The Poet’s Voice

Stick with me here valued audience. I know awards speeches are not a popular genre. First off, everyone watching has just lost except for the speaker—not just the tuxedos in the hall, but anyone watching at home who aren’t important enough to be invited to the event. So maybe it’s safest to thank others effusively until your time is up and the music plays you off. A choice to make other points can be ineffective.

Yet, this isn’t the first time I’ve used an awards speech as the text for a piece, though the other two times they were speeches by actors, David Harbour and Viola Davis. Both of those speeches made claims about the value of dramatic art: Harbour making the claim that we may use make-believe heroes to inspire us to do necessary things, and Davis testifying that art, because it includes the illuminated communication of intense human experience, is the only complete way to explore humanity.

The Nobel Prize award requests an acceptance “lecture,” which sounds more high-falutin and boring than an acceptance speech. The literature winners often take the bait and tell us something about the value of their art—but it just so happens that I’m listening for that right now, because I’m not sure about the value of the arts of poetry or music, the things this project is made of, in the midst of this year’s multiple crises: a pandemic, an economic downturn that I fear we haven’t sounded the bottom of, a king of misrule, and a tragic occasion to consider remedies to racial oppression. When I talked about these things this week with friends, they reminded me, “And we haven’t even talked about global warming lately.”

The first section of today’s piece is taken from William Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Even a couple of decades later his statement was much loved in liberal arts departments as I was getting in touch with them in “The Sixties,” because we still hadn’t gotten over the fear we talk even less about: global atomic warfare destruction. Faulkner was a wordsmith to reckon with, even if he couldn’t figure out the plot of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.*  When I looked back at his speech this month, the line I open up with today grabbed me in 2020 as much or more than it would have back in the mid-20th century:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it.”

Don’t misread the end of that sentence. He is saying we can bear that fear (his contemporary fears, and ours) and go on writing. One may raise their hand before the Nobel-Dynamite-Prize winner Faulkner and ask: “Well, yes I suppose we could. But shouldn’t we be doing something else instead? A lot of people’s survival is at stake.”

The next section I quote from Faulkner’s speech tries to answer that. It’s a fine piece of writing too. If one abstracts the thought from the rhetoric, he’s saying that we have jobs in relationship to those that will be doing something else instead. This is akin to Viola Davis’ argument about art: no position paper, resolution, or negotiating point can fully connect one heart with another, and no struggle can see its way without full illumination of the human experience.

Is Faulkner right about that? I don’t know. It may not be right for you, but it’s a plausible idea for an old man like myself, one who lacks the social cohesion to build a barricade and the bravery to mount and advance over it.

Faulkner Stamp

An example of writers not being much good at other jobs, Faulkner was bad when given a job as a postmaster. His resignation letter read: “As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.” The Postal Service had its revenge in 1987. Faulkner’s price had risen by 20 cents.


The concluding statement in today’s piece is from another American Nobel Literature prize winner’s “lecture,” Bob Dylan’s. The inspiration for this came from a gift Dave Moore gave me this month, a small, handsome book containing Dylan’s lecture. When Dylan won the Literature prize there was a great deal of consternation that what he did wasn’t literature, possibly also not very good, but for sure not literature. Some commentators seemed to feel that poetry might not even qualify, wondering what novels he had written.** But never mind, song lyrics can’t be poetry can they?

In the concluding part of his speech Dylan cleverly concedes that point, and then collapses his wings around those objecting that performed oral poetry is not literature. That’s books, stuff written and read on paper. Suddenly they are surrounded with no retreat. Shakespeare*** wrote for voices and audiences in common. We only know his plays in page form from bootleg tapers. Songs, music, are like that too. They are alive, they live on the currents of breath. Literature is an artifact—a voice is the art, a song is the immediate fact of an experience. I, you, anyone, can doubt art in its absence, in silence—while fear likes that space just fine. But while a song is sounding in your breath and ear, doubt is beside the point. “Songs are alive in the land of the living” Dylan proclaims.

