They Flee From Me

Somewhere in the early 16th century, a member of the English royal court Thomas Wyatt wrote a love poem, or rather a poem of lost love. Like Shakespeare’s sonnets, no one knows if it’s autobiographical, but ever since I first read it as a teenager I’ve thought it feels real. Maybe after this many centuries that’s good enough.

If so, then “They Flee From Me”  is an example of the presentness poetry gives us. Begin reading (or listening), as I did decades ago, and one moves through the rich conceit of the poem’s first stanza where the poet fancies he’s feeding some animal, likely a deer kept for private sport hunting in some rich nobleman’s deer park. If one knows that situation, then the tender animal lured inside by the kind-seeming human offering it food may put one in a piteous mood. Poor thing. It doesn’t know what the situation is, what the structure is of a nobleman’s deer park. You’re there to show that nature can be purchased and ruled — and you’re there to be killed at will.

Thomas Wyatt

Although a later engraving, this is thought to be an accurate portrait of Thomas Wyatt. Wyatt also introduced the sonnet to English language poetry.

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Poetry and its metaphors can do that, it can be clever, show us, if we pay attention, something we otherwise might have overlooked. What if we move on to the next stanza? The poem’s speaker seems to make a shrug at the first stanza’s piteous situation. Then three lines in, something else vivid happens. We may never have visited a royal deer park or lived in the particulars of Tudor royal prerogatives, but something occurs that we, now, here, may have exact sense memories of. It’s no longer a deer now, and the hands are no longer someone feeding the doomed deer kept in half-natural captivity. The hands are a woman’s. She’s embracing a lover, loosening her clothes. Anyone who knows desire knows this scene and may feel the ardor, today as in the 16th century. Like the deer being hand-fed, it feels tender, feels mutual — but that first stanza has warned us.

Last time we had Emily Dickinson bid goodbye to some fairy creature or garden animal under the stars with a line that would one day be used by Bob Dylan: “You’ll go your way, and I’ll go mine.” Wyatt’s final stanza — is that a shrug at the parting or a generous admission of non-ownership of the two lovers to each other? We are left with final lines after we know the lovers have parted ways. The poem’s speaker tells us they feel “kindly served,” and what does she deserve — as fond a set of memories perhaps? If so, we can leave this poem casually and think kindly of long-separated loves in our lives with good wishes for theirs.

But the poet went to the trouble of setting up the captive deer in the first stanza. Do they mean to go beyond a pun of deer and hart and dear and heart? Are we still to liken the poet’s situation (or the woman’s) to that hand-fed deer as they wrap things up. “Nice park, nice grub, and they bring it right to you!” that deer might have thought, but we know why the deer are kept. If we leave the fancies of poetry and move onto the lives that give it blood, I’ll end with one supposition that’s been made about “They Flee From Me”  — that the poem is autobiographical for Wyatt, and that the woman is Anne Boleyn. Boleyn, one of King Henry VIII’s doomed queens, was executed explicitly for, well, slipped gowns and how like you this. Wyatt was also arrested and imprisoned in this matter, but his connections with the King’s fixer Thomas Cromwell trumped the charges.

Accept that, and the final two lines are then not so much a graceful farewell, but a deeply bitter assessment of deadly political power.

My music today could not be made in Wyatt’s time. I used acoustic guitar while the lute was more Tudor style. Then there’s a conventional cello part, but on top of that is an unusually articulated viola part which I meant to sound more like South-Asian bowed strings. To match that viola, there’s a tambura and harmonium underlayment in the music. To hear my performance of “They Flee From Me”  you can use the player below, or if you don’t see that, you can use this highlighted link that will open a player if you don’t see one.

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Carl Sandburg’s “Back Yard” for National Poetry Month

Here’s a poem written by a second-generation immigrant about immigrants, and about Chicago in 1916, or my present city neighborhood of immigrants, or summer, summer nights — and it’s about love and affection, and about the moon that we’re all immigrants from when we fall in love.

The child of an immigrant who wrote this was Carl Sandburg, a man highly identified with the city of Chicago because he broke-out as a poet there and called his first collection, where this poem appeared, Chicago Poems.  Though Carl got around and had traveled before and after this time in his life, he’s settled here in this poem, happy in the poem that night in summer Chicago hearing the accordion, watching the courting, thinking of a neighbor thinking of cherries growing in their backyard.*

How much is different in my Minneapolis neighborhood now? It’s hard to say. I live a more separated life than Sandburg did then I suspect. Yet, I hear the Mexican music at night drifting down from a block north on summer weekends. A hajib-wearing African-born woman is shuffling her children into a minivan a few doors south as I ride by on my bicycle. A Central American refugee father would wait with me for the school bus to drop off our children when my teenager was in grade-school. The stuffed-muffled boom of car stereos has seemingly had its peak, but I still hear them occasionally. Sitting on my porch reading in the summer, the scattered parade on the sidewalks falls in with families, many accounting with babies in slings and front-packs, or strollers, and then they or their siblings go on to toddling, to walking, to scooting on bikes without pedals.

