Forever and Crumbling. So if I disregard the outsized number of listens Hopkins’ poem got, this summer’s most liked and listened to was another Emily Dickinson-based piece where I joined two short and somewhat abstract Dickinson poems into what I thought was an interesting combination. I called my combination “Forever and Crumbling.”
“Forever” talks about the localized instant we all live in, that Dickinson lived in too. “Crumbling” talks about decay happening from a chain of those instants. In theory the two pieces, that Dickinson wrote separately, change/enlarge when related to each other. That and my musical performance of them is my contribution. Your likes and listens say that some of you found that worthwhile.
I’ve sat here most of the morning and now into the afternoon trying to write something useful in addition. If we are charged to “live in the moment,” 2020 makes that especially challenging. If we seek to halt and reverse the cobwebs and rust on our ideals and nation, like Dickinson’s “Crumbling” it will take more than an instant’s act. Nothing I wrote today brings what I can believe adds anything to our instant in time or repairs our current state of dilapidation. When I first posted this piece in the first week of June, I felt the same awkwardness. I have faith (or is it only habit?) that art and beauty have worth, but it takes a lot of faith some days.
Wishing all of us justice and mercy, and some wisdom to see a balance of those.
Continuing on from my post late last night, and the feelings of insufficiency we as artists may feel in the face of horrible things: cruelty, injustice, the taking of lives, the crippling of souls. As one of America’s sublimated poets put it, I think it all together fitting and proper that when we do this, that we feel this insufficiency. If something has risen to the level of being unspeakable, how can we speak it?
I’m still silent with answers tonight—and as with many things, my answers as an old man are less important than those you may find. So, let me instead give you a story and a testimonial.
The story may seem long ago to you, but it doesn’t to me. It happened in 1963, in my lifetime—not 1863 and the time of Lincoln, slavery, and Civil War.
It begins not with art but a group of domestic terrorists who were bombing and burning things in Birmingham Alabama. Terrorist is an ugly word, as it should be, but it’s likely that most terrorists think of themselves as partisans, as fighters against oppression, the necessary ones who will take the steps others shrink from.
Of course, I see these men as simple killers. I can suspect them of getting off on the clandestine evil of setting bombs and fires, of shooting into the night. And the “oppression” they are righteously bombing to oppose? They are more at the license to continue an oppression of others. On a Sunday morning, September 15th in 1963 they set off a bunch of dynamite at a church in their town. Just another bombing in a series.
This time they kill four little girls getting ready for sunday school.
Earlier that year, another of America’s displaced poets, Martin Luther King, had written his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in that town, that great document of the necessity of ending racial oppression, and now that year he would eulogize the four little girls. Eloquence was in town, continuing political pressure was in place, and the evil light of the terrorist bombing illuminated the words of those the bombers opposed. How sad and horrible it is to recount that.
That same year a jazz musician, John Coltrane was very busy earning a living with his art. When I say busy, I mean busy in a sense that boggles the mind. In that year alone he released four studio LPs while gigging constantly with his Quartet. Two weeks after he would have heard the news of the four little girls, he was due to play a New York City engagement at the Birdland club, which produced the live recording that gives its name to today’s post. Right after Coltrane finished the Birdland engagement, the group was off to Europe for a tour there. Four little girls dead, dynamited by their fellow human beings in furtherance of an evil idea. John Coltrane kept working.
Weeks then in Europe, and upon returning to the States the gigs and recordings continue. Somewhere between the day after the bombing in September and a one-day recording session on November 18th Coltrane came up with a musical piece that he called “Alabama.”
Then at the beginning of December when Coltrane’s tour was stopping in San Francisco he recorded a TV show. The format of the show was for the artist to play 3 or 4 songs and engage in a few minutes of interview with the host, but Coltrane begged off the interview. The host, Ralph J. Gleason, Mr. Rogers’ cardigan and all, subbed in a little explainer about the how jazz was like writing poetry in the middle of a supermarket. Cringe if you like at the metaphor and the white guy non-musician explaining it all to us,* but that’s what Coltrane and the Quartet then do. “Alabama” is strictly-speaking wordless. The John Coltrane Quartet spoke with their instruments.
The TV show where “Alabama” premiered. At 7:40 Gleason gives his “poet in a supermarket” metaphor, and at 9:35 the Quartet starts “Alabama.”