My performance mashing up these quotes from the two Nobel Prize speeches accompanied by my own music can be heard with the player below. If you’d like to read the entirety of these two speeches, Faulkner’s text is here, and Dylan’s is here (with a link to his own audio reading).




*A Hollywood anecdote had Faulkner, who was working as screenwriter for hire in the 1940s, getting stumped about the famously convoluted plot of Chandler’s detective novel he was adapting for a classic 1946 movie. A point about an early murder that deepens the plot was unclear. “Yes, but who killed General Sternwood’s chauffeur?” he queried. Chandler replied: “Dammit, I don’t know either.”

**I found it interesting that novelist Faulkner more than once refers to poets as he speaks about the writer’s task in his speech.

***And Dylan closes with Homer, the blind one in the silence of sight, who didn’t ask the muses for paper but the music to tell the story.

More on that exchange published in the prologue to Kora in Hell

Did you find yourself agreeing more with H.D. or William Carlos Williams in Thursday’s audio piece taken from Williams’ Kora in Hell?  If I was to survey listeners, I’d be surprised if Williams wouldn’t win far more applause. Being that it’s his  book, and he controls what H.D. presents before he responds, it wasn’t really a neutral-site debate.

That sort of exchange could remind you of our modern political ads, where candidate A is quoted or shown in some excerpt that appears outlandish, and then candidate B is cut to saying that they think that’s just as outlandish as you think it is, and I’d never take that position, so vote for me. Except, it’s in reverse. It’s Williams, candidate B, who’s taking the more extreme position. Still I think Williams will largely win the audience.

It’s also easy to see this as a male/female dynamic. H.D. makes a suggestion, plausibly insightful, asking only for self-reflection on W.C.W’s part. Williams responds to her, in much more forceful rhetoric, defending his freedom, saying in effect when you say “sacred” I hear “heretic.” I think a great many observers of gender roles would see this as a stereotypical exchange. I agree*, but I could imagine this same exchange with the genders switched—less common, but possible. And it certainly occurs in a same gender situation too.

Something else that came to mind as I read this was a division that was made in an influential essay at mid-century, something that was still current when I was in school. This month I re-read that essay after Kora in Hell  and the telling exchange I took from its prologue. It’s by critic Philip Rahv, published in 1939, and its title “Paleface and Redskin”**  sets out the framework of its thesis, something that professors still thought relevant when I was being taught. The title is a distinctive dichotomy Rahv had observed in American literature. This paragraph from Rahv’s essay summarized the two types:

…the redskin glories in his Americanism, to the paleface it is a source of endless ambiguities. Sociologically they can be distinguished as patrician vs. plebeian, and in their aesthetic ideals one is drawn to allegory and to the distillations of symbolism, whereas the other inclines to a gross, riotous naturalism. The paleface is a ‘highbrow,’ though his mentality…is often of the kind that excludes and repels general ideas; he is at the same time both something more and something less than an intellectual in the European sense. And the redskin deserves the epithet ‘lowbrow’ not because he is badly educated—which he might or might not be—but because his reactions are primarily emotional, spontaneous, and lacking in personal culture. The paleface continually hankers after religious norms and tends toward a refined estrangement from reality. The redskin, on the other hand, accepts his environment, at times to the degree of fusion with it, even when rebelling against one or another of its manifestations. At his highest level the paleface moves in an exquisite moral atmosphere; at his lowest he is genteel, snobbish, and pedantic. In giving expression to the vitality and to the aspirations of the people, the redskin is at his best; but at his worst he is a vulgar anti-intellectual, combining aggression with conformity and reverting to the crudest forms of frontier psychology.”

Rahv ostensibly doesn’t favor either side. His observation, made by a man who could claim to be an immigrant, outside observer, was that American Lit was binary and divided with authors on one side or the other and no synthesis, and that this was a bad thing. ***

Palefaces and Redskin Potatoes

Pale faces and redskins, or 3 artists and some spuds.


It’s easy to see that divide in the H.D. and William Carlos Williams exchange. H.D. in the moment captured in her letter to W.C.W. is paleface, and Williams is redskin. Rahv expends most of his examples on novelists, and Modernist novelists like Hemmingway and Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson he feels all fail to a significant degree due to redman tendencies. But Modernist poets weren’t really in either camp as Rahv defines them. Ezra Pound could be claimed as either, and even in the two early pre-Modernist poems I’ve just presented here he tries on each personae: in “Grace Before Song”  a pious poet in service of art who will be personally forgotten and in “In Thus in Nineveh”  as an unheralded poet who will be remembered because the people value the lively if imperfect vitality of his verse.

Feel free to consider Rahv’s classification system as silly, outdated, or even distasteful. I myself consider it an amusing parlor game kind of thing, more subjective than Rahv thinks it is, and as subject to superficial oversimplifications as taking a “Which Disney Princess are you” quiz. ****

I wasn’t going to include any audio with today’s post, but after spending a day avoiding completing this post so that I could play with orchestra scoring, I figured I could read a couple more sentences also from Rahv’s 1939 essay backed by a short example of what I was coming up with. The player’s below.



*Even though Williams and English language Modernism in general coincided with the rise of women’s independence and citizenship, and even if women were participants in this cultural revolution, that doesn’t mean that Modernist men were invariably feminist—far from it. There are things to admire about W.C.W. for sure, but even in my limited reading of his work I keep getting this weird vibe from him where women are concerned.

**Yup, Rahv went there with the casual use of the racial slur. As literary culture goes in this era, totally non-remarkable and non-controversial. The first college I attended, where I heard of Rahv’s essay, had named its sports teams The Redmen, a just  more polite term. I had a tiny part in asking this name be changed. In Rahv’s defense I’ll say that he was a Jewish heritage immigrant from the Pale of Settlement. If life experience is knowledge, he likely “understood” ethnic slurs as deeply as any of us.

The kind of dichotomy Rahv lays out has analogues in modern discussions on just how street a rapper is, or debates on if performance poetry can be “real poetry.”

***From the luxurious wisdom of history, I found it fun reading the essay to see who of his contemporaries he thought was fatally damaged by this inability to join the strengths of both groups. He seems to give obvious paleface T. S. Eliot a passing grade, though noting that he had to leave America. Rahv says “Faulkner’s horror stories have long ago ceased to have any recognizable value.” History disputes Rahv there. Hemmingway is just a retread Natty Bumppo he says, an arguable case still today (even though I’ll take the other side on that one). Emily Dickinson gets an atta girl notice as a more or less successful paleface. No, additional reflection since 1939 has discovered that Dickinson is a redskin with paleface trappings.

****I’m Jasmine.

The Parlando Spring 2019 Top Ten Part 2

Before we continue with our count-down of the most liked and listened to audio pieces this past spring, let me remind newcomers what the Parlando Project does. We take words (mostly other people’s, usually poetry) and perform them along with original music in various styles and sounds.

I really try to honor that intent for variety. My musical and singing limitations cannot be overcome just by intention—but the idea is to test limitations to see what will bend or break, not to treat them as barriers to be looked at from a safe distance off.

7. Water. One of our post series this spring I called “The Roots of Emily Dickinson.” I had the obligatory exposure to Dickinson during my education in the mid-20th century. My impression then was that she was treated as an approachable poet of the second rank. I think the shortness of her poems was part of that presumption of approachability, and that contributed to her subsidiary ranking too. And yes, the filter of gender stereotypes and prejudice had to be a factor. Common anthology poems like “Because I could not stop for death”  added a little gothic touch to our genteel high-school textbooks, and in my college life she got a place in American lit, though much less in more general literature or poetry courses.

But when you dive into Dickinson deeply you may find that the modest surface level of a Dickinson poem, which seems a homey back-lot pond, is rather a deep and mysterious well, and that you’ll run out of breath long before you touch the bottom of some of her little poems. If you’re curious like me, you can’t help but wonder: “What did Emily Dickinson think she was doing?”

So, this spring I looked at some of her models, confidants, and influences, and chief among them must be Transcendentalism, the hard to pin down American movement centered in Dickinson’s own region and time whose instigator and leading prophet was Ralph Waldo Emerson. I had fun in my original post on “Emerson’s Water”  by comparing Emerson’s fame and influence to Oprah Winfrey—but really, you’d have to add to Winfrey, Malcom Gladwell and the Dali Lama to get the range of Emerson’s influence.*  I was going to add some Robert Bly in there too, but though Emerson wrote poetry and influenced poets up to and including Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, Emerson’s own poetry was not even wholly esteemed by other Transcendentalists.

Emerson’s poem “Water”  is still worth hearing, as many of you must have found here this spring. Back in The Sixties, when I first encountered the Transcendentalists’ story, I could see connections to the Hippie culture, and now in a generally more practical and materialist time I still see linkages. The Midwest had exceptionally widespread flooding issues this spring, and Emerson could have written “Water”  this year to address that. What’s Emerson got to say about water? The player is below.



I could use this silhouette as metaphor for trying to understand Dickinson from what surrounded her. For the more mid-20th century among us: look at that chin and hear Charles Gounod’s music.




6. He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven. William Butler Yeats is another familiar word-musician who supplies words to the Parlando Project. Perhaps I came closer to Yeats because I’ve ended up hanging around some Irish-American poets** once I moved to Minnesota, but if one is interested in musical sounding poetry in English, with things to consider beyond the inviting sound, eventually you’ll turn the corner and Yeats will be there.

The poem’s romantic closing lines are among several of Yeats’ that are well remembered by readers—memorability being one of the great tests of poetry. Hear those closing lines, for the first time or again, with the gadget below.


William Butler Yeats with cat

It was a classic battle of wills. The cat would not get up until Yeats agreed to get the cat food, and Yeats wouldn’t get the food until the cat got off his lap. Both were found and rescued in an emaciated state.***


5. May-Flower. From the roots present in Emerson, to the flower as expressed by Emily Dickinson herself, here’s the fifth most liked and listened to piece this spring.

Let’s return to the question of Dickinson’s intent. There some thought that this was written as merely a riddle-puzzle, that the reader was to guess the genus of the bloom from the clues in the poem. If that so, if that’s all, then it seems to me that Dickinson failed as a riddle-maker, as the clues don’t seem to determine the exact flower (and Dickinson, the avid botanist, would have had the knowledge to have done that). I decided to take her text and drill down to the mystical essentials she wrote of instead.

This is not the first time I’ve written of the psychedelic aspects of Dickinson. I can’t quite do the differential diagnosis on her eye problems (for which we know she needed medical attention) or decide on the theories that she may have had epilepsy or another disorder that could have caused auras and visual disturbances, but Dickinson often seems to be asking us to see differently, more intensely, as I believe she does here.

What kind of singular mind can toss this off as a riddle?

Hear my performance of “May-Flower”  with the player.




*All of these pop-culture comparisons understate the influence Emerson seems to have had in American academic life, also largely centered in New England at the time, but I don’t think they understate that Emerson’s readership in America’s 19th century extended deeply into the general literate class.

**Perhaps the most directly connected to Irish culture of them would be Ethna McKiernan. A footnote is not an adequate way to draw attention to the news that she has a new book, but she does.

***This is a joke, and only this footnote is serious. And don’t link to yesterday’s post for your homework as a cite that Carl Sandburg taught O’Hara, Baraka, and Wilbur about the building trades.

Parlando Project Status Report

This summer I completed the goals I set out for the Parlando Project, which I originally envisioned as a one-year project to combine performances of various words with various music which I could present to the public here on this blog, or as podcast that could be automatically downloaded if desired. My original goals was to try to present 100 to 120 pieces during that year, and I hoped, despite (dare I hope, because of?)  the variety that I would achieve a few thousand downloads for the entire series of pieces.

What a year it has been! The 100 pieces goal looked ambitious to me, and indeed the amount of time to write most of the music, produce and record the performances, and the research into their presentation—most of which remains unseen to the readers and listeners—was considerable. As of this week, there have been 128 Parlando Project pieces since our official launch. Hundreds of hours have gone into this year, and as with all such intense pursuits, the artist’s family gets to wonder why someone would spend that much time staring at the thing the artist is making instead of the very real people who surround them. That’s a very good question that no artist really has an answer for, save for most artists’ recognition that they seem to have no choice in the matter once they feel what the thing they are making could be. So I thank them. And Dave Moore, who’s not only written several of the most popular pieces here, he has been key to this. He’s allowed me to use his voice so you don’t have to always hear mine, as well as playing most of the keyboard parts on the Parlando Project music pieces. The Parlando Project wouldn’t be what it has been without Dave.


I suppose I should thank the muses too, but she thinks it’s a lyre,
even though it has no strings. Is it just part of an old chair?


Audience growth has been beyond my expectations over the year. Streaming web stats, at least as I get them and understand them, are less definitive than I would have hoped, but by this summer thousands of streams or downloads a month had become the norm. Blog readership here is more in line with my initial expectations, and lower than the podcast stream numbers, but the blog readership is still it’s growing steadily from what I can tell.  This only concerns me in that the show notes with the podcast are a poor substitute for the richer presentation of the material about the piece in this blog, and through iTunes the show notes are about to get much briefer and simpler. Maybe this is a sign I should stop talking and simply Kick Out the Jams?  If so, I’m going to be a bit dense and put even more emphasis on the blog in the next few months.

But I can’t leave this discussion on audience without thanking each of you who read this, and to thank several times over those of you who’ve linked to Parlando Project pieces on social media or other blogs, or who have taken the time to click the “like” star on a post here. I’m fine on focusing in close on creating what I hope are interesting pieces, but I’m not good at promoting them. You are the ones who’ve done much of that. I’m not always sure who’s done this linking, I only see the result when a piece starts getting more attention. If you’ve one of the readers/listeners who’s done so, and don’t mind saying so, please let me know in the comments.

Going forward I’m intending to keep the audio pieces coming. If I have the time, I even hope to spend a little more time looking for permissions to include works still under copyright. It’s distressing to me that there are authors whose work I’d love to present here, some of whom are long dead and whose work still speaks to us, but I feel constrained by law from doing so, and feeling lost as to the methods to get around this issue.

It’s this connection with authors who can no longer speak for themselves that has been a surprising, but most moving part this project. Reading and translating Du Fu, coming across writers I knew only as names like HD or T. E. Hulme. Finding out more about Yeats or Carl Sandburg, their poetry and politics. Finding out that Bob Dylan was the second or third songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and that the first Nobel songwriter,  Rabindranath Tagore, was such a mammoth figure standing outside my view until I looked. Or that Christina Rossetti spoke to me more clearly as a poet than the other Pre-Raphaelites. Without this project I’d never have learned that I had this unscheduled train layover in the English village of Kingham one hot summer day just down the track from where Edward Thomas was still listening to all the birds in Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. That the teenage love poem of George Washington still could have a listenership. That the simpler Emily Dickinson speaks, the more sharp the ambiguity, all needle and no embroidery. Hearing and relaying the words of Viola Davis about art being the “Only profession that celebrates what it is to live a life.”

Calliope with long blog post by Charles Meynier

I know I’m supposed to be inspiring and all,
but isn’t this blog post getting a little long?


So I’m going to continue here with the Parlando Project to “Tell Other People’s Stories,” but here, with this blog, I’m also going to spend some time talking about art, particularly about the intersection of music and words. These blog posts are going to be longer, perhaps more theoretical, but don’t fear too much theory. I’m still going to be elbow deep in making more Parlando project musical pieces, and work rounds off the sharp edges of theory.


One thing I like about the Parlando Project is how things we present end up reflecting on each other. Some of that I plan, but some of it just comes up.

