Inside Whales and Lofts, Part 1

Let me momentarily make this place act like a regular blog and remark on a few things I’ve run across trying to do — or avoid doing — new work. Warning: these are not necessarily mainstream things of interest to most people, even people who read blogs about various poetry combined with a variety of original music.

While not sleeping one night this week I ran into an essay masquerading as a book review written by George Orwell at the end of the 1930s: Inside the Whale.  As per the dangers of doomscrolling, it was not the right piece to run into while trying to fall back to sleep. It’s long, covers a bunch of ground, and since it is Orwell it contains a lot of pithy observations and things that incite one to consider not merely what Orwell believes, but what you, yourself believe.

It starts off reviewing a book by the American writer Henry Miller that was already several years old. Or rather, it makes motions like it’s going to take on that task. Orwell tells you little specifically about what’s in Miller’s book, and he speaks of it and it’s outlook in alternatively dismissive and “it’s better than some” statements. Orwell concludes that, whatever the book’s failures and omissions, that Miller’s novel has stuck with him, and that its subjective effects on a reader might be worthwhile.

Then a full-fledged essay breaks out: a meditation on the changes he observes in the literary scene from the 20s to the 30s of his 20th century. In doing so, Orwell also is quite subjective, compressing the wide range of these two important decades with broad characterizations, summations that have the virtue of vigor. Orwell’s overall judgement is the 20s were an explosion of free expression and expansion of subject matter, and then the following 30s had taken a wrong turn into political statements and advocacy. Orwell’s historical summary is one that others have made as well, and as with all such “spirit of the age” high-level views, it can be contradicted by considerable examples of those who didn’t follow the big titles over their decades.

In my middle of the night reading, I found this wrong-turn judgment odd. Writers who avoided political stances or opinions? Orwell would never have been on such a list! He’s remembered specifically as a life-long critic writing on political ideas and operations. This verging-on-hypocrisy stance, similar to pundits and any odd people with Internet access criticizing actors, artists, and writers for expressing political opinions,* can be made rational if one extracts from his argument the more distinct point he’s making: that the expressed political stances and opinions opposed are wrong and based on falsity. But within this essay that point seems less clear, it’s more about the demonstrated failure of that art-for-political-change effort in the 30s leading Orwell to suggest that it’s likely/arguably the better of limited choices to simply write about ordinary life in a way that avoids any evidence of political thinking.**

I’m around twice Orwell’s age when he wrote this essay, and to the glowing 21st century screen I was reading him on, I talked back to him that he had just discovered a universal truth I’ve written here several times: All Artists Fail. Betting odds calculated from a past performance tout-sheet are not a singular reason to not attempt something in art — the odds are always against success in art, that’s partly why we revere it.

Two small things in Orwell’s long essay remain for me to note. There’s an anecdote of Miller meeting Orwell as Orwell was about to embark on his sojourn into the Spanish Civil War. Miller, Orwell says, told him he was crazy to put himself in harm’s way, and then gives Orwell a warmer jacket better than the meager suitcoat he was wearing. That act, that tiny scene, is Orwell demonstrating his point that ordinary life closely observed may illuminate more than many grander political statements. And the other, more poetry related, has Orwell go on this short aside about the American poet Walt Whitman:

It is not certain that if Whitman himself were alive at this moment he would write anything in the least degree resembling Leaves of Grass.  For what he is saying, after all, is ‘I accept,’ and there is a radical difference between acceptance now and acceptance then. Whitman was writing in a time of unexampled prosperity, but more than that, he was writing in a country where freedom was something more than a word. The democracy, equality and comradeship that he is always talking about are not remote ideals, but something that existed in front of his eyes. In mid-nineteenth-century America men felt themselves free and equal, were  free and equal, so far as that is possible outside a society of pure communism. There was poverty and there were even class-distinctions, but except for the negros there was no permanently submerged class.”

Taken in — as we might well in our age — as statement to be evaluated from a woke (or waking) political outlook, this has so many howlers and hold-my-artisanal-higher-hops-content beverage potential Tweet-takes! Start with the “Leaves of Grass  are always greener on the other side” view of America in general. Thanks, I guess, for the “negros” exception that is altogether too large and horrible for a sub-clause. No mention of the state-side colonialism regarding indigenous peoples. And, wait a minute, women! Orwell’s “America men” freedom isn’t just accidental language-convention-gendering in historical context. I could go on, with anti-immigrant prejudices galore, and….

But. What Orwell is demonstrating here, intentionally or not, is that Whitman painted a plausible reality, containing vivid details of ordinary, mundane reality, of an America that supplanted those things, where open desire, freedom, and comradeship existed in plus and overplus. Did Whitman fool the wily Orwell into thinking that was actually, abundantly so in the years before and during an American bloodbath, or is Orwell suggesting, however inadvertently, what art can try to do, and while failing and retrying, help to accomplish?

