It Is Not Always May

I cannot start any presentation of a Longfellow poem here without noting his extraordinary fall from esteem and fame. Once, through a combination of the historical moment in the growth of the United States, his talents, and a desire to write earnestly meaningful poems, Longfellow seemed our national poet. Did it seem, when that was so, that this would be for all time—or at least for an age longer than a decade or two short of a century?

Any reading across this project’s nearly three years will show that I find worth in the less-well-known, the overlooked. But nothing that is honestly popular can be unworthy of examination—after all, even manifold problems and failures of art in that which drew a large audience tell us something about that audience, our fellow human beings. Which case now, overlooked or popular, is Longfellow?

Choice Thoughts from Longfellow

Imagine a current poet whose rep could generate a board game where one wins quotes from their poems (image from Maine Historical Society collection)

 

If Whitman, Dickinson and Frost—or their unseen ghosts in our zeitgeist—still motivate our inner singing muses, can we understand that trio—our current national poets—as reactions to Longfellow, making him still a prime-mover of some interest?

So, let’s listen to “It Is Not Always May”  today. Rhymed metrical English language lyric is not easy to do, and harder to do if you want it to sound easy, and this one is pretty good. Yes there’s a bit of “poetic diction” here, words and word-order that we’d never say in actual speech, and I suspect that would be true even in 1842 when this poem was published, but it doesn’t greatly harm the poem.

The imagery is largely conventional, though as a seasonal poem we may expect some of these ready-mades to be checked off: birds, bird-song, budding trees, the young, the frolic. Can one do a winter poem without snow and stasis, an autumn poem without colored falling leaves, and so on? Yes, this is possible, and originality can be a great strength—but there’s a certain resonance with the choir of poets to sing those ancient notes in one’s own song. Conventional and outdated it may be, but I rather liked the clouds as sailing vessels in a river-fed harbor awaiting a west wind to up-anchor from New England for the “Old World.” And the poem’s refrain: “There are no birds in last year’s nest,” which Longfellow identifies as a Spanish proverb, has its vividness too.

Oh in my soul, I think the Imagists were right, that too many poems use conventional images as mere counters, pro-forma symbols, not real vivid objects we can consider as existing outside the poetic line. But I could just see Longfellow and the sea-side clouds as an actual charged moment.

And how about this poem’s sentiment? Well many acceptable modern poems have opinions, outlooks, sentiments, and so the charge against Longfellow isn’t really that, rather it’s sentimentality, the idea that he has no original outlook, no fresh take. What would his readers in the days of his fame have thought? A feature, not a bug? Longfellow was the premier “Fireside Poet,” suitable for reading to the family, suitable for school-books and children’s illustrated early readers. Did they view this poem as a basic truth to be reminded of, or did they view this as sufficient in itself? I assume some thought each.

Yes, I want more than that from poetry. Reassurance and singular conventional answers aren’t even what children want and need exclusively. But this poem is balanced in a way that I can admire. It’s a carpe diem poem without a smarmy pickup line, a song of the life-death cycle that plays the undertones, a poem that asks subtly for youth to be irresponsible, or responsible to their youth not earned wisdom (“to some good angel leave the rest”).

Do we need a new Longfellow today? I’m not sure. I would be pleased if more people appreciated poetry more widely, and as I’ve argued elsewhere here, that “not great poetry” does no harm, and might even do some good for more unusual or challenging poetry. I think I forgot to say clearly enough in my recent series on “Are Song Lyrics Poetry” that to a large degree we’ve asked song-lyrics to fill this role of poetry in my lifetime. But I do believe we needed a Longfellow at least once to establish the ground on which our foundational modern poets erected their structures.

So, it’s fitting that I chose to sing this May poem of Longfellow’s, even given the limitations of my singing voice. Once more I was drawn to using the less and more than realistic Mellotron flute and cello sounds to signify a pastoral scene. Even with my limitations, “It Is Not Always May”  sings well and easily, and I urge you to hear it with the player below. The poem’s text is available here if you’d like to read along.

 

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10 Definitions of Poetry from Carl Sandburg

Let’s continue our celebration of U. S. National Poetry Month!

If Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are the parents of modern American poetry, then one poet is most nearly the descendant with an equal inheritance from both: Carl Sandburg.

Sandburg’s poetry has two modes: the tightly compressed Imagist poem and the expansive, iterative, catalogic Whitman-like ode. I find him effective in both styles—and sometimes he mixes both, as in today’s selection. Each line in his “10 Definitions of Poetry”  is its own compressed poem, but taken together in a list they express different aspects of poetry.

Carl Sandburg in black cowl-neck

The forgotten American Modernist. Sandburg! thou shouldst be living at this hour!

