilators, tests kits, and protective masks and gowns available.

Now this is odd, because I’ve been involved in other things, but I think I could have been a poet if I’d wanted to. A great one. Maybe I didn’t because I don’t have a big ego like a lot of those poets do. Someone showed me some poetry today, and it didn’t seem to get to the most important things. It seemed to be mostly about the poet themselves. I don’t know if I could do that. But poetry seems to be like that, so maybe I could. I dunno—poets look to what I do, and do the opposite maybe.

Oh, some folks are telling me that I need to get back to the declaration. All right. As you know, our country is going through some tough times. Sometimes they are in little rooms, not fine rooms like this one here, or the ones that you could write in at my hotels or resorts by the way. Great rooms. Big ones, you could put a lot of poetry in there. Stuck at home, and I hear that some of them write and read poetry in those rooms. So, it’s an essential service to social distancing. Even in the earliest days of social distancing I’m told poets across the country were happy to comply with the earlier, looser crowd size regulations of 50 people—some of them even asked if the authorities could go further and require 50 people to attend their readings.

The declaration. It says here that:

Read poetry out loud, at full voice, often, until this emergency is over. It’s good for your lung function. Sad poems will tell you your sorrow is not all the sorrow in the world. Love poems will tell you there is an invisible web of desire as important as gravity. Poems of joy will make you leap like Carl Sandburg’s goats in pastures of plenty. Poems will turn your eyes inside out so you can see with another heart, and hear its strange burbling music.’

That’s the stuff here they want me to say, but I suggest you wait until after I’m done talking to start with the poetry. Oh, and this guy tells me it’s National Poetry Month. Yes, I think so. I hereby declare poetry an essential service today, and every April 1st.”

Reached for comment, Andre Breton suggested that he could not comment at this time, being dead and all. But he referred us to this section of his Surrealist Manifesto  as performed in English by the Parlando Project. He further added “Vous pouvez cliquer sur le gadget du lecteur ci-dessous pour l’entendre.”

Gacela of the Dark Death

Here’s a piece using a fresh translation I made this month of a Spanish poem by Federico García Lorca. I’m sure there’s much to say about Lorca from those that know his work better than I do. That group of Lorca admirers includes many other artists whose work I respect, so it’s about time to present something by him here.

I’m told that a Gacela is a traditional Spanish form, but that Lorca’s poem follows the form only in spirit. Because Lorca was executed during the Spanish Civil War, not long after this poem was written, some view it as reflecting his experience of the war, but I get the impression that death elements were present in Lorca’s work even before the war. While encountering this poem in order to translate and perform it, I came to believe there’s a compound commentary on human mortality and more here.

Federico_Garcia_Lorca

Federico García Lorca, a poet with open heart dreams

 

The poem opens and closes with a refrain that ends with a strong, bloody, and yet ambiguous last line carrying the image of a boy wanting to cut his heart. I chose not to overdetermine that image because I believe its ambiguity should remain. It could be an image of desire, or of self-harm, or emotional outreach—so let it be any or all of those things.

The middle portion of the poem, which I chant rather than sing, has a tone in my reading that has humorous elements, even if that seems to go counter to other readings of the text I found. When this section starts with what sounds like folk aphorisms about the dead, I take them as dark humor. In the next line “No quiero enterarme de los martirios que da la hierba” I decided for the only time in my translation to intentionally make the image stronger to American readers, by making the hierba, the grass, “leaves of grass” to connect to Whitman and his great image forged in the American Civil War. I can’t be sure, but I spent a long time on that stanza’s moon with a snake’s mouth image, “la luna con boca de serpiente” and what with the punch line about that mouth always working before dawn got me asking the question if this was a vampire image, which I decide to refer to sideways by determining that fangs were what serpent’s mouth means. Consistently in this stanza Lorca is giving us death images, but he’s also saying he doesn’t want to hear them.

I think the next stanza is meant to be humorous too, starting off with the wanting to sleep (perchance to dream?) for a moment to maybe as long as a  century—but “pero que todos sepan que no he muerto,” “let everybody know I’m not dead” as I translate it. Yes, like Hamlet he wants to compare sleep and death, but he’s playing with it. I’m at a loss if the “pequeño amigo del viento oeste,” “little friend of the west wind” is referencing something. It sounds almost like a children’s story or lullaby. I think this stanza’s concluding line is so wonderful that it transcends mood and attitude: “soy la sombra inmensa de mis lágrimas,” “I am the immense shadow of my tears.”

This stanza’s concluding line is so wonderful that it transcends mood and attitude: “soy la sombra inmensa de mis lágrimas,” “I am the immense shadow of my tears.”

The final chanted stanza before we return to the sung refrain also seems to me to be playing with death. Are we meant to take the insects here as accomplices of the grave’s earth? But this sounds like a boyish schoolyard dispute “He threw ants at me!” And what’s with the scorpion claw? As a northern North American I don’t deal with actual scorpions (hey, tropic readers, let me tell you about black flies…) but isn’t it the stinger that’s the weapon? I’m left wondering if there’s some idiom here that I just don’t know, even some kind of schoolboy pestering like unto a “noogie.”

And then the poem returns to a variation of the refrain, mysterious, beautiful, and I think serious. As to the intent of the poem, I felt I could perform the mystery and commit to the humor I found in the middle section without knowing the poem’s heart entirely. I think you can listen to it the same way. It is a darkly playful meditation on death? A comment on the outbreak and casualties of a civil war? Or is it a longing for childhood life and adventurous dreams? Or a love poem to a young man in Lorca’s life at the time the poem was written? Walt Whitman could sing all those things together, so why couldn’t Lorca?

I felt I could perform the mystery and commit to the humor I found in the middle section without knowing the poem’s heart entirely. I think you can listen to it the same way.

Musically, I sought to contrast the two refrain sections from the poem’s middle one. I was going to play my nylon string guitar for a Spanish flavor on this. Sadly, when I opened its case this week I found that its bridge had come completely off the top. Oh well, my battered Seagull Folk guitar had to stand in. My orchestration brings a bassoon part forward.

You can hear my performance of my English translation of Federico García Lorca’s “Gacela of the Dark Death”  with the player gadget below.