O My Darling Troubles Heaven

When we last left-off Kenneth Patchen he was beginning his career as a proletarian poet in the 1930s, writing a strikingly prophetic (in both senses of the word) poem about what the middle of the 20th century was holding in store. I’ll leave it to you to decide if that poem also speaks of our 21st century’s future.

Kenneth_Patchen_1952

I didn’t have time to discuss that Patchen’s 1952 Wikipedia picture looks like Thurston Howell from Gilligan’s Island.

 

Patchen never left his concerns with society’s dangers and constraints, it remained part of his poetry throughout his career until his death in 1972, but that’s not all or even much of what he became known for. Here are some of those things:

He was a significant influence on the post-WWII independent, largely non-academic Beat explosion. The bohemian aspects of his life and outlook, as well as the ways his writing expressed itself was a key living American model for the Beats.

And speaking of the Beats, he and his friend and fellow Kenneth, Kenneth Rexroth, were enthusiastic pioneers in the tradition of performing their poetry with musical accompaniment. Though many Beat Generation poems still live on the page, I’m not alone in hearing many of them, even when read in silence, as spoken voices, a jazz group cooling it behind. Patchen was more committed to this combination than most he influenced, touring his “Poetry-Jazz” in the late ‘50s.

Obviously, that style is part of what’s led to the Parlando Project, though I wish to expand on it. Patchen too seemed open to other musical genres with his writing: for example, a longer piece for radio performance with a musique concrete score by John Cage, “The City Wears a Slouch Hat.”

American bohemian arts flowed out from the Beat era, and Beat’s immediate predecessors like Patchen, in a series of connections and mutations. Diverted poet Jim Morrison used his psychedelic ballroom singer money to help Patchen publish one of his final books. And a figure as singular-seeming as Leonard Cohen has links in his expression that seem to connect closely with some of Patchen.*

It wasn’t just music that Patchen combined his poetry with, but visual art—drawing and painting pages that were as much pictures as poems. While this has precedent in medieval illuminated manuscripts, the painter/poet/engraver William Blake, and some of Dada’s work, Patchen’s style of combining his own naïve art with epigrammatic text connects with some of the poster art of the Sixties.

I Am the Ghost art by Kenneth Patchen

Closer to Pedro Bell than William Blake? Art by Kenneth Patchen.

 

One of the reasons I so like presenting figures like Patchen or Blake is their “get in the van” indie spirit. Art does not need to ask permission, it perpetrates itself anyway, figuring out a way to use the resources it can scrounge together.

And lastly, another thing Patchen became known for, even if it wasn’t as widely imitated in the Beat era, was his love poetry. It would be restrictive to think of him as just a love poet, but it was a substantial part of his writing and audience. As the billboards changed from “The Beat Generation” to “The Love Generation,” Patchen was already there with his poetry. A case in point, today’s poem “O My Darling Troubles Heaven”  performed here by Dave Moore and the LYL Band.

So, enough talking without a band. Go ahead and click on the player below to hear Dave’s performance of Patchen’s poem.

 

 

 

 

*Like what? The love poetry combined with the prophetic social dread is a recognizable Patchen trope. The combinations of art and writing, such as in Cohen’s Book of Longing  can be similar. And while Cohen’s typical poetry plus music style isn’t often reminiscent of Patchen’s, the two obviously didn’t mind mixing those arts.

Sincerely, M. Cohen

As long-time readers here will know, the Parlando Project likes to vary what it does. Loud, immediate and approximate rock’n’roll, string quartets, folkie and electronica tinges combine with words that I look around for—different stories each time, most of them not mine.

Are we now going to vary from Bronze Age Chinese poetry collected to instruct politicians? Or from the W.H. Auden-who-can-bring-the-funk remarks of Jimi Hendrix’s ET visiting the Third Stone from the Sun and marveling at the chickens?

Well, maybe a little.