The four little girls, so cruelly and unjustly dead that same fall. In the interim, a U. S. President has been killed too. Hot studio lights for the cameras, a cost-saving bare sound stage to film in. Those five minutes of “Alabama” have been introduced to an audience for the first time.**
To my taste, Coltrane’s playing on the TV show performance of “Alabama” is even richer than the recording made a couple of weeks earlier though the rest of this Quartet of great musicians were a bit sharper in the recording studio take—but in either case there are notes he plays in “Alabama” that are quite possibly the saddest and most resolute notes ever to come out of a horn.
That winter “Coltrane Live at Birdland” is issued as an LP record which includes the recording studio version of “Alabama.” Another release in Coltrane’s furious pace of working and creating. The liner notes on the record were penned by the man who’d sign them then as LeRoi Jones.***
The art of the liner note is a dead art now, but today’s piece quotes a few lines from Jones’ piece of work (the entirety of which you can read here). Those that remember Jones’ notes often recall its opening line, which is also the first line I speak here today. If the job of a liner note writer was akin to writing advertising copy, to attract the consumer, that opening line is highly subversive of that intent:
One of the most baffling things about America is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here.
Way to ship units LeRoi!
When it comes to writing about “Alabama,” the song on the record where the Coltrane Quartet most directly speaks to that vileness, Jones writes:
I didn’t realize until now what a beautiful word Alabama is. That is one function of art, to reveal beauty, common or uncommon, uncommonly.
Jones knows what the tune’s about surely. I don’t know if I’ve fully absorbed that sentence yet, but if you are a person for whom 1963 might as well be 1915 or 1863, and you want to know what it felt like to know of such evil and endure it with an open heart, and to counter it with something that is beautiful (Oh! How can that be?), then you can find it in John Coltrane
Jones says John Coltrane’s art can change us, though neither he nor I will guarantee it. Can it? These are days that cause me to doubt. But if Coltrane doubted, he didn’t’ stop. I honor that belief. Perhaps art works in ways small but deep, and then only for some portion of us humans some of the time. If art like Coltrane’s carries me through sometimes, is that a reason I create art myself?
The player to hear me read a small section of LeRoi Jones’ liner notes to Coltrane live at Birdland is below. When I created this performance early this month I did not include any of the sections where Jones talks about the tune “Alabama,” but I was trying to give some flavor of Jones parable about Coltrane’s power and conviction. Musically, my composition and performance is just a trio, there’s no saxophone.
*Yes, I cringe because I recognize myself there in a black&white mirror. Because I operate a musical instrument at times, I claim to be less guilty of the cringe factor. This likely convinces no one.
**Some have sought to document Coltrane’s gigs and recording sessions. There’s no account of “Alabama” being played at any of the live gigs before this TV show. The version on “Coltrane live at Birdland” is not live, but from that short studio session in mid-November.
***Later Amiri Baraka. A man who went through so many stances and positions in his life that it’s unlikely that any sane man can find agreement with all of them.
I took yesterday off from the work of this ongoing project. I spent a good portion of it listening to music.
I said to my wife that afternoon: “It’s odd, but spending to much time composing music, performing, recording, and mixing it largely keeps me from listening to music I’m not working on. If I was a sculptor or painter I could listen to music while working, some even listen to music while writing,* but you can’t listen to music while working on music.”
I awoke this morning early, bid my wife off to work and went for my morning bike ride. I returned, ate breakfast, and set to work on completing a long piece that I’ve been working on for some time this month. Such work devours hours.
Or am I wrong to say this? Perhaps it is numbing. Like when your extremities grow cold in a northern winter. You don’t feel them going numb after all. The villain in the piece, the policeman with decades in a public service job, surely seems numb to the suffering he’s causing. Does evil flow both hot and cold in us?
How many will view this and swear, and then swear that they could never do what he seems to be doing, or at least never do it without copious anger. How many of us will not think about the other policeman, standing nearby, still in the portrait-mode frame. Will we ask ourselves, could we be him? Or will that question slide by us?
“What’s the broken world” – photo by Evan Frost for MPR News.
I’m a poet and musician. I run nothing, not even my own muses some days. Shelley aside, I’m not a legislator in session. I could do political analysis here, but choose instead to beg your indulgence to talk about how someone else’s words strike me a couple of times a week. However, I spent two decades trying to alleviate pain, fix people up, and keep people alive. My wife still does this work. It offends me when we fail. In the medical field we often know when we fail, and the philosophers kind or callous—who know that in a medical, mortal sense, we always fail—offer only partial relief.
Poetry and the power of music isn’t quite like philosophy. Music doesn’t want to be ideas, but their sound. It can express anger and sorrow and give it a towering spillway for those things to pour out. It’s not healing or justice exactly, but the sound of those things. And poetry is the literary art that uses words in the nearest same way.
