A Winter’s Tale

When I first conceived of the Parlando Project several years ago I did not plan to analyze the poems I presented. My original vision was to present the combinations of music and words directly, unmediated.

I had several reasons, including that I didn’t think I was particularly good at that, but the chief reason was that I was worried that was too easily associated with the idea that poetry was some kind of tricky riddle meant to lock out it’s meaning from the unworthy, rather than a different way to approach how things are.

For every person who is satisfied by “solving” a poem, there are twenty-times more that find the effort not worth their time or attention, and a not unsubstantial number that have been found-out for bad readings, wrong guesses, and are shamed from ever making another attempt with poetry. Or for safety and comfort,  some readers will restrict themselves only to poetry that seems to reveal itself at first sight.

The experience of poetry as rote code-breaking or writing of it like a video game cheat solution, even if you find that sort of thing engaging and fun, reduces it. Constraining your poetry experience to easily-grasp aphorisms and reassuring sentiments also limits it.

Once in operation the Parlando Project didn’t follow my plan. If you’ve been reading the more than 300 posts here accompanying the audio presentations of poetry, you’ll have seen that most of the time I present some kind of explanation of what I think the poem means. How’d that happen? Mostly because I ask questions as I experience the poems, and then I think “Why not try to find an answer?” Those answers often delight me, and I can’t help but share them.

And maybe that’s just as well. Get the puzzle part, the explain part, out of the way and we can get on with the enjoyment of the word-music, the music-music, and the innumerable costumes, persons, and ways of speaking by which the poems come walking up to us.

Why introduce today’s piece, D. H. Lawrence’s “A Winter’s Tale”  like this? Because I can’t tell you what this poem of his means to me, at least not yet. For a moment I stopped myself and asked how I could perform or present this without knowing that.

If you’d like to see the whole text of the poem, you can view it here.

Lawrence, better known as a novelist, was also a poet published in the early Imagist anthologies, and this poem fits well into that new Imagist idea of how poetry should present things. Minnesota is covered by a couple of feet of snow at this point in our particular winter this February. The winter landscape Lawrence presents is vivid and rhymes with my experience.

English planter in early spring

Early spring in England, daffodils in the grass, flowers in planters…and then snow.

 

It’s the other character besides the poet/speaker/singer and the landscape that puzzles me. It’s only a pronoun, “she.” And what do we know of “she?” Female. Walks out in the deep snow, no mention that there is any accompanying her. “She’s waiting.” For what? We aren’t told directly, though the lovely line that describes her waiting “Impatient and cold, half sobs struggling into her frosty sigh” is both vivid and mysterious. England isn’t as cold in winter as Minnesota, but no sane and competent person goes standing out in the rural snow alone without some good reason. Well except for hunters, and my sane statement still stands. I did give some thought about the poem being a hunting story, but I can’t think of any English game that would be large enough to sob and sigh.

The last stanza only compounds the mystery for me. She’s “come so promptly.” Huh? Sounds like there’s more than a common-sense supposition that there must be a reason for her to be there. The poet/speaker/singer steps to her, and the poem concludes before it tells us, saying only the question “Why does she come, when she knows what I have to tell?”

I read one attempt to explicate this as the story of a woman who has come to meet her lover who is about to break up with her, keying partly off the line that says she’s come promptly though she knows that “she’s only nearer to the inevitable farewell.” I don’t have anything better myself, but I’m not buying that. Another says she’s death. I could go part-way for that, although then what’s she/death doing knowing about and being constrained by farewell? Death breaks up with us, we don’t break up with death!

Could she be winter? The poem’s opening says winter has just arrived or returned overnight, so there’s a link to the “promptly” remark. That gorgeous sobs and sighs line could be winter winds. If this is so, then what the poet/speaker/singer has to tell winter is that they know spring will inevitably come.

And so my appreciation for the mystery continues, it isn’t solved now, and it was far from solved when I performed this earlier this week, singing only the question, and thinking of Mark Hollis. It was intriguing to forget certainty as I sang lines of uncertain meaning, but I could grab onto their beauty and find emotional hooks in threads even if I couldn’t view the tapestry. My earlier experiences of this poem, particularly when heard aloud and formed in my voice, are no lesser than my experiences after questions and possible answers.

