Recuerdo, or we celebrate Joni Mitchell’s Blue with some Edna St. Vincent Millay

A longish one this time. I’ll try to make it worth your while.

In the places I go it has been hard to escape Joni Mitchell and the 50-year anniversary of her breakthrough record album Blue  this month. Mitchell is one of those artists like Emily Dickinson* or Thelonious Monk who people contemporaneously recognized as someone on the scene, someone whose work might appear at hand or gain mention — but then decades afterward the level of originality and importance of what they had done becomes more and more clear.

Mitchell’s Blue  wasn’t immediately recognized as a classic, successful statement. Musically it’s a bit odd, even by the eclectic field of 1971 recordings. Though “singer-songwriter”** was a growing genre at the time, most of them would present their songs in a full band context on record. Instead, Mitchell’s record is spare, often just her voice and one instrument — and sometimes the instrument is a mountain dulcimer at that! She often used her voice unusually, with quick almost yodeling leaps in service of the originality in her melodic contours, and this was off-putting to some. One thing I remember about listening to Joni Mitchell LPs back in my youth was that the amount of volume in her upper register would rattle the plastic frame and enclosures of my tiny portable stereo’s speakers, producing a very unpleasant buzzing distortion.

To the degree that she was noticed in 1971, that she could be a figure who’s fame might outreach her record sales or rock critic esteem — it wasn’t just that she was a successful songwriter for others who could round-off her corners just a bit to present “Clouds (Both Sides Now),” “Woodstock,”  or “The Circle Game”  to a wider audience than their author could — it was because she was known as (this gets complicated, stay with me here) as the “girlfriend” of a lot of male rock stars. This got joked about. The now infamous Rolling Stone “Old Lady*** of the Year Award” in 1971, or a joke picture of a purported Joni Mitchell LP with a song listing of: 1. Crosby, 2. Stills, 3. Nash, 4. And Young.

Do those of my generation remember that? Did you laugh? I did. That’s part of the complication, but then I believe sex is only funny when you’re risking doing it “wrong” — and it is best if it’s funny some of the time. Dead serious and entirely secret? We might as well sign up for Brave New World  industrial reproduction or efficient devices shipped in plain brown wrappers.

That said, now-a-days that 1971 behavior toward Mitchell is now viewed as belittling and a case-study in patriarchal attitudes in the “counter-culture.” Which it was. In the era’s defense I’ll say that the times were groping (should I revise that word?) toward an imperfect but different attitude toward sexual relationships. Just exactly what women would have to say about this wasn’t the first or second thing on the official list of speakers, alas.

It just so happens that Mitchell spoke up anyway, and mixed that with a kind of music which might have seemed just a bit odd or imperfect then, but now is seen as effective, important, and original.

And now it’s time to play Frank’s favorite history game. Folks are thinking about Joni Mitchell and 1971’s Blue  here in 2021, but what could we see if we rebound off that 1971 time and look back 50 years from then?

Millay-Mitchell

Well, they do tilt their berets the opposite way. Edna St. Vincent Millay and Joni Mitchell

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The poetry fans who are still with this post were wondering when I’d get to Edna St. Vincent Millay. In 1921 Millay had broken out as a young poet to watch, partly by that “being on the scene” presence in New York City in the era around and just after WWI, and by famously losing a poetry contest with a poem that many (including the contest’s winner) thought was the best of the lot. That poem was then featured in her debut book-length collection, and now it was time for the “difficult second album.” She planned that second collection to be what was to eventually become her book: Second April,  a title that suggested that plan. But she was having trouble with her publisher, and eventually another collection came out ahead of it, just as the 1920’s began to roar: A Few Figs from Thistles.****   It’s a fair analogy: that book was Millay’s Blue. And like Mitchell’s Blue  people noticed the author’s public persona not just the poetry. Millay became the exemplar of “The New Woman” of the 1920s, who were sometimes finding patriarchal marriage a doubtful institution, and flaunting disregard for traditional arguments financial and domestic for that. Speaking openly about erotic feelings. Creating their own art rather than settling for standby muse duties.

I’m not sure if even an incomplete list of Millay’s lovers was known to a general poetry reading public 100 years ago, and one can’t quite imagine Poetry  magazine naming Millay “The Old Lady of 1921,” but the persona in A Few Figs from Thistles  gave us that adventurer in love character that makes Millay and Mitchell echoing artists. But the original edition was a thin volume, chapbook length, and from things I’ve read this week it seems that Millay worried that it wasn’t substantial enough while Second April’s  publication faced continued delays. A second version of A Few Figs from Thistles  was hurriedly planned and issued, and some of the additions were standout poems in the collection as we now know it, such as the one I use for today’s audio piece: “Recuerdo.”   Here’s a link to the full text of that poem if you’d like to follow along.

In her heyday of the 1920s Millay’s Modernist milieu and outlook wasn’t always reflected in her poetic diction. This may have helped her readership who were not yet used to, or appreciative of, free verse or other experiments in expression. Robert Frost or William Butler Yeats would also retain a poetry audience in this time with lovely metrical verse that expressed the modern condition, but Millay was (to my mind) not consistently as facile with metrical verse and more often fell back to fusty 19th century syntax and language,***** but she could also rise above those limitations. “Recuerdo” is an example of that. It has an effective refrain expressing two contradictory and relatable emotions: “tired” and “merry.” Those emotional words are contained solely within the refrain. The rest of the poem progresses in the Modernist/Imagist style: things and events are described out of order, and in a common Modernist trope in a mixture of tones and importance. How many love poems include a phrase like “smelled like a stable?” Yes, this is largely a love poem — why it even touches on the aubade formula of the pair’s night being interrupted by the dawn — but look again: love (or sexual desire) as a word or even as a direct description is not mentioned once! Yet many readers can sense and feel the limerence of erotic love all through the poem intensely. That is  there in this objective and fragmented depiction. Remarkable!

But that absence does allow for some ambiguity. Is there some level of inconsequential going-through-the-motions experience available in a reading of this poem? Or at least some sense of transience in the experience, which after all is framed by the title which means memory in Spanish? I think that’s accessible there too. Suppose I was to present this poem by inventing a frame that imagines it was written by two drug-addled addicts hooking up for one night and to say that that emotion word “merry” in the refrain has some archaic meanings that are congruent with “high.” Same words, different effect in that frame. Or if the same poem was written with a title like “How I Met your Father.”

We do have one clue to Millay’s intent. There is an extant recording of the author reading this poem, and though it’s not very dramatic, it hints at a bit of ironic distance on the events in the poem, a sense of noting the paradoxical koan of memorable inconsequence.

Perhaps I overthink things, but the last stanza with the donation of fruit to the older woman who responds with words of gratitude was rich in ambiguity to me as well. An act of Christian charity, mixed in Modernistically with other random events and sights? Seems likely, but if I’m traipsing around tired and tipsy with my night’s hot flame and somehow, someway we’re carrying two dozen minus two each of apples and pears, their value isn’t exactly gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Is the older woman’s “God bless you” a simple expression of thanks or an implied suggestion that maybe the two younger lovers might want to kick in some spare change, which they consequently provide? Given the push-pull of political radicalism and romance in Millay’s work, can we be sure she doesn’t intend to portray something of the limits of the gesture to the old woman?

How many are thinking then that I’m an unromantic old cynic who has misunderstood and harmed this poem? Is there another group that says I’m not straightforward in my social and political analysis of the situation? Well, my fate is to be doomed to be in both states alternately and sometimes at once. That’s why I like this poem.

One knock against Millay and other New Woman poets of her time once the peak of her fresh fame wore off was that she wrote love poems, not statements about the important, complex issues facing us. Fifty years later, one knock about Joni Mitchell was that she was writing songs about two little people who don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Both of those summary beliefs are incorrect — but then, what is it you are saying: love songs are simple?

Maybe for you. Not for all of us.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Edna St Vincent Millay’s “Recuerdo”  will appear below for some of you. No player to be seen? Then this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab window and play it. My music today isn’t very Joni Mitchell-ish (though later Mitchell, much past Blue,  was a bit into synths). The vocal turned out to be a “scratch track” I kept because it seemed usefully spontaneous, even though I omit a few words in the poem’s text inadvertently.

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*Dickinson wrote much of her work in the 1860s, and a small group of people knew of some of it though almost nothing was published in her lifetime. I speak here of the Dickinson that existed at the turn of the century after several volumes of her poetry with regularizing edits had been issued. Today she’s taught as one of the great American poets. Back when I was in school she was a charming slight oddity that seemed to fit in with some of the small, short poems the Imagists/Modernists produced in Millay’s time.

**Years ago I wrote a humor piece where I called this 1970’s trend “Singer Sewing-Machine” artists because so much of their ethos had airs of “back to the land/rent a house in Laurel Canyon/sew hippy blouses and embroidered patches on your jeans.”

*** “Old lady” and “Old man” as in “My old lady” were usages borrowed from what were the old-fashioned/outdated terms for wedded partners. Used in the more fluid arrangements by young people in the mid-20th century counter-culture they were supposed to be ironic statements of: partnership at least for now. Mitchell’s song on Blue “My Old Man”  is an encapsulation of that moment.

****Back when I first presented a poem from that collection that so many of you liked this spring,“First Fig,” I was unaware of the origin of that book’s title. I wonder if my father who memorized Millay’s short poem but also studied to become a Christian minister in the Millay era would have known that Millay’s book title is from Jesus’ words in Matthew.

*****Her admirers can parse this as a Modernist use of older “ready-mades” which are being modified in the context of her 20th century verse.

Distance Blues (Theory)

Here’s another woman writing very compressed verse about life and love around a hundred years ago, during that last decade we called “The Twenties.” She’s Dorothy Parker, and you’ll often find her work filed under “humorist.” As I said a few years ago when first talking here about Parker, I suspect that classification tended to prevent her work being discussed as poetry.

Young Dorothy Parker

Let me extend Charles Mingus: If Dorothy Parker was a gunslinger, there’d be a whole lot of dead serious romantic poets

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That label, used to set humor aside from “important work,” like the idea that verse sung with music is unlikely to be real poetry, seems not just needlessly exclusionary, but ahistorical. The western classical canon didn’t make this distinction when the verse was in Greek or Latin. Maybe translation slows down the appreciation of the jokes in Catullus for example? Perhaps Parker’s real fault (other than being a woman who wasn’t publishing in poetry journals in this era) was in being seen as “only” a humorist, and one that tended to write, like several other popular female poets of her time, about the abundant absurdities in human romantic relationships.*

This April I finished my several-year serial-performance of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  a poem that wants to, indeed its innovative design is to, talk about a wide variety of things. Its middle part, like our middle parts, is very concerned with just such human miss-connections — but for good or ill that section is surrounded by an elaborate series of scenes time-adrift and spiritual that wear the mask of tragedy and religious/academic vestments. Does Eliot ever make you laugh at the absurdities? Well, there are a few sly jokes in it — but more in contrast, “The Waste Land”  is long, it’s elaborate, and for me it remains powerful assuming you can accept the way Eliot sung his suite of songs printed silent on paper. Is elaboration the superior art? You tell me. I think it has its powers, as does concision. Are we less likely to be moved or changed by laughter or tears? Again, you tell me, I don’t know.

Where is it that Parker fails if we are not to consider her short pieces, printed in glossy magazines as witty amusements, as actual poetry? Are her observations merely trite, just a chuckle the first time we hear them, and unrewarding beyond that? Does humor outdate faster than solemn meditations?

I’ll sing a couple, and you decide. Today’s audio piece is an old recording where I combined two Parker poems, “Distance”  and “Theory,”  with a bit of acoustic guitar blues feeling. Combining short pieces is a tactic taken by several of the Modernists of Parker’s era:** the idea is that short, epigrammatic poems can gain power if presented as a facet in a collection of other short verses. The player gadget will appear below for some of you, and if you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab or window to allow you to hear it.

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*Parker also ridicules patriarchal attitudes, which might have been minimized as mere jokes without consequence to assuage male privilege, but she’s also rough on some female-gendered behavior. This can be read by some as both-sides-ism, but maybe there’s also a reading that says it’s a more essential, radical critic of gender.

**I’ve been thinking about that tactic, used by poets Wallace Stevens, Alfred Kreymborg, Edgar Lee Masters, and others in the early Modernist era, and just now I recognized that the common practice of Blues singers of combining as series of floating or not directly related Blues verses has at least surface similarity. Perhaps this subconsciously led me to combining two Parker poems in my bluesy singing of them — but it could also be for a practical reason, one that may have obtained for some of the Blues singers: it made a piece out of shorter material that reaches a longer, desired length.

The Snow Fairy

When it comes to pieces for Valentine’s Day, there’s a great deal of love poetry to draw from. And it’s not uncommon for those love poems to be sonnets — after all, that form has been used from the times of Petrarch and Shakespeare for poems about passionate relationships. The course of love is often complex and unstraightforward, and fittingly most sonnets contain a volta, or turn, where the poem shifts from one aspect to another, a feature that is useful for portraying the alternating currents of passion.

For today’s piece I’ve used a distinctive winter love poem by Afro-American and Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay. In this poem, “The Snow Fairy,”  McKay uses an unusual form, a double sonnet, a pair of 14-line poems that allows additional volta/turns. Here’s a link to McKay’s text if you’d like to follow along.

Claude McKay 2

poet Claude McKay as a young man

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“The Snow Fairy”  opens with a fine sonnet about a winter snowfall. If one was to read it as a stand-alone poem it wouldn’t seem truncated or insufficient by itself, but McKay wants to present it as part of a pair, and as we’ll see it’s both foreshadowing — and in a time-twist, the actual conclusion of the poem chronologically. Sonnet I has the snow, as per the title, personified as fairies, a kind of otherworldly being that may have connotations of light-heartedness or simple wonder. But note a very subtle shift in the supernatural creatures fluttering down in the second quatrain: “As though in heaven there was revolt and riot.” The merely fantastic in the opening quatrain has taken a more consequential air. I’m not sure how many readers notice this, but to me this is an unmistakable reference to Milton and Satan falling after the war in heaven in Paradise Lost.

Third quatrain, and we’ve switched our attention to the poem’s speaker, who’s gone to bed without mention of any other person, and awakes to view the once individual fairies/fallen angels, now lying still, yet joined together after their night long whirling dance. In the concluding couplet, as often in a Shakespearean sonnet form like McKay uses, we have a turn. We’ve spent our focus up to now on these snowflakes, but in the couplet he tells us by the end of the day they’ve melted away.

In sonnet II, the poem’s speaker flashes backwards in time, connecting via the memory of the first sonnet’s night of winter snow. He’s reminded of a “you who came to me upon a winter’s night” as did our snowflake/fairy/fallen angel creatures did in sonnet I. In sonnet II’s second quatrain this couple are like our snowflakes of the first sonnet, tossed and dancing in what he tells us is passion. In an echo of the third quatrain of the sonnet I, in the same quatrain of sonnet II, they are tenderly joined and bedded.

And then the turn, the volta: faster even than the by midday melting snow of sonnet I, at the break of dawn the partner is gone, leaving the poem’s speaker alone to be the writer of sonnet I, watching the snow fairies fall in winter.

Read with modest care, the story told in the most minimal of sonnet sequences is plain. Love is wonderous. Love joins us, un-times us for a time — and then, whether parting by the single night or death, it is “stol’n away.” But are there additional undercurrents?

I sense there’s a question in the last row of readers out there, and over the Internet I can’t tell if it’s snarky, sincere, or asked hesitantly: “The title is ‘The Snow Fairy.’   Is this two guys hooking up? Is McKay gay?”

Even today when the acronym for non-heteronormative affections and gender extends ever outward, such answers aren’t always simple binary switches, but yes, it seems generally assumed that Claude McKay had erotic connections with other men. McKay never “came out” in a way that folks in our lifetimes do. In the context of this poem, the question may be focused to a subsidiary question, is “The Snow Fairy”  a coded statement of his sexuality, written so that that those who know would know, and the others would not?

One could write an essay longer than this post, but on balance my reading is that, like his equally lovely summer-day-long love poem “Memory of June”  this feels as if McKay is describing the difficulties of gay people being able to form lasting relationships when that was desired in his time. The subtle turn from fairies to Miltonic fallen angels in sonnet I also seems to be signaling outsider status. There’s also a possible significance in the title snow fairy being singular while the snow fairies/snowflakes are multitudinous. But was “fairy” a clear signaling word? It seemed like that to me when I first read this poem, but upon research that’s ambiguous. Terms used for gay people have a history of emerging and shifting over time, both inside and outside the community. Fairy as a slang word for an effeminate man seems to have emerged in the mid-to-later 1920s,*  and was in common understanding by 1940 or so, but this poem was published in 1922. That means that it might  be too early for it to be understood by other gay people generally, or even McKay, as signaling. On the other hand, it seems likely that a general reader in 1922 would not  read fairy = gay when seeing this poem on the page then.