If it’s not the actual, palpable, thing we need—if it’s not sorrow, anger, healing, justice—it may teach us to recognize those things, to see and join them in the souls of others.
Why say this? In the above I’ve tried to rationalize what I attempt to do, but tonight I doubt this too much to complete a new piece of music and write about it.
Last time I mentioned Charlotte Mew chose not the mention the specifics of a horrible war in her short poem. She could have written a poem longer than the Iliad and not covered all the callousness and killing, the heroes and the folly. Only in passing, I mentioned that meant her poem of grief isn’t necessarily tied to World War I, or to Britain—but I wanted very much then to stress another thing about short, lyric poetry: that you can carry it with you, that it can change and grow as you take it back out of your mind during the dealing out of a day or more. So I carry this bit from her poem over, yet another day.
What’s little June to a great broken world with eyes gone dim
From too much looking on the face of grief, the face of dread?
We are the pieces of that broken world. Can you feel the broken edges?
*I used to listen to music when writing sometimes, but I can’t recall the last time I did that. It’s probably been decades. In my youth sometimes entire first drafts of some poem would flow out while listening to a piece of music.
The Parlando Project is mostly about presenting other people’s words. I like that. It adds variety and it lets me write about what encounters with those words bring forth. We’ve done that over 400 times since this thing kicked off publicly in 2016
So, we’re always ready to celebrate National Poetry Month. Any month is poetry month here! But every once in awhile I slip in one of my own poems. Sometimes it’s just because I have something I want to say to this adventuresome audience, but it’s often because I’ve read something someone else wrote and I think of something I wrote (or should write, and then write) that relates to it.
A blog I read regularly by Paul Deaton has ranged over various subjects in the past couple of years, but lately he’s been writing some about the past, including lives that range back into his parents and grandparents generations. I’m not going to go back that far, I’m only going to go back to when I was a young man. Given my age, this is “Boomer” territory that’s been already over-farmed—but bear with me. This isn’t really a poem about the past, it’s about someone in my generation who has a past, but presently. For those Gen X and Millennials who find this insufferable, I remind you that I’ve been priming my High Schooler who isn’t a Millennial to blame Gen X and Millennials for ruining things for the current and subsequent generation. I urge other geezers, crones and wise-ass elders to do the same. As our aged, but still very stable emperor demonstrates, the best thing to do to deflect blame is be proactive in shoveling it elsewhere. I don’t know why that should work, but it does!
Anyway, I’ve presented quite a few poems this year by younger-than-mid-life poets whose poems speak as if they are aged.
Besides National Poetry Month, April is supposed to bring us Record Store Day. It would have been last Saturday, an annual celebration of those venerable little stores that once again were selling dark flat petroleum circles that sing when you poke them with a needle. Our current crisis has canceled that.
Now back in my day…Oh man, having a past and dragging it around does make one insufferable doesn’t it…this sort of thing was serious business for me. I had little spending money, but I would hope to have it in order to buy one of those foot-square pieces of art with the circles inside. Something cool. Something that represented my generation.
I can remember a particular spring afternoon. Somehow my girlfriend and I had caged a ride in a keyboard player’s new AMC Javelin to travel to Iowa’s capital city where there was a “head shop” (which is where the best new records were sold, along with, well, “smoking accessories.”) On the way we listened to an 8 Track tape of the Moody Blues To our Children’s Children’s Children. When we got there, I could merely marvel, as I had barely enough for one record album, and couldn’t decide which one to get or if I might need the money for something else. So, the only thing I bought was a pinned badge: a smaller, paler circle, containing a bit of the cover art to the Cream’s Wheels of Fire record.
A circle from “The Sixties.”
Recalling this day 50 years ago or so, says paradoxically to me what music and recordings meant to me then. A record was a precious clue to take me through days or weeks. Foolishness? It’s always been partly that.
But of course something else was on my mind, and the mind of some of my generation on that non-official, just another record store day. War. Justice. The cutting edge of the then gap between generations and elders that had been through WWI, WWII and the Korean War, and were often sure we were ducking our war turn. Our best thoughts of ourselves were that there were more important battles, and of course some of us didn’t succeed in avoiding the war they wanted us to fight. And some of us went off looking for Eden, a place you can sort of find, and then lose track of again.
What else does that memory mean? What does it mean presently? That’s what today’s short piece is about. The player gadget is below to hear it.
Not all of what it seems: a picture postcard scene of Longfellow’s home during the Civil War.