And so, we’re going to descend into parody today. Mad  magazine imprinted me on parody while young, and Weird Al Yankovic never did a thing to cure me, and here I am an old man who still can’t help making up travesty-lyrics to songs he hears, which distresses my son who likes to sing Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time”  with his sincerely growing voice, while my questionable tenor tries to make that into a dissertation on salad vs. main-course silverware: “Fork with the Longest Tine.”

To the possible detriment of today’s piece, I didn’t choose anything as well known as one of Joel’s hits. In tryouts, just one of the folks I’ve sung today’s piece to even recalls the original song it references: Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.*”  That may say something of the fragmentary fame of Leonard Cohen in the United States. Back in the Sixties, a couple of his songs “Suzanne”  and “Bird on a Wire”  were fairly well known from cover versions, and his 21st Century song “Hallelujah”  has become even more well-known after being sung by John Cale, Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright—but “Famous Blue Raincoat”  despite dozens of covers, just hasn’t penetrated the U.S. mind.**  There may be reasons for that. It doesn’t have a hooky chorus, even Leonard Cohen himself thought the lyrics were confusing, and to the degree it has an accessible plot it’s about a complicated love relationship far from the common I love her/him, or her/him has left me and I’m so sad or angry about that.***  My favorite part of the song was its uncommon ending, where it’s revealed to be a letter of sorts, signed with solemn irony “Sincerely, L. Cohen.”

M Cohen and L Cohen

A famous orange retainer and a famous blue raincoat.

 

And that was the hook for today’s parody. I thought of another Cohen living in New York City, who is a principal in another messy romantic entanglement, whose feelings about it are multivalent, and whose sincerity is a changing thing. You can hear “Sincerely, M. Cohen”  using the player below.

 

 

 

* If you want to hear Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat”  first, you can see a lyrics video here.

** Am I depending on the Parlando reader/listeners outside the US this time, and yet assuming you have any interest in juicy U.S. scandals?

*** Ever wanted a coherent reading of the Cohen song? Here’s one of the best I’ve read.

Fire and Sleet and Candlelight

Today’s piece, like my recent setting of Margaret Widdemer’s “When I Was A Young Girl”  reframes a folk song from the British Isles. Widdemer took a song traditionally about a life cut down by youthful excess and reformed it into a poem about finding love outside the realm of adventurous, romantic fantasy. However, today’s words are from Elinor Wylie, whose poetry retains its allegiance to romantic excess, even if it’s frank about the cost of that.

“Fire and Sleet and Candlelight”  takes its title from a transcription of an old English song, collected in the 17th Century, but likely much older: the “Lyke Wake Dirge.”  The “Lyke Wake Dirge”  is a striking song, even though its antique dialect is nearly as hard to understand today as Summer Is Icumen In.”  As this blog post recalls, you’d be hard pressed to make out the lyrics to “Lyke Wake”  in present-day English from hearing it, but the simple yet stately melody grabs you anyway. That is an illustration of a Parlando Project idea: the presence of music allows one to defer decoding a text’s meaning, to appreciate something before you understand it. The line Wylie extracted for her title, in fact, is likely a common misunderstanding of the line in the old song. “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight” makes an easily available winter image, and so that’s what some heard. Scholars are now of the opinion that the middle item is actually “fleet,” not sleet; fleet being an old word meaning floor, and by extension, standing for home. The line’s word-music is beautiful with either word in it, and Wylie was very good at word-music.

To summarize “Lyke Wake,”  once you’ve died your soul will be tested on an arduous journey, which will be made easier if you’ve lived a life of charity. In the long-standing Christian debate between salvation from faith or works, “Lyke Wake”  favors the works side. The soul’s journey may still be strange and testing, but charitable goodness in life is rewarded as a way through.

This is not the poem that Wylie writes however. There’s a soul on a journey in her poem, yes, but salvation is nowhere achieved or even promised. “Lyke Wake”  is foreboding, but it may only recount two or three tests on the soul’s journey, and the refrain reminds us every verse the possibility that “Christe receive thy saule.” Christina Rossetti wrote a jauntier, more modern version of “Lyke Wake”  with her Up-Hill,”  to give one example of how this could  have been restated in modern English.

