Yeats’ Coat

Let me briefly slip, Wordsworth-like, into reverie, and note that “Oft, when on my couch I lie in vacant or in pensive mood…” I turn to the vast daffodilian array of scanned material available from a brief Internet search. I’d been thinking about Irish poets after reading this exchange between poets Ann Grá and Sean Thomas Dougherty.  Grá asked “What’s the best way to improve one’s active writing vocabulary?” Dougherty’s answer? “Read Irish poets. Everything will improve. Including life.” Irish poets mentioned — and William Butler Yeats enters the chat. You may have noticed that I led-off last time by remembering a Yeats poem about a friend whose work has come to nothing. This all entered into seeking another Yeats poem to perform this week. I came upon this one. Poetry workshop devotees, note that I read it even though it has just about the most generic title imaginable: “A Coat.”

But here’s the neat thing: I was able to read it in its first American publication, situated exactly with added meaning and context in a scanned copy of a 1914 number of Harriet Monroe’s Chicago-based Poetry  magazine. Poetry,  the magazine, was fairly new. Yeats reputation was well-established — so publishing a tranche of new Yeats poems was likely “a get” for Monroe rather than a breakthrough for an emerging poet. With rhyming coincidence, the selection of 11 Yeats’ poems begins with that one from last time “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing,”  and ends with today’s: “A Coat.”   These poems are followed by a short editor’s note from Monroe who writes of the resistance from cultured readers to the Modernist verse her less than two-year-old magazine had received, singling out the objections to Carl Sandburg’s Chicago poems* she’d published. Then as I read the scanned magazine, and without even a page-break, the indispensable English-language Imagist Mephistopheles, Ezra Pound, pops up from the hellmouth trap-door with a review of Yeats new verse.

Then, as often now, what sits on the page as if it’s an objective bit of selected poetic criticism is really an insider comment from those who already know each other in some way.** Pound reviews “A Coat”  specifically in his piece, just a few pages past the poem’s American unveiling. “Is Mr. Yeats an Imagiste?” Pound is rhetorically asked. “No,” Pound answers himself, “but he has written des Images as have many good poets before him.” In writing here about Yeats then current poetry Pound praises the directness of style and unfussy language and syntax the Irish poet is now using. He mentions that Yeats’ earlier poetry with a more 19th century music and setting has attracted followers and imitators in their now 20th century, but perhaps the imitators miss some of its vitality — so much so that Pound wonders if the reader would “Rather read Yeats in the original” than these bad copies. Pound’s conclusion? “I’ve not a word against the glamour as it appears in Yeats’ early poems, but we have had so many other pseudo-glamours and glamourlets and mists and fogs since the nineties that one is about ready for a hard light.”

So, why do Irish writers have something to teach us other English speakers about using our language. First off, as a colonized and exploited country, they may look at the language from a critical parallax. If it’s the language of your colonizer, your oppressor, you may want to ask what English words should  do, and you have reasons to be warry of what they can  do.***  And I have a second idea, less fully-formed, that the whole mists and fogs of Celtic folklore, to which Yeats added his own caldrons of turn-of-the-20th-century magic and occult stuff, offer a conscientious poetic distiller a chance to speak the shades of the ineffable vividly in their poetry because their folkloric traditions and magikal folderol have already saturated their personal needs for glamorous elaboration. Other poets embroidered robes, either traditional or ceremonial, will get caught in such, but if one can escape, you have the contrast of a new clarity. This clarity is different — you have the experience of having worn the long robe, and now the new Eden.

Adam-Eve

Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, then Adam explained plant-based couture  Eve wonders why she suddenly knows the Latin genus Toxicodendron.

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Today’s performance of Yeats’ “A Coat”  has music for solo acoustic guitar, something that I’ve fallen back to often this past summer. The final guitar performance turned out to be an exercise in the various timbres I could pull from the guitar. The tuning and chord voicings used had several two and even three-string unisons which resonate and sustain, and then some contrasting pizzicato muted notes. You can hear it with a player gadget below — or if you don’t see that, with this backup highlighted link.

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*Reading Monroe’s 1914 account reminds me of just how alien Sandburg’s poetry must have seemed to an early 20th century ear. To my 21st century ear and mind, I can more easily find the music in it, and I treasure now his Imagist “direct treatment of the thing” being applied to ordinary life, workers, immigrants, and the cultural powers that obfuscated that with elaborate English language.

**The American Pound and the Irish Yeats were both in London at this time. It’s likely that Pound himself was the conduit by which the new Yeats poems found their way into Monroe’s magazine. London then was the locus of the new Imagist ideals which stressed simplicity. Poets who wrote primarily in metrical and rhymed forms then, such as Yeats, Frost, Hardy, and Edward Thomas absorbed or resonated with this new, fresh, directness as a poetic effect.

***Though for various reasons this project has limitations on using modern English-language poetry, it strikes me that contemporary American poetry benefits from similar parallaxes. I was going to supply a catalog of those groups who know English as having been used as the language of an oppression, but it occurs that anyone who’d go with this thought can already supply their own catalog.

The most popular Parlando Project piece for spring 2022

One unusual thing I did this spring to celebrate National Poetry Month was to re-release 31 pieces from the early years of this project. This was a way, despite reduced time and opportunities to create new pieces, to still celebrate and demonstrate the various poems and music combinations of the Parlando Project.

That April batch does show something of the range of words I’ve used. Famous poets? Shakespeare, Dickinson, Yeats, H.D., William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Frost, Pound, Millay, Cummings, Eliot, Sandburg. Foreign poets less known in America than in their native countries? Edward Thomas, Tristan Tzara, Du Fu. Afro-Americans less-known to their fellow Americans: Fenton Johnson, Raymond Dandridge, Jean Toomer, Anne Spencer.

As part of this April celebration, I spent more time that I thought I would creating “lyric videos.” I figured I would just put in a couple of pictures in a video file and place the words to the poems on the screen in time with their appearance in the music, but they got a little more elaborate.

How popular were they? It doesn’t look like YouTube counts as views any plays of those videos from the inside-the-blog-posts thumbnail images, but it does count those who found them on YouTube itself. Given that sub-set it does count, the most popular of the April Poetry Month videos was our Parlando version of Yeats’ “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.”   No surprise there: William Butler Yeats’ poetry is welcome to so many ears around the English-speaking world. If I was to look at most viewed posts (a metric I don’t use in these Top Ten lists) four out of the top ten most viewed posts so far this year are concerning Yeats’ poems. Yeats is a Poetry’s Greatest Hits poet.

The most listened to and liked piece this past spring was an Irish poem, but it wasn’t by Yeats. It was one of the April Poetry Month re-releases though, “Night, and I Traveling”  by too-little-known Belfast-born poet Joseph Campbell (who also published under the name Seosamh MacCathmhaoil).

I’m partway through a biography of Campbell that was an Anniversary gift from my wife. From it I’m getting more of a sense of the young man who wrote this poem — a poem which is remarkable not just for its tightly compressed and effecting scene, but for being published in 1909 so that it might be counted not just as the work of the first Irish poet to use free verse, but also as one of the earliest published examples of Imagism. It wasn’t until 1913 that F. S. Flint and Ezra Pound published their A few Don’ts by an Imagiste”  and laid out the three famous Imagist suggestions/rules, but before that in London Flint, Pound, and T. E. Hulme had been working out how to radically strip back poetry to a fresh, precise, and direct essence in the months before Campbell published “Night, and I Traveling.”

Night and I Traveling

The chord voicings I used for the 12-string guitar part here are bit unusual.

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I now know that Campbell was in London and meeting with those incipit Imagists in that first decade of the 20th century. Alas I don’t know how junior a partner he was in their meetings, but “Night, And I Traveling”  is to my judgement as fine an early Imagist poem as the more famous and anthologized ones, arguably a more worthy example because of its empathetic attention to the isolated rural woman in a still-colonialized Irish hut in place of Pound’s  damp impressionistic leaf-faced Paris Metro riders published four years later.*   The biography, Joseph Cambell Poet & Nationalist   by Norah Saunders and A. A. Kelly, reminds us that Campbell liked country walks at night. Campbell wrote: “Night walking — all my best thoughts, I find, come to me that way. Poetry, like devilry, loves darkness.” Devilry? Campbell did write some of the supernatural, and would mix Christian and pagan mythologies —but in this one, this night, he stays in our earthly plane. Am I reading too much into the poem to note the poem’s only simile has the lone woman crooning “as if to child” when there is no child depicted? Is that child dead? Or perhaps emigrated to America?


Not as popular as Yeats on YouTube, but here’s the “lyric video” I did for this piece

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You can hear my performance three ways. The “lyric video” is above, an audio player gadget should be below, and this highlighted link is a backup for those ways of viewing this blog that won’t show the player. Thanks again for reading about these encounters and listening to our combinations of music and words.

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*Make of this connection what you will: Pound and Campbell would both eventually be imprisoned by their own countrymen for acts during wartime.

Spring 2022 Parlando Top Ten numbers 10-8

It’s time to look back at the last quarter and see what pieces were the most liked and listened to during those months. I released (or re-released) 51 pieces since March 1st here, more than enough to return to our regular multi-post Top Ten countdown format, so let’s present numbers 10 through 8 today as we move toward the most popular one this spring. As usual, the bolded titles are links to the original post in case you’re new here and want to read what I said when I first presented them.

10. “Blackberries” by Kevin FitzPatrick.  Kevin, who died last year, was a contemporary and fellow poet to Dave Moore and myself, and this charming poem about his early experiences as a life-long urban dweller (and reader of Irish poetry) getting used to his life partner Tina’s small rural farm is a fine addition to our Top Ten today. This audio performance is a live take, and in honor of our mood of remembrance that day, I decided to leave our longish instrumental prelude in place for the version you heard here.

This poem was often a highlight when Kevin would read it, displaying his dry wit. I read it a little differently than Kevin might, but of course Kevin isn’t here to do that anymore. I will leave a reminder that Kevin’s poetry collections are available through this link run by his people.

The player gadget to hear the performance is below for many, and this highlighted link is a backup way to play it.

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9. Sonnet To Beauty by Lola Ridge.  While reading Lesley Wheeler’s new book about encountering poems in the context of one’s life, Poetry’s Possible Worlds,  I was pleasantly surprised to find some poems there from modern New Zealand poets. If I had world enough and time, I’d like to be even more various here with the countries’ poets I present, even though most of what I know about New Zealand is from scholarly works: The Flight of the Concords and Wellington Paranormal.   Despite sharing a name with an Australian settler poet, I’ve only presented a couple of emotionally riveting and under-known poems by Australian Modernist Kenneth Slessor as part of the Parlando Project — and what, not a single New Zealander? Oh, wait. There’s Lola Ridge. Ridge was born in Ireland in 1873, moved with her family as a preschooler to New Zealand. After a brief marriage, she left for Australia and then finally to America where she spent most of her life, though her early poetry does reflect her times in the Antipodes.

“Sonnet to Beauty”  is likely one of those poems. Though Ridge soon became known early in the 20th century in the US as a staunch advocate of social reform and radicalism as well as knowing and interacting with many of the NYC area early 20th century Modernists, “Sonnet to Beauty”  is a regular sonnet about the radical appeal of the artistic life — even while life may present buzzards misapprehended as if swans. Ridge lived that twin social and artistic radicalism thoroughly from most short accounts I’ve read.

When I presented Ridge’s poem this March it was easy for me to pair that twinned dedication with another contemporary of Dave, Kevin, and myself: Irish-American poet Ethna McKiernan. Ethna died this past winter. Yes, somedays it’s hard to see the swans instead of the certain buzzards.

Same deal, player gadget if you see it, highlighted link if you don’t.

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Kevin Lola Hilda

The 3 poets whose words I use today: tilt, tilt, and look away. The light turns a buzzard out a swan?

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8. The Pool by H. D.   I said, re-released above, and here’s the story. Roughly a third of the listeners to this project’s audio pieces never read the posts I put up about my encounter with the poems or any thoughts I write on composing and realizing the original music. Instead, they find the recordings via podcast directories where I present only the musical pieces without the usual talking and joking that fills the running time of most podcast presentations. Having seen radio production done at a high level close-up for a couple of decades in my day-job life, I suppose I could have attempted a talking pod show about music and poetry — but if only for myself I see an appeal of these 5 minute or less podcasts that might serve as a palate cleanser between main courses of talk-talk-talk.

I’ve noticed that some of my most popular early episodes, ones that racked up a lot of listens in the early years of this Project, had rolled off the “last 100 episodes only” offering lists of most podcast directories, and so for April’s National Poetry Month I decided to “re-release” 30 of them. Even for the blog readers like you, I think many of them would be new to current readers here as well. Coming in at number 8 this Spring then is early Imagist Hilda Doolittle’s “The Pool,”  a mysterious very-short poem about a tidal pool encounter. It’s so short and compressed that even at one and a half minutes of run time I had to creatively elaborate the text a bit to reach that length. I rather like the music I composed and realized for this little piece. A lot of listeners did too.

See a player gadget? You can use it. Otherwise, this highlighted link plays it too.

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Back with the next three pieces in our spring Top Ten rundown soon.

Night, and I Traveling for National Poetry Month

A little contrast here in poetic fame from Shakespeare to a poet who’s equally unknown under each of his names: Joseph Campbell/Seosamh MacCathmhaoil. Most of his poetry was published under that first name, not the Gaelic version, and so I’ll use it today, even though I’m always obligated to say “No, not that Power of Myth guy.”  Over the years this project has promoted the idea that Campbell deserves wider recognition. Here’s a brief version of that case.

Belfast born, Campbell was active in the Irish cultural revival at the beginning of the 20th century, and like Yeats, he seems to have crossed paths with the London-based Modernist poets circle of T. E. Hulme, F. S. Flint, and Ezra Pound in the years before WWI. His involvement with the militant wing of Irish revolutionaries also grew during this time.*  After Irish independence he lived in America for more than a decade, while continuing to promote Irish culture; but he seems to have stopped publishing his poetry after the establishment of the Irish Republic. Late in his life he returned to Ireland and died there in 1944 where his ghost continues the task of becoming largely forgotten — at best a footnote, and often not even that.

Well, most poets are forgotten, even in a country like Ireland that does a better job of revering them than most, but here are some things that attracted me to Campbell: he worked effectively in the folk-song part of the Irish cultural revival, collecting, writing, and adapting song lyrics.** And his take on page poetry included both that folk song tradition — and uniquely among his Irish generation — a handful of very early poems in the pioneering English-language Modernist style that would be called Imagism.

In fact, I’ll put today’s piece up against any of the more famous short Imagist poems widely anthologized, I think it’s a masterpiece of the form.


Here’s the lyric video of the performance.

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I find “Night, and I Traveling”  a hugely affecting example of direct presentation of a thing and a charged moment in time. Like Imagist poetry in general it does expect the reader to pay attention, as the poet did, and to supply from within themselves the emotional charge the presentation represents.

Campbell was a country walker in Ireland, and the door he observes while walking in the night is likely of a small rural dwelling, plausibly little more than a hut. The door is open. Perhaps the peat fire inside has gathered smoke. Perhaps the occupant is expecting someone to return. Let us also remember, this is more-than-a-hundred-year-old rural night. The ambient light he’s sees in the dark has a landscape context of moonlight at best. There’s a gleam of some porcelain dinnerware inside, perhaps the most valued possession in the hut, perhaps a dowry or wedding item. The poet hears the only occupant, a woman, singing, in the ambiguous, but I think rich phrase, “as if to a child.” Note this single simile in the poem. He could have written “to a child.” He did not, leaving the implication that I take: that there is no child — the child is dead or gone. Campbell passes on “into the darkness” and the poem ends.