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I sometimes misread the “darling buds of May” as the “daring buds of May.”  These seem so strange, so alien, as they emerge.

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This is enough for a Part 1, but rest, and only later think about this: can your art spur on change — or rather, not just urge it on with the spur and the whip, but with the portrayal of where we must go in a hurry?

As to music, here’s another audio piece you may have missed, using a 1920 poem by German Anarchist writer Erich Mühsam that I translated into English. This post from last July tells what I learned about Mühsam’s life and that of his mentor who first published the poem, Gustav Landauer. In the post, there’s a Whitman connection. Player gadget below for some of you, or if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlinkwill play the audio piece.

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*The hypocrisy of that is: the pundits most often have no more skin in the game in these matters than some artists; and that the ordinary Internet people, who often wish to self-proclaim their ordinariness, may have by definition no more expertise than another person whose job it is to observe and extract transmittable reality.

**Small, dear, peripheral, and personal aside here. Anaïs Nin was the writer specifically noted as existing inside the titular whale, Jonah-like, in the essay — and so, in Orwell’s judgement, then beneficially cut-off and protected from politically-charged writing. My late wife was once writing an article for a national “woman’s publication” on the cultural phenomenon of journaling, circa 1979. In a phone call discussing her sources for the article, her editor suggested she could setup an interview with Anaïs Nin. When the call ended, she and I had the writers vs. editors conspiratorial laugh over that unintentionally Ouija-level suggestion, as Nin was then two-years dead.

When I Peruse the Conquer’d Fame

Modernist American poetry has two parents, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, but it’s been awhile since we’ve presented any Whitman here. Dickinson is a subversive Modernist, ironically skewing the expected tropes. Whitman on the other hand is the provocateur, the poet who is proud to say right out front everything he wishes to change.

As Whitman prepared his 1860 edition of his evolving Leaves of Grass,  he was about to cross a Rubicon of a sort. He had decided that erotic material needed to be added to his great collection. Since he wished to be all-inclusive and unabashed, starting with himself, that material would vary, but it would include expressions of male homosexual longing and relationships.

Whitman in 1860 - caricature from Harpers Monthly

Walt Whitman as caricatured in 1860 in Harper’s Weekly

 

Once again, my knowledge of the historical context here is not extensive, but some brief reading this weekend indicates that to the mid-19th century American audience, the homosexual elements of what Whitman was to publish was little or no more disturbing than the erotic element generally. For a man who was already wishing to revolutionize English poetry with his free-verse and universalist message including what would surely be considered shockingly fleshy writing about desire, longing, and connection was certain to complicate his goals for a wide audience. His leading ally within American High Culture, the Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, counselled him to not include, or to greatly tone down that material.

Whitman didn’t take that council. The 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass  included a section, Calamus, that was full of love and desire between men. Emerson was right, that would complicate Whitman’s task of revolutionizing American poetry.

When Transcendentalist Thomas Wentworth Higginson* asked Emily Dickinson if she had read Whitman shortly thereafter, Dickinson replied: “You speak of Mr. Whitman. I never read his book but was told that he was disgraceful.” If one is of a speculative mind, one can imagine Emily Dickinson getting a plain brown wrapper delivery of Leaves of Grass  that she would never acknowledge.

This Monday is Veteran’s Day/Remembrance Day, and as he prepared the Calamus  poems Whitman was not a veteran or a survivor with war memories, as the American Civil War that would add another tremendous shaping force on his poetry was still more than a year off. Still he would write this moving comparison that I present today.

When I Peruse the Conquer'd Fame as published

Today’s poem as it appeared in the 1860 edition of “Leaves of Grass.”

 

“When I Peruse the Conquer’d Fame”  is a comparison of two things: fame and envy. Perhaps the fame part will strike you first, along with the implications of worth and value. The fame in the title most often comes to prominent men: victorious generals, Presidents who bask in their election and men who put their names on large buildings. The U.S. Presidents that Whitman would have had in mind then were bumbling ineffectual men, totally incapable of coming to grips with the immense and deadly crisis they were careening toward, but famous none the less.**  What generals would he have in mind? Napoleon or his adversaries perhaps, men who could shuffle the borders and crowned heads back and forth in tides.

And for comparison, Whitman sets out “the brotherhood of lovers.” Does he mean men who love men? As this is part of the homoerotic Calamus  poems section I think we need to accept that is significantly so. He goes on to praise the lovers who are steadfast in their love as aging and fate and even the numbing of time is arrayed against them.

This task of enduring love is not something unique to same-sex lovers, and I suspect that Whitman, the universalist, recognizes that too. But in his particular, he’s saying that unfaltering love which would not then be socially acknowledged is all the more extraordinary, though unknown compared to the war-heroes and political potentates.

Did Whitman, and I suppose myself in my choice to present this poem at this time, just dis veterans? That objection would assume that the two groups are mutually exclusive, at odds. That isn’t so. And if Whitman was here to answer he’d point out he spoke of Generals, Presidents, and rich men, not the soldiers he later comforted and whose wounds he dressed in the upcoming war.

And of course, in the U. S. today it’s Veterans Day, set aside for those who after their service may well have continued as or became those ardent lovers whatever their sexual orientation. We honor them for their service in the one regard, Whitman asks that we consider the second as well.

What of the other comparison, the one you may not have noticed, the one concerning envy? Whitman has chosen not to weigh his comparison between the two sets of roles only by their levels of objective fame, but specifically in the example of his own state of envy. He says he doesn’t envy those powerful and rich men—but of the “long and long” lovers, there he says he is bitterly envious.

Let me suppose Whitman was sincerely speaking here (he has almost no other mode in his poetry than sincerity). But there is an element in Leaves of Grass  where the poet speaking—“Walt Whitman” as the character in his great collection of poems—is meant to be an example, as his verse is an example, of an imperfect thing striving to find a different, better path to something new and not fully known. Whitman, like the best of Modernist art, like various America, like many veterans, ardent as a lover is running faithfully and with a heart open toward an affectionate and unknown future.

Once more I marshal the ranks of my marcato orchestral instruments for “When I Peruse the Conquer’d Fame”  into another “punk orchestral” piece. Harmonically, I’m working a three-chord trick here, just as if the composer/conductor’s podium was stocked with Ramones. Other than the use of a rock’n’roll drum set, the other unusual textures are mixed subtly into the low-end where there’s a contrabassoon line and Fender electric piano bass (ala Ray Manzarek). You can hear it with the player below.

 

 

 

 

*It’s possible that a canny Dickinson might have been telling Higginson what Higginson would want to hear, since Higginson, though au fait with political and social radicalism, was also of the opinion that Whitman was disgusting.

**Coincidentally, the U. S. President when the Calamus  poems including edition of Leaves of Grass  was published was James Buchanan, who may have been gay himself. Though Donald Trump has already selected Andrew Jackson as his favorite President, Buchanan may also prove to be indispensable to his legacy in that Buchanan has long been the consensus choice among historians as the worst-ever President of the United States.

Poets to Come

A month ago I began our celebration of the U. S. National Poetry Month with an audio piece using the words of Walt Whitman. Today I bring our month of music meeting poetry to a close with another piece by Whitman: “Poets to Come.”

Which is appropriate, as modern American poetry begins with Whitman.

From time to time in his work, Whitman reminds us that he knows he hasn’t fully realized his poetic project. This isn’t just false modesty. He revised and added to Leaves of Grass  throughout his lifetime, but it wasn’t because he thought perfection was one more edit away. Whitman seems to accept that it’s better to try to do what his ideals say to aim for, to make the effort to become the artist his art asks to exist. It’s better to be 80%, or even half or less, of that ideal Whitman he writes of, sounding his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world, than for no Whitman to dare exist.

Note though that Whitman isn’t asking himself to do this for self -expression. His expression, even with the particularities of his own person being unavoidable, is cultural expression. He sought to sing into existence the culture he wanted America and the world to have.

Which is what makes this poem a great basis for the last post of this Poetry Month. He had faith for the poets who would follow his innovations and audacity. Many did come forth after him, many of which we’ve presented here. Whitman had, I might suppose, faith in the intentions of the Parlando Project—and I, if I pay attention to the spirit he wrote of, I should have faith too.

Walt Whitman in Philadelpia 1889 by Frederick Gutekunst

Good Gray Poet, Thin White Duke.. David Bowie sang “Ain’t there a pen that will write before they die?” Whitman’s caption says he was about 4 blocks from Sigma Sound studios were Bowie recorded that. TSOP!

 

During April I’ve created and presented 16 combinations of various words with my music, more than any other month in the year and a half of this project. I took a crack at preforming all of that “April is the cruelest month” modernist epic of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” —and only got near half-way done. I worked on the finding and understanding the words I’ve used, or composing, playing, and recording music for several hours every day this month.

And you’ve listened to these pieces, and if you’re here, you’ve even read my words about the process, for which I’m grateful. I’ll be back tomorrow with a piece by Dave Moore and the LYL Band for May Day and there may yet be more LYL Band recording before this Spring is over. I do expect to take a bit of a rest after the efforts of this April though. I have a pile of books I want and need to read, a whole lot of interesting blogs I’ve gotten behind reading too, and I’m looking forward to listening to music I didn’t have to think up first.

If you want more, I remind everyone that we have over 200 pieces here in the archives on the right. There’s lots of stuff that you may find better, worse, or at least additionally different there. If you, or someone you know would just like to hear the musical combinations we do, the Parlando Project music is available on all the major podcast services like Spotify, Google Play Music, or Apple podcasts.

Here’s Whitman’s “Poets to Come”  performed with my music. Use the player below to hear it, and if you like it, please tell other folks about the Parlando Project.