Wylie’s poem instead piles on the soul-struggles until you lose track of the number depicted. Nearly every pair of lines is a fresh torment or test, some of pain, some of discouragement.

Wylie’s images for the soul’s tests are in general straightforward, nothing too esoteric. The only one that caused me pause was “trysted swords.” Tryst derives from a Middle English word for agreed hunting place. Imagery-wise I was reminded of the Tarot deck’s three of swords. What would be hunted, and injured, would be one’s heart here, and trysted puns to twisted, as in the intertwined piercing blades of the three of swords.

Three of Swords

Tired of clattering swords making a racket at your castle?
Use this easy idea to store them securely.

So, Elinor Wylie’s “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight,”  presents a more arduous and unrewarded journey than even the spooky “Lyke Wake Dirge.”  As a 20th Century poet steeped in the Romanticism of Shelley, Byron and Keats, Wylie would hold that suffering is not to be avoided if it’s a cost for a passionate rush toward truth and beauty. I said at the start, Wylie was honest about the cost of such a journey—and in words she is—but in putting it into such singing word-music she makes the sufferings easier to bear while her word-music undercuts the real pain and danger.

Lonelysoul

Wikipedia uses this picture to illustrate “Lyke Wake Dirge,” calling it “Lonely Soul.” I can only think of it as the back cover of “Songs of Leonard Cohen.”

 

I therefore tried to emphasize the sorrowful experiences of the words somewhat when performing this. For music I went with a fairly full-fledged orchestral-folk setting this time. The vocal and acoustic guitar is actually a “scratch part,” a quick recording used to lay the blueprints for later finished tracks, but due to recent events my voice has been out of commission for a few days, so I had to leave those parts in. To hear my performance of Elinor Wylie’s “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight,”  use the player below.

 

Butterly

We’re approaching the halfway point in the Parlando Project’s first year, and my plans for 2017 are to feature more 21st century words, when and if I can get permission from publishers/authors to use them here. Today’s audio piece features words from the first “external” 21st Century author to be used here: Philip Dacey.

Philip Dacey

Philip Dacey

 

This year has been much commented upon for the death of musician/lyric writers, two great cultural stylists and movers, David Bowie and Prince, foremost among them.  It would be careless to extend the list of 2016’s lost musician/poets for fear of who would drop off the bottom for reasons of length. After all, Merle Haggard or Phife Dog or Greg Lake mean as much or more to some listeners as Prince or Bowie. For me personally, two Fall 2016 musician/poet deaths hit me with specific force: Leonard Cohen and Mose Allison. You might have guessed that, for this is the place “Where Music and Words Meet”—though both are better composers than generally realized, both Cohen and Allison were known for their lyrics.

CORRECTION Obit Leonard CohenMose Allison

A Cohen and a Mose

But that’s not exactly why. You see Mose Allison and Leonard Cohen shared a writing sensibility that I particularly prize: they’re funny as hell. “Funny as hell”—not as merely the common idiom— “Funny as hell,” in that both saw clearly the fallen human limitations and made us laugh at it. Laughter can be a good teacher, and as the profoundly comic blues sensibility tries to teach us, even what we can’t learn or think our way out of can be better endured knowing that it’s not right, that it’s incongruous, illogical, unexpected—in other words, that it’s funny.

The importance of our musician/poets may be falling in the 21st Century, though the speed of that decent is hard to judge, as we, their human society, are falling too. And if we look below we see the poets of the past: Dickinson, Whitman, Keats, Blake, Frost, Sandburg, Yeats, Eluard and all their heavenly host, and Shakespeare, Sapho, Basho, Homer, Li Bai, and many more that we cannot name and have never heard. We are falling toward all of them.

Blake Fallen Angels

not Phil Dacey

 

And Philip Dacey falls with us, and he smiles “Look, we are all falling.”