But in another way, is that the only thing that matters about this poem? No. Love and desire is both complex and unitary. Passing love, passing sweetness, unrequited desires, loneliness for absent lovers — put all the genders, nationalities, races and practices together in one snowbank and you can’t separate out the unique snowflakes. We love and we are gone is one whole part of humanity. Perhaps that’s why Valentine’s Day is but a day?

I performed Claude McKay’s “The Snow Fairy”  in this simple arrangement to get it done in time. I had another version with basic tracks of a more full-band arrangement, but this one with just 12-string acoustic guitar and bass was easier for me to complete. To hear my performance, use the player gadget below — or if you don’t see the player this highlighted hyperlink will do the job too.

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*Somewhere in my research I found citations that seemed to narrow it down to this between-the-wars period, at least for significant usage, but alas I’ve lost my cite notes on that, and, this blog post indicates fairy = gay may have origins as early as the 1890s.

The Snow Is Deep on the Ground

Today’s piece is a winter poem for troubled lovers, but in the wandering tradition of this project, we’re going to go somewhere else on our way there.

Next week there is to be an inauguration of a new American President. It’ll be the 13th new President in my lifetime. Though I remember witnessing all these inaugurations in part through news reports, photographs and recorded footage; to the best of my recall, I have only watched two as they happened. Which ones? Most recently, I watched Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 while working in a place with a newsroom; and then, before that, as a schoolchild I watched John Kennedy’s inauguration.

I believe this is so because in our democracy we have a tradition of our Presidential terms ending and beginning uneventfully and with a comforting regularity. It’s not that we citizens ignore that there’s a new President, but the event itself happening is largely unremarkable.

Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 was contemporaneously recognized as a post-WWII milepost, the Presidency passing to a young former enlisted man in that war, moving us beyond a country ruled before by 19th century men. As I said, I was a schoolchild. My class watched it on a single gray TV set placed up high in front of our schoolroom instead of our usual lessons. I don’t think I was alone in the audience for that event in thinking it was important to pay attention to what was said, watching for news of a new era we knew was new.

Obama’s election and inauguration said something about America recognizing it had changed its evaluation of people of color.*  It’s become a mark of sophistication and analysis to say that was an illusion, disproven by everything wronged people and close examination brought forward then, and since then. I thought, and think, we’re in the midst of things. If more know that now, the marker post of Obama can still tell us where we’ve come from and where we can go.

Is it a coincidence that both of those Presidential Inaugurations had a poet read a poem as part of the ceremony? That’s not a common choice: Kennedy was the first President to ever do so, and only one other President, Clinton, did so besides Obama.

Now, as it happens, I hope to watch the Inauguration next Wednesday, because this one seems more precious to me, more extraordinary, something not to be taken for granted. I will not watch it expecting or requiring great words — no need anyway, because the event alone now has a greatness thrust upon it. Yet coincidence or not, there will be a poet, a particularly young one, reading next week: Amanda Gorman, all of 22 years old.

There are several videos of Gorman reading on the web, but I wanted to bring forward what she says here about her poem for Independence Day, which starts with Phillis Wheatley and mentions that she’s speaking in the Washington-Longfellow house that day. It occurs to me that Gorman seems to be essaying a kind of civic American poetry that Longfellow might recognize.

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So, now I’m ready to return to today’s piece, one using the words of American poet Kenneth Patchen’s poem “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground.”   If you’d like to follow along with the text, here’s a link to the poem. “The Snow is Deep on the Ground”  seems to fit my times, and perhaps it fits yours too, and so we may think of it as my unofficial poem for this January’s Presidential Inauguration.

What did Patchen intend with the repeated image here of deep snow? As a northerner I know one thing it portends, a restriction of movement, and it’s often too a trope of accumulated time. I read something now in the image that Patchen may not have intended, restricted as I am in movement by our current epidemic and having just endured a cloddish act of insurrection deep in whiteness. It seems, or we hope it is, that that “war has failed.”

Patchen says the snow is beautiful though — but specifically it’s beautiful in a fallen state,  something meteorologically and theologically true in Patchen’s poem.

The poem’s third stanza has muffled terrors. What a strange and yet strong line “Only a few go mad” is! And the whiteness “like the withered hand of an old king” undercuts any sense of simple winter landscape beauty. To say twice “God shall not forget us” implies this is in question, doesn’t it?

The poem has it what we know more than we know by faith: our love, our lovers. How beautiful it is to be loved, to love. And to know that after talking of politics in a world where lies and flags are used as shields and lances to beat each other with!

My performance of “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground”  can be heard with the player below, or if you don’t see that, with this highlighted hyperlink. The musical core today is my naïve piano playing, over some drums and small percussion instruments. To add some character to the string bass part I doubled it with a synth-bass. Thanks for reading and listening, particularly as my ability to produce new pieces is reduced right now.

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*There was something else about that Presidency. I’ve lived a long life, and yet in all those years Barack Obama is the only President I’ve ever had who was younger than me.

He Bids His Beloved Be At Peace

My time and energy is short tonight, so this post will reflect that, but I wanted to present this supple poem by William Butler Yeats written near the end of the 19th century, but, I think, applicable in our American year 2020.

How many of us as couples, as friends, as families this year have felt the need to be support and comfort for them; or in return, needed that from others? A year of shocks, changes, challenges, revelations, of noise and force. Cold deaths, hot fires. This past Tuesday’s national image of that televised, trampled talking over, the faulty assay that volume and audacity can just as well substitute for truth. That absurd equation that one can talk the longest and take the least responsibility. Is that what words are for, is that all  they are for?

I came upon this poem in another blog I read: Stuff Jeff Reads.  There the author figures that in this poem Yeats is using esoteric imagery, drawn from the poet’s well-known attraction to and participation in various hermetic organizations. I think he makes a good point, though some imagery may, without being directly decodable as some secret in-group code, be read by the receptive reader or listener, even if they are a non-adept. The full text of this poem appears in Jeff’s blog that I Iink here in case you want to read along.

Two images, one with physical mass, one auditory are weaved through this short poem. The massive one is the horse and in its plural sense, the Horses of Disaster. In Yeats’ 19th century the horse was still a large part of military force* and one of the largest animals that would be encountered daily in much of his British Isles. Our age may reduce that intimate knowledge. Someone like me, never part of the horsey set, who kept his small purse away from horse racing stakes, and rural in his youth in a tractor and truck sense, can only rely on fairs, events, and exhibitions to feel something of what Yeats’ horses meant to his contemporary reader. To stand, as I have, near a draft horse or to watch horses run at full gallop, and to imagine in my sparser memory that collection of momentum and force, is to feel something Yeats intended to convey.

But there may be accrued in the sparcer memory, that lack of daily familiarity something too. The horse, the Horses of Disaster, are more mysterious, more occult in daily fact than they may have seemed to a reader in 1896. One can often get out of the way of an actual run-away horse—our modern Horses of Disaster, not so much.

Self-Portrait by Leona Carrington

“Vanity of Sleep, Hope, Dream, endless Desire” The picture is “Self Portrait (Inn of the Dawn Horse)” by Leona Carrington, a Surrealist who deserves to be better known.

The other image, the auditory or conceptual one the poem weaves, is tumult—uproar, confusion—by definition, unpredictable, illogical, chaotic, the body and hooves one cannot sidestep easily.

So, I read this poem as a spell—and Yeats artistry is striking regardless of the efficacy of magical beliefs or practices.**  There is after all, the spell we cast with those we love and comfort. Come, the world will carelessly or concertedly hurt you, but I will not.

The player to hear my performance of Yeats’ “He Bids His Beloved Be At Rest”  is below. Wishing you justice and mercy.

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*Consider the similar imagery in James Joyce’s “I Hear an Army.”

**I think of a saying I’ve always loved: “If wishes were horses, there’d be a whole lot more road-apples.”

The River Merchant’s Wife, Another Letter

What if you were to find out that a famous, much-loved poem was not a singleton, but that it was instead part of a pair?

The River Merchant’s Wife, A Letter”  is perhaps the most famous Chinese poem in English, and it’s been widely anthologized since Ezra Pound published it in his 1915 collection of translations Cathay.  It’s not hard to see why. It’s a lovely piece of free verse, and though it holds to the Modernist style of showing not telling its sentiments, most readers can easily divine the emotions of the young wife displayed in the poem, separated and longing for her partner.

Be patient with me, reader. I feel I must deal with a few peripheral issues with this poem, which I too admire, for as close as it is to many of its readers’ hearts, there are a few issues. While it’s reasonably frank in its Imagist way about a woman’s desire, one could look at it as an endorsement of patriarchal marriage, rather than a portrayal of two people at a particular moment of time.*  One could conclude that the woman’s agency in the poem is limited to the feelings her tale evokes in us.

If you, like I’m sure some readers here and elsewhere are, seeking art as a break from social issues, there is also a literary issue, one of the nature of translation. I would discuss even more things I happen to think about when I consider this famous poem, but to keep this post to a reasonable length, I’ll just speak to the translation controversy.

Pound wasn’t a Chinese scholar, didn’t speak the language, and didn’t have any knowledge in depth about the history or culture of that vast country. What he was instead was a poet who had what musicians call, and I’ll repeat with punning intent, “great chops.” Particularly at the time literary Modernism was getting underway in the early 20th century, he had a sense of how to pare things back, to express something vital minus a lot of useless extra baggage. Pound likely recognized a kindred spirit in Li Bai,**  the 8th century Chinese poet, and so thought it all right to speak for him in English.***  The poem he produced from Li Bai’s work is a loose translation, missing nuance that more informed scholars find in the original. There have been other attempts at better, or at least more accurate translations. None have produced as widely an effective poem.

But it was in looking at that this past week, while trying to better understand Li Bai’s work and intents, that I had a remarkable discovery. It was probably around midnight, when I should have been sleeping, reading a .PDF scan of a 1922 book of Li Bai translations by Shigeyoshi Obata.****  His translation of the poem Pound made famous is rendered as “Two Letters from Chang-Kan,” the first of which is Obata’s rendering of “The River Merchant’s Wife, a Letter.”   But, But But—what!   There’s another letter!  Did Li Bai intend this to be from another persona, another river merchant’s wife, or is it a second letter written by the same character? Either could make sense. The situation is the same, absent traveling merchant partner, young wife left at home. The speaker’s mood has similarities to the well-known poem too, but there are differences. In my reading of more Li Bai poetry this month I’ve come to believe that he works in subtle associations, subtle parallels, implied metaphors not necessarily made into explicit similes.

Partch-Li Bai-Pound

Harry Partch kicks out the jams, Li Bai considers the abyss, Ezra Pound looking like he’s ready to write yet another crank letter to the editor

 

In this poem, the speaker is a bit more angry with the situation and more wary. She’s not fallen out of love, no, but her expressions seem to mix frank longing for her missing partner, with suspicion that it might not be mutual. Was Li Bai contrasting two women, or expressing that the human heart can hold all those emotions at once?

I’m indebted to Obata for making this Li Bai poem known, and since I know of no other translations, I based my version I use today on his English language one—though I, like Pound but having only my own talents—took liberties. I wanted to tell a story that worked as a song, one that would pull the listener in and bring forward in both the text and performance the wider meaning of what is said by the river merchant’s wife in this purported letter. So, my version has a stronger if not strict meter, occasional rhymes, and I try to emphasize those parallels that serve as images that I think are part of Li Bai’s poetic sense-making. Parallelism, refrains, rhymes—these are all musical tactics that can work to bring some things to the foreground that were undercurrents in Obata’s version of Li Bai.

My performance of what I call “The River Merchant’s Wife, Another Letter”  is available with the player gadget below. As this is already a long and much-delayed post, I’m not including texts yet for this, but I hope the performance will work in its way.

 

 

 

 

*I’m sure some have written critiques on this basis, because there is matter there for this, including that the wife is a teenager (though the poem indicates the husband is roughly the same age.) I wonder if anyone has written that the husband’s absence is based on the needs of commerce, asking if this is a veiled attack on capitalism or a cultured acceptance of it?

**Li Bai is the now preferred way to write the poet’s name in western characters. Many works of Pound’s time use a different scheme to render the same poet’s name as Li Po. There are more variations too. Same guy. Confusing.

***Yes, one of the things I could talk about, instead of getting on to the pleasure of the resulting poetry, would be the cultural appropriation in that assumption. Big subject, worthy of a longer treatment.

****The Works of Li Po the Chinese poet done into English verse.  Obata was of Japanese heritage, but writes he had access to Chinese-speaking friends and other resources while studying at the University of Wisconsin. When he encounters Cathay  he realized Pound’s artistry, but also knew how loose Pound’s translations were, and how they missed certain cultural nuances. “I confess that it was Mr. Pound’s little book that exasperated me and at the same time awakened me to the realization of new possibilities so that I began seriously to do translations myself.” Despite reading both Arthur Waley and Pound’s Chinese translations as a young man, I had never heard of Obata, and there is little available in Internet searches to indicate he made any lasting impact—save for one thing: his translations have been used for settings of Li Bai poems by Constant Lambert and Harry Partch, which seems like remarkably rich company to the likes of me.

The Most Popular Parlando Piece, Spring 2020

Are there people today still falling in love, or not falling in love together, or remembering love and almost love? Seems like a silly or rhetorical question doesn’t it.

So, yes, I suspect there are, as there have been before.

People fall in love on marches, at the barricades. Policemen fall in love. People fall in love in the time of plagues. Old people fall in love. Young people remember love or almost love. Oppressed people fall in love. People fall in love, but their partner doesn’t, and sometimes that partner is the wiser of the two.

So, is this the time for a poem of romantic love to be the most popular piece this past season? This is a time of new dangers and old evils. This is a time that predicts greater uncertainties and promises change if we act, and despair if we don’t. Can poetry put its “Queer shoulder to the wheel” as Ginsberg wrote? Should it?

Dada for Juneteenth

You have nothing to buy but your chains! For today’s Juneteenth, some Dada in advertising algorithms.

 

I’ll be honest, I think about that a lot this spring. It’s a large part of why it’s hard for me to get around to creating new work here as this spring unfurled. Honestly I have little right to present short pieces here on Emily Dickinson, Du Fu or Arthur Rimbaud, but I may have even less authority to write briefly on politics, economics, sociology, or epidemiology—much less American racial dichotomy and all it’s injuries.

My observation that many who do  write of these things have no more authority than I do is not helpful. Another observation is that all us artists have is that: our observation. We must strive to be careful seers and more exact sayers of what we see, though we tend to be flat seers. Heaven and wildflowers: that’s leveling. Romantic love, that often-brief thing; and disaster, that sometimes-brief thing that harms long and painfully, we see them both, we write about them as if they’re equal.

As this turns out today, I will have slighted Mr. William Butler Yeats. I’ve talked not at all about his poem, the one that you listeners liked and listened to most this spring, though it’s hardly a perhaps to believe Yeats thought some of these thoughts and questions that I’ve filled this post with instead. You can read my original reaction to the poem, linked here, in place of something new today.

The player gadget to hear Yeats’ “When You Are Old,”  this love poem written by a 20-something about old age, is below. Thank you very much for reading and listening, and an extra thank you to those who’ve helped spread the word about the Parlando Project. There’s a lot of stuff here from the four years of this project to listen to, and I’ll still attempt to have new pieces here soon.

 

 

 

Monotone

I love me some early short-form Carl Sandburg. Oh, I can enjoy him in his lengthy Whitmanesque catalog mode and I surely appreciate his too little recognized work in forging what we more recently call Americana, but in much of his early work he’s writing in a mode that people often forget. It’s similar to some of the other early Modernists before the High Modernist style absorbed that revolution and used it to make a complex and literary bureaucracy of allusions and images that were more showy and complex on the surface.

If you have a moment, look at “Monotone,”  a nine-line poem, linked here. How easy it would be to overlook this poem. There’s no exotic words or settings, and the images seem to risk falling into the banal. What’s there? A rainfall, a sunrise and a sunset. If most of us were to put those as the major images in a poem, our poems would likely fail to seem unique in any worthwhile way, or we’d stress and strain to make them unique. I myself might reach for the surreal or the odd detail because I would think I was otherwise making a poem with no worthwhile freshness. And perhaps Sandburg fails in that way for some readers here. What is he risking that failure to convey?

In these nine lines he wants to write a love poem of the least common kind. Poems of desire, poems of the kind of overthrow of the senses and proportion that new love brings, poems of enchantment with possibility—those are legion. And they’re worthwhile. Love and desire, like other visionary states, illuminate things we are otherwise unable to believe. Some of those things are true and some are false, some are the painful disguised as beautiful. They proclaim for us to give ourselves and give up ourselves.

Sandburg’s “Monotone”  isn’t that. It’s a lyric poem of a long-time relationship. Even its title dares to be unexciting. Monotone word-wise is near enough to monotony, and musically who would be attracted to a piece that claims that as its title?

The poem’s opening image makes an argument for musical monotone. A rainstorm has no melodic invention, but if listened to without seeking that quality and being disappointed that it lacks this, it has dynamics of volume and rhythm. Listen to what’s there, not to what’s missing  the first stanza asks of us, and we’ll find the “multitudinous rain.” This is not a showy stanza, but since multitudinous is by far the least common word in the poem, that one ornament stands out all the more. Even if one remembers only those two words “multitudinous rain,” one can carry it with ourselves and experience rain in new ways while thinking on that phrase on some grey and otherwise unappealing day.

Is the second stanza banal? If you think so I can’t give you an argument that’ll refute you. Yes, the sun on the hills is beautiful, and sunset over seas too. Thank you very much Carl Obvious Sandburg, but why have you wasted our time with those three lines about what everyone has already noticed. What value might they have? Well, for one they are  common. Carl Sandburg is fully baptized in the belief of a common humanity, so the fact that he states what we all know isn’t quite the sin that another artist might abhor. What Sandburg does with these commonplaces is to let us know there’s something we still don’t know about them, even when we think they’re too prosaic to have anything yet to perceive. In those few words in the second three-line stanza there is the notion that the sunset (precious, golden fire) is captured by the cold sea. So easy to overlook if we read it like a prose paragraph, assuming only quick utility. If one had to translate this from a foreign language, if this was written in Chinese ideograms, perhaps we’d slow down and see this. The beautiful in the guise of the desired, is captured, is quenched, rises and sets.

Now the third, three-line stanza concludes this book of changes, bringing synthesis to the previous two. Beholding one’s long-time partner, one sees the multitudinous monotone rain and  the moments of passion or anger, unease or loss, joined. With the “Monotone”  title at the head and the ending line I read that sunny mountain scene and picture postcard sea-sunset of the second stanza as being measured against a rarer and more precious multitudinous rain of long-love.

With this simple concise expression of a complex feeling, the poem requests you to see that. In 1916 when this was published in Sandburg’s Chicago Poems  its very simplicity was still audacious, and that itself made the case for this poem. In a generation or so it would seem to not be trying hard enough to capture our attention. While poetry was free to leave strict meter and reliable rhyme schemes behind, it had returned to an aesthetic of surface complexity equaling merit.

Carl and Lillian Sandburg by Edward Steichen

Espoused. Carl and Lillian Sandburg around the time “Monotone” was published. Photograph by Lillian’s brother, the photographer Edward Steichen. Earlier, inn 1908 Sandburg wrote “I would rather be a poem like you than write poems,” but we got the multitudinous rain of his poetry anyway.

 

A few words on the musical setting before I remind you that you can click on the player gadget to hear my performance of Sandburg’s “Monotone.”  As I composed this I was concentrating more on timbre and less on melody. The dominant keyboard sound in the piece is a complex combination of a grand piano with every bit of string resonance brought forward, an electric piano, and a keyboard piano bass (that last a sound mostly known from Ray Manzarek’s playing with the Doors). It’s kind of the idea of the “Hard Day’s Night”  chord being used throughout the piece. this is another composition where it would probably be better if I wasn’t the vocalist who sings it, but that’s who I have available. Listen to it with the gadget below.

 

When You Are Old

A few months back I presented a series of poems about old age that turned out to be written by young poets. Here’s another one written by the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats when he was in his 20s.

“When You Are Old”  is generally considered to be written about Yeats’ love for Maud Gonne, who like Yeats was active in Irish cultural nationalism and their country’s struggle for political independence. Yeats’ largely unrequited love for Gonne has a long and complicated story, the kind I’d often delve into here—but not today. This widely assumed context for “When You Are Old”  makes plain the poem’s historical, denotative meaning. One could paraphrase it like this: “You think I’m just another lovelorn suitor asking for your hand, and possibly other leading bodily parts, now—but someday you’re going to be old, and you’ll realize that the others around you were just after you ‘cause you’re a major hottie who seems to have it going on cultural-politically. I’m not like that. I’m your soul mate, who respects that you’re busy with this, and loves you even though you’re out searching for other things. That’s OK. Just know that someday, like when you’re old, you’re going to miss me. You’ll probably want to google William Butler Yeats some night and see if I’m still alive and what I’m up to….”

Yeats-Gonne

Yeats and Gonne. Yeats may be taking the bow-tie thing a bit too far. Rather than the musical style (or that paraphrase) I used today, I might have gone with this bare-faced expression of the same angst. You’re gonna miss me baby!

 

Did I just loose a bunch of readers* with this base summary of a beautiful poem that is sincerely loved by so many people? Don’t understand me too quickly, I’ll get back to what I think when I encounter this poem before I finish.

Indeed, this poem is especially well loved by older people and by a great many women.** If there’s a greatest hits of love poems in English, this poem is there. And I don’t think they’re wrong or missing some unavoidable explication of the poem’s context. I can’t say Yeats’ intent when he wrote it as a young man, or when he published it still being both of those things; but I doubt it was simply to dis an ex that wasn’t exactly an ex. And those that love the poem Yeats made are experiencing it in other contexts close to their own hearts and lives.

I’m close to Yeats’ age when he died, though still younger than Gonne who lived to be 86. The future mood predicted in this poem written by a twenty-something doesn’t ring false to me. I don’t dwell in the past, but it comes to visit me from time to time, and I’ll think of old lovers and not-to-be lovers absent and missing in time and place. For older people, some of those people remembered are dead, and so their present times and places are further obscured by the crowded stars. We often expect our poets today to write of their experience, but it turns out that we aren’t necessarily going to trade Yeats’ skill with a beautiful line for an authentic memoir-poem by an age-group peer.

One could trash this poem on gender role/sexual politics counts. Fine if you do—art is argument to a large part—but I doubt the women who love this poem do so all because they have self-worth issues. And after all, the poem doesn’t predict crushing regret at not bedding W. B. Yeats, or a reader’s personal equivalent. It only asks for a quantity of “a little sadly,” which doesn’t hurt anybody. Patriarchy aside, I suspect every letter in every acronym can accumulate such thoughts over a life-time. And throw out love, sex, and success, and we still cherish memories of any connection where someone saw and bowed to the pilgrim soul inside us. The youth in us seeks it, the old in us remembers it. Even 20-somethings.

So where does this pilgrim soul stand on “When You Are Old?”   That want for connection it speaks of and the word music it’s sung in captures me entirely. It’s good not to trust poetry and poets entirely, but to give oneself over to this song is worthwhile.

I’m sure this poem has been set to music often, but that didn’t stop me. I used an interesting acoustic guitar tuning that someone said had been used by Mary Chapin Carpenter: C G D G B C for this, and then added another of my simple-is-all-I-can-do piano parts. That’s one of the joys of music: sometimes it doesn’t have to be complicated to please us. The player gadget is below to hear my performance. Here’s the text of Yeats’ poem if you’d like to read along. We’ll be back soon with more of our April celebration of National Poetry Month. Spread the word if you can.

 

 

*I’m hopeful I didn’t, if only because listener/readers here should already know that I’m going to mix things up. If you think today’s music is what I’ll do next time, you should hear the #NPM2020 piece I’ve been working on—and you probably will be able to in the next few days.

**Here’s a 10 minute video where someone old and someone woman both declare their love for this poem.

The Entire “The Fire Sermon” from T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

Part of the ongoing adventure of doing this project over the years has been the performance of a section of the English Modernist poetic landmark “The Waste Land”  each April as part of our celebration of National Poetry Month. So far I’ve done three large sections, one each year.

My first preference in this has been to separate these larger “Waste Land”  sections into smaller pieces, lasting 2 to 6 minutes to match the usual length of other audio pieces here, but then each year as a “previously, on ‘The Waste Land”  recap I also present a combined audio file of the whole section that I’d done the previous April.

That means it’s time to present the third and longest section of Eliot’s poem, “The Fire Sermon.”  That’s a sizeable chunk of stuff just from the weighty nature of Eliot’s long poetic threnody on the disillusionment of post-WWI western civilization, his own experience of depression, and search for spiritual and cultural consolation—but I also wanted to fully combine my experience of it with the entire range of musical expression that I’ve used here over the years, which means that I haven’t tried to hurry things along in order to stuff “The Waste Land”  squirming and squealing into a smaller sack.

So, today’s rollup of the whole Fire Sermon section is about the length and experience of an entire vinyl LP record’s side, just a bit less than 21 minutes long. What kind of LP would it be then? Perhaps it’s the second side of a “Progressive Rock” album where the band is going to stretch out in a linked suite. At one time that seemed a fresh thing for the popular music consumer from The Sixties, who had been primed by a few years of short 3-minute singles that were masterpieces of varied kinds of expression. Could one group weave that variety themselves? Could these shorter pop music forms become movements like longer orchestral music made use of?

Lets listen to some LPs

Long ago people playing long playing records. The merman in the lower left mixes expansive rock with Blonde on Blonde and Lenny Bruce’s caustic spoken word take on sex and the culture, which may not be to far off today’s slab of vinyl.

 

Of course these cycles were, are, cyclical. Less than a decade later the short sharp stab of 3 minutes of squall in a singular mode was back in hip style again. And now? Perhaps we’re progressive suite makers clicking in Spotify or Apple Music, or consumers of Peel-ing playlists in our each streaming perfumed garden of earbuds.

In these we lose this once particular 20-minute-magic. For today’s piece “The Entire Fire Sermon”  was created in one period of time, and not just by one group of musicians, but by one person. I wrote the music, played all the instruments, and recorded it myself to create this. I don’t say this to brag*—it was more a matter of practicality—but to call your attention to an essential part of this, as it’s an essential part of “The Waste Land.”  All the voices, all the modes of expression in that poem are played by T. S. Eliot. The men. The women. Tiresias, the at-least-sometimes narrator who is both genders. Yes, there are elements of memoir as poetry in this; yes, there are places where Eliot’s representing himself, his particular culture, the early 20th century man who went from growing up white upper middle class in St Louis to Harvard to France to London before he was 30. If Tiresias is a prophet, he is also blind and cursed by error. Eliot has all these things in him too, just as you or I do.

“The Waste Land”  is a harrowing work. If Keats hopes art, as his urn, is a “friend to man,” this friend Eliot made is telling you about the parts of life where hope has to struggle to come out. This section, like other parts of “The Waste Land”  has a reputation for misogyny. In my current reading of it, I’m relieved to not have to figure out a way around that, because I don’t share that reading, even if it may be part of the artist. What it is, particularly here and in the previous section, is the complete opposite of sex-positive. There is absolutely no joy or consolation in desire. Sex acts are referenced, but there’s no love made or even pleasure, only bad deals on unequal terms.

Since I’m asking to take up 20 minutes of your time to listen to “The Entire Fire Sermon”  I’m not going to say more about “The Waste Land”  today. If you’ve come here for homework help or because you have a nagging question about “what’s that thing on about” these sites will help with notes on the many, many references in this poem that is in effect sampling and collaging dozens of myths and other works: here, here, here, and here. And last spring, in March and April, I wrote about the individual sections as I presented them anyway.

Another way to experience it is to just let it wash over you as the dirty water of an urban river. Relax between your speakers, put your headphones/ear buds on and let it flow until the side ends. You drop the needle by clicking on the player gadget below. I’ll be back soon with some shorter work by another poet from St. Louis.

 

 

*Listening back to it as I made this combined file today, I am reasonably proud of what I did with the music, though I the composer wish I the performer was a more skilled singer.