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.

 

Sara Teasdale’s I Am Not Yours or the Love Song of Ernst Filsinger

Sara Teasdale wrote some of the saddest love poems I’ve ever read.

Less-well remembered than she should be, for a time about 100 years ago Teasdale was the most popular and esteemed love poet in America. In 1918 she won the Pulitzer prize for a new collection of her poetry, labeled right there on the cover with the title “Love Songs.”

Harriet Monroe, the founder and editor of Poetry,  the indispensable American poetry journal of the day, said of Teasdale “She was as delicate as a lily, but under the white-petaled perfume one felt in her presence an impassioned intensity of feeling which her brief lyrics were then beginning to express.”

So, what did Teasdale know about love? More and less than you might expect. Born in 1884 in a wealthy and religiously conservative St. Louis family, she was protected and sheltered* until she was nearly 30 when her poetry career took her away from St. Louis to New York and Chicago.

As her poetry expresses, she dearly wanted to fall deeply in love, but she also wanted the independence to write, and though she moved in bohemian circles during a time of great social change, she’d internalized some of her family’s conservative values.

Romantic stories revel in love triangles, but Sara Teasdale, the woman who’d get the Pulitzer Prize as a love poet was about to deal with a love rhombus. She was crushing on a young poet she admired, John Hall Wheelock. She told Wheelock he was “The greatest living poet.” He wasn’t, though he was flattered. Wheelock, like Teasdale’s family, was a bit of a blue-blood, and he respected Teasdale’s poetic talents, but he was not interested in marrying her.

Then there was Vachel Lindsay, a literary phenom of the time, who had vagabonded about the U.S. trading his poems for meals and then bootstrapped that into touring the country’s speaking halls giving flamboyant readings of his chanted poetry. Lindsay, unlike Wheelock, wanted to marry Teasdale, and he plied his troth by dedicating books of his poetry to her**, but the reserved and sheltered Teasdale was both intimidated by his bluster and worried about his ability to provide the kind of stable home that would allow her to continue writing.

Who’s the fourth rhombus side? A St. Louis businessman, Ernst Filsinger. Like the other two, Filsinger appreciated Teasdale’s poetry, and like Lindsay he wanted to marry her. Problem solved? Well, Teasdale wanted to be deeply, mutually in love, and she wasn’t sure she loved Filsinger that much.

Sara Teasdale's Love Rhombus

Tuning up for her Pulitzer-winning “Love Songs” Teasdale was tempering her intonation with three men.

 

Wheelock says that Teasdale asked him to decide who she should marry. “You know Vachel. I want you to meet Ernst. And I want you to tell me what to do. Which of these two good men should I marry? Should I marry Vachel Lindsay, who’s a genius and whose poetry I love? Or should I marry this fine, tall, dark, good-looking businessman who seems to care for my poetry?”

Wheelock may not have been the greatest living poet in 1914, but he seems a sensible sort of guy.*** He says he told Teasdale she  must make the choice. She replied that no, he had to tell her which to marry, that she wouldn’t blame him if anything went wrong. OK, he said, he didn’t see her being happy with Lindsay “I don’t think you are one who could live in the kitchen doing all the housework and scrubbing the floors.”

She married Filsinger.

The next year she published the poem I used for today’s piece “I Am Not Yours”  in a collection titled Rivers to the Sea,  whose title came from a poem by Wheelock. “I Am Not Yours”  also appears in her  Love Songs  collection that won the Pulitzer.

It’s possible to read this poem quickly and read it as a crush poem, a supple lyric about being madly in love with someone, where the title and opening phrase is poised rhetorically in the moment before love’s inevitable consummation will occur, as a poem written by someone who realizes her autonomy, but is willing to submit it to overwhelming passion. Teasdale’s poetry was not just prize-winning, it was popular in its time. Someone might read this poem at a wedding. It’s likely that Teasdale, who wrote this the same month as she married, wrote it thinking of hers.

Go ahead, listen to it now. Here’s the player gadget.

 

 

So how did things turn out for the Sara Teasdale love rhombus?