When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, there could be no doubt on which side Longfellow would be on. To the extent that Longfellow was political as a writer, he was resolutely against the institution of slavery. Longfellow was also philosophically a pacifist, but even before the war he was aware of the cost Abolitionist convictions could bring. His closest friend, Charles Sumner, a U. S. Senator and another Abolitionist, was sitting at his desk on the Senate floor in 1856 when three southern congressmen launched a planned assault on him. The leader of the crew beat Sumner into unconsciousness with a walking stick, while the other two held off any who rose to try to stop the assault, one brandishing a pistol to keep help at bay. Sumner was so badly injured from the attack he was unable to resume his Senate duties for three years after the attack.
By the spring of 1863, the Civil War over the maintenance of slavery was now two years old. No one knew how long it would continue or what the outcome would be, and once more someone close to Longfellow would feel its blows. Longfellow’s 17-year-old son Charley, who had firmly resolved his own feelings about the war, snuck out of the family home and made his way to Washington to join the Union army. In November of that year, his unit was reconnoitering around a Virginia location called New Hope Church. They found what they were looking for. A southern bullet ripped through Charley Longfellow’s torso sideways, just nicking his spine. Luck that, and luck that he was able to endure and survive a painful evacuation on a wagon and the woeful state of battlefield trauma care in his time. Over half-a-million fellow soldiers didn’t.
So, a month before Christmas, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was searching the maze of makeshift hospitals and camps in Washington until he found his wounded son. Son found, by Christmas the Longfellows could return home for further recuperation.
Today “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”* if listened to casually may pass as just another carol, an obligatory musical evocation of some cheerful pealing on a winter’s holiday. But to the poet who wrote these words that Christmas, and to the nation torn apart, that he and his audience were part of, this was not merely another generalized Christmas card.
I wrote a couple of hundred words, meaning to put them here next, starting to say, preaching about, what Longfellow said in his poem—but Longfellow says what he needed to say pretty well and clear for an unfashionable poet. Maybe that “clear” thing is part of what is unfashionable, but despair shared and hope earnestly put forward is a gift.
The player gadget below will let you hear “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Christmas Bells)” as I performed it. To sharpen Longfellow’s point, I trimmed back the number of stanzas in his original poem and then again from the shorter number of verses usually sung in the hymn that was made from it. I also reharmonized the chord changes a little. Guitarists wanting to play this themselves can use this shared link to see the details of the open tuning and chord voicings I used for this. The modified tuning, with the two lowest strings on the guitar tuned down even lower, makes this very easy to play.
*When Longfellow’s poem was published the next year it was titled “Christmas Bells,” but it’s now best known through the hymn/Christmas carol set to music by John Baptiste Calkin.
Partly for the reason of sadness and disappointment with my country, and partly for disappointment with myself, it’s been difficult to focus on combining words and music recently. This is a value of one of the Parlando Project’s principles: Other Peoples’ Stories. When I cannot put the words together, I can listen and absorb someone else’s.
Yesterday, feeling particularly sad and angry, and holding it in so as to not harm with it, I went looking for someone else expressing what I could not express myself.
I looked first at Carl Sandburg, who after all was a committed political radical as well as a too-often overlooked Modernist. But with Sandburg’s expression love was almost always present—a good thing, but not in tune with my feelings. Sandburg may have been the right medicine, and I took some of him in on Friday for my health, but I didn’t want only medicine.
And then I found my howl, and strangely at that. I knew Edna St. Vincent Millay had written political poems, that in fact they had harmed her artistic reputation. The witty line I recall was that Millay’s anti-fascist poems did more to harm her artistic standing than Pound’s pro-fascist ones. Today’s words are from one of her early political poems: “Justice Denied in Massachusetts.”
I can see where the Olympian “New Critics” docked Millay on the basis of this one. It’s chock-full of that awkward backwards and inside out “poetic” syntax that reads like a stiff translation from another language. The early Modernists, even as they translated, were dead set against this—and they have a good point. Millay’s words here were hard to read with emotion, so stilted and undirect as they are as sentences. However, that could well be part of Millay’s point here (consciously or unconsciously), as the poem’s speaker is not speaking clearly; and for my benefit—however difficult it is to perform—she is speaking precisely in a confused mixture of disgust and disappointment. All the reverse/”poetic” syntax just makes it more twisted in at itself. A poet today might make this matter even more obscure with modern poetic syntax that also abjures plain speaking in the service of art, but in our current context we’d be expected to accept this as the way art talks.