Seven lines, and this poem slays me. How much is packed in there to an attentive reader: the poverty of the colonized Irish, the depopulation of those who needed to leave to survive, their meager treasure (part of which is song), the closely-held personal losses.

Yes, poetry such as this requires your attention to work. I ask for your attention to this poem and to Joseph Cambell.

There’s three ways to hear my performance of “Night, and I Traveling.”   There’s an audio player below for many of you, and this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab with an alternative audio player is provided if you don’t see that. As part of our National Poetry Month observation, there’s a new lyric video above for those who’d like to see the words while the performance plays.

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*This revolutionary involvement seems to have been the proximate cause of Campbell’s literary career stalling. In the aftermath of Irish Independence, the Irish Civil war broke out between factions of the new Irish state. Campbell ended up on the losing side and was imprisoned for a while. Despite my admiration for Campbell’s poetry, I’m not an expert on his life or the political issues of the Irish Civil war. But these events seemed to traumatize the writer, and it’s not hard to imagine that politics and associations from a sectarian war might have caused him to be written off by some in Ireland.

**Sort of like Eleanor Farjeon from earlier in this April’s National Poetry Month series, Campbell may be “best-known” in the quasi-anonymous role of the lyricist of a song, “My Lagan Love.”   Campbell’s lyrics in this song include a more elaborated variation of a woman’s lonesome singing heard through a doorway with a “bogwood fire” and the singer ending the song “From out the dark of night.”

In a popular post last fall, I also revealed that Campbell likely originated making the subject of the song “Reynardine”   a supernatural creature.

Yeats’ “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” for National Poetry Month

Continuing our National Poetry Month celebration, here’s another poet’s love poem, loved by other poets, William Butler Yeats’ “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.”   If Millay’s “Rosemary”  portrays a relationship turned cold, “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”  is more at the wooing stage.

The speaker in Yeats poem begins by saying that they’d offer their beloved heaven or the heavens — well, to be exact, a luxurious simulation as some kind of cloth — and then not care that the beloved might just use it like a rug and walk all over it. And then they say they don’t have those cloths of heaven, only a dream. Still, the beloved can walk on that, the poet’s dreams; but the poem finishes with a plea that they should walk softly on that treasure, the wooer’s dreams.

In this short eight-line poem, Yeats does some fine things. First — no surprise if it’s Yeats — it sounds beautifully, and he does this almost entirely with meter, supplely alternating two and three foot beats in my scansion of it, though you can force an iambic feel.*  Unlike many poets and poems that pour on the consonance seeking musical sounds, he avoids this here other than “dim and dark.” Nor is end rhyme a factor, though there are 2.9 internal rhymes in the entire poem (“night” – “light,” “spread” – “tread,” and “cloths” – “enwrought.) Instead, Yeats leans on repetition of words, even though one can read or hear this poem without noticing just how heavily repetition is used. These words are repeated at least once: “cloths,” “light,” “feet,” “I,” “dreams,” “spread,” “under,” “my,” and “your” along with generally-repeatable articles like “and” and “the,” and with only 61 words in the entire poem, almost half the poem has another half echoing it.

It’s also subtle in it’s meaning. Yes, it has been used in “real life” as a wooing poem by others, but being subtle in a valentine is a risky business. Yeats himself originally published this as a persona poem in the voice of a character as “Adah Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,”  even though many identify this as an expression of his in-real-life love for Maude Gonne. But notice this: the poem’s speaker would be extravagant with something he doesn’t own (and maybe no one could own fabric as rich as heaven) — but he’s asking for some mercy with the actuality of his immaterial dreams.

So, there’s a lot here for other poets to admire, but there’s more: this poem restates the situation of most poets when they are writing too. We plan to create the closest we can with words and their weave to the heavens — and those plans, those wishes, are our dreams. And then — like Maude Gonne, the plausible love interest this poem may have been directed to — people walk, not on them, but around them.   Don’t be dismayed, such is life. All Artists Fail.  We are the wooers, and then when we read or perform poetry such as this one by Yeats, we become the lovers, the beloved.

Watch here for views of a statue depicting this poem created by Jackie McKenna that I much admire. One thing I just noticed when doing this video: the crouching figure of the wooer looks quietly satisfied viewed straight on, and then in the final profile shot, a little sad or resigned. Intended or trick of the light?

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Three ways to hear my music and performance of Yeats’ “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven:”   there’s a player gadget for some, this highlighted link for others to use, and, at least for now, I’m continuing to create new lyric videos for this National Poetry Month series, and that is available above.

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*That sort of repetition with variations, trod gently, gives a better musical effect in most cases.

Blackberries

Here’s a performance of a poem in time for St. Patrick’s Day to start Dave and my celebration of the poetry of Kevin FitzPatrick. Longtime readers here may remember me speaking of Kevin late last year when he became seriously ill and then died. I even published a post then that discussed some things that FitzPatrick’s poetry did that my own poetry, or much other contemporary poetry, didn’t make enough use off. Despite that earlier post, I’m going to say a few more words about the value of his poetry you may not hear at first — even though most of his poems are clear, plain spoken, and easy enough to understand for most readers.

Right there is a first potential problem. Some readers have an “Is that all there is?” response to many of Kevin’s poems. To the degree that I knew Kevin’s internal processes I don’t think he was troubled with that “problem.” He wanted his poetry to communicate to audiences not inured to modern poetry which might communicate in a non-linear way or with great reliance on esoteric imagery. But just because FitzPatrick doesn’t “come in hot” with arresting first lines, occult mysteries, and outlandish similes or settings, doesn’t mean it can’t have some other values. In the series this post initiates, I hope to show some of those strengths.

This is the picture that seems most “Like Kevin” to me.

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Today’s piece uses the poem that led off FitzPatrick’s final collection, Still Living In Town.  And for St. Patrick’s Day? Besides Kevin’s own Irish heritage, this one is about taking a fresh look at Ireland’s Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney. Like Heaney, FitzPatrick liked to take a sly look at his subjects.

There’s a player below to hear The LYL Band’s performance of this poem by our friend and fellow poet. In our celebration of Kevin earlier this month we performed all the pieces live, one after the other, without rehearsals or preliminary run-throughs. This leaves some rough spots, sure, but perhaps we can take them as evidence of life for us left to sing against the taking from us?

There’s a fairly long intro before the words begin today, which documents how our recording session began: with Dave coming from the stairs into the studio as I am already commencing my musical part. He then needs to start almost without thought.

Oh, what if you don’t see the graphical player below?  This highlighted hyperlink is another way to hear that same performance.

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Sonnet To Beauty — Two Women Who Wrote Poetry While Working with the Economically Desperate

I’m posting a bit late in the day, but it’s International Women’s Day, and so today’s audio piece uses as a text a poem by a very international woman, Lola Ridge. Ridge’s poetry is perhaps best known for a fierce commitment to social justice and the situation of the poor in early 20th century America; but she was born in Ireland, left with her parents for New Zealand as a child, emigrated from there to Australia to attend college, and then to America, eventually New York City, where she mixed with most of the political and artistic radicals of the early Modernist era, including on the arts side: Marianne Moore, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Hart Crane, and William Carlos Williams and the rest of the circle around the NYC Modernist magazine The Others.  Over at the Midwestern anchor of Modernist American poetry, it’s editor/founder Harriet Monroe was said to have called Ridge a genius, and she won awards and some favorable reviews in the years between the two World Wars.

Late in the 1930’s she apparently fell from the scene politically and artistically, and when she died in 1941 she was as poor as the people she wrote about, and then seemingly the subject of a rapid and rather complete forgetting for the rest of the 20th century.

Luckily our 21st century has become interested in reassessing the women who were on the scene a century ago along with the male Modernists, and there’s now a revival in considering her work.

Unlike some of Ridge’s poetry, today’s piece is not formally Modernist. It’s not only a sonnet, it attempts to present a passionate if conventional poetic argument regarding the abstract ideal of artistic beauty. Taken by itself it’s more Percy Bysshe Shelley than William Carlos Williams, but if we look just a little beyond its surface we can be reminded that Shelley was a thoroughgoing political and social radical as well as a Romantic era poet. Here’s a link to the text of Ridge’s “Sonnet to Beauty,”   from a blog that does a great job of presenting sonnets and similar shorter poems, FourteenLines.blog.

Ridge’s poem starts by worshiping beauty almost as an awed acolyte unable to face the godhead. But in the midst of the poem, something strange starts to manifest itself: a buzzard (an ugly, carrion-eating bird) appears gussied up by “The wizardry of light” to appear “All but lovely as the swan.” I read this as Ridge saying that artists and society can fail, can deceive, can fake beauty.

A musical metaphor follows this that says despite the diversity of artistic endeavor — including false beauties or injustice like unto our buzzard — that beyond the dissonance and the harmonic stress of this dialectic, that the chords can resolve. The poem ends avowing that true beauty can still chime through ugliness, falsehood, and strife.

Beyond sonnets, I will now make a turn in this post before giving you a chance to hear my performance of Ridge’s poem. Let me quickly summarize the event I attended this past Sunday remembering Irish-American poet Ethna McKiernan. There may be more than coincidence that Lola Ridge started this off.

Ethna McKeirnan - Lola Ridge

Ethna McKiernan reading, with lipstick, and Lola Ridge, I’m not sure.

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Minnesota weather and continued Covid-19 concerns might have conspired to reduce attendance, as the side streets were still full of sloppy snow from Saturday’s snowfall.*  I arrived early and helped the bookstore staff setup chairs. They seemed to be expecting maybe a couple of dozen, which may be par for a Twin Cities local-writer poetry reading, but both the event organizer and myself the bystander suspected we’d need to maximize the amount of chairs the space could hold. I think we were able to get nearly 40 folding chairs into the designated space, but as the crowd started to assemble, extra chairs needed to be rounded up and put in the various aisles between the bookstore shelves to handle those that kept coming in, and we had a few standees who fit in where they could.

More than typical bookstore poetry readings, I suspect most of the crowd knew Ethna for a long time. And that may have given a boost to the eight poets who read poems of Ethna’s, a smattering of their own, and gave short thoughts about her as a writer and a person. So less a usual public reading where some poets might be nervously trying to consider how they would come off presenting their work to an audience which might not know it, and more like an experienced and informal poetry group of long-time colleagues.