Dacey too is funny as hell. So if you are coming to this podcast from a musician/poet listenership, you could think of Philip Dacey as a Midwestern Leonard Cohen without all the sackcloth and ashes; or that Dacey is Mose Allison without the constantly modulating piano. And there’s another difference: Dacey’s poems find forgiveness more consistently and honestly than Cohen or Allison, or most any other writer.

We are all falling, and Philip Dacey falls with us, and he says “I’ll bet there is an end to this fall, but who knows?”

Butterly: Upon Mistyping Butterfly is a love poem based on simple mistake (as love sometimes is). Phil, like Leonard Cohen—but like Phil—wrote a great many love poems. This one is uncomplicated (as love sometimes is). Mose Allison, wrote far fewer love songs, though I can think of one that is goofy and joyful, like these words of Dacey’s.

It’s not a coincidence that I put my remembrance of Philip Dacey as one of the first Parlando posts, because when I heard that Phil had died I was working on gathering, performing, and producing material for the Parlando Project. I’m grateful for the permission to present the LYL Band performing my reading of this poem of Phil’s. If you like this, you may want to seek out one of Philip Dacey’s books or read more about him online at the philipdacey.com web site. If you’d like a taste of how Phillip Dacey presented his poems, there is a 30-minute video of a late reading by him here.

To hear the LYL Band perform Butterly: Upon Mistyping Butterfly, click on the gadget you’ll see below.

Print the Myth

A few posts back I mentioned that the Parlando project keyboardist and alternative reader, Dave Moore had visited Native American mound sites along the Mississippi river this year. He’s working on a series of pieces about the largest of the mounds, Cahokia in Illinois. Here’s one of them.

In that August post about William Cullen Bryant’s “The Prairie” I said that when Bryant wrote a poem about Cahokia he borrowed from “from some 19th century mythologies.” For focus and brevity, I left those myths out then, but I wanted to come back to this, because it’s important. In the 19th Century as US exploration and settlement moved westward from the eastern seaboard and these elaborate earthworks were viewed by folks like Bryant, there was a lot of unexplained mystery about them. And explaining mystery is the work of myth. Sometimes poetry joins in that work.

When poetry joins in that, explains mysteries, it faces great dangers. One danger is simple: their explanations can just be wrong. After all that’s another way we use the word “myth,“ to mean something that has been shown to be untrue. Bryant and a host of 19th century explainers of the North American mounds and their builders almost certainly fall into that trap.

You see, when these worthies saw the mounds they thought that they had to have been constructed by some people who were not Native Americans, or at least not the Native Americans who were soon to suffer occupation and displacement from those Eastern settlers. That’s another problem with explained mysteries. Sometimes the explanations are a little too convenient. You don’t have to think much to see the subtext here:

“Why, we don’t have to worry about displacing or even killing the folks who are already here, they did the same to those disappeared builders of these great earthworks.”

Myth gets complicated. We can see the ignorance, prejudices and racism that helped feed these 19th century settlers, but that doesn’t mean we can see our own current ones more clearly than they could see theirs. I often think of the title of the beautiful and wry Leonard Cohen’s first collection of poems “Now Let Us Compare Mythologies,” the title poem of which includes the line “I have learned my elaborate lie.”

One of the virtues of music is that it cannot explain mysteries, though it can sometimes help you experience them.

Now, back to Dave Moore’s piece “Print the Myth.” Dave wrote the words for “Print the Myth,” and he concisely goes into these issues. Dave is also the voice on this one. It was only my job to supply the electric guitar part. This is a live first take, spontaneously exploring how to present Dave’s words about the explanations for the mounds. As such, there are a number musical mistakes. My tastes allow for that. Dave himself thinks his performance wasn’t up to snuff, and I disagree thinking that the energy of the discovery overcomes the rough edges.

So if you want to hear a couple of poets and musicians constructing a way to tell the story of how the mounds were misinterpreted by Bryant and his contemporaries, click  the gadget below to hear “Print the Myth.”