Wheelock lived until 1973. In his memoir of his life in publishing he said that the best way to edit poets is to not edit them. “If a person needs to have his poems edited, then he’s not a poet, because poets are perfectionists, and by the time they get through with all their agonizing work on a poem, either they’ve ruined it by revising too much or it’s the way it should be.” He’d tried to apply that principle to Teasdale’s marriage choice.

Vachel Lindsay may have been too odd and flawed to ever last long, but the Eliot and Pound wing of cultured expatriate High Modernism crushed him by the late 20s, and the mid-century New Criticism could barely bother with the effort to find the grievous lapses in good taste in his “higher vaudeville.” In 1931, depressed by his inability to keep his debts at bay as his touring revenue dried up, he drank Lysol and killed himself.

At first Sara Teasdale’s marriage seemed to work. Filsinger allowed her to concentrate on her writing, but she eventually felt the loss of not being lost in passion. In 1929, while Filsinger was overseas on a business trip, she headed west to a state with easier divorce laws and informed him by telegram. By the Thirties, Teasdale’s lyricism and complex emotional content fell out of favor with High Modernism/the New Criticism too.**** The poet who had won the Pulitzer Prize for a book called Love Songs  felt unloved and forgotten. A little over a year after Lindsay’s death, she took an overdose of prescription meds and died in a filled bathtub.

And Ernst Filsinger? No one cares for the biographies of businessmen much after they die. We are not likely to sing the book he authored Exporting to Latin America  to music decades later. His obituary claimed he gave the first transatlantic after-dinner speech by radio in 1929, speaking from Berlin to the National Foreign Trade Council sitting in Baltimore. Who now notes what he said? He died in China in 1937. In his memoir, Wheelock says he heard Filsinger too committed suicide, but I have no confirmation of that. Is it possible that he, Prufrock-like, heard the mermaids singing, but pointedly, personally knew they had, at least once, sang for him?

Even if we largely ignore it, we store away beautiful things like prize-winning lyric poetry, so we can read and hear what Sara Teasdale wrote the month she married. Listen again to “I Am Not Yours”  or read it here. Looking to be the I that is I, but longing to get lost in love and knowing she was not, speaking of her light, a mere candle lit at noon, and asking for it to be plunged, put out.

As you read this, I tell you again that the first duty of an artist is to survive

Love poetry if it’s any good is as varied and complex as love is, as life is. Sara Teasdale wrote some of the saddest love poems I’ve ever read.

 

 

 

*Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Teasdale also had some kind of long-standing (and hard to diagnose via remote historical methods) illnesses. This only increased the family’s protectiveness.

**Another admiring poet who dedicated work to Teasdale was Witter Bynner. Bynner was gay.

***Wheelock eventually had a long career in publishing, and he prided himself with befriending, scouting and signing poets from Louise Bogan and Conrad Aiken to May Swenson and James Dickey. His memoir is The Last Romantic: A Poet Among Publishers.

****Teasdale was born in St. Louis only four years before T. S. Eliot, even if she seems like she was born to a different generation, one both before and after Eliot. Their families, though Midwestern at their birth, shared similar New England backgrounds, and Teasdale attended a private St. Louis prep school founded by Eliot’s parents, and that was located next door to Eliot’s home until he was 16. One wonders if the two young poets were aware of each other as children, but Eliot left town at 17, Teasdale’s sheltered upbringing reduced the chances of social interaction, and Teasdale’s family were staunch Baptists while the Eliots were Unitarian.

Oh, and by the way, that Prufrock of Eliot’s first great poem? Prufrock was the name of another St. Louis businessman. If Eliot considered other name options from his St. Louis youth, Filsinger was less iambic as a name. Teasdale could have sounded its own connotations, but it wouldn’t fit with measuring with coffee spoons.

How Do I Love Thee

Here’s the plot of a story. It’s a difficult one to tell without it sounding like a romance novel—yet as best as history knows, it’s what happened.