It’s my hope, as it has been since I started this Project, that you can do the same, and listen to the audio pieces (perhaps several times if you are intrigued) and let meaning and the emotions that surround it accrue in its own time, for your own self. The player gadget for D. H. Lawrence’s “A Winter’s Tale”  is below, and thanks for listening, it means so much to me.

 

The Road Not Taken

As we continue our celebration of National Poetry Month (#npm2018), today we present one of America’s most loved poems, “The Road Not Taken”  by Robert Frost.

This poem is loved, but like many of our lovers, it may not be understood. We think it means, as we think they mean, what they mean to us.

Some love the poem as an endorsement of going against the tide. If an article or personal story includes the line “the road less traveled by” that will likely be the point they are making by referencing this famous poem. So common is this understanding that many people think that phrase is the title of the poem.

Some think of it as a slightly less sure poem that reflects on a common life experience. Many of us can look back at some seemingly mundane choice that we’ve made that has had far-reaching consequences in our lives: that class we took on a whim, that meeting that occurred only because we were late or went to the wrong place, that failed idea that lead to a much better one, and so on. We often love a poem that reminds us of ourselves and the common beats of our lives. We may even be flattered by that.

Robert Frost was adamant that neither of these was the poem he wrote. And if I’m to honor my mid-century teachers—all schooled in the close reading of that then only-slightly-old “New Criticism”—I’d have to say that Frost is right, that’s not the poem he wrote.

As I recounted in my presentation of one of Britain’s favorite poems, Edward Thomas’ “Adlestrop,”  Frost was attempting to make a generalized joke derived from a particular foible of his British friend.  Thomas, who Frost encouraged to become a poet, was a naturalist, and as he and Frost walked around the Cotswold countryside, Thomas was often unsure about the old and sparsely marked paths and lanes that wander through that landscape. He wanted to take Frost to the best locations to see wildlife, and when he took the wrong path, he would regret it and puzzle all the more the next time he came to a fork or crossroads.

Robert Frost against the wall

To you it’s a nature walk, to Frost it’s a way to notice your peccadillos

 

In the poem Frost wrote, the vacillating description of whether there is any actual difference in the roads to choose between at the time of the choice, is meant to describe the difficulty in making that decision. That’s consistent with that second reading of the poem about how seeming arbitrary decisions can have unexpected effects later. We don’t know what meetings to be late for or which whim will turn out fruitful at the time.

It’s the poem’s last stanza that sets out Frost’s poem, in place of ours, despite it ending in the two lines (“I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference”) that are used to sum up the first two subjective readings. First, the conclusion revealed there is stated “with a sigh.” This is not an “I took my own path, and that’s what made me what I am today,” or an “I didn’t know it then, but that mistake was a lucky break” recollection. Those are statements of triumph or benevolent fate, and we don’t make either of those “with a sigh.” And even more subtly, there’s a trick in the two lines before the last one, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by.” Did you notice it?

Perhaps the musicians, the poetic or the score-reading kind, or actors will notice it. Frost has the speaker, announcing his oh so firm and final conclusion stated from the certainty of comically exaggerated “ages and ages hence” to repeat a word. It’s almost a stutter. He doesn’t say “and I took the one less traveled by.” He says “I (pause) I took the one less traveled by.” It’s the slightest tell, isn’t it? It’s not the shouty Townshend/Daltry “why don’t you all just f-f-f-fade away,” but the speaker is still divided about what road he should have taken. Frost called the poem “The Road Not Taken”  after all, not “The Road Less Traveled.”

As it sometimes is with our lovers, we may have misunderstood what he said by misunderstanding how he said it.

Robert Frost Fear of Roads cover

Not the cover to his “More Songs about Woods and Snow”

 

Musically this started with an idea: do Robert Frost as if performed by the Talking Heads. I came to a fork in the road part way into recording it when it came time to add the keyboard part and I wasn’t able to lay down a part that helped the song. As a result of that choice, I didn’t really use the early David Byrne vocal mannerisms either. In the end I think it’s a clean presentation of the poem, sung. When I noticed the “I—I” thing today after recording the vocal and had finished a final mix, I went back and was pleased to find that hadn’t missed the two I’s, but then I recalled the “I, I, I, I, I!” vocal riff Byrne repeatedly interjects in “Psycho Killer”—so there’s still possible version someone could do to bring that out!

To hear the road I took with this, use the player below.