Several of the readers were members of other periodically-meeting writer’s groups that included Ethna, like unto the Lake Street Writer’s group that Dave Moore, Kevin FitzPatrick, Ethna, and I were decades-long members of. I’m sure that if Kevin had lived, he would have been a valued part of this event, as Ethna often credited Kevin as an influence on her writing — but he died a few weeks ahead of Ethna. I tried to make myself useful by playing stagehand and raising and lowering the mic stand for the variety of readers.

Many of the readers spoke of Ethna’s work with homeless outreach, and read some of her poems that dealt with that work, something that echoes today’s poet Ridge. Though the audience was entirely masked, a few noted that Ethna was a stickler for always putting on lipstick when out in public. For all anyone knew, what with our Covid era masks, we all were wearing lipstick! Who could see — but I believe all of us were remembering Ethna.

Backpart of the crowd at the Remembering Ethna Event March 2022

Covid-era ambiguity: “Lipstick? We were supposed to wear lipstick?” A portion of the crowd at the “Remembering Ethna” event last Sunday.

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So, as I speak of a woman who promoted culture, wrote beautiful poetry, and was committed to helping the economically desperate, I will now leave you with a piece using the words of another woman who a century before us did the same. You can hear Lola Ridge’s “Sonnet to Beauty”  with a graphical player below if you see that, or if you don’t, with this highlighted link.

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*My friend and participant here in the Parlando Project Dave Moore was unable to attend due to concerns with the street conditions. I’ve attended two other book-launch poetry readings given by Ethna herself, and this Sunday’s was the smallest crowd of the three. Consider though that most of those who knew Ethna are “senior citizens,” and some are frail as well.

Stones

I’m going to write here a bit, but if you’re in a hurry, I urge you to do two things. The first is to simply listen to today’s audio piece. I think that will reward you. You’ll find a way to play that near the bottom of this post along with my second suggestion.

To a large extent this project adapts other people’s poetry in the process of combining it with music I write and record. Occasionally when I mention this, or when the more general topic of a difference between poetry and song lyrics comes up, there will be objections or distinctions brought forward: those two things (poetry found on the page and words designed to be combined with music) aren’t the same, they’re different.

I’ve written about this here in the past. My conclusions in summary: the thing we call poetry includes a great deal of unlike expressions,*  and many are comfortable with that. Why chop off “song lyrics” as an appendix of non-poetry or not-quite-good-enough poetry? Well, if we do that are we forgetting that poetry across multiple cultures began as an oral presentation almost certainly combined with music? Why would that precedent not mean that literary poetry, however prized and skilled, has failed to sing or express its music explicitly?

So, if I move past those differences between poetry meant for the page and poetry meant for performance with music, and seek to test literary poetry in that context, what do I find? Well, a number of things that seem like problems with musical performance of Modernist page poetry are often less difficult than they seem. Poem doesn’t rhyme? That doesn’t help one memorize for unaided performance, but it’s not really a big deal. Uneven meter or line lengths? Modern musical expression has long slipped the bonds of straight beats or fixed length of melodic lines. One can even up shorter lines with musical elements too.

What is challenging? There are auditory challenges. Texts designed for performance often take into account pronunciation obstacles and allow space for breath. At least for myself there is a general difference in attention between words heard and words read in terms of attention. If a word or image requires one to pause for consideration on the silent page, there is an automatic “pause button” in our consciousness, and this is not so in the ear. The richest literary poetry may overwhelm us when listened to, though performance itself may also illuminate things we would never hear on the page, even after multiple readings.

In the context of today’s piece, let me speak of another issue. Work for performance, such a song lyrics, thrives on repetition, or refrains. Rhyme itself is one of those matters of repetition, even if it’s not required. Refrain draws our attention as it combines with the rest of the performed text, allows us to more fully absorb one part of what is expressed, and combines naturally with musical motifs that also repeat.

When I look through a poetry collection looking for Parlando candidates, the poems that use repetition will often be the ones that seem most suitable for performance — but that said, many pieces I’ve performed here have no refrain, no repeating chorus. Particularly with shorter texts this can still work, but piece after piece of poetry performed without repeating elements seems too much of avoiding that useful thing.

More than 50 years ago, a pioneering rock critic Richard Goldstein, published a book, The Poetry of Rock,  examining the possibility that rock lyrics of that era could be considered as poetry. Despite the title, the book did not wholesale advocate for the conclusion that they were simply poetry. Instead Goldstein noted, as I’ll admit, that these two ways of encountering words lend themselves to different experiences.** One tactic Goldstein decided on when dealing with song refrains in his printed examples to be experienced as literary poetry was to not completely transcribe the refrains in his versions of the lyrics. Instead he might just put them once at the end of the set of words. Making them the final statement on the page gave them emphasis, as repetition in a chorus would, without overwhelming the expression of the verses.

Working the other way, as I will do today, one can reverse this tactic. One can simply repeat a stanza, perhaps the first one, as a chorus, or at the end. Or one can take a line and make it a refrain, as I did with Sheng-Yu’s “Lament”  this fall.

Celtic Ouroboros

The Poetry of Rock? A Celtic representation of the ouroboros. This is a mystical symbol beloved by Jung and alchemists that is often used in graveyards. What does it mean? Thoughts differ, so may I offer one: Death can go kiss its own ass.

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Did you skip to here? That’s fine.

OK, let’s get to the good stuff: this poem “Stones”  appears in the new poems section of Ethna McKiernan’s Light Rolling Slowly Backwards.  It’s a fine poem on the page, and I highly encourage you to experience more of McKiernan’s work there by buying her book or seeking it out via a library. Here’s the publisher’s link.  That’s the other “ask” I have for you today. But “Stones”  is also a poem of lyric experiences, it calls out to be performed with the context of its implied emotions shared in your ear.

And this I did. Besides presuming unilaterally to do that, I made one other adaptation in the piece for performance’s sake: I took a line in the final stanza and made it a refrain. Because that line is repeated now six extra times, I’m bringing it forward for you to make sure you notice it and its possible meanings.***  I could throw in some more paragraphs about what I considered those possible meanings to be as I performed this beautiful poem, but I’ll not do that today. May your ear link to your heart, and listen with the player gadget below —if your way of viewing this blog shows that — or this highlighted hyperlink otherwise.

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*”Paradise Lost,” “Tyger,” “We grow accustomed to the dark,”  and “The Red Wheelbarrow”  are all worthy poems we might agree. Are they less different from each other than some random literary poem is from some song lyric?

**I may be repeating myself to say this here in a footnote — but that’s part of why I do the Parlando Project: because I expect you’ll experience the texts differently when you hear them performed with music.

***Did Ethna intend that line, now a refrain, to reflect itself in those meanings? I can’t say, but perhaps not. I, who performed it, intend for those extra meanings to come forward. I completely subverted William Butler Yeats intended meaning in one of his poems this fall. Judge me as you will.

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.

Irish poets, we complete our Fall 2021 countdown, and Ethna McKiernan

I fear this is going to be one of those bad elegies, one where the writer goes on too much about themselves and not about the person who has died. I’ve already mentioned that I find myself unacceptable and self-absorbed when I talk about myself, and saying that again only digs the self-dug hole I’m going to speak from today deeper.

In the mid-1970s when I moved to Minnesota from New York I connected back up with Dave Moore who I knew from a year in my aborted attempt at college. Through Dave I fell in with a literary group that varied in size and was herd-of-cats led by Kevin FitzPatrick. The group had just started  a little magazine they called the Lake Street Review,  Lake Street being a long commercial and industrial street that ran east/west through the center of Minneapolis: bars, gendered barber and beauty shops, warehouses, grocery stores, used car lots, a high-towered Sears linked to a rail-freight line and distribution center behind it, neighborhood movie theaters and former such theaters now grinding porn, the recording studio where “Surfin’ Bird”  was recorded, a small attempt at a non-suburban shopping mall built on the tract where tractors and tanks were once factory-built, a “hardly a foot we can’t fit” shoe store whose upstairs apartments housed Robert Pirsig when he wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Literary magazines generally preferred foreign words, or landscape landmarks like rivers, lakes, or mountains for their names. Yes, there were lakes at the west end of Lake Street, a self-improvement plan for nature dredged out from what had been swampy wetlands as part of a series of landscaped urban parks that circled Minneapolis — but let me be clear to those who aren’t from around here: calling an artistic enterprise The Lake Street Review was something of a provocation. This was a group of working-class writers with a non-academic outlook toward poetry.

The groups earliest meetings were held at a bar, and Dave noted to me that a large portion of the informal membership was made up of bartenders. Let me also set one other demographic fact: this was a group of men moving from their 20s to their 30s. Eventually the membership thinned out, and the remainder continued meeting in rotation in the members homes and apartments.

As the clan leader, Kevin was generally gentle and accepting. A high-school graduate, working in an urban ER, the again’er in me was attracted to the outsider stance, but Kevin also wanted the magazine’s public work to be acceptable to the parents and grandparents of us young men. The 1970s had still extended the “generation gap” of the 60s, so the “Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television” you also couldn’t say on the pages of the Lake Street Review.  Feminism was mysterious, like women generally were to these young men, but those women were talking about it  which made the mystery unsettling. Anything gender-queer was probably beyond the pale.

I liked those folks, but some of this rankled me. Kevin’s desire to speak across the generation gap as a poet was more noble than I appreciated at the time, but I wanted to go much more radically into discussions of sexuality and sexual roles than Kevin did, and what work I shared with the group privately I thought was underappreciated and misunderstood. I skipped off to two other groups sometime in the 80s, only to return to the Lake Street Writers Group after more than a decade away.

By this time the group had become smaller and more fixed in membership and was no longer concerned with the discontinued magazine. Four or five others, interesting writers and persons in their own right, were regulars, and then not; until by the last few years it became a quartet that would meet every month to share and discuss work in progress.

So when that group ended, it was Kevin FitzPatrick, Dave Moore, Ethna McKiernan, and myself. I’m not sure exactly when Ethna became one of the group as it was likely during my sojourn away from it. At one point she was one of two women generally attending, but as we contracted into the quartet, she was the only woman. As we aged it’s possible that this was less of a filter or division, even if it didn’t disappear. Another thing that happened as we condensed: the group had become predominantly Irish-American. Ethna’s father had been a force in the Irish cultural renaissance, something I was almost entirely ignorant of,*  and Ethna’s speaking voice retained a distinct Irish pronunciation undertone. Kevin and Ethna took it upon themselves to establish an annual Twin Cities St. Patrick’s Day poetry reading, a reminder that non-descript leprechauns, green plastic hats, sham-shamrocks, and ever-filled and spilled red cups and flushed faces were not the sum total of Irishness.

Will I ever get to Ethna in this post? To my shame, I will speak more in silhouette, about myself. In many ways I felt the junior member of this group. Kevin and Ethna has several collections published. Ethna got arts grants, had an MFA. Kevin and Dave had degrees from fine private colleges, I was a High School graduate. I gave up trying to publish shortly after my temporary leaving of the group, and it would have been understandable if it irked Kevin and Ethna sometimes that here was this opinionated yet apparently non-professionally serious person taking up their time. I retained a close friendship and collaboration with Dave outside of the group throughout the decades, and grew to understand and appreciate Kevin’s artistic goals, but no such closening happened with Ethna. I knew much less about the details of her life, and what bits I picked up second hand, sometimes from the poetry itself and not from her own conversation, indicated a life with more than it’s share of staggering life events. I also got a not-unexpected sense that men had been part of some of those staggerings, something that she didn’t express much directly in our group of three men and herself. Here’s a statement: I know more about the life-details of Emily Dickinson than I know about the life of a poet, my own contemporary, who I shared a few hours with every month.**

Kevin’s mature poetry never seemed to aim at beauty as such. It is a beautiful thing to find beauty were it isn’t. Ethna indeed aimed for beauty, sometimes comforting and sometimes fierce, and as the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there. Ethna got there some of the time, which is all we artists can do. Looking through her recently published Light Rolling Slowly Backwards, New and Selected Poems  it is easy to find that she was the most skilled poet in our little group, which sounds like fish-in-small-pond praise — but if you (who don’t know us) were to read her, I think you might find similar achievement to whatever other poets you read. When I read Kevin and Ethna’s last books during my yurt retreat early this fall I observed that while I had heard almost every one of Kevin’s published pieces in Still Living in Town in early draft form, I hadn’t heard many of Ethna’s. I know she attended more than one group sharing works in progress, but the amount of work new to me was surprising. I do plan to share one of her striking poems with you soon, but let’s wrap this long introduction up and get to the final part of my countdown of the most listened to and liked Parlando pieces from this past fall.

Two grey guys and a colorful woman

Three Irish poets: Yeats, McKiernan, and Campbell.

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2. The Folly of Being Comforted by William Butler Yeats.  Ethna never simply said something like “Read Yeats!” but before I encountered her I didn’t think much about him one way or the other. Now over the five plus years of this project you’ll have heard the fruits of that influence from her in my many well-liked presentations of Yeats. As I said when I presented it, Yeats was making a very specific point in his poem relating to his own life. I chose in my performance to stubbornly ignore what Yeats intended his poem to be about, and to instead sing it remotely to her on her hospice bed with my own intent. If I snub Ethna in this eulogy, I’ll ignore Yeats too. No respect.

It’s a challenge for me to work out my approximations of Jazz when I’m playing all the parts one pass at a time while being far from a master of any instrument. When it succeeds, as some thought here, I try to combine my simplicities (unimpressive I’m sure to a skilled musician) into something that still pleases when heard together. The highlighted title above will link to my original post on this where I discuss Yeats’ intended meaning, but you can hear my performance dedicated to Ethna with a graphical player (if you see that) or this highlighted hyperlink.

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1. Reynardine by Joseph Campbell.  Before the depths of their illnesses, I asked Kevin and Ethna if they’d heard of this early 20th century Irish poet, and they both drew a blank, which I’ve now found is generally true about this overlooked and worthy of more study poet. If Ireland is thought known for exuberant and willing to risk excessiveness expression, Campbell is never more masterful than when he’s compressing things to a handful of words.

Reynardine is a supernatural story in three short verses. From what I’ve been able to determine (see the original post on this) the supernatural element may have been introduced by Campbell, who took an existing long-winded run-of-the-outlaw ballad, and boiled it down with a shapeshifter element. After he’d done that, the resulting folk revival song, one sung by many of the best revival singers of the British Isles, always includes at least hints of that element. My presentation uses Campbell’s original lyrics, which I think are superior to those usually sung.

As far as it’s popularity here this fall, this is an odd one. The blog post presenting it wasn’t read much at all, and the likes for my explanation there of how Campbell transformed the Reynardine story were low in number. But the listens to the song (as with all the audio pieces here, available via Apple Podcasts or most other podcast directories) were easily higher than any other recent piece. To hear it now you can use the player gadget if your blog reader shows it, or this highlighted hyperlink.

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*I once joked, confessing my cultural ignorance there, that my idea of an Irish writer was Frank O’Hara. Joke or not, someone somewhere must have addressed what connections O’Hara’s poetry had with Irishness, but I haven’t found it.

** It was only a year or two ago, after my interest in Dickinson intensified that I found out that Ethna too had a deep appreciation for that genius. Of course, I have my portion of blame for this, just as with this inappropriate eulogy, but suspect she believed that I wouldn’t understand or have any sense of her experience or sensibility. I’d estimate she was wrong, but saying that only adds to my inappropriateness here today.