There was this woman who grew up in a rich family whose wealth came from exploiting slave labor in colonial Jamaica. Shortly after she reaches adulthood the family fortunes take a severe blow as Britain outlaws slavery. The men of the family might think this the work of do-gooders with their onerous regulations ruining their business, but our woman aligns with the do-gooders, holding for the abolition of slavery and writing poems for that cause. In fact, she’s a very prolific writer, and has been writing since she was near Hilda Conklin’s age. In 1840 when William Wordsworth dies, she’s even considered a British poet laureate candidate. Well no, that didn’t happen. Woman and all I suppose.

Now let’s add some more difficulties for our heroine. She’s got a long-standing opiate addiction based on a hard to diagnose and painful chronic illness. And there’s some domestic tyranny to go with all this. Her father has forbidden his children from marrying.

That stipulation seems odd. There’s one theory, one that our heroine had some belief in: she may have been creole, that is, mixed-race.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning crop

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who believed she had “African blood”

 

None the less, as a woman of letters, her writing was free, and circulated widely. Her poetry found an admirer in another poet, Robert Browning, though he was at that point less successful than our heroine. They began to correspond and fell in love. Eventually there was a dramatic elopement. Her family condemned her and disowned her, but the love match seems to have sustained her for the rest of her life.

Other than her thought that she might have an African ancestor mixed in with the atrocity of slavery*, this story, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s story, was once very well-known.

As romantic as the Elizabeth Barrett Browning/Robert Browning story was considered in its day, I can’t help but think how a supermarket tabloid or Internet gossip site would treat this today. I can see the blurb:

“Unable to shake drugs, Liz escapes abusive home with stranger!”

 

Shortly after her marriage, she wrote a series of sonnets to the love of her life. In 1850 the love sonnets were published as Sonnets from the Portuguese**,  and today’s piece is the most well-known of them. Indeed, it’s likely the most loved Victorian love poem, and no matter the excess of old-fashioned sounding “Thees” in it, it’s still hanging around as one of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits” as we approach Valentine’s Day.

Clasped_Hands_of_Robert_and_Elizabeth_Barrett_Browning_By Harriet Hosmer

Sculpture of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning’s clasped hands

 

Even if you feel too modern for it, or are concerned that the level of devotion expressed in it doesn’t seem consistent with a healthy independent self-image*** one should still be grateful for Elizabeth Barrett Browning, if only because she and the Bronte sisters were the chief models for Emily Dickinson.

To hear my performance of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee,”  use the player below.

 

 

 

*This theory is not universally accepted, and as far as I know was first suggested in 1995 by Julia Markus in her book Dared and Done  about the marriage. As I read of this, I was struck by the coincidence of having just presented Jean Toomer’s striking Modernist love poem, written by another writer with ambivalence about his mixed-race ancestry.

**The collection’s title was first chosen because there were Victorian-era worries that the book, with its somewhat scandalous subject of a woman expressing agency in love, might need to be presented as a translation of an anonymous foreign author. It also referred to Robert Browning’s pet name for Elizabeth, “My little Portuguese,” likely based on her darker coloration.

***By the way, I do not recommend footnotes for any of you who may send someone a Valentine-poem.

Wild Plums

Is love enough in dealing with matters of translation? I want to talk a bit about some issues with this, and while it may start out sounding esoteric, stay with me, I’ll end up as immediate as anything.

I’ve presented Chinese poetry here before. Collected classical Chinese poetry goes back to around the 10th Century BC, materials gathered from an oral tradition around 700 BC and written down by Confucius or his school, and also a later golden age in the 8th Century AD for literary Chinese poetry. In Western terms, that’s from the time of the Bronze Age Trojan War to the time of Homer to the European Dark Ages.

If you enjoy thinking about large amounts of time, consider those dates again, that’s 1,800 years between the time of the oldest Confucian Odes  (or the Book of Songs  as it is often called), and the time of Du Fu and Li Bai, and then over 1,200 years until now, a total of 3,000 years—enough time to get through that bookshelf of books I’ve put off reading to do this project. Or if you’re a listener and want to relate this to the oral culture of the Modern or the Bronze ages, in that 3,000 years span you could listen to every one of the 20 million tracks on Spotify 26 times each and still have time to go for a night walk in the country while trying and failing to count the stars.

Let us contemplate the differences inherent in that much time. How different was the culture of Du Fu’s time or his anonymous predecessors who sang the Book of Songs  before it was a book? I can’t even begin to compress those differences into a short post.

We sometimes speak about unchanging “human nature” when talking about such a great divide of time and place—and yet, then we turn the page (or flip to a new browser tab) and read about how technology and social changes may have significantly altered how humanity works in a decade or two. How much differently did a poet or a listener/reader evaluate, create, and experience poems then, compared to now?

Both of those conclusions could be true (essential, retained, human nature elements and change that is not slowing in velocity), each moving from opposite edges of the human experience in proportions hard to measure objectively from inside it.

Into this gap steps the translator (and in our case here, also the performer) who seeks to render the written record of these poems from a place so far away in time that great geographical distances seem minor. The task of translating a hundred-year-old poem from French to English is difficult enough—but this?

Should there be any surprise that many of these translations will seem inaccurate and differ significantly between themselves in their approximations, or that areas that would be understood by the poet or their more contemporary readers remain mysterious?

Greater scholarship and cultural knowledge than mine may help in these approximate efforts at translation and performance, but even then, one should understand the difficulties and likelihood of success. And yet I do it. I want to try to grasp this, however imperfectly, not because I am Du Fu, or his nearest like extant, but because his story is different.

I promised I’d eventually get immediate. Here’s the first level of the now: think of the occurrences in our times where a choice to use, perform, or even experience cultural expressions of our contemporaries will draw condemnation on the grounds of cultural appropriation, non-identical background tone-deafness, or of just plain laughable or painful ignorance on the part of the artist (that last often two sides of the same flaw).

Some of these are very practical objections. In financial (as opposed to artistic realms) cultural appropriation impacts people’s livelihoods. Yet there’s no Du Fu or other 8th Century Chinese man to perform his work with a closer understanding today. And Du Fu himself, as a neo-Confucian, probably realized that his appropriation of Confucius’ literary appropriation of the oral tradition Book of Songs  material would be different and inexact in his own way.

Even if we’re necessarily failing, creating in our errors a cultural “telephone game,*” if we do this humbly and with respect for our forebearers, ancient or contemporary, I believe it’s honorable work.

Wild Plums

Wild plums my wife found along the Mesabi Trail, leading me to today’s piece

 

Here’s a second here and now: I mentioned I was re-reading some translations of the Confucian Odes  because my wife sent me a copy of one of those poems in translation, the one I’ve reworked into today’s piece which I call “Wild Plums.”  This was a gift of love I received in gratitude—even if the composer/performer-with-a-pedantic-streak part of me wanted to know who translated it, and if I could find a literal raw translation for another perspective on the work.** And here I found this, which indicates that it was not intended originally in Chinese in the way the translation presents it in English. My guess is that the translator loved the word music they found in it, that repetition of the line “the plums are falling ,” and this lured them away from the original meaning.

As best the literal translation I linked above can transfer an original meaning to me, the woman who speaks in it is either claiming that she has so many suitors that a successful one will need to up his game to make the cut (a Bronze Age “No Scrubs”) or it’s a portrayal of an eligible woman who is being too picky about a husband and has driven suitable mates off.

So, the poem that my wife sent me is probably not accurately translated, and yet it expresses something that was engendered in the translator by it, and by the caroms of life that bounced off my wife and to me. And that poem’s yearning, and the music of it in English has its own beauty, like the love that brought it to me.

And so that is what I adapted and performed. I’ve even added some additional refrains to further emphasize the musicality of the piece. To listen to the LYL Band’s musical version of this very old poem in it’s more romantic guise, use the player below.

 

*Also called “Chinese whispers,” unintentionally helping me make my point.

**That my wife is willing to tolerate this dreadful mix of traits is one of her charms, she even found and sent the less romantic literal translation as well.

(footnotes because I love My Year in 1918 using them)

To W.C.W. M.D.

It’s now 1916—well not really—but allow me immediate mode for the time being. Some early 20th Century Modernist characters we’ve already met are about to collaborate in New York City with a largely forgotten figure whose words we’ll meet today.