The moonlight though? Some of our silver lights now are downcast close-in little screens. Oh, we still see the moon — but streetlights and houselights, business lights and car lights, more-or-less wash out the moonlight.

But, but, we cannot wash away the moon.

How do we know love emigrates from the moon? Oh, because it’s above all of us, widely appreciated and sometimes almost touchable, other times slim and sliced and out of reach. Because it waxes and wanes yet is always there, even behind clouds. Because it speaks the language all of us speak when we’re speechless. Every person who falls in love is a new immigrant from the moon.


Even though I think this performance wants to slip away from 1916 Chicago, I couldn’t help but put a lot of period Chicago photos in the video.

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We’re still in our April National Poetry Month mode, so three ways to listen to my performance and music for Carl Sandburg’s poem “Back Yard:”  a player appears below for some, an alternative highlighted link is here for backup, and we have the new lyric video above. Oh, did Carl write all the words you’ll hear in my performance? Seems like a few others’ words crossed the border to join in the night. If you happen to have some headphones or earbuds handy, this song’s mix will make it worth getting those out.

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*The poem’s cherry tree in the backyard gives me reason for a thought, not knowing much about immigrant communities in pre-WWI Chicago. I know the tenement neighborhood of New York’s Lower East Side, and there aren’t likely trees or backyards there. Minneapolis might well have had trees in poorer working-class neighborhoods, even if the housing in some areas would be ramshackle. When Sandburg lived in Milwaukee before coming to Chicago, his wife raised urban chickens, and it’s just possible that this poem is a Milwaukee poem bound in a book named for Chicago.

Emily Dickinson’s “Ample make this Bed”

Today’s piece for National Poetry Month is another Emily Dickinson: her gothic aubade “Ample make this Bed.”   Word-music is subjective, but I find this one of the most poignant and lovely of her poems.

As with many Dickinson poems the meaning tantalizes, at once clear on the surface and tangled beneath. The trope it’s using, the aubade, is highly common in love poems. In the aubade, the lovers are faced with the dawn and do not want to leave their night. The poem’s loveliest line “Let no sunrise’ yellow noise” is as good as a line as ever graced this poetic form. Yet, Dickinson’s stance has a twist in that there’s an implication just below the surface* that the “bed” is instead a buried coffin, which the voice of the poem declares will not be occupied for a lover’s single night, but until the Last Judgement at the end of time (as per some Christian doctrine).  Stop though, and consider — which is the metaphor and which the actual moment being portrayed? Is the bed our life, or our time after life?

Here’s today’s lyric video. I found the picture of the note at the end of the video in a post by Martha Ackmann of New England Public Media.

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I think this is another example of a gestalt drawing as a poem. We’re to behold either and both.

The classic gestalt face/vase drawing asks us to alternate “figure” and “ground.”

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The paired bedding metaphors of the first two lines of the second stanza may be overlooked on one’s first or second, or even further readings, so audacious is that overall bed/coffin in the grave pairing. So, let’s examine them for a moment. How often have we tossed and turned in a restless night? Nothing is right. The mattress is too firm, or swayed and too soft. The gentle corners of the pillow jab us, and it’s neither high or low enough. The mattress/pillow lines remind us that contentment is like unto the grave.

Can we make the bed of our lives ample — or the sum of our lives totaled at final judgement? Are the lovers ever fully ample when judged at end? Oh but it is beautiful and poignant to think they might be, and honorable to try.

As National Poetry Month continues for this week, we have three ways again to enjoy this re-release of one of my favorite audio pieces from the six-year history of the Parlando Project. There’s our graphic player gadget below in many cases, but I’ve provided this highlighted link as an alternative since some ways you can view this blog won’t show the player. And there’s our poetry month bonus: the lyric video above.’

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*As usual, pun intended.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 for National Poetry Month

This Saturday is Shakespeare’s day: the day he died, and by counting roughly from his christening, the best estimate of his birthday — and so as I revisit the early years of the Parlando Project, it’s a good time to re-release my first performance of a work by Shakespeare. It’s one of his most famous sonnets, number 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

Short poems, and sonnets are short poems, can have a prismatic character: shifting light, new facets. As I wrote when I performed it back in 2017, I then mostly picked up on the boasting nature of it. While it starts off flattering the “fair youth,” all that lovely flash is really about Shakespeare the wordsmith and prolog to the final turn where the poet brags that he’s going to make the youth immortal with his “eternal lines.”

I concluded back then: “It’s not bragging if you can do it.” Immortal is a bit beyond guarantee, but a few centuries is practically close enough to settle that matter.

This morning as I thought again about Sonnet 18, I see another side. Since this is April Poetry Month, I’m perhaps led to think more distinctly about poetry’s evidence for the worth of poetry. Read in that frame, one can take the opening line as more than a rhetorical flourish. It’s asking a real question about the worth of metaphor, a prime component of poetry’s way of experiencing.

If it’s a real question, then it’s all but asking “What’s the worth of a poem?” The fancy language that completes the sonnet’s first 8 lines give some reasons just by being a word-music aria on beauty. Any IRL summer’s day varies, changes — often away from our desired day. It’s been a cold, dark April where I live. I look forward to May or better yet June, when it’s warm, when snow and ice isn’t plausible, when I can go with bare arms and legs into air without it carrying off my body’s warmth. But then comes a week or more of humid highs-in-the-90s weather, and I’ll want a crisp spring or fall day, even with some spitting rain.

The poem says the fair youth it addresses isn’t like those inconsistent days: they’re always temperate and sunny. I call BS. It’s not possible to know if Shakespeare’s sonnets are poetry as memoir, real events from his life captured in verse, or if they are characters and situations created by a wide-ranging dramatist — but here, as in some other “fair youth” sonnets, I see inequalities of class and caste being exhibited. Do newly beloveds seem perfect, always compatible? I’ll grant that. I’ve been in relationships with some pretty good human beings over the years, but as a short speech in verse, this rhetorical portrayal of the perfect fair youth who in power analysis seems to be of a higher social standing than Shakespeare and his family, is (in character or reality) pandering to vanity, and I would consider it a wink and a nod to those who’d share Shakespeare’s aspiring-to-be-middle-class background that “we all know this.”

There’s a visual pun in my “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”  lyric video’s first dissolve.*

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Have I spoiled this poem for those who have read it, or shared it, as a sincere poem of love? I hope not. But that’s the facet I see today of this famous sonnet — but I said above I was seeing Sonnet 18 as being about poetry’s worth. How’s that? First off, it gives pleasure. If the opening 8 lines flatter too much to make me read them without context, they are  word-music. Sing me silly love songs! I think the poem’s conclusion to the opening question is “Yes! You should  compare. Do make metaphors. Do sing word-music.” Some of these poems will be close-enough to be immortal. Some will be about as short-lived as the shortest relationship; some will have a combined readership of 1.5. Even if those poems are not immortal, the desire to make poetry and the hope of reading poetry with pleasure is immortal as “long as men (editorial comment: and women too you gender-exclusionist-pig Billy) can breathe or eyes can see.”

You can hear my 2017 performance three ways. There’s a new lyric video above, and for some of you an audio player gadget below. Just want to hear the audio of the performance but don’t see the player? This highlighted link will do that. Listening again to that performance recorded from the feeling of the poet bragging on his words, I think it also works to portray my feelings about the poem today.

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*I value the audience this Project has: people like you who are interested in some pretty odd corners in a variety of poetry and a variety of music are rare. That’s not flattery, just fact. So, I have faith someone out there will laugh. The rest, forgive me the indulgence.

Her Lips are Copper Wire for National Poetry Month

Even with its most popular and well-known poems, poetry works, works its impact, one reader, one listener, at a time.

Doing this project leads me to read a lot of poems. I’ll go through whole collections, entire anthologies, looking for things that I suspect I can create music for. That sense, “This could work with music” is hard to quantify. I’ve noticed repetition and refrain will often cause a second look. Longer poems will need to presently suggest selections as I’m seeking sub-5-minute pieces. Yes, graceful lines that sing on the page for whatever reason will suggest music. An image or an incident vividly depicted that grabs me will ask me to stop and consider it. Oh, I don’t really know, can’t say for sure, how I select things for this. I’m happy with it being a mystery, and I hope you, reader/listener are too.

Sometimes that attraction is strong though. The moment I finished my first reading of Jean Toomer’s “Her Lips are Copper Wire”  I knew I had to write music for it and do my best to realize it in performance. Perhaps I can’t say why that is. Little matter. The pull, the attraction, was undeniable.

This Surrealist love poem, like E. E. Cummings poem from last time, was written before the first Surrealist Manifesto, and is proof Americans could use English in this mode early in the Modernist era. Long time readers here will know I sometimes like to mesh in Blues and Jazz flavors with my music,* but Toomer, an early Afro-American Modernist, seemed to have already suggested that with this poem, so that I didn’t have to underline the point. I suppose it just strongly communicated the wonder of desire to me.

Cane cover

This poem was placed into Toomer’s Modernist masterpiece, the book-length mixed-form “Cane.”

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It’s National Poetry Month, the reason I’m going through early Parlando Project pieces to present a more rapid posting schedule here this April. NPM tries to increase interest in poetry, but it’s hard to get a read on how significantly it achieves that. Arrayed against it is every poem someone didn’t “get” for whatever reason. Every poem that says only “Care about what I’m saying, even though you won’t understand,” poems without the bridge to “Here’s how you connect to this.” Every poem that bores us keeps us from poetry, and we are so easily bored. How many poems does it take to put up a wall against poetry, and will putting a poster on that wall dissolve the wall?

Is this the fault of the poets, their poetry? Is that the fault of us, the readers/listeners? Are there social structures that surpass us in enforcing this distance from the art?  That’s a mystery. I don’t know the answer. But I know that once in awhile I come upon a poem like “Her Lips are Copper Wire,”  and like another Surrealist love poet Paul Éluard I’m left compelled “to speak without having anything to say” — anything to say other than the words of this poem. That limerent pleasure is likely why you’re here, reading this, and listening to the performance of Toomer’s poem. Thanks to that mystery and you.

No lyric video today, but you can hear my performance of Jean Toomer’s poem with a player gadget below. Don’t see that? Well, this highlighted link will also do the job.

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*I’ll bring that musical influence to any text, breaking out Delta slide for T. S. Eliot, turning German Dada verse and Robert Frost into blues stanzas — and anachronistically seeing Emily Dickinson as a scratchy blues 78 record, or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at a beatnik Jazz café.

Yeats’ “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” for National Poetry Month

Continuing our National Poetry Month celebration, here’s another poet’s love poem, loved by other poets, William Butler Yeats’ “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.”   If Millay’s “Rosemary”  portrays a relationship turned cold, “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”  is more at the wooing stage.

The speaker in Yeats poem begins by saying that they’d offer their beloved heaven or the heavens — well, to be exact, a luxurious simulation as some kind of cloth — and then not care that the beloved might just use it like a rug and walk all over it. And then they say they don’t have those cloths of heaven, only a dream. Still, the beloved can walk on that, the poet’s dreams; but the poem finishes with a plea that they should walk softly on that treasure, the wooer’s dreams.

In this short eight-line poem, Yeats does some fine things. First — no surprise if it’s Yeats — it sounds beautifully, and he does this almost entirely with meter, supplely alternating two and three foot beats in my scansion of it, though you can force an iambic feel.*  Unlike many poets and poems that pour on the consonance seeking musical sounds, he avoids this here other than “dim and dark.” Nor is end rhyme a factor, though there are 2.9 internal rhymes in the entire poem (“night” – “light,” “spread” – “tread,” and “cloths” – “enwrought.) Instead, Yeats leans on repetition of words, even though one can read or hear this poem without noticing just how heavily repetition is used. These words are repeated at least once: “cloths,” “light,” “feet,” “I,” “dreams,” “spread,” “under,” “my,” and “your” along with generally-repeatable articles like “and” and “the,” and with only 61 words in the entire poem, almost half the poem has another half echoing it.

It’s also subtle in it’s meaning. Yes, it has been used in “real life” as a wooing poem by others, but being subtle in a valentine is a risky business. Yeats himself originally published this as a persona poem in the voice of a character as “Adah Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,”  even though many identify this as an expression of his in-real-life love for Maude Gonne. But notice this: the poem’s speaker would be extravagant with something he doesn’t own (and maybe no one could own fabric as rich as heaven) — but he’s asking for some mercy with the actuality of his immaterial dreams.

So, there’s a lot here for other poets to admire, but there’s more: this poem restates the situation of most poets when they are writing too. We plan to create the closest we can with words and their weave to the heavens — and those plans, those wishes, are our dreams. And then — like Maude Gonne, the plausible love interest this poem may have been directed to — people walk, not on them, but around them.   Don’t be dismayed, such is life. All Artists Fail.  We are the wooers, and then when we read or perform poetry such as this one by Yeats, we become the lovers, the beloved.

Watch here for views of a statue depicting this poem created by Jackie McKenna that I much admire. One thing I just noticed when doing this video: the crouching figure of the wooer looks quietly satisfied viewed straight on, and then in the final profile shot, a little sad or resigned. Intended or trick of the light?

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Three ways to hear my music and performance of Yeats’ “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven:”   there’s a player gadget for some, this highlighted link for others to use, and, at least for now, I’m continuing to create new lyric videos for this National Poetry Month series, and that is available above.

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*That sort of repetition with variations, trod gently, gives a better musical effect in most cases.

Song to the Dark Virgin

I’ll promise you a love song at the end of this, but let’s look briefly at some other stuff that surrounds that song.

As I look in the Langston Hughes poetry collection I’m featuring this Black History Month for a Valentine’s Day piece, there is less to pick from than one might imagine. Even though his The Weary Blues  is a first book by a young man, and it includes some of the Afro-American poet’s best-known poems — poems of love or passionate desire are conspicuous in their absence.

Even for 1926, the year The Weary Blues  was published, this is somewhat unusual. You might think roughly a century ago the down and dirty lunge of love might be automatically missing, and to some degrees of physical explicitness you’d be correct, but poems on the emotional variety of love and desire were if anything the very fashion for the last decade called The Twenties. Popular and esteemed poets of that era Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sara Teasdale, and others were quite ready to talk frankly about desire. Nor were Afro-Americans silent on this subject. Jean Toomer wrote what I think is flat-out one of the best surrealist love poems of all time. Claude McKay wrote beautiful and passionate love sonnets, and the Blues singers performing and recording then were quite willing to serve in the lust and fond department of art.*

We’ve already said that Hughes was a pioneer in valuing those very Blues and Jazz singers. Early this month we performed Hughes’ “To Midnight Nan at Leroy’s,”   a Blues poem presenting just such a singer and a condensed late-night view of a hook up. Was the man in this poem Hughes himself? Possible, but I think the preponderance of the evidence says not. I think he’s an observer of the tryst, and even given the value he puts on short poems in his collection, he somewhat stints on the details.

No, Langston Hughes, for all his night-life settings and ash-can-school observations in The Weary Blues is almost prudish about sex and love. If he feels desire himself, he’s loath to talk about it — while all around him poets and singers were talking and talking about that.

I’m not a scholar, just a person who actively seeks out poetry encounters and then gathers some information that helps me grasp what the poem may be on about. Hughes was guarded about his sexuality. I gather this was true for his entire life. Some believe he was gay or bi, but then other poets of his time were and that didn’t stop them from writing about desire even if their readers didn’t necessarily understand the gender object of their affections.**   I read at least one piece that concluded Hughes was asexual. Frankly no one seems to know, and if you’re looking to date Langston Hughes, he’s dead, so it may not matter.

Today’s piece uses Hughes’ “Song to the Dark Virgin.”   It does show passion, and if not as Surrealist as Toomer’s great poem, it dips into almost a Robert Herrick style 17th century set of conceits***  Hughes’ use of the archaic pronoun “Thou” and a few other less current words in common speech show him code-switching to something a bit like the Bible’s “Song of Songs”  in the King James translation.

And speaking of “Song of Songs,”  it’s not even clear if this love poem is to some anonymous person or if in some sense it’s to Black people in general, just as “Song of Songs”  melds what seem like individual lovers into Judaism. If you read this poem as Black is Beautiful breaking out 40 years before it’s more publicized instances, you could make a good case.**** The Weary Blues  includes poems set in the various ports Hughes landed at around the world during his stint as a merchant sailor before assembling the book, and his father was living in Mexico. From this I wondered if the ”Dark Virgin” is a reference to the Black Madonna paintings and figures he might have encountered overseas. A possible clue to this not just being a young person’s love poem is that it’s titled “to the  Dark Virgin” not “to a.”

Mother of God of Andronicus

A Greek Orthodox icon, one of the examples of the Black Madonna found in Eurasia and Latin America.

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But Valentines Day is here, so let’s perform this as a romantic love song. In Robert Herrick style, just calling out a love object as a virgin isn’t unusual. In such a reading or performance this is how the poem may be described: the poem opens with the idea of being a scattered and shattered love offering to the beloved in Part I. Part II gets a little more intimate: the speaker wants to be the layer of clothes next to the beloved skin. Kinky, but Herrick and for that matter “If I Was Your Girlfriend”  Prince would approve. Part III gets closer to consummation of desire as in the trope of consummation as consumed by fire. Yes, it’s a little bit of archaic dress up, but who knows, maybe a love whisper of “I want to annihilate your body” is still a working bedroom line?

Song to the Dark Virgin

The above are guitar chords as I fingered them, but the recording uses a capo on the 3rd fret, so it’s heard in the key of Bb today. Interesting progression, there’s no V chord in it!

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If you follow the progress of the imagery Part I starts out with shining light, then the more obscured light inside folds of clothing, and finally in Part III it’s out in blazes of leaping flame.

I ardently performed this one today with guitar, chorused fretless bass, and a warped low string section. I let those bowed strings play what an electric bass would play so that the actual electric bass could do other things. Many of you can hear it with a graphical player below, but those whose way of reading this won’t show the player can use this highlighted link to play it.

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*She’s not Black, but Genevieve Taggart wrote one of the most pointed and poignant of love poems about love on the poor side of town during the last Twenties too.

**Today’s poem never uses a gendered pronoun or name.

***No, not meaning he’s vain — it’s a poetic term for a metaphor that’s not afraid to be elaborately weird or fanciful.

****Back to “Song of Songs,”  get to the 5th verse and you get “I am black, but comely” in the KJV. Or as “Ecclesiastics”  had it: “Nothing new under the sun.”

To Midnight Nan at Leroy’s

It’s Black History Month, and I’m planning on presenting a series focusing on Langston Hughes’ first poetry collection: The Weary Blues — but before we get to today’s new Hughes’ piece, let me briefly set down a few reasons for why Langston Hughes.

This project presents early Modernist poets most often. From the American predecessors of Modernism (Whitman, Dickinson) we often jump to those of the 1905-1926 era who sought in various ways to “make it new.” While I continue to read and have interest in post-1926 work, less of that can be reused freely for this project. This reduces the Afro-American sources free to use, as the beginnings of the Harlem Renaissance have moved into Public Domain slowly, year by year, since this project began in 2016. My earlier Hughes’ pieces, even if they were eventually included in The Weary Blues,  were published earlier and so had already moved into PD. It’s only on January 2022 that the whole book’s contents moved to public domain.

The Weary Blues cover 1024

Our February focus: Langston Hughes’ first book.

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A second reason: look at the title of Hughes’ first book, it includes “Blues.”  As we celebrate Afro-American contributions and experience this month there’s an important parallel here. Americans, some of whom set up shop in England and France before WWI, are hugely important in establishing the Modernist break with the shopworn 19th century writing styles. At the same time, Afro-Americans were crucial in doing the same job for music. As I tried to briefly explain last Black History Month, a great deal of the American Black intelligentsia was caught flat-footed by this musical revolution happening around and by them.*

Let’s cut them some slack on that: cultural change is hard to understand while it’s happening, and the quick white adaptation of Afro-American musical ideas in The Jazz Age of the previous Twenties reflected back to the Black community some rough or even derogatory approximations of what was really going on.

Hughes was a young man when he wrote today’s poem. He’d crossed paths with Black intellectuals by then, but he wasn’t fully one of them. His father had cut a bargain for him to go to Columbia to become a professional. Langston skipped out, worked as a cook and at other restaurant jobs; and took to sea working on merchant ships. Hughes came quickly to an understanding of this new music, it’s complexities and its reflections.

Lastly, here’s one of the things I’ve come to understand about the beginning of Modernist poetry in English: there were substantial elements there that sought to strip back poetry, to simplify it to its essence, to make it immediate to an open heart and mind without pre-requisites. This mode was eventually superseded by a more academic and allusive poetry to the degree that some of the best of this early poetic Modernism was set aside or down-rated as simplistic and insufficient.

Over the years you’ve heard me sing the praises of Carl Sandburg, who seems to have been eventually excused away as cornball. But Sandburg was still vital to the young Langston Hughes in the 1920s, and Hughes took Sandburg’s Midwestern American Modernism and applied it to his own heritage and experience. The mainstream of Afro-American poetry retained more of the vitality and working-class connection that Sandburg expressed. Thank you, Afro-Americans.

Let’s move onto the poem I used as today’s text for the performance you’ll be able to hear below. “To Midnight Nan at Leroy’s”  is not one of Hughes’ best-known works, though it deserves more attention. Here’s a link to the text. You could skim through it on the page and see the Blues connection, even if it’s not a Blues stanza as printed — though it could be refitted as one — but more importantly, it’s got a Blues sensibility. My reading of the poem says there may be a little playing going on, a little con and double consciousness which the whole of the work will show up. This will let the hip listener say on hearing it “Yeah, you and I know what that’s like.” That’s Blues sensibility.

I think the poem is a dialog. Nan of the title is performing at a club, and she’s expressing some eroticism in her performance. I think the poem’s other voice is hitting on Nan. The opening stanza is that other voice, the un-named man, who’s starts out teasingly acknowledging that he’s getting what she’s putting down.

The second stanza could be either voice. I performed it neutral, even as if it might be a narrator, a third voice. Note the loaded word “jungle” in it, one of the “primitive” adjectives used to describe this new Afro-American art. Primitive isn’t totally a derogatory or diminutive to the Modernists, who remember wanted to remove the cruft of a worn-out culture and get back to an essence; but in the context of a white-supremacist-soaked society it could surely slide over to being that. Black artists with intact self-respect did use labels such as “Jungle” in the 1920s, so it’s not simply an external white appellation, but it sure sounds like they’re partially reflecting with the white culture when they do. Pause at the last line: I hear Hughes’ “And the moon was white” with intent.

The third stanza is the man cheering on the singer/performer Nan, and I think also he’s suggesting that if “lovin’” is her object, he’s ready.

Fourth? Yes, the two get together. I perform this as Nan’s voice. Note Nan’s use of the diminutive “boy” for the man in this part of our dialog. He may have been acting the player in his earlier stanzas, but I think this is an intentional reveal that the male character is less than a fully actualized man. The white moon image returns, and their moments of Black joy contrast against it. One could write a moving essay on this poems white moon image, but I’ve already gone long.**  You write it.

The poem concludes by refraining the entire first stanza. I perform in the man’s voice, now sour-grapes-ing the couples’ night. Who put one over on the other in this one-night? Maybe some of both, and maybe external social forces are part of the fate-mix too. Hughes chose to dedicate the poem to Nan, so I suspect his sympathies lie more with her. Another question: is Langston Hughes the unnamed male voice? Hughes’ sexuality is mysterious, and while that’s possible, my estimate is that he’s observing, not writing a poem as memoir here.

I performed “To Midnight Nan at Leroy’s”  with my own one-man-band providing the trio accompaniment, and I hope your speakers can handle the bass part. Some of you will see a graphical player gadget below, but other ways of reading this blog won’t show it, so here too is a highlighted hyperlink  to play it.

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*Last years Black History Month book was 1925’s The New Negro , which included an essay worrying about the dilution of Black uplift and culture from the diversion of frivolous Jazz. Read my post on that essay here.

**As with Sandburg’s short poems, with Langston Hughes here it may help to imagine that you are translating this from Tang dynasty Chinese. The plain English words here could mislead us to think this a mere rote moon/June thing and that Hughes had nothing complex to say.

Velvet Shoes

I’ve got a gorgeous song for you today, despite a difficult week for new work. I’ll try to get to it shortly, with only a little throat-clearing first.

It was 18 degrees F below zero* this morning. Oh, there was probably some wind chill too, but let’s not put too fine a point on temps like that — Minnesota January winter certainly doesn’t.

Our winter, to speak broadly, isn’t just cold. There’s also ice, snow, and winter cancellations and rescheduling. If that sounds grim, well, somedays it is — but then there’s a little something else about this sort of winter when you run across others out in it. Early this morning I saw another bicyclist with full face mask and goggles sawing their bike over the packed snow pavement. Before that, a woman walking her dog, each of them concentrating on getting such business done. In other duties, some school kids were walking to school. Every one of those fellow citizens are dealing with this shared winter too, and despite not being able to see much of their faces, you can likely feel something of a common cause.

But winter can also be experienced without even such scattered crowds. I used to commute around midnight on a bicycle, and the urban streets on rough winter nights would be the same as some new nowhere, like unto a SciFi paperback cover of the astronaut gazing through alien ruins. My wife sometimes runs just before dawn to a park that has no others but her and the existential animals.

Today’s piece is a winter poem by American poet Elinor Wylie, who wrote absolutely lovely short lyrical poems around 100 years ago. Hers is a slightly different winter. First, she’s walking with someone else. She doesn’t mention the temperature, but I doubt it quite as bitter-brittle as my morning. Hers is explicitly windless, but there is snow, the kind of loose powder that tends to fall when it’s colder than the soggy wet flakes.

Here’s a link to the text of Wylie’s Velvet Shoes,  in case you’d like to follow along.

Wylie’s reputation dropped fairly rapidly after her premature death in 1928. One knock against her pretty poems was that they were that and nothing else but attractive pictures drawn in word music. Well of course music itself doesn’t task itself with more than to be attractive, and visual art doesn’t need to support a philosophical argument or insight explicitly.

Elinor Wylie at the door

Sure it’s a pretty line: “I shall go shod in silk,” but damn it, open the door, it’s seriously winter out here!

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I rather like this poem’s picture, because it’s something of a white-space void with just scant details coming out of the snow, like a Whistler painting. But it’s not even visual clues for the most part — the details are textures, feel images: veils, silk, wool and fleece, feathers and down, and then the velvet of the title. There is testimony that there is no noise, much less talk. Indeed, her partner in the walk is near-totally obscured, and this choice —conscious or unconscious — seems striking to me. Is she alienated from them, or so close that there’s no novelty in mentioning? The sensuality of the imagery may give undercurrents of erotic love, but the obscuring of the partner makes that reading stranger.

I seem to be specializing recently in taking leaps at alternate readings that even I don’t think likely, though not impossible either, like my wild-ass guess that Truth’s body moldering in the grave next to Emily Dickinson’s Died for Beauty could plausibly be John Brown. Don’t bet your grade on that one, students! But I thought of the woman walking her dog this cold and snow-covered morning. No reason to talk there, nor was the dog taking time out for a barking address. Wasn’t that dog wearing a wool sweater? Less romantic a poem, but not impossible.

Though it’s freshly done, I’m fond of the music I came up with for Wylie’s poem. Maybe you’ll like the little song they make together when I performed it this morning. The player gadget is below for some of you, and if you don’t have that, you have this highlighted hyperlink that will also play it.

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*That’s minus 28 C. Minus.

A Winter’s Tale, Revisited

Here’s one of my favorite pieces from the five-plus years of the Parlando Project, and given that winter has fully started off in Minnesota, it’s an apt one for what I see out my window. As I post this, I remind you that the archives here going back to 2016 have nearly 600 audio pieces, covering a considerable variety of words (mostly poetry) and music.

I’d planned several new pieces to start off December here, and I even had a few recorded tracks and sketched out compositions as the month began. Then stuff happens.

First off, the teenager got sick, which meant recording in my studio space was out for a week. Then just as they were getting better, I got sick — sick enough that sitting up in a chair was a goal and thinking, reading, and writing —much less playing instruments and singing — was a stretch. I’m still operating at less than 50%.

So instead of a new piece today, this piece created from a poem by D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence was perhaps better known as a novelist and literary critic, but his poetry took interesting approaches in the Modernist era of the early 20th century.

His “A Winter’s Tale”  is as mysterious as any exotic Surrealist poem, and though metrical and all rhymed up, largely observant of the Imagist rules that broke English language poetry from off-the-shelf metaphors and the lot of tell-not-show imagery. Here’s a link to the text of Lawrence’s poem. It’s a lovely text, the words are a pleasure to put in one’s mouth or ear; and I’m also fond of the musical setting I created for this one. I’m often telling myself when arranging my music to give the compositions more patience and space — and then I go on and add one more thing and another, defeating that thought. Here I listened to myself.

When I first presented Lawrence’s “A Winter’s Tale,”   I said I wasn’t quite sure what it means. More than two years later, I don’t know much more. Many readers sense some kind of “end of a romantic relationship” situation here, and taken that way the poem works. Strangely works, but works. Other possibilities occur to me as I’ve revisited “A Winter’s Tale”  since I performed it. Some sort of animal hunting* seems implied here as much as human romance. Is that hunting subject, or the metaphor? Sometimes poems refuse to choose on that question.

Battle of the poets. Smokey Robinson brings it with this opening “Everyday brings change, and the world puts on a new face. Sudden things rearrange, and this whole world seems like a new place. Secretly I’ve been tailing you like a fox that prays on a rabbit.” Now, go to the bottom of this post to see what I can do to try to meet Motown’s popmusic-craft with my own thing.

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Is it possible that what the poem speaks of and searches for is winter itself? At first this may seem a strained reading, after all the poem spends a good deal of its brief text describing winter scenery, so how can it be something the poet is seeking when it’s in front of them? Some of that description though is of winter’s haunting and elusive qualities: obscuring mists melding with snow, far off winds that sound like sobs or sighs. The winter in this poem does seem to be winter’s arrival, perhaps even earlier than normal arrivals, with grass blades at first not even covered by the early snow. In such a reading is what the poet has to tell this promptly arriving winter is that spring will follow it?

The player to hear my performance of “A Winter’s Tale”  is below for some of you. Don’t see it? This highlighted hyperlink will also play the piece.

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*One of my favorite early English sonnets, Thomas Wyatt’s “They Flee from Me”  makes use of deer hunting as symbol for love’s vulnerability, long before Smokey Robinson’s song first presented by The Marvelettes “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game”  did likewise.