“No one knows the words to the second verse of the National Anthem.”
“Sure they do.”
“Oh? What’s the second verse then?”
We continue our celebration of National Poetry Month while tipping our hat to American Baseball’s Opening Day. Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry” seemed fitting, not just because she was a lifelong baseball fan, but because this poem of hers always seemed to me to be American poetry’s National Anthem. Like our constitution’s “More perfect union” the overall thrust of the poem is that a real, complete poetry is still a goal, still in process, and so in the meanwhile it’s OK to snub poetry’s failures, but to pass the time, OK too to enjoy its at bats anyway.
Partway through the poem Moore explicitly calls up a baseball metaphor:
the base —
ball fan, the statistician—case after case
could be cited”
Here’s today’s lyric video. Baseball has Blue Jays, Cardinals, and Orioles. Why not Cockatoos?
Moore has already given us the choice to “Not admire what we cannot understand,” but my estimate of what she’s getting at there is that hitting a baseball effectively at a major league level is extraordinarily difficult. The very best players ever to play over more than a century fail to do it about two-thirds of the time over a career. Careful records have been kept. Fans know this is so. Poetry too may be a sublime effort to try to hit the implausible cleanly to land in the improbable place.
It’s become a common observation that baseball has diminished popularity because of this, because one needs to endure so much failure and not-quite to get to the aim of the game. Perhaps poetry can commiserate.
Here’s hoping my home team’s opening-day rookie pitcher can throw implausible stuff this week. Gnomic fastballs. Hermetic curves. Enjambed change-ups. Surreal sliders. Let the opposing bards wave their wands and form nothing but wind, and all their strokes come up trite and merely sentimental. Let their bats hang upside down, asleep.
This performance from our archives has vocals recorded in 2018 by the then members of the Lake Street Writers Group: Dave Moore, Ethna McKiernan, and Kevin FitzPatrick. Two-thirds of that lineup have been called up to another league since then, the one where we have no statisticians or toads — you may have read our memorial pieces to them here this winter. And now it’s spring, even if we don’t understand. How can we admire what we cannot understand?
Three strikes and you’re out, but three ways to hear this performance. There’s a graphical player below for some of you, and if you don’t see that, this highlighted link. And if you want to see the lyric video that I just made that is part of the series of those I’m doing for National Poetry Month, that’s above.
*Joke footnotes — they always add so much to the humor — but I know we have a lot of foreign readers. American baseball games traditionally start with a singing of the National Anthem. Yes, just the first verse. Patriotism, but in a measured dose there. After which, the head umpire announces the commencement of the game with the cry of “Play ball!”
For those that have been following our look at English poet Frances Cornford, we’ll have at least one more example coming of her stuff soon. But now is the time when we count-down the ten most liked and listened to pieces from this past winter.
It’s been a slightly difficult season for this project for me personally. It’s frankly been hard to keep up the level of posting, research, composition, recording, and playing that goes into it. What has been encouraging is the increase in listenership for the audio pieces and your continued readership here on the blog. December set a new record for monthly listens with increases coming significantly from those who hear only the audio pieces from the places where you might get podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, PlayerFM etc.)* During February the number of listens passed the milepost of 50,000 all-time downloads. This is small by the scale of Internet sensations (typically measured in millions) but to me that’s satisfying in the larger, but sparser crowd of those interested in poetic expression.
Readers here on the Parlando Project blog know that besides the same audio pieces the podcast listeners get, you get more information here about the writers and my reaction to what they’re doing. You might think of the blog as a kind of an “insiders ring” in that way. Blog traffic took off last fall, which made my heart leap up, and it’s continued at a similar level over the winter.
Given that I mostly keep with the older pre-1924 Public Domain stuff that is unrestricted in reuse, and because I wander about various musical genres in a way that’d tempt many old car radio listeners to “push the button” and current playlist streamers to tap play next, I especially appreciate those who stick with this project and it’s eclectic tastes!
Let’s go to the countdown. Today we’ll cover numbers 10 through 8 as calculated from listens on all platforms and likes here on the blog. The title of each piece will be hyperlinked to the original post, so you can click and check on what I said about it then.
10. Rimbaud’s “Eternity.” This winter I decided to make things more difficult for me by doing more translations of non-English poetry, adding translation to the whole compose/record the music, play most of the musical parts, research the context of the text, and then write about those tasks. And Rimbaud may have caused me more trouble in translation that anyone other than maybe Mallarmé. I labored to some kind of reasonable draft on two or three Rimbaud poems, but the results just didn’t grab me in English. Knowing that some other poets who I admire think highly of his work, I couldn’t figure out if I was picking the wrong poems, or what.
“Go Rimbaud, Go Rimbaud….” The most famous photo of the teenaged poet.
Then with his “Eternity” I realized—this poem’s impact in French comes from its invocatory power. This is why someone as unafraid of going over the top as the young Patti Smith could be drawn to his writing. Free verse can reach that level, but loosening my translation so that I could (uncharacteristically) render it as a rhyming verse made this one more compelling.
9. “The Labors of Hercules” by Marianne Moore. Marianne Moore writes in English, but her expression is so unusual that I feel like I need to translate her to get to the heart of her poems. Unlike Moore’s contemporary Gertrude Stein, whose verse is even harder to draw denotative meaning from, the task of performing Moore to music is challenged by her conversational rhythms which sound like someone talking.** Not only does this make it harder to fit in regularized music (I didn’t) it tends to lure the listener into thinking that they should be able to comprehend what Moore is getting at. With Stein you’re quickly aware that words are being used in a musical way, so you can just enjoy them for sound value. With Moore you sometimes think that the speaker herself or you the listener are in early days as English as a second language.
A lesser-known photo of Marianne Moore. Like Frost and William Carlos Williams, I always visualize her as if she was born at that advanced age that she was at when I started to encounter poetry, not as this young woman
I’m doing the back-patting here, but I think I helped Moore’s gist come across a bit better by my performance than the poem left sitting mute on the page.
8. “Ghost Blues” by Hugo Ball. Another case where I decided to go with a looser translation in order to vivify the original work for the modern English language user. The original post shows some of the intermediate steps I went through in translating this Dadaist poem from German. One thing that I think I’ve figured out after the original post is that a word that I couldn’t find in any of my accessible German dictionaries, “Gängelschwemme,” is probably a place name. My performance uses “spillway” for it, and still I have no way to know for sure (if it is a place name) if it references something along those lines.
I decided to make this a Dada Blues as it might be loosely rendered by electric players in the blues revival of the Sixties. Unlike a lot of pieces here, this one isn’t really composed. I had setup a loop to see if my translated text might fit to a groove like that. As I sung, I felt moved to plug in an electric guitar as I tried the lyrics.
“Hey, this works pretty good” I thought. I hit record. And one take later this is what you get.
If you’re new here you may notice that all of these are electric guitar pieces in a rock’n’roll context (though “The Labors of Hercules” is more irregular and somewhere in-between post-rock and free-jazz in my mind). Long time listeners here know that’s not what we consistently do. Stick around, the next three of the Winter 2020 Top Ten is coming up soon.
*Just to clarify expectations: the Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet podcast is only the audio pieces themselves, unadorned. While I suppose I could chat about the poems and my music in the discursive and wandering way most audio podcasts do, I don’t do that.
**Back in the 1960s when I first got a little plastic cassette recorder, I took to recording people having casual conversations and then transcribing the words literally. Here’s what shocked me in this practice: the words on the page made little grammatical or syntactical sense. The transcriptions didn’t even match “natural, realistic” dialog in fiction. Our daily conversation is often more avant-garde than we realize; and we are comprehensible to each other orally in ways that we would not be if our speech was turned into page text, through things like timbre, expression, non-regularized conjunctions and connections.
I suspect Stein and Moore were both more exacting mental transcribers of what we actually say aloud than conventional literature expected, and as two women aware of the modernist movement in general (not just literature, but music and visual art) they combined this objective phenomenon with their own aesthetic techniques.
I’ve largely put off considering the American Modernist poet Marianne Moore. Why? Largely a combination of difficulties in understanding her verse with an inability to appreciate her word-music. When I look at a Marianne Moore poem I’m usually struck by a combination of plain-spokenness with a knotted syntax that obscures the direction of her meaning.
Ordinarily I’m perfectly willing to put up with hard-to-understand-on-the-first-reading poetry—indeed I can like poetry that I can never quite grasp as long as its language makes me gasp. But a Moore poem on the page, and in its first or even second reading often seems more like a set of notes for a poem or one of my own jumbled first drafts rather than an elusive song I’m driven to follow by the impetus of its structure.
But of course all of that is an impression based on limited exposure to her work. Late last year I put down a short list of works that would come into public domain in 2020, and one of those works from the last decade to be called “The Twenties” was Marianne Moore’s first book-length collection Observations.
This month I read Observations. I was puzzled by many of the poems—that I expected—but what surprised me was how consistently the poems take a stance of protest, opposition and stubborn grievance. Don’t ask me to explicate each poem in Observations, I’ll fail that test, and even if my understanding of the alliances of various Modernist has been refreshed and expanded by doing this Project, I can’t say completely who or whose poetic theories are being skewered, but Moore’s first collection can be read as a collection of dis tracks.
Marianne Moore has a few things to say about obstacles and those that put them up
Observations contains Moore’s most famous poem “Poetry,” the one that begins “I too dislike it.” But as it sets out it’s ideas of proper poetry, it’s relatively gentle in chiding those that fail. Other poems in the collection are not so gentle.
Take the one I’m performing today: “The Labors of Hercules.” The title helps us with a reference before we get to Moore’s discursive style. In Greek mythology these were a series of 12 tasks, each one next-to-impossible on its own, all of which the hero Hercules must complete as penance. Moore doesn’t seem to follow the scheme of these classical tasks.* Instead she sets out the tasks that have been made next to impossible for her (or her like) to create their own variation of American Modernist art—and there’s a bunch of them.
Is the mule at the start of the poem then her own poetic muse, not conventionally beautiful and lyrical? The rest of the obstacles/tasks seem more outer than inward. There’s a narrow-minded pianist too tied to the score** to improvise or compose in a new manner. A string of invective brings us some “Self-wrought Midasses of brains” with “Fourteen-carat ignorance” that she’ll disappoint. She sarcastically threatens to rebel and dress up as the specifically male and bearded representation of time and posterity.*** She disputes the theory (propounded by T. S. Eliot and some lions of New Criticism) that detachment from one’s particular personality is required for creative power. She runs into the “High priests of caste” and lashes them with some further, unmistakable invective. Next she says she’ll have to teach saints to atheists to succeed in her penance.
There’s a line I’m not sure of that follows: “Sick of the pig-sty, wild geese and wild men.” Moore might be saying she’s sick of reflexive poetic worship of a timeless nature, as she shared a Modernist interest in observing the man-made and mechanical as worthy of poetry. Myself, I like a poem that freshly opens the book of nature as much as the next person, but there are days when one more poem about majestic wild-geese or another Robert-Bly-has-helped-me-come-to-terms-with-my-masculinity**** wild man poem makes me gag.
The poem closes on a short litany negating a series of common prejudices and ethnic stereotypes. I will not tarry long here to note that several other Modernists of 100 years ago were not shy about displaying each of these bigotries. In the context of this poem, Moore is saying “and besides all of the other things I’ll need to overcome, I’m not going to score easy points with bigots.”
Andy Gill in action with the Gang of Four.
It’s my hope that my performance of “The Labors of Hercules” helps as much as what I’ve written above to illuminate Moore’s poem. Musically I was thinking of Andy Gill, a guitarist who I admired greatly and who died this month. I didn’t mimic his distinctive sound or the can’t-not-dance groove of the group he founded, The Gang of Four—but a little of his attitude was informing me. The full text of Marianne Moore’s “The Labors of Hercules” is linked here. The player to hear my performance should appear below, and all the Parlando Project audio pieces are also available on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Just look there for (or on other podcast sources) for The Parlando Project.
**”Tadpole notes” made me think of immature notes that haven’t grown into those real toads for one’s imaginary garden, but it appears that Moore’s quoted image is more likely a reference to the shapes of notes in conventional notation with their bodies and tails.
***Moore’s politics are not something I know a lot about. Socialism of the William Morris sort is said to be an early influence, but she was an ardent woman’s suffragist 100 years ago when she still couldn’t vote as a matter of law. At the time that the female “song-bird” poets (Teasdale, Millay, Wylie, and others) were starting to be denigrated by high-church Modernists, Moore was one woman who was going to fight back with her own distinctive Modernism.
We now come to the top half of our count-down of the most listened to and liked pieces during the past three months. But what if you’re new here, and you wonder what this Parlando Project does?
In short, we take various words, mostly poetry, combine them with original music, and perform them. My intent at the start was not to do this the same way each time, to vary our approach as much as we could. We’ve been doing this for a couple of years, and there are now over 220 Parlando Project pieces available here if you search through our archives. From time to time, as I look at what we’ve done, I seem to notice a “style” developing, and while I have no objection to that arising organically from my predilections and limitations as a musician, performer or composer, when I hear that I usually ask myself “What can I try that’s different?”
The poems are not always the famous ones, I like to mix in some “deep cuts,” but it just so happens that these three recently popular ones are all pretty well-known, but maybe we can bring something new to them?
In position number four we have Emily Dickinson’s “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.” Last time I talked about how I’m finding that Modernist poetry in English moved from a recognizable natural landscape freshly observed in it’s early poems to a more interior landscape, another darker country where new dialects of language and syntax seemed the natural tongue of that region. It may well be that WWI, with its unstoppable socially-accepted murders, was a cause for this change. The rise of Freud contributed too. But more than half-a-century before WWI, and decades before Freud published, Emily Dickinson, spurred by American Transcendentalism and her own individual genius, was exploring some of those same places.
When Dickinson gets furthest inside her own head and tries to use her mutation of mid-19th century language to describe it there, she can be inscrutable; but when she’s half-way there like in this little masterpiece, she’s exploring poetic areas that won’t be visited again until the 20th Century.
This is another of the pieces where I think my music works particularly well. Perhaps you’ll agree. Player below:
Funny how these count-downs seem to form a sequence. From Dickinson’s dark we move to the third place piece, by that little-known poet William Shakespeare, with one of his sonnets about The Dark Lady, “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun.” When we wasn’t supplying titles for late 20th Century Sting CDs, or writing a play here and there, Shakespeare wrote a collection of sonnets that are full of ideas woven of memorable phrases.
Emilia Lanier, musician, poet and possibly Shakespeare’s Dark Lady.
I’ve always loved the sonnet, even shared a few of mine here. It just seems the perfect length for a lyric poem, long enough to develop two or three ideas costumed as images, but not so long that one will find them frayed and soiled at the cuffs before it’s done.
Hear my performance of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun” with the player gadget below.
And now we’re up to the second-most popular piece this past quarter, Marianne Moore’s “Poetry.” Shakespeare’s poem in slot number three declares his love by saying the things his beloved isn’t. Poet Moore’s poem about poetry starts off famously by saying she “too dislikes it,” and goes on to tell us what she feels works an doesn’t work as poetry, including the poem’s other famous line about poetry’s goal, to show “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” I think here again of those early Imagist poems, with their unromantic and ordinary things made into central images: T. E. Hulme’s red-faced farmer standing for the moon or Aldington’s poplar tree as a young woman or F. S. Flint finding the moon taking on the terror of a WWI Zeppelin raid. Toads all, ordinary nature, not the battalions of classical gods or the obligations of sentiment.
This piece’s popularity on Spotify continues steadily, as with “Sky” from earlier in the count-down, I wonder if it’s the short, somewhat generic title that brings in curious listeners there.
My initial idea of the Parlando Project did not have my voice as the only reader, and the first voice you hear in this version of “Poetry” is Dave Moore who’s been the voice in a number of pieces over the past two years. The other voices in this performance are two fine poets who’ve spent a lifetime raising toads to see what works in their gardens: Kevin FitzPatrick and Ethna McKiernan. Hear them read Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” with the gadget below.
That leaves us only the number one to count-down, the most popular piece this past spring. It’s not a well-known poem, and it’s not by a well-known poet. See you back here soon for that.
Today’s audio piece marks the 200th published by the Parlando Project! Since presenting our first piece, Carl Sandburg’s “Stars Songs Faces” back in 2016, we’ve combined words (mostly poetry) with original music as varied as we can make it. Those who’ve followed along know that the words we use are generally written by others, because that lets me encounter them, as I hope you do too, freshly, to discover anew what charms they have.
Not only does the music vary, but how we present the words varies too. Sometimes we sing the words, sometimes we just speak them, sometimes we chant or intone them.
“Like a horse that feels a flea” Marianne Moore around the time she wrote “Poetry”
Through this past couple of years, Dave Moore has been the alternate reader here, and I expect that you enjoy the break from my voice once in awhile (as I do). For today’s 200th piece, and for April’s National Poetry Month, I’m pleased to present Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” read, not by me, but by the “Lake Street Writer’s Group,” a small group of usually poets who’ve met since the 1970s, which took it’s name from the inner-city commercial street near where they lived. The first voice you’ll hear is poet, musician, and comics artist Dave Moore again, the second is poet and writer EthnaMcKiernan and the third is poetKevin FitzPatrick, who has the honor of having the latest book published by a member of the group, “Still Living in Town”.
MM of another color. Minneapolis-Moline once built tractors in a Lake Street factory. Marianne Moore was once asked by a car company to suggest the name for a new model. One of her suggestions: Utopian Turtletop
It was my idea to ask them to read Marianne Moore’s poem, since Moore herself breaks her poem up into various voices, not only from abrupt changes in diction but with the use of quotes. My thought was the changing voices would emphasize the poem’s stance of speaking for poetry’s audience.
I broke this on the group of poets cold, and they are reading the poem off a page I gave them, which divided “Poetry” up in small beats and phrases of the poem. Remarkably—well, maybe not all that remarkably, Dave, Ethna, and Kevin are all excellent readers of their own poetry—what you hear is one take, just as they read it, just as they handed it off verbally from one to the other around a room. They had no musical backing to hold their cadence, only Marianne Moore’s words. I wrote, played, and recorded the music later: drums, bass, guitar, and piano.
What I hear coming out of this is the same thing I aim for often here. Just as you are encountering the poem’s words freshly, as they hit your ears, the performers are doing the same. Sure, we may have heard or read the poem before, but it’s another’s voice, happening now, that is conveying it to you. We use music with the words here, and with the other Parlando Project pieces, for several reasons: it reminds us that poetry is musical speech, that poetry works in its sounds, its rhetorical flow, and the harmony of imagery like music; and because it offers the option to relax the cause of the words meaning.
There’s not one missed word in the trio’s cold reading, which is more unusual than an accident. When I’m improvising melodic lines freely, I accept that I’ll need to deal with “wrong” notes, musically creating (to vary from Moore’s famous line) “imaginary gardens with real clams in them.” To hear the group read “Poetry,” use the player gadget below.