A Certain Slant of Light

The Parlando Project combines various words (usually poetry) with music as varied as I can make it. When I planned the Parlando Project I did not intend to post detailed examinations of the poems’ meanings.

After all, I thought, listening to music is a sensuous experience, and poetry, as it is musical speech, also has its impact when hearing it, independent of any final meaning one could extract from it. Of course, assuming the poetry is in one’s own language, it’s nearly impossible to escape meaning if one allows oneself to listen at all. Some words and phrases will mean something, even on first hearing, even with the most confusing and difficult poetry.

In the end, we may experience a difficult or elusive poem as if it was a set of flat-pack furniture, or a jigsaw puzzle, or as one of those plastic model kits that I bought and glued together in my youth. But in those cases, a wordless black and white sheet with numbers and pointed arrows inside the carton tells you this is to be assembled as a dresser or end table, and the puzzle or model kit has the beautiful color picture on the box top that tells you the pieces’ assembled meaning.

With a poem like Emily Dickinson’s “There’s a Certain Slant of Light”  there is no picture of it complete, there are no assembly instructions. If you try to put it together, you may feel there are pieces missing.

The pieces, though, are beautiful, even left unconnected, even if we don’t know what the whole is to be. Slanted light on a winter’s afternoon with a heft like music. Shadows holding their breath. Heavenly hurt without a scar.

The Emily DIckinson Internal Difference

See Emily play?

There’s no harm in going to the bottom of this post and using the player to hear my performance of “There’s A Certain Slant of Light”  without reading the rest of this. There will be no test. There’s no correct answer. You never need to put down your pencil and close your test booklet. Dickinson didn’t write about what she intended with this poem, and intelligent readers have differed in what they found there. Some found an end-table, others a fine art painting, others a plastic 1940 Ford sedan built one of three ways. Some listeners will just enjoy the pieces. There’s a little piano motif I play in it: A, B, C, E ascending and then back to A again. What does that mean? It’s an arpeggiated A minor (add 9) chord, or it’s just a series of notes that sound “meaningful” in sequence without knowing the harmony.

AMT 1940 Ford 3 in 1 model car kit

It could look like this after you put it together

Here’s that player to hear my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “A Certain Slant of Light.” No assembly required.

Further In Summer Than the Birds

William Blake wrote “To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour.” Brothers and sisters, it’s time to testify, and I want to know: are ready to testify? I give you a testimonial:

Emily Dickinson!

Okay, that’s a metaphor. The poem that provides the words to this piece “Further In Summer Than the Birds” uses a similar trope. Dickinson starts with a joke, yoking the language of a high church Christian service (instead of the rock’n’roll revivalist call I supply above) with–what? Late summer, the laziest time of year, before harvest. And worse yet for the comparison, she leaning down to the grass and hearing not mighty choirs or church organs, but those famous orchestrators of silence: crickets.

Dickinson, like Blake, was a religious rebel. Many members of her family were swept up in the 19th century religious revival, while she, an otherwise dutiful family member, actively resisted this. I think the poem starts off drawing us in with satire of religious services, but then we get to the mysterious last stanza. Dickinson’s syntax is so abstract that I (and other readers) are tempted to just let the sound of the words flow over the ear without need to extract meaning. Perhaps this was effect Dickinson wanted, as my best understanding of that last stanza is close to that. That line “No Furrow on the Glow” sounds great, but is also seems to say: no easily extracted message can be “farmed” or “gardened” from this church of the crickets.

Similarly, I don’t know exactly what “A Druidic Difference” is. Might be more satire. Or it might be that this glowing August sound which can’t be used to raise crops of meaning, is the meaning. The Druidic difference may be the isness of nature itself. But that’s me attempting to cultivate the experience, furrowing my brow to plow another furrow on the glow.

I think this speaks to the heart of something the Parlando project seeks to highlight. Poetry is not merely meaning, Poetry’s sound. It’s statements, its way of saying, has the structure of music; and music, it has the beautiful structure of thought and the human voice without the burden of specific meaning. That is why music and words meet here.

The music for “Further in Summer Than the Birds” shows a little of my Velvet Underground influence, and specifically with this piece, their eponymous 3rd album. Later this month we’ll visit another set of words about August and crickets along with some louder Velvets influenced music.

To hear the “Further in Summer Than the Birds” as played by The LYL Band, use the gadget below: