Summer Silence

I’m trying to get back into the swing of production of audio pieces here, so maybe the best way to get around that is to not “produce” an audio piece. Here’s a field recording I made just south of the Canadian border this month while working out music for E. E. Cummings’ early poem “Summer Silence.”

In normal times I’d probably have added a bass guitar part and perhaps some more instruments. Even the acoustic guitar and vocal that’s present would sound better for not being recorded on a cell phone—but it’s a fair representation of what I was aiming for in the piece and it doesn’t sound terrible or anything. If you listen carefully as the last note fades out you can hear some bird song in the background.

E E and John W Cummings

I can’t find out if they’re related: E. E. Cummings and Johnny Ramone (born John W. Cummings). Down sagging air with shimmering bars of sullen silver vs. relentless down-strokes of sullen barre chords.

 

On the printed page “Summer Silence”  looks awfully conventional for an E. E. Cummings poem. It was published when Cummings was a Harvard sophomore in 1913 in a college publication. And as printed there, it contains the sub-title “(Spenserian Stanza)”  as if this was possibly an academic exercise in trying Edmund Spenser’s old form. The poem reflects 19th century poetic language somewhat. Though the rhymed and metered lines follow the form, there’s a lot of enjambment and phrases beginning in the middle of the printed line, a hint of Cummings later more scattered pages. The imagery shows tendencies toward the Modernist/Imagist ideal. This might be the experience of a real night. The images in the poem aren’t presented as stock-photo stand-ins for what the poet wants to say even though there’s a bit of emotional adjective-overload here and there which the pure Imagist would excise: “Eruptive” and “sullen” for example.

Summer Silence as originally published

Today’s poem when first published in the Harvard Advocate in spring 1913 by the 19-year-old E. E. Cummings.

 

I don’t know that Cummings ever really abandoned those overt romantic and emotional expressions, a tendency to unabashed overstatement rather than pure Modernist show not tell. That’s part of why many like him while others down-rate him. In the end a set of words either work for you or they don’t. Aesthetic theories may give you a different way to look at them, but why should they take away any pleasure they give you?*

I had collected this poem in search of some summer poems to compose music with last month, but then particularly I was able to work on the music after a night with distant heat lightning over Lake Superior in July. This led me to interrogate the night with Cummings’ poem. Out on the edge of the lake the thunder in my night was distant, muffled by windows and walls, a broadcast on the edge of reception. Its intermittent bark highlighted the “panting silence” in-between lit by the avant garde of the heat lightning. My night had no stars, translated or not. Perhaps Cummings’ night had a storm front approaching a less cloudy night on his lake shore?

So, as tardy as I am with more complex productions recorded more formally, the drill for you my valued listener is the same: use the player gadget below to hear my performance of E. E. Cummings’ “Summer Silence.” 

 

 

 

*There are answers to that question. I used to know some of them, but I’m old now and have forgotten them. Theories and suggested other ways and contexts to look at poems are still fine with me though, adding another soul’s experience to the artistic transfer may enrich it.

Anglers

Next weekend is the Minnesota sport fishing opener. Today’s piece, “Anglers”  is appropriate for that—but to that opener I’ll bring 8th Century Irish monks, a strange airship cosmology, a Nobel prize winner, and tenderly, a pair of brothers.

I wrote the words for “Anglers”  combining two things, one biographic and one literary, mixed with some phrases that occurred to me.

The biographic? My grandfather died when my father was a young man, shortly after I was born. My father had four brothers and a sister, and the youngest of his brothers was only a few years older than I was. My grandfather never lived long enough to teach him much, and so my father helped teach his youngest brother some things their father did not live long enough to do. One of those things was sport fishing. As my young uncle grew up, he and my dad became fishermen of the most avid kind.

Over the next fifty years, the two men fished many places in Minnesota, but most memorably for me, in Canada. Not just on the border lakes like Lake of the Woods, but halfway up Ontario to lakes above the little town of Redditt. Their base there was a rustic fishing lodge: log cabins, outhouses, small aluminum rental rowboats to which they’d attach a 1930s Johnson Sea-Horse outboard their father had bought decades ago onto their flat stern. Their routine: out with the dawn, fish until noon, pull in some inlet, fry up some fish for shore lunch, then fish again until late solstice dark. The poem I wrote doesn’t mention it but I was with them as a child on some of these trips, though fishing was not something I kept up with as I grew up and went East. The two brothers though continued their angling until my father before his death became too frail and sickened with senility to continue.

Johnson SeaHorse outboard motor

“Uncoiling the Sea-Horse.” My grandfather’s Johnson Sea-Horse outboard used by his sons

 

That’s the biographic. The phrases? I often write, at least in part, in my mind’s ear. Sometimes it’s entire first drafts of shorter poems that are composed there, other times it’s only beginnings or endings, or even phrases that somehow seem to mean to be in a poem. I’ve told myself an advantage of writing this way is that poetry often works best if it’s memorable speech, so composing this way pre-tests things by holding them in memory and seeing if they adhere.

As I get older it’s harder for me to memorize works in process, and this piece had only phrases and parts of the beginning and end stanzas in my head before I started my first paper draft. One of the phrases was the idea of the sport fisherman, the angler, being at right angles to the surface of a lake. Another was a phrase which occurred to me, “lattices of fishes,” which I simply loved the sound of, but it also seemed like unto the vertical angle from the surface of the anglers in their boat.

It was that angle word-play that brought in the literary. The anglers point up and down in their angle from the surface. What do they point to? And lattices, obviously there’s another level under the water-surface plane.

The literary? Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet, wrote a poem I much admired about a story from the medieval Irish annals. The story was some monks at Clonmacnoise in 749 A. D. observed an airship snagged on the tower of their monastery and a crewman of that airship who climbed down from it to free his ship.

Clonmacnoise tower

Clonmacnoise tower. Don’t snag your anchor on the weeds or rocks.

 

In combining the two, I created a cosmology where the air breathing anglers on the surface of a lake are like angels, or the crewman of that medieval airship, to the barely comprehending fish who are brought across to the airy world. And that echoed the idea I had developed in my head from the anglers pointing up 90 degrees from the surface of the lake in their boat. They are pointing to the heavens, a place we can no better understand than the fish can know about the world of our air-breathing.

And there you are, that’s the entire poem’s metaphoric magic-trick revealed. Yet that isn’t the poem, much less this audio piece that presents it. I still had to work on the language through several drafts, and I may work on it more after this presentation—but the poem and the audio piece is more than its images or its ideas, because a poem and a musical composition are both machines that think with sound.

So, listen to “Anglers”  using the player below. And please, let others know what we’re doing here. I would so much appreciate that.