One problem with political poems is that to the extent they speak to an issue they can become museum pieces tied to forgotten events. If they were to be effective, they could even be seeking that fate. Millay is writing here in the immediate aftermath of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti—a particular cause—but for my purposes, this has little bearing on the matter. She is speaking to women and domestic and domesticated people such as myself. Only the title is tied to then current events—the feeling and her point, ties to our own.
“Let us go home, and sit in the sitting room.” New Critic Cleanth Brooks placed his entry in the contest for most bone-head review of all time by reading this refrain line and Millay’s poem as a straightforward resignation at the course of events, rather than the ironic statement of disgust that it is. I can only hope that the savvy observers of our country are similarly wrong, similarly misreading.
Mr. Brooks, you may notice that I’m not sitting, but standing for something.
My music for this is based around a G suspended chord, where the third of the chord, which would dictate if it’s minor or major, is omitted. This gives the chord a feeling of awaiting change, awaiting formation. At times the replaced note to the defining third is a tangy second, other times a more consonant fourth. Risking grandiloquence, but I feel our country is similarly suspended now, and the cadence is to be ours.
Here’s my performance of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Justice Denied in Massachusetts.”
Part of the humor here derives from the order brought to the chaotic event of an insect in the diner’s food. The waiter is able to observe the fly and classify its actions from an altogether different perspective. And the rest of the humor comes from the waiter willfully, or otherwise, misunderstanding the customer’s complaint as a mooted question.
Rhythm, a primary component of music and poetry, shares that ability to reshape chaos. The day after I saw the Emily Dickinson film biography “A Quiet Passion” I returned to the same theater complex to see “Chasing the Trane,” a documentary about musician John Coltrane, a man whose work and life story has carried me across many a low place. You could predict most of the talking heads (what director Warren Beatty once called, perceptively, “witnesses” in his John Reed biopic “Reds”) that appeared in the Coltrane film. Coltrane’s children talk about their parents. Winton Marsalis and Cornell West are obligatory we suppose. A pair of Coltrane biographers chip in their perspective. The surviving members of Coltrane’s great combos, Reggie Workman and McCoy Tyner, talk briefly. Sonny Rollins, Coltrane’s great contemporary, and Benny Golson, a musician who first knew John Coltrane as a fellow teenager in Philadelphia, are especially insightful.
And then John Densmore, the drummer from the 60’s rock group The Doors speaks. OK, I can hear a few saying “What’s he doing in a John Coltrane biography?”
The answer is: swimming in the rhythm of Elvin Jones (the great drummer of Coltrane’s greatest band). Like the original Homer who wrote our fly in the soup joke, Elvin Jones could converse with whatever new melody, whatever mistaken-for-mere-chaos invention, that John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy could invoke. Densmore watched him do that on the bandstand closely, and then applied what he learned when he later was called to add order to the Dionysian deconstructions of The Doors’ lead singer, Jim Morrison, a man who had the touch of a poet quickly smothered by drink, drugs, and uncharted celebrity.
Densmore’s part in the film is to add to the thought that John Coltrane lived as if he could converse with the universe and approach its Creator with what he had heard from it. Densmore’s addition: but it’s the drummer that is the witness that this is happening now, in the time we are all beating. Coltrane may swim out in the tide of the cosmos, but Elvin Jones knows what stroke he’s swimming.
Elvin Jones and John Coltrane: a conversation with infinity and time
I call today’s audio piece “Dream Big!” June is the month of graduations and their obligatory talking heads delivering commencement addresses, most of them deputizing themselves as present-day Ralph Waldo Emersons with mature advice for the audience. However, “Dream Big!” doesn’t present the tale from some sundry gray eminence—instead it has some words from a young man, the British musician Kiran Leonard, who asks us to look at the dream of Herman Sörgel.
Kiran Leonard: quiet is the opposite of thoughtful
Kiran Leonard’s music takes several forms and may still be forming, but his words that I adapted for use with my music in “Dream Big” were taken not from a song, but from a short statement broadcast by the BBC. In it, Leonard uses Sörgel to encourage us to take on creative projects we think are beyond us. Good advice for young people—but I also took it as good advice for this old man as I started the Parlando Project in 2016, and needed to contact some hopeful audacity. And now, this week, as I am readying this post, I need John Coltrane and Herman Sörgel, Emerson and Kiran Leonard levels of such hope as I mourn the needless death of a young man and our pretentions that we can do nothing about it.
To hear more of Kiran Leonard’s music you can see this live set from last year here, or view the promotional videos for songs from recent albums here and here, or read this interview/introduction/review. To hear my performance of “Dream Big!” use the player below.