The Provincetown Playhouse, that CBGB’s of Modernist American theater, has moved its organization from the remote Cape Cod artist’s colony to New York’s Greenwich village, and they’re still looking for new types of plays by new playwrights. How about drama using Modernist poetry?

Verse drama, despite continuing productions of Shakespeare, is a thing that often generates rumors of revival while never really reviving. In 1916, the Provincetown group was open to trying this. Which poets can come up with something?

Alfred Kreymborg could. Kreymborg was a leading networker or influencer in the New York area for Modernist poetry. Ezra Pound, and then Amy Lowell, would publish anthology books of Imagist Poets. Harriet Monroe out of Chicago was also gathering new Modernist work for Poetry  magazine. In 1916 Kreymborg would do the same in New York, with a magazine and anthology book series called “Others.”  Kreymborg had also been writing poetry, short poems mostly, all of them free verse. Now a play.

Others group

The “Others” group: L to R in back: Jean Crotti, Marcel Duchamp, Walter Arensberg, Man Ray, R. A. Sanborn, Maxwell Bodenheim. In front: Alison Hartpence, Alfred Kreymborg (bowtie daddie), William Carlos Williams (w/ Internet click-bait cat) and Skip Cannell

 

The play he wrote is an odd thing to describe. Titled “Lima Beans,”  it’s a two-character play about a couple. The husband loves lima beans, the wife decides he might also like string beans and surprises him with the new beans—but no, he loves lima beans. He stalks off, angry. She scrambles and gets some lima beans. He realizes he loves his wife, returns and she’s got lima beans for him. Kiss. Curtain.

I guess this could be a Seinfeld  episode plot decades later, but that’s not how Kreymborg uses it. He writes his play with litanies of repeated words, hocketing between the two voices. After reading the play this month, I’m guessing a performance might sound like a cross between Dr. Suess’ Green Eggs and Ham  and a late 20th Century Minimalist musical work by someone like Phillip Glass or Meredith Monk. Or as Preston Sturges’ Sullivan would have it, Waiting for Godot  plus vegetables—but with a little sex in it. That musical comparison is particularly apt, because even though the play did not use musical accompaniment, Kreymborg saw it as a musical structure.

So here in 1916 we have the Provincetown group, putting on a play that pioneered a performance aesthetic that still seems audacious 50 or 60 years later. Who are you going to get as actors to realize this—words and a presentation of thought conveyed musically, without actual music?

Poets.  In the role of the husband, William Carlos Williams. In the role of the wife, Mina Loy, who had just arrived in New York after getting away from those Italian Futurists. Neither poet had acted before, but Kreymborg rehearsed the two poets until they could present his free-verse vision.

Loy and Williams in Lima Beans

Mina Loy and William Carlos Williams in Lima Beans. The set for the proudly independent Provincetown Playhouse production cost $2.50, and its set designer, William Zorach,  also played the 3rd character whose hands are hanging, Soupy Sales-like, out the window.

 

I toyed with the idea of trying to realize Lima Beans  here, although with music this time. But it really needs two voices, and I wasn’t sure that a short section could do justice to the structure of the piece.

In it’s place, I looked for a short poem of Kreymborg’s to use instead. This proved more difficult than I thought it would be. I read his two poetry collections from this era, but no poem grabbed my attention. As in the play, he’s looking for a new poetic language in these poems, but it’s hard to grab the emotional center of many of them for performance.

In the end I chose today’s piece: “To W.C.W. M.D.”  It’s dedicated to William Carlos Williams. This might be more of Kreymborg’s log-rolling networking skills on display, but its subject also answered a desire I have to do a piece remembering my late wife Renee Robbins in some way today. As best as I can penetrate the emotional core of this poem, it speaks of the need to separate and not separate from those that have died.

Musically, the piece is based on one stacked chord, E minor7/11, but the notes are spread out between the instruments. Besides drums there are two bass guitars, piano, two viola parts, a violin part, and a clarinet in this. To hear it, use the player below.

 

Like John A Dreams

Today’s selection was also recorded a few years back, and is more conventionally in that “poet reading beat poetry while a band backs the poet up” school of performance. While that’s one of the influences that has led to the Parlando Project, I didn’t want to confine myself to that style, and if you’ve been following along here with what we’ve done over the past year, you’ve heard some of the other approaches we’ve taken.

As I’m in a busy end of August, I don’t have time for much commentary on this piece, but I don’t think it needs it either, which is part of why it’s here today.  This is a story set distinctly in South Minneapolis and the early 21st Century, and it talks obliquely about the time of falling in love with my wife. The Riverview Theater mentioned in the poem is still a going concern, a neighborhood single-screen movie house that shows movies near the end of their theatrical release without concentrating on any one cinema genre, leading to marquee billings like the one the poem mentions, a series of titles that often seem like little Dada poems to me.

Riverview Theater 1

Minneapolis’ Riverview Theater: Dada poem generator or movie house marquee?

  
Outside of the localism of the poem, the main obscurity in it is the title: “Like John A Dreams.”  That’s a reference to one of my favorite speeches in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  In the play’s Act II, the hero Hamlet is asking why he cannot take action on the death of his father, and he rebukes himself as “Like John A Dreams, unpregnant of my cause, and I can say nothing…” John A Dreams was apparently a stock folk character in Shakespeare’s time, a foolish character who lived in his imagination and ignored more pressing reality—a character flaw all writers should be able to appreciate.

Blues and Haikus Jack Kerouac record cover

Parlando influence Jack Kerouac. “Beat poetry while a band backs the poet up”

Allen Ginsberg once recalled Jack Kerouac reading Hamlet aloud, and in particular this speech, with special emphasis in his voice when he landed on the “John A Dreams” charge.
 
So, if you’re a writer or other artist, Hamlet’s speech is for you. Your life is quite possibly bifurcated between that artistic thing you do and the life you press aside to do it. Art is often about making “and” choices. Life is often about making “or” choices.

To hear the LYL Band perform “Like John A Dreams,” use the player below.

She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night

I said I would change things up last time, and by stepping back a few years, today’s piece does that.

How much different is “She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night”  from the last few posts? First off, we’ve left off from war. This is a love poem. Death appears in it only briefly passing—so fast it passes, as it can in a poem, you might not even notice it. And rather than being a piece by another poet, the words here are mine. We live here at the Parlando Project with the idea of presenting “other people’s stories,” but I also want variety, so I’ll make the exception this time, and present part of my story.
 
One of the modernist/Imagist ideas that Ernest Hemmingway liked to use in his early stories was to leave an essential detail out of story, and then to strive to write it so well that the power of that detail would become present subliminally.

Lovers Tryst

In a classical aubade lovers are always awaking in a field and forgetting to check for contact dermatitis

“She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night”  is an aubade, a traditional form of love poetry. An aubade features lovers awaking at dawn, and the poet lamenting that their night is over, so they must now part for their un-enchanted days. What do I think is different in my aubade?

Sixteen years ago, my wife died after a short and painful illness, not yet 44 years old. I cannot tell you all that means, but one thing I experienced in my grieving process was the question of where one goes from that stopped thing. After all, you are definitively stopped, you have no momentum in any direction, unlike in the normal flow of life. You can stay stopped, or move off in any direction.

I moved, and was moved, in the direction of falling in love again. There are some difficulties in that direction, knowing of love’s inescapable impermanence. Like the lover in an aubade, I knew now, deep in my soul and body, that love means that parting is intensified.

In the end, “She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night”  is a love poem that hardly mentions death. I was trying to do that modernist/Imagist thing. Is death still there?

Alas, the other thing that I left out, is that other person, lying beside the speaker, stuffed with dreams no doubt with all the richness, sadness and choices of their life. My love poem fails, as some do, in that respect. Can it remain unsaid my partner chose to move, and move me, as well?

Today’s piece is musically a bit different as well—there’s an antique 20th Century beat box rhythm used for one thing. To hear the LYL Band perform “She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night”  use the player gadget that should appear below.

The River Merchants Wife

The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”  has a very complicated history. I can’t even say “Ezra Pound’s ‘The River Merchant’s Wife”— though he’s often listed as the author.
 