 

I’m something of an advocate for Sandburg here, as I feel he’s fallen out of favor during my lifetime and now is more than due to be re-evaluated. The major knocks against him in the later part of the 20th century were that he wasn’t complex and subtle enough, that his poetry didn’t dig deep enough in to the hard-to-grasp philosophic questions at the core of meaning and human existence, and to a secondary degree that his poetry wasn’t, well, poetic, that it was neither lyrically beautiful nor painstakingly constructed.

I won’t lay out a complicated case for Sandburg on those two issues here today, but on the first issue I’ll say that Sandburg’s Socialist and working-class outlook leads him to address universal issues of the human condition, from top to bottom of our current social organization; while other poets, ones with an avowed aesthetic focus or a calling for self-contained spiritual insight look at only part of the situation. Even those that don’t share Sandburg’s politics can benefit from his insights. On the charge of Sandburg not being a poetic craftsman, I’ll say that while I don’t know much yet about his working methods, I can look closely at some of Sandburg’s shorter works and find well-chosen small things—and whether they were intuitively there in his vision or created by exhaustive study and revision, I find that less important than their existence.

I’m also sorry to say that Sandburg’s poetry can sometimes be—as reflected in some of his definitions in this list—fun, funny, entertaining. You’ll just have to overlook that.

And if he’s charged with those things, weren’t Whitman and Dickinson also charged with these faults throughout the 20th century? Our current century looks at Whitman and Dickinson and sees their still startling differences—but has begun to realize that where the past saw in those differences infelicities of expression or simple directness, that they are instead part of their genius, part of why our need for those poets has not been replaced. And if we need Whitman and Dickinson, then perhaps we also need their hybrid descendant Sandburg too—he of his synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.

I took my musical inspiration today from Sandburg’s first definition: “Poetry is a projection across silence of cadences arranged to break that silence with definite intentions of echoes, syllables, wave lengths.” My guitar part runs through some modulation effects and an echo/delay; and underneath, working with my electric bass-line, a wobbly Mellotron* waves along. Hear this with the player gadget below, check back soon for more combinations of various words with original music—and, oh yes, please let others know what we’re doing here at the Parlando Project.

 

 

*No, I don’t have an actual funky tape strip Mellotron. Thankfully the tapes have been converted into digital samples and can be played with an inexpensive MIDI keyboard or controller.

Fall 2018 Parlando Project Top 10 Numbers 10-8

 

Here we go with our quarterly run down of the most liked and listened to audio pieces over the past season. We’ll be counting up to the most listened to piece over the next few days as we approach winter solstice. Who’ll chart? The most famous poets with their best-loved words? The literary poets’ poets? The poems of the now largely forgotten figures I like to dig up sometimes?

10. “Seventeen Almost to Ohio,” words by Paul Blackburn arranged by me.  Where does Paul Blackburn fit now? Probably in the poets’ poet bin, though he’s also verging on forgotten. He doesn’t seem to have benefited from connections to a poetic movement, though he had them in overplus. He’s sometimes associated with the Black Mountain School, though he himself says he wasn’t really. He visited Ezra Pound and shared Pound’s interest in imaginative translation and the old French Provencal poets, and he is there connected to the original English language Modernist movement. He was based in New York coincident with the New York School of poets though he’s never mentioned as one in any summary roundup I’ve read. The Beats touched edges with the New York School—and with Blackburn, and again there are similarities in their approaches. Perhaps the most significant connection is that Blackburn was a leading NYC-based encourager of spoken and recorded poetry, including being the original organizer of the St. Marks poetry readings, a spoken word radio host, and a recordist of many other poets reading.

“Seventeen Almost to Ohio”  comes from an aside Blackburn made while recording Mina Loy in 1960, where he (apparently) spontaneously recalls an event from his own youth while asking Loy about hers at the dawn of Modernism. I lightly edited and arranged his anecdote and then composed the music.

Cowboy_Paul_Blackburn

Paul “Does Jeff Tweedy look like me when he looks in the mirror” Blackburn

 

9. “Fog”, words by Carl Sandburg.  Early Modernists were fascinated by extreme compression and very short poems, and anthologists since then so often include Pound’s “A Station in the Metro,” Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,”  and this 21-word Sandburg poem. And because it so baldly displays its central metaphor of fog and cat, the poem is often used to introduce grade-school children to metaphor.

In writing about “Fog”  this fall I wondered if there’s anything we’ve overlooked for over a century in this short poem, and came up with this question: Might it matter what kind of cat it is?

 

Carl Sandburg, Marilyn Monroe and some cocktails, 1962
Marilyn: Carl, Carl, you simply must tell me what kind of cat it was!
Carl: In good time, my dear—but first I need to finish inspiring Sonny Bono’s Sixties look.

 

8. “The Temple of Summer,” words by Frank Hudson.  Well, I’m almost as short-winded as the Sandburg of “Fog”  in this 31-word Mellotron drenched goodbye to summer. Longtime readers here will already know of my devotion to the sound of this primitive attