The Parlando Winter 2018-19 Top Ten part 3

Should I stop for a moment in our count-down of the most liked and listened to pieces this past winter to describe briefly what the Parlando Project is? After all, there are always new people coming upon this stuff.

What we do is take various people’s words, mostly poetry, and we combine them in various ways with original music. The music too is not one style. Sometimes we sing the words, but not always, or even usually. Sometimes we read them or chant them or talk-sing them. Singing gives a particular effect to the words, and though I admire many examples of art-song, including some examples that use the same texts that I’ve used, I think there are other facets of the poetry that can be shown with other performance styles.

I wish we had more modern or semi-modern poetry here, but very soon in this project I determined that the effort to obtain the rights to creatively engage with work still in copyright protection would reduce the amount of encounters we could produce.

Limits and restrictions often engender creativity though. I’ve found that being largely restricted to the pre-1923 public domain world still allows me centuries of material to pour over, and there seem to be a great many under-appreciated and forgotten writers to discover. A lot of what I end up using is work from the first part of the 20th century, the Modernists that established the world of literature we are still continuing and reacting to. It’s been fascinating to experience this early formative time of Modernism by adapting and performing their words.

Now let’s return to our countdown with numbers 4, 3, and 2 in popularity this winter. Yes, they’re all early-20th century Modernists. And one poet takes two slots in the countdown today.

4. A Winter’s Tale.  D. H. Lawrence is another novelist who was also a poet. In my youth he was probably better known for his novels, and their spicy rep in the mid-century world no doubt helped his youthful readership. I recall reading some Lawrence poems in the sixties and I remember liking them then, but I have to say that my interest in them didn’t continue. Now in this project, in this century, I’ve run into him again. The Imagists who kicked off British literary Modernism considered him one of them.

I liked this poem of his, even though I still can’t say for sure what’s going on in it, but we often can forgive that in the context of music and words. My musical setting for an early 20th century poem kind of took some small inspiration from the late 20th century music of Mark Hollis (of Talk Talk) who died last month.

 

D H Lawrence in Mexico 1923

D. H. Lawrence asks “Is that a Mexican poncho, or is that a Sears poncho?”

 

3. Gacela of the Dark Death.  Here’s another work that I translated into English myself for presentation here, a poem of passion and wit from Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. I actually first heard this poem as part of a project that attempted to do something like what the Parlando Project does: Joan Baez and Peter Schickele’s 1968 LP Baptism.  Baez read Stephen Spender’s translation of Lorca’s poem earnestly there, and the poem’s title would lead one to read it as sorrowful. As I translated Lorca’s Spanish I sensed a more playful and mocking attitude in some of the images, and my performance tries to bring that out from my translation. As part of conveying the emotional range of the piece, I sang the opening and closing sections while speaking the middle of the poem—an example of how singing and speaking words changes the experience of them.

 

Baptism back cover

Baez and Schickele do Parlando 51 years ago

 

 

2. Self-Pity. D. H. Lawrence again, but a different kind of poem from “A Winter’s Tale.”  Shorter, and superficially an Imagist poem, it so clearly makes its “no whining” point that it was once used in a film by a drill sergeant. Poetry that makes straightforward self-improvement/empowerment points was not that common in early Modernism, and it’s not the usual way to literary cred these days either. I’m not sure why that would have to be. There’s an audience that likes it, and the 19th Century revered some poets who plied lessons like this poem does, although usually with many more words and stanzas. My best guess is that artists, particularly now in an era when literary poetry is something of an outsider art, like novelty and rebelliousness too much to settle for earnest self-improvement.

Well, this poem isn’t one of my favorites, but you know something: I need its message some days as much as anyone. I may have worked extra hard on the music I wrote and performed for it to compensate for that.

 

So what will be the most popular piece from last winter? I’ll be back soon to reveal that.

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In a Station of the Metro

As we were going to school this morning, my son and I were listening to reports from the South by Southwest event in Austin this week. The guy on the radio was explaining that while SXSW has broadened over the years, it’s still the place to go for Alternative Music.

“I wonder where you go if you’re looking for an alternative to Alternative Music?” I asked out-loud. Not the most original thought, but I’ve never liked labels even though we all use them.

My son—who’s reminded me for several years now that he is not a Millennial—replied “Well, I only listen to lowercase!”

Proud of that boy.

Well of course, Alternative Music or Indie music, or whatever you call it isn’t really a Millennial thing. It’s more of an outgrowth of Generation X* in the last century. And that in itself was just the next name stuck on whatever Dave and I were doing 40 years ago when someone thought Punk was the label. And then, scratch-off the sticky paper from a Punk from those days and most likely you’d find someone who was once a young Hippie. And Hippies were just kids that Beats thought hadn’t wised up yet.

I don’t know all that much of what Ezra Pound thought of the Beats, but I recall in the 1950s Allen Ginsberg wrote Pound in St. Elizabeth’s hospital where he was serving his commitment as crazy, the alternative to his prison cage for WWII treason.**  Ginsberg later met him in 1967 and Pound sorta-kinda apologized for the—you know, anti-Semitism and stuff.

But back in 1913, before either world war, Pound was trying to figure out modern poetry in English. If it would be, what it should be. He had some materials to reuse: medieval vernacular poetry, classical Chinese and Japanese poetry, some of the modern French poets, and he wasn’t the only smith at the poetry-forge either, Brits T. E. Hulme and F. S. Flint were working at this too.

Late 19th Century English poetry tended to be enwrought in the cloths of heaven, lofty abstract metaphors and repetitions of what were considered the usual Romantic poetic sentiments. Those poems sounded poetic, sure, but were they? But if so much of that was thrown out, what would be left, what could replace that?

In such a mood, in such preparation, Ezra Pound stepped out of a subway station in Paris. Something in the urban crowd he saw there struck him and he wrote a modest 30-line poem that is unknown to you and me. Pound did not like his 30-line poem. It may have sounded poetic, it may have looked poetic, but it seemed false. He wrung out the false and the result was two lines, the famous Imagist poem “In a Station of the Metro”  that begins “The apparition of these faces…”

Young Ezra Pound bundled up

Ah dude, nice marmot! The young Ezra Pound

 

I’ve used an excerpt of an account that Pound published three years later about his experience and aims in creating “In a Station of the Metro”  to begin today’s audio piece. I sometimes think of Pound as gruff, inward looking, full of unusual words and quotes from various languages I do not speak, a portrayal of a learned hermit that both of us want to leave alone. But if I’m to take him at his word as he tells this story, he is the transit-riding 20-something Pound, struck by ordinary daily beauty and not wanting to betray it with ordinary poetry.

What do the 14 words of “In a Station of the Metro”  tell us? It’s spring—for tree blossoms, like Meng Haoran’s famous short Chinese poem, are the central image. Perhaps there’s been a rain-shower while Pound was in the subway. He climbs up the stairs and unexpectedly the faces in the street are not cast down out of the no-longer rain. Perhaps the sun is peeking through. They are beautiful without saying, as blossom flowers are. As blossom flowers are, some would have been knocked down by rain, some nourished, and none will be even spring-forever.

To hear my performance of Pound’s account of how he came to write it, followed by the poem itself, use the player below.

 

 

 

*Has anyone fully blamed Billy Idol for that name? Idol claims he took his first band’s name from a 1950s book, but conceptually I’ve always wondered if Richard Hell and his song “Blank Generation”  was the fountainhead.

**Pound had remained in Italy where he had settled before WWII. Enamored of various esoteric theories he thought congruent with Italian Fascism, he recorded radio broadcasts which were characterized as propaganda for the enemy during the war. Captured after the fall of Mussolini, he was at first imprisoned as a traitor in an outdoor cage.

A Winter’s Tale

When I first conceived of the Parlando Project several years ago I did not plan to analyze the poems I presented. My original vision was to present the combinations of music and words directly, unmediated.

I had several reasons, including that I didn’t think I was particularly good at that, but the chief reason was that I was worried that was too easily associated with the idea that poetry was some kind of tricky riddle meant to lock out it’s meaning from the unworthy, rather than a different way to approach how things are.

For every person who is satisfied by “solving” a poem, there are twenty-times more that find the effort not worth their time or attention, and a not unsubstantial number that have been found-out for bad readings, wrong guesses, and are shamed from ever making another attempt with poetry. Or for safety and comfort,  some readers will restrict themselves only to poetry that seems to reveal itself at first sight.

The experience of poetry as rote code-breaking or writing of it like a video game cheat solution, even if you find that sort of thing engaging and fun, reduces it. Constraining your poetry experience to easily-grasp aphorisms and reassuring sentiments also limits it.

Once in operation the Parlando Project didn’t follow my plan. If you’ve been reading the more than 300 posts here accompanying the audio presentations of poetry, you’ll have seen that most of the time I present some kind of explanation of what I think the poem means. How’d that happen? Mostly because I ask questions as I experience the poems, and then I think “Why not try to find an answer?” Those answers often delight me, and I can’t help but share them.

And maybe that’s just as well. Get the puzzle part, the explain part, out of the way and we can get on with the enjoyment of the word-music, the music-music, and the innumerable costumes, persons, and ways of speaking by which the poems come walking up to us.

Why introduce today’s piece, D. H. Lawrence’s “A Winter’s Tale”  like this? Because I can’t tell you what this poem of his means to me, at least not yet. For a moment I stopped myself and asked how I could perform or present this without knowing that.

If you’d like to see the whole text of the poem, you can view it here.

Lawrence, better known as a novelist, was also a poet published in the early Imagist anthologies, and this poem fits well into that new Imagist idea of how poetry should present things. Minnesota is covered by a couple of feet of snow at this point in our particular winter this February. The winter landscape Lawrence presents is vivid and rhymes with my experience.

English planter in early spring

Early spring in England, daffodils in the grass, flowers in planters…and then snow.

 

It’s the other character besides the poet/speaker/singer and the landscape that puzzles me. It’s only a pronoun, “she.” And what do we know of “she?” Female. Walks out in the deep snow, no mention that there is any accompanying her. “She’s waiting.” For what? We aren’t told directly, though the lovely line that describes her waiting “Impatient and cold, half sobs struggling into her frosty sigh” is both vivid and mysterious. England isn’t as cold in winter as Minnesota, but no sane and competent person goes standing out in the rural snow alone without some good reason. Well except for hunters, and my sane statement still stands. I did give some thought about the poem being a hunting story, but I can’t think of any English game that would be large enough to sob and sigh.

The last stanza only compounds the mystery for me. She’s “come so promptly.” Huh? Sounds like there’s more than a common-sense supposition that there must be a reason for her to be there. The poet/speaker/singer steps to her, and the poem concludes before it tells us, saying only the question “Why does she come, when she knows what I have to tell?”

I read one attempt to explicate this as the story of a woman who has come to meet her lover who is about to break up with her, keying partly off the line that says she’s come promptly though she knows that “she’s only nearer to the inevitable farewell.” I don’t have anything better myself, but I’m not buying that. Another says she’s death. I could go part-way for that, although then what’s she/death doing knowing about and being constrained by farewell? Death breaks up with us, we don’t break up with death!

Could she be winter? The poem’s opening says winter has just arrived or returned overnight, so there’s a link to the “promptly” remark. That gorgeous sobs and sighs line could be winter winds. If this is so, then what the poet/speaker/singer has to tell winter is that they know spring will inevitably come.

And so my appreciation for the mystery continues, it isn’t solved now, and it was far from solved when I performed this earlier this week, singing only the question, and thinking of Mark Hollis. It was intriguing to forget certainty as I sang lines of uncertain meaning, but I could grab onto their beauty and find emotional hooks in threads even if I couldn’t view the tapestry. My earlier experiences of this poem, particularly when heard aloud and formed in my voice, are no lesser than my experiences after questions and possible answers.

It’s my hope, as it has been since I started this Project, that you can do the same, and listen to the audio pieces (perhaps several times if you are intrigued) and let meaning and the emotions that surround it accrue in its own time, for your own self. The player gadget for D. H. Lawrence’s “A Winter’s Tale”  is below, and thanks for listening, it means so much to me.

 

Red Rooster

Here’s a poem and poet with a mystery.

“Red Rooster”  was written in 1917. It’s an Imagist poem, a good example of how this pioneering school of poetic Modernism might present things directly, without nearly as much scholarly allusion as later Modernism was prone too.

The same year this poem was written, its poet was published in Poetry  magazine, the beacon of mainstream American Modernism, alongside poems by Ezra Pound, Vachel Lindsay, and William Carlos Williams. Three years later the author had a collection published, containing over a hundred poems. Poetry’s editor, Harriet Monroe, speaking from her post-WWI maps-being-redrawn time, called that book “This miracle” and “A richer promise for the new age than may be read in treaties and decrees.”

Other reviews? That book-length collection had a forward by Imagist Amy Lowell who said of the work:

When one reads a thing and voluntarily exclaims ‘How beautiful! How natural! How true!’ then one knows that one has stumbled upon that flash of personality which we call genius.”

So, immense promise, now an assay of genius—though Lowell also cautions that within the collection “Inadequate lines not infrequently jar a total effect…” That first book went through at least seven printings and two other poetry collections followed shortly thereafter.

Go ahead, drop down to the bottom and listen to “Red Rooster”  now. It’ll be interesting to encounter it before you know more about the author.

Red Rooster

Willie Dixon & Howlin’ Wolf said ”No peace in the barnyard, since the little red rooster been gone.”

 

 

Who was the author, the poet with the mystery attached? Hilda Conkling. How come you (likely) haven’t heard of her? Well, we discussed “Donald Hall’s law” here last year. Hall said that most poets, even most poets who win awards and are published in the usual ways, are forgotten by 20 years after their death. There’s that. And Conkling had a short career, no more new poems from her after 1924, though she lived until 1986. But here’s the most significant reason: Conkling wrote “Red Rooster”  when she was seven, her first collection was published when she was ten, as her output was already dropping off, and she gave up creating poetry entirely at age fourteen. A teenaged poetic legend like Arthur Rimbaud would be Sophocles writing Oedipus at Colonus  in comparison.

Both Lowell and Monroe considered Conkling’s age, and both thought the case of Hilda Conkling might tell us something about childhood and poetic genius. The case for pre-adolescent children creating art has been argued a great deal since then. Art critic Herbert Read encouraged thorough arts education for school-children in the 1940s. Kenneth Koch taught classes where children were exposed to poetry and urged to write it. Koch wrote a couple of books to encourage this in the 1970s, and by that time the idea of arts for children was spreading out generally. In the early 1980s Dave Moore and I had heard so much of this that Dave (raising a precocious Hilda-aged child himself at that time) wrote an LYL Band song called “Kids”  where the indignant child artists claimed, “we’re the natural poets, so shut up…” But despite that subsequent educational movement, Hilda Conkling is still a strange case: she started at age four, by the story, spontaneously, not as a pre-school exercise. Her father left Hilda’s mother around the same time, and Hilda told her mother that she’d composed a poem, which she then recited to her as a gift. The poems over the next decade followed the same process. Hilda’s mother was a writer and college literature professor who had exposed Hilda to books and music from an early age. One assumes Hilda learned to write later in childhood, but she would always recite each new poem to her mother, who would write them down.

Your first thought may be same as mine, that Hilda’s mother composed or helped to compose the poems. That’s possible, even probable, though the mother denied this, and said Hilda was always careful to correct any mistaken transcriptions. Amy Lowell deals with the issue by pointing out the childish elements in some of the poems as proof that they were genuine. But that speaks not at all to the idea that the mother improved or regularized the poems, or that some poems, even if they had a germ of an idea from the daughter, had elements that the literature professor mother further developed. It’s not hard to imagine an aiming-to-please daughter accepting some of what the mother transcribed and read back to her, even if it wasn’t what she had said, because she liked her mother’s changes, or didn’t want to disappoint or displease her.

The other accepted plot point in this story is that Hilda’s mother asked Hilda to write down her poems herself as Hilda turned 14, and then Hilda’s poetry stopped. That argues for the importance of the collaboration both as motivation and as conscious or unconscious editorial assistance. There are theories that Hilda may have had a disability which made writing her poems down difficult for her, but no additional life-evidence is offered to indicate that. The suggestion that Philistine and patriarchal society may have pressed the creativity out of the child has been offered. No one seems to have considered that Hilda might have continued to write poetry after age 14 but kept it to herself (a not-uncommon teen-age practice).

So much to wonder and doubt in this story—but we’re left with the best of the Conkling poems, such as “Red Rooster.”  Could what’s good in it be unintentional? In the opening observation of the rooster, the metaphors have just the right taste (comparing the irradiance of the bird’s feathers to wet rocks and to boat hulls seen through water). The poem’s turn and development in the last few lines seems even more remarkable. The rooster as symbol of masculinity is time-honored, but we’re ¾ way through the poem before we leave objective and immediate observation to have the rooster characterized as both proud and foolish, and foolish like unto Joseph leaving his family with his “coat of many colors.” The concluding couplet is just great poetic invective. Did a seven-year-old write that, intuiting not just the nature of the conflict in her home, but a vibrant, time-resonating metaphor for it? Was Hilda a 20th Century Mozart, or a prolific creator that sometimes landed a lucky strike? Or was it help from a wronged-by-a-man ghostwriter/mom? As a reader I don’t care. “Red Rooster”  doesn’t read as unintentional, as a random combination—but then again, we readers are great pattern-seers, as anyone who’s worked with things like automatic writing or cut-up discovers.

My best guess is collaboration, a child and an adult seeing and sharing the world together. That, like this poem, could be extraordinary too.

Here’s my performance of “Red Rooster.”  Give a listen to it with the player below.

 

 

Walter de la Mare’s Winter

I know nothing interesting about the life of Walter de la Mare—other than he was a successful writer in poetry and prose for roughly half of the 20th century*. There appear to be no interesting movements or manifestos to tie him to, and though his lifetime corresponds roughly to those 20th century Modernists I often like and present here, he’s not considered one of them.

Famous British Authors Willis Trading Cards

20th century British authors who got trading cards in cigarette packs level fame.

 

Certainly, his poetry doesn’t sound or look like Modernist verse. It’s frankly musical, and supple yet regular musical verse of his type is not that easy to write in English. Modernists took up with free verse for a number of reasons, partly because they were likewise enamored of the wider and more fanciful rhythms of Modernist music and visual arts, and because they wanted to explore new ways of relating reality, and the tight and formal clothing of metrical forms and rhyming seemed to restrict their range of movement.

There were folks with a Modernist sensibility who worked in rhyme and more regular metrical forms. Early Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay did. Frost in particular is often writing Imagist poetry with fresh, plain diction that rhymes in the era when his fellow Modernists were immerging.

Today I use a short poem of de la Mare’s, “Winter,”  and the first thing that struck me about it is the word-music. Every line rhymes, and with perfect, not partial rhymes. Though de la Mare uses common rhyming words, the poem seems effortless, there are no lines that seem twisted to make the rhyme. But notice something else about “Winter:”  the way it treats its matter, as opposed to its music—that’s close to the Imagists credo. It directly shows a winter scene. The opening lines “And the robin flew/Into the air, the air,/The white mist through;” are solidly in the Imagist mode. That opening “and” making sure we know this is an immediate experience. The entire second stanza too is Imagist through and through. Nothing is “like” anything. This is a real, immediate scene, and we stay there. The robin** flying through white mist is a bird flying through white mist, not a mere symbol, a counter for something else. Frozen bushes waver in the slight breeze casting varying reflections from the new rising moon or last sunlight. Yes, what we are apprehending through the poet has connotations, has feelings that will be invoked, but we aren’t told by the writer what they are, he assumes we’re capable of forming those ourselves.

Only in the ending stanza does de la Mare break the rules of pure Imagism. In his last two lines he personifies a speaking star or cardinal direction which speaks the final line. For me this works largely because this contrasts with the rest of the poem. If instead, de la Mare had started with talking stars giving us messages in so many words and continued in that vein through the poem with bushes and birds telling us what the poet wants them to say, the impact of the conclusion would be lessened, and the poem would be trying to work, not just sound, in the old way.

Musically, I unabashedly say I like what I did for this one. The piece began for me with the guitar part, which I was going to play on acoustic guitar, but my family came home early and there’d be no chance to record that with an open sensitive mic, but then many acoustic guitar parts translate well to the Telecaster which I substituted. The bass guitar part is unusual in that it’s played entirely on open strings, a sound that the instrument is rarely allowed to use. But it’s the orchestral parts which really pleased me. There’s a bunch of tracks here combining “real” strings played via a virtual instrument with a somewhat overdriven Mellotron violin mixed in there which brings the string section some grit***. I gave a top line part to an English horn. Use the player just below this to hear my performance of Walter de la Mare’s “Winter.” 

 

 

English Robin in Winter

English robin showing its all-weather operational capabilities

 
*I recall reading some of de la Mare’s ghost stories decades ago, but I hadn’t really considered his poetry until I was reminded of that by Toby Darling, who does a lovely job of writing and playing music to sing many de la Mare’s poems to.

**Residents such as I who live in the Northern parts of the U.S. may be surprised that de la Mare has a robin in his winter scene. The American robin is a different species, which migrates south for the winter, and as such the robin here has a strong symbolic association with spring. English robins stay put. The same name for different North American and European species could lead one to read some promise of spring that de la Mare didn’t intend in his poem, in the same way that Robert Frost’s American winter hemlock branch may not have been a Socratic hemlock branch. Anyway, both robins have a bright red-orange breast, which even though de la Mare doesn’t state it, adds a dot of color to the white mist flight.

**The Mellotron was an early, primitive attempt to do what modern “virtual instruments” do. Typically, if a virtual instrument wants to present a “real” violin it will sample a violin playing various notes, and the notes as well with a variety of articulations which are stored and organized as digital audio files to be played later. The 1960’s Mellotron had a simple tape strip of a violin playing a note in one legato articulation assigned to each key of an organ-style keyboard. The former can sound strikingly realistic if care is taken to make use of the various articulations (vibrato, marcato, pizzicato, etc.) while the later sounds artificial despite the tape strips being conceptionally the same. Of course, “artificial” is a state of mind, and the close-but-not-quite sound of a Mellotron instrument always reads as “England” to my ear due to it use on many 1960s and ‘70s recordings by English groups.

Fog

I’m going to take a break from my Dave Moore series today, if only because I rather like this piece I’ve been working on and want to present it to you.

“Fog”  is likely the most well-known poem by Carl Sandburg without Chicago in its title, and it appears in many school textbooks where it serves as an introduction to metaphor. The Carl Sandburg who wrote it didn’t intend it to be a lesson. I think he wanted to write a Modernist, Imagist poem, the way a small group of others were writing them in the era roughly 100 years ago.

One thing I’ve learned searching out pieces for this project was that Modernism in its High Modernism guise has overtaken the work done by those preceding Imagist pioneers. As those who’ve visited here during cruel April Poetry Month will know, I enjoy somewhat those knotty, learned, collaged and college-ruled works that T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland laid out. And World War I, we should not forget, was a terrible disaster with near untellable loss of life and loss of hope for its generation. WWI probably had to change things. The Carl Sandburg who wrote his early Imagist poems went about his pre-WWI world with an open heart and open eyes. In his poetry and in his political writing there’s a panorama of evil and survival, loneliness and stubborn love.

So, to reduce “Fog”  to a lesson on metaphor is to amputate that context, and to forget the Imagist quest to renovate entirely metaphor as it had been received by Sandburg’s generation. Imagist poems often wanted to break through the fourth wall of metaphor, to make it more than an a decorative, this stands for that, analogy. “Fog”  is fog, and the cat is a cat. Yes, they have meaning beyond that, all reality does.

You could start by asking yourself, if this is a real cat then, what kind of cat is it?

A house pet, one used to demanding the pricey wet food and best place on the dry, warm bed? No, it’s on the docks. It could be a ship’s cat, a fellow laborer, or a feral cat making do with what it can find there. It can’t call attention to itself for its prey and its own risk, and so it’s silent—and like its life and labor, obscured by the fog, by the cat’s own actions and the actions of the world. Sandburg sees his worth to see that.

Carl Sandburg at the machine of his labor

Carl Sandburg at the machine of his labor.

That’s an Imagist poem, a direct presentation of reality, with no false rhymes of conventional or show-off imagery. There’s love and respect in it too, for the working common of us, singing the insubstantial and all-covering fog of our lives and labor, that save for the notice of the poet or artist, is silent and then moves on.

That, dear readers and listeners, is why you should pay attention to Carl Sandburg, who’s nearly fallen out of the cannon of important Modernists and consideration as an important poet, who is, I tell you, as you are, more than an example of metaphor.

Remember back to the formation of the LYL Band were we self-labeled ourselves as “Punk Folk?” Given that folk music by definition doesn’t ask for certifications or approval to be performed, that was something of a tautology. It occurs to me that what I’m doing here with pieces like this, using a string quartet I play part by part along with two pianos (one electric) and a drum set could be Punk Orchestral. My string parts are extraordinarily simple, like unto a lot of downstroke strums of power chords in some Punk.

Decades back, the Pixies helped popularize the Punk soft/loud arrangement, but of course orchestral music did it OG before them, and I exploit that in this one. Some other incidental ideas that helped steer me in this piece came from reading some recent posts at the Brettworks blog, where a more trained and accomplished composer talks about some of his processes and inspirations. Specifically Brett was talking about creating a piano part that had enough space where the various notes could have enough time to express their decay trails. Musically, this piece started by exploring that idea, but then the string quartet decided to kick out their jam.

I peform Sandburg’s words like a stalking cat hunts, sliding forward and stopping, then slipping forward again before pouncing.  To hear this, use the player gadget below.

Crushed Before the Moth

Increasingly, I am comprehending the miracle of Emily Dickinson. Fifty years before Ezra Pound and T. E. Hulme constructed a compressed modern poetry replacing conventional imagery with fresh and direct observation, a woman in a rural town in the woods of Massachusetts had already practiced their innovations over a thousand times.

Through a series of happy accidents, Dickinson’s poetry was preserved and published at the end of the 19th Century, just before the Imagists launched their Modernism—but even then, she was still like one of those unexploded bombs dug up by a construction crew decades after the war. Even after publication, the framing of her poetry still obscured it. Her posthumous editors cleaned up her punctuation and gave the poems titles, and on the page they looked so normal. As these were poems by an Emily, they were clearly the work of a woman, and so they were read as women were generally understood, even when not pressed between the boards of a poetry book. And Dickinson herself designed her poems to draw you in with their modest length, their frequent use of pious hymn meters and stanzas, their homey rhymes. Even into my mid-20th Century lifetime, it was perfectly possible to be aware of Emily Dickinson’s poetry and not be awed.

“Hey Joe, there’s a big chunk of metal buried way down in the mud! Here, listen when I give it a bit of a whack with my pipe wrench…”

UXB2

They still run across stuff like this from WWII around Europe. Decades old, and they can still go “Boom!”

 

Some early 20th Century Modernists looked more closely, and maybe saw some of what was there. Carl Sandburg straight-out called her an Imagist in a poem. I am unaware of how much attention the other early Modernists gave to Dickinson, but just on a promotional level, it might not be advantageous to talk much about poems written decades ago when your brand is “Make it new!” Remember too how Pound jabbed at Walt Whitman in his tribute poem: Walt Whitman you were a hacker out there in some unharvested forest, I’m a fine wood-carver able to bring out the finest detail. Dickinson’s near-rhymes and loose but familiar meters may have been read as imperfections to Modernism.

It took the last quarter of the 20th Century for Emily Dickinson to finally be seen, and we are still seeing more now as we look closer. What if, back in the mid-19th Century when Dickinson was creating this unprecedented expression, one had been able to talk with her about it? The value of writers’ groups, seminars, and MFA programs is not universally acknowledged, but most think these things at least have some effect on those who participate.

It just so happens, that occurred. Dickinson’s letters to Thomas Higginson give us some of her ideas, but as I read that correspondence I see Dickinson adopting masks, some playfully, some for protection. And Higginson, as varied as he was, was not, as far as I know, a poet, and therefore there was no chance that he would use Dickinson as a model for his own writing. But Dickinson’s long-time friend, neighbor, and sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson was a writer who dabbled in poetry.

Susan Gilbert Dickinson

Like Emily, Susan Gilbert was smart, was allowed some access to education, and wrote poetry

 

No other person saw as much of Emily Dickinson’s poetry while she was still alive as Susan. It’s also probable that no other person other than Emily Dickinson’s sister Lavinia (who seems to have had no artistic interests) was as intimate with the author. There is even speculation that there was an erotic bond between Susan and Emily. Besides the pant, pant passages in the letters between them, Emily praises Susan’s intelligence and cultural companionship. Given what must have been the loneliness of Emily Dickinson’s creative innovation, amplified by the cultural limitations for women in her time, we may all owe a debt of gratitude to Susan Gilbert in helping sustain Emily Dickinson.

Today’s piece uses a poem by Susan Gilbert Dickinson that shows some of the same elements one finds in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Given that the prolific Emily Dickinson experimented with her expression, if “Crushed Before the Moth”  was slipped into some complete poems of Emily Dickinson volume it would not seem entirely out of place.

What elements of “Crushed Before the Moth”  are Dickinsonian? A short line length (six syllables, though not Emily’s familiar 6/8/6/8 hymn stanza). Alternating rhymed lines with unrhymed, though here first and third not second and fourth, and the rhymes are all perfect rhymes except the final “moth.” Even the use of a Bible verse (Job 4:19) is not unprecedented in Dickinson, who though a religious dissenter, was steeped in a Christian religious culture.

The poem begins, just as many of Emily’s poems will, with a close observation of nature. In Job, the moth is only a passing metaphor, in Susan’s poem it’s an actual moth, looked at closely enough to see the texture of its body in the evening. The moth is treated here as an Imagist would. It’s not some intellectual counter, a rote symbol only standing for something else, but an actual animal in an actual evening. The second stanza continues in the same vein, the moth the morning after, though with more characterization.

The concluding three lines, though they contain the only Emily-like slant rhyme, are the least like Dickinson’s poetry. That kind of envoi ending with a clear and orthodox moral lesson is not something Emily would write in her mature poetry, and the “Is this thy stronger host” line sounds unnatural and stilted.

Still, this might be the first poem ever written that imitates Emily Dickinson’s strengths and innovations. That Susan Gilbert Dickinson was a more orthodox Christian than her friend, and like all of us, not the genius that Emily Dickinson was, doesn’t keep her “Crushed Before the Moth”  from being an effective poem.

I’m back to acoustic guitar for today’s performance of this piece, which is available using the player below.