Today’s piece “Wisconsin”  completes our series of pieces by songwriters who have won the Nobel Prize for literature, starting with Bengali Rabindranath Tagore who wrote thousands of songs, many of which are still sung today; then moving on to William Butler Yeats, who believed his poetry should be chanted to music and commissioned an instrument and a touring performer, Florence Farr, to realize his conception; and now today, Bob Dylan, the Midwestern American who has written hundreds of songs and whose birthday we’ll celebrate this month.

But “Wisconsin”  and Bob Dylan continues another topic, one from the last post, where I introduce the thoughts that enjoyment of a type of music is subjective, that the experience of the same music is subject to strange mutations of context in the passage of time, and that the judgement of merit and pleasure from music are two different things.

wagner opera costumes

A jam band looking to tune their banjo in the hills and feast on milk and cream


Like the lengthy operas of Richard Wagner or the exploratory playing of jam bands, Bob Dylan has never been universally appreciated. There’s evidence from his earliest years as a performer that this was intentional on Dylan’s part: to accept the freedom to perform in ways that caused part of an audience to reject his approach. Doing this in order to endear himself to another audience that would be attracted by this difference, this freedom, and yes—to a degree—to the power of the exclusion of that other audience.

This is not an unusual artistic stance. The artist who claims that audiences of Philistines cannot understand their work—and who may also aim steadfastly to make that claim true—is common enough to have been a comic stereotype from classical times. But Dylan distinguishes himself from that not only by becoming hugely influential, changing and expanding how songs will be written in English in a matter of a few years, but also because he was willing to change the nature of what audience he was repelling and attracting regularly, almost as if he had an over-arching artistic goal to say that this repel/attract response to art was a thing that we should examine with skepticism.

So one moment you are supposed to love or hate him because he’s an earnest politically-engaged folkie rejecting pop music and hedonism; and then you are supposed to love or hate him because he’s a loud rock’n’roll hip cynic deep into drugs and pop culture; and then you are supposed to love or hate him because he’s a Nashville country-music-factory family man embracing simple truths—but wait, now he’s not only that, he’s what, a Christian!? And then he’s someone adrift, trying to make records every wrong way in an era when everyone is making bales of money making records. Then he unplugs and makes two fine acoustic guitar records in his garage with not one self-written song, which only a handful notice; and then he makes five records in the last two decades that are either embraced or rejected as he writes songs full of richly imperfect characters and anti-heroes defiant and defeated. And now he has the nerve to ask us to listen to him singing songs Frank Sinatra would have sung. And all these twists and turns leave out three wonderful records that don’t fit these scenarios: “Blood on the Tracks”, “Desire”,  and “The Basement Tapes”— any one of which could be the masterpiece of most other songwriters’ careers.

Despite all this change, and more than 50 years as a notable performer, there are those who consistently don’t like his singing, don’t think much of his musicianship, who feel that the historic influence of his writing is somehow an embarrassing overachievement. Some of those people are musicians as well, some of them are smart and perceptive people, some of them hold to the duality of Bill Nye’s great sentence, who feel that like Richard Wagner’s, “Dylan’s music is better than it sounds.” How many of these people are sincere, how many are more at envious? How many are just smarter than I am, with better or different musical taste? How many can’t absorb Bob Dylan for the same mysterious reasons some can’t digest milk or gluten? Some of each.

Now let’s take today’s Bob Dylan episode. “Wisconsin”  is a set of words, never used by Dylan, written when he was around 20. A handwritten manuscript was put up for auction last month with a minimum bid of $30,000, and I don’t think it made that minimum. Notices about the auction liked to poke fun at the unimportance and artlessness of the lyrics, particularly in the context of that songwriter getting a Nobel. Well, the Parlando Project is the place “Where Music and Words Meet,” and in this case the words are waiting for music and performance to animate them. On the scribbled page they are puppets without hands in them, so the LYL Band put their hands in.


The Nobel is a long way off, but even the 20-year-old Dylan is revising what seems like off-the-cuff stuff

It turns out that the formula of nonsense and normality, commonplace and commotion, when animated with who-the-hell cares energy makes a fine rock’n’roll song. And you don’t need $30,000 to have that, you can get it here for nothing. Just click on the player below.