Let’s begin, as a river or a journey might, at the beginning. Back in the 9th Century in China there were two great poets. One of them we’ve already met there: Du Fu. He was known for his wisdom and level-headedness. The other was Li Bai (his name is also written in western letters as Li Po and Li Bo, and in Japan as Rihaku) who was known for his more excessive existence. In China both have been continually revered, but in early 20th Century Europe or America, they were nearly unknown. Only scholars interested in off-beat subjects knew of these men’s work.

One such scholar was an American, Ernest Fenollosa, who had traveled to Japan and become deeply immersed in Japanese culture, and as a sidelight to that, he also was exposed to Chinese culture. Early in the 20th Century, Fenollosa was one of a group of Americans living in England. We’ve met others here who were part of this “reverse British Invasion” of Americans: Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot—and you’ll soon get to meet another, H.D.  Fenollosa then died in 1908, still in London.
 
Here’s were something fateful happened. Fenollosa’s widow, for some reason, gave Ezra Pound a bunch of her late husband’s papers. Pound was a young man who was trying his damnedest to start some kind of artistic movement in London. In the papers were scholarly prose translations of Li Bai’s poems done by Fenollosa and two of his Japanese associates, Mori and Ariga.

Ernest FenollosaLi Bai

Ernest Fenollosa, deeply attracted to fur; and Li Bai, more into silk

  
Pound fell upon these scholar’s notes. He’d already sought out other old poetry for inspiration for his revolution (much as the Pre-Raphaelites had looked backwards for something fresh), but in this old Chinese poetry he found what he was looking for. It was concise. It was free of centuries of cruft that English poetry had accumulated. And Pound naïvely felt that the poems themselves grew out of the ideograms for their words, Chinese characters which had evolved from drawings of objects. He had found his poetic revolution. Poems should be constructed of little more than images. Not images in the sense of elaborate similes or strained allegories, images in the sense of a presentation of the direct observation of the poet, unadorned. Pound published what he created out of those scholars’ notes as a ground-breaking poetry collection “Cathay,”  and he quickly began to compose his own modernist poems using his epiphany.

If Fenollosa hadn’t died in London, and if his widow hadn’t given this tranche of papers to an artistic provocateur such as Pound, it’s possible that Li Bai would be no better known in English today than he was in 1908, and it’s even more likely that poetry in English from that point on would have evolved differently.

If Fenollosa hadn’t died in London, and if his widow hadn’t given this tranche of papers to an artistic provocateur such as Pound, it’s possible that Li Bai would be no better known in English today than he was in 1908, and it’s even more likely that poetry in English from that point on would have evolved differently.

Seems like a miracle when such things line up, doesn’t it? Well, here’s something as miraculous: though “The River Merchant’s Wife’s”  source was written over 1200 years ago in a culture so far removed from America that the childhood legend was that one would need to dig a hole through the center of the Earth to get there, even though it comes to us filtered through non-Chinese scholars, and even though the particular words I’ll use today to express it were written by an avant-garde poet whose work remains little-read and understood today, many people have an immediate deep emotional response to this poem the first time they hear it.

Isn’t that odd? All that strangeness in customs, place-names, time, provenance—and yet more: it’s a poem of female desire written in the voice of young woman by a man, and translated and transformed by men. And yet, woman and men, young and old, hear it, and they feel the pangs of desire and separation just as much as any 9th Century resident of China—even though the poem, following the tenants of what Pound would call “Imagism,” barely mentions the speaker’s emotions (“bashful,” “desired,” and the only present-tense one, “hurt.”)

I know I felt those things when I first heard it, aged perhaps 21 on a sad journey with a young woman. I hear it now as an old man too, and think once again of my friend John, and of China. The place, Cho-fu-Sa, that the river merchant’s wife says she will go out to meet her husband is, I’m told, hundreds of miles from her village in the poem. What is such distance to the heart?

To hear my performance of “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”  use the player gadget at the bottom here. Since this post is already long, I’m not going to talk much about the music today. The higher-pitched string instrument you’ll hear is my approximation of the pipa, a traditional Chinese lute. There are many moving recitations of this poem available online, but to see an entirely light-hearted modern translation of “The River Merchant’s Wife” after listening to mine, view this one.