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.

Call Any Vegetable

As I promised last month, there’s going to be a few more posts here without new audio pieces, discussing some side issues and ideas I’ve run into during the last year or so of the Parlando Project. Some of these are going to be lengthier, and they may not be as interesting to those who come here just hear surprising combinations of music and words. I’m using the tag “About” on this sort of post, so that you can easily filter the audio containing posts (Podcasts) from these.

Today’s post is about what I found as I looked at Tristan Tzara’s poem “Vegetable Swallow.”

Why was I looking at Tzara poetry? I have a long-standing interest in the Surrealists, a movement that followed Dada, and with whom Tzara sometimes made common cause. And my first translation of Tzara for use in an audio piece, his elegy to proto-Surrealist Apollinaire, was unexpectedly popular here, the third most listened-to piece of last summer. So, time to look into some more Tzara I thought.

I own books that I could have searched, but they are poorly stored and arranged, and so I relied on our modern vade mecum, The Internet, to see what else might be out there to compose music with. A familiar search engine found 122,000 results for Tzara poems, but of course all is relative. One of my favorite French Surrealist poets, Paul Éluard, still obscure to many English speakers, had 222,000 results, and Carl Sandburg turned up 448,000. Emily Dickinson? 23,000,000! So Tzara’s poetry is not as widely available as some. I did not look at all 122,000 results, but of the poems I found translated into English, a handful seemed to repeat, and looking through them, I eventually thought one titled “Vegetable Swallow”  had the most potential for use along with music. Here is how it appeared on several web sites, in an unattributed English translation.

two smiles meet towards

the child-wheel of my zeal

the bloody baggage of creatures

made flesh in physical legends-lives

 

the nimble stags storms cloud over

rain falls under the scissors of

the dark hairdresser-furiously

swimming under the clashing arpeggios

 

in the machine’s sap grass

grows around with sharp eyes

here the share of our caresses

dead and departed with the waves

 

gives itself up to the judgment of time

parted by the meridian of hairs

non strikes in our hands

the spices of human pleasures

Why did I select “Vegetable Swallow?”  It was a good, short length. It seemed to have some musical qualities. I liked how it concluded. Some of it was incomprehensible at first take—but it’s Dada isn’t it.  This is, after all, a poet who taunted the art-world with the idea that randomly arranged words could be compared to the value of recognized literary art.

I found I had preferred my own translation of Tzara’s “The Death of Apollinaire,”  and so I aimed to do my own translation of “Vegetable Swallow”  too.

As I started work on “Vegetable Swallow,”  I first had to find it in the original French. After some searching, I found an edition of Tzara’s “Poésies Complètes”  to work from. Right from the top, at the title, I started to dissent from the English translation used elsewhere. Perhaps you read “Vegetable Swallow”  as Dada: two unrelated words jammed together for the effect of absurdity, but one could also read it in English as a compression of the phrase “Eat your vegetables,” which can be a parent’s command, or a commonplace for feeling obligated to do the unpleasant but necessary thing. But in French, swallow as a verb is not the same word as swallow the bird. Tzara used: “Hirondelle,” and as Minnesota’s own Dada bards The Trashmen once proclaimed: “The Bird is the Word.” I would have chosen “Vegetable Martin” or “Vegetable Bird” as the title, because I clearly think I’m conveying Tzara’s presentation more accurately there—even though, in this case, I’m making the title more hermetic.

The next major puzzle I have is with the second line “l’enfant—une roue de ma ferveur.” In the online text the em dash has changed to a hypen, and we are pressed to visualize a compound noun “child-wheel,” rather than to break the thought after child/l’enfant. I made a more speculative translation of roue/wheel, when I saw that the same French word is used for the gymnastic “cartwheel”. Cartwheel is a very specific, vivid image. It’s also an inside joke relating to the story that Paul Éluard met his wife when she literally cartwheeled down the street. It does the job of making a hyphenated “child-wheel” comprehensible, even if child-wheel’s presence in the Internet version may be a typographical misunderstanding.

In summary, the first stanza is two lovers together, embracing (or at least realizing/admitting) their carnal physicality.

The second stanza to me describes a rain storm above our two lovers. I can’t tell if stags are the storm clouds, or creatures caught in the storm. I chose caught in the storm. Next up I probably make my own mistake, which I’m catching only now. I translated “coiffeur” as simply hair because one of my computer translators had it as hair and I didn’t double-check that, when it now looks like “barber” or “hairdresser,” as in the Internet version, is more likely correct. I love the image of the rain falling down like hair cut by the barber’s scissors. Maybe the image works better if the focus is on the dark hair as heavy rain instead of the immaterial hairdresser, but still, I’m likely wrong on what Tzara wrote.

I make the syntax of the third stanza more English, and I make the most substantial and speculative change in the last line there. I understand “mordues” to not mean dead, as the Internet version has it. It can mean bitten as a verb or a fan/fanatic as a noun from what I find. I chose to go with the fanatic choice. And “parties” can mean part, but it can also be used for a political or other faction. From my choice of “fanatic” I could have then gone with “faction” for the French “parties,” but instead I chose the image of the swirling waves as a convention of fans or fanatics. I liked that image in as a presentation of two ardent lovers sharing caresses within the stanza, but now I’m thinking maybe I should have gone with the ideas of bitten and apart, as it would foreshadow the final stanza to a degree.

In the final stanza, I change around some syntax a bit too, but, in the next to last line, I confront a typo, repeated over and over as the other translation is duplicated on the Internet: “non strikes in our hands.” This is surely Dada! Is this a crossword-puzzle clue for baseball fans with a naughty testicular subtext (but what does Tzara know of baseball?) Or is it a cry against our complicity in the suppression of organized labor’s rights? A clumsy bowler approaching the lane, about to roll another gutter-ball? Such rich poetry!

No. It’s a missing “o.”

Here again, accessing the original French helps, though I should have distrusted one of my machine translators more in other matters after it insisted on translating “midi”, the common French term for noon, as MIDI. Perhaps it knew that I would be using MIDI to play synthesizers from my guitar and little plastic keyboard?

Fixing the typo allows the poem to close strongly. The last stanza’s first line works in either the Internet translations more active voice (though I would have chosen the stronger “surrenders” to “gives up” if I went that way). My choice is more passive: “The hours’ judgement is offered.” I think the third stanza is something of a time-lagged aubade, were the lovers have reached a time (noon instead of the traditional dawn) when they must part. The Internet version of the next-to-last line, with the typo fixed:  “noon strikes in our hands” is fine. My version, “gone noon in our hands” means to clarify what I feel is the image here, the reclining lovers atop each other, hands clasped together above their heads, like the hands of clock at noon, knowing they must part as the day reaches the border of PM (Post-Meridian); but typo fixed, the Internet version may be more accurate to what Tzara wrote. I’m afraid that by this point, I had been letting my poet half overtake my translator half, and I wanted the poem to end as well as it could by my lights, even if I was recasting what Tzara wrote to a sense of what I think he was getting at.

In the end, the Tristan Tzara poem “Vegetable Swallow”  I found on the Internet in English is less of a Dada exercise in scourging language, and more of a sensuous love poem, albeit one with fresh images. And even if you are not an expert in the foreign language being translated, checking English translations against the original is revealing. Furthermore, just as in performing the work does, doing one’s own translations helps one see deeper into the choices the poet made.

So yesterday, proud of my work, I was disparaging the unknown translator of the “Internet Version” of “Vegetable Swallow.”  Reviewing and double-checking my work after the deadlines of performance and recording were finished, his work comes off better upon further review. In the second and fourth stanzas, his work is more accurate than mine, and arguably better than mine (even if I’m doing the scoring). And with the hilarious “non strikes” typo, he’s blameless.

And from further research last night, I think I can identify the translator of the Internet version: it’s Lee Harwood. I was even able to find an audio link on the web where he reads “Vegetable Swallow.”  Even just hearing the modesty in his voice at midnight, him reading “Vegetable Swallow”  across the network as I stayed up too late tracking this down, I wished I could sit down with him and ask him more about his own work and that of Tristan Tzara. Alas, he died two years ago this summer.

Lee Harwood

Several Internet sites use Lee Harwood’s translations of Tzara, yet do not credit him.

 

For easy reference, here are links to the players of my translations and performances of Tristan Tzara’s “Vegetable Swallow”  and “The Death of Apollinaire.”

“Vegetable Swallow”

 

 

 

and “The Death of Apollinaire”

Love Is Enough

I drove to Des Moines Iowa this past weekend for a wedding of a niece. The reception was in a tap room attached to a small indie brewery. My 12-year-old son asked “Why is it in a brewery?”

I asked my son if he knew what a hipster was. “Yes, it’s someone who always needs to have the latest iPhone the day it is released.” My son likes to remind me that he is not  a millennial, and that he will have no truck with their ways.

I laughed and said that it’s more than that though. I tried my best to explain, doing badly, as I usually do when speaking. What I was aiming to say was that hipsters are interested in things that are different and off-beat, that in doing so they often revive things from the past and redo them in the now different context of the present. This kind of rebellion against the too-ordinary incumbent culture eventually changes the culture, remaking cities and what they offer. “When I was a kid and went to Des Moines, there were no small breweries serving their own beer, or restaurants that serve those Asian noodles like you like. Instead I’d get to go to Bishop’s Cafeteria.”

“What did you like about Bishop’s?” my wife asked.

“I liked that you could choose your own desert. Usually something with whipped cream on top.”

Des Moines Early 60s

News from Nowhere: Des Moines dreams of hipsters to come. Shop at Younkers, eat at Bishop’s.

Now that isn’t a complete explanation of what a hipster is either. Nor does it tell how hipsters are seen and labeled by others, or that to call someone a hipster generally has a negative connotation. If you want a hyper-precise definition with lots of reasons to be wary of being called a hipster you can read one here.

Every cultural change movement like this gets made fun of, and provides lots of rich examples of foolishness. And unlike frankly political change movements which often generate mutual veneration between generations, many cultural rebels see the next generation of young novelty seekers as a bad, devolved outcome; while the young often find and fix their cultural novelty in rejecting the enthusiasms of their immediate predecessors. Can anyone be sure that hipsters are any more or less authentic than punks, hippies, beatniks, or swing era hepcats and so on? I can’t. Is some rampant cultural appropriation going on? Yes, and that has its foolish and even harmful side-effects for all these cultural movements—but are their benefits as well? I believe there are, and anyway, rigidly contained cultural silos seem stifling.

This rejection of immediate predecessors, doesn’t mean an inevitable total rejection of the past. Small breweries were common in America a century ago. Beards, mustaches, fedoras—the clichéd markers of the male hipster, all are revivals of past fashions.

Remember with the Christina Rossetti poem last month. I mentioned her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s boys club “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood?” Formed by art students, they signed their paintings with a “PRB” as secret tag for their movement. They hated the classical art and design standards of their day, and even though they were living in the original Steam Punk era, instead of fetishizing brass, well-oiled gear trains, and leather, they propagated their love for Medieval art and hand-made crafts.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Ford Madox Brown 1867

Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Can he interest you in some beard oil?

Sound familiar? The Pre-Raphaelites seem to me to be late 19th Century versions of early 21st Century hipsters. If they were ironically enjoying Midwest beer in a can, would they have signed their paintings “PBR”?

Today’s audio piece is William Morris’ “Love Is Enough.”  Morris was intimately connected with the Pre-Raphaelites. Like them, he was fascinated with Medieval art and culture, but he was a man with many interests—many more than I can touch on this time—including writing influential fantasy and speculative fiction. In that vein, we’re going to time-travel the Englishman William Morris like we did with Americans Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, so that this 19th century poet can sing a nugget of garage band blues with the LYL Band.

Watts painting of William Morris

William Morris fading into the wallpaper. He did just about everything but start a brew pub.

This one is a good song for a wedding and for lovers. To hear “Love Is Enough”  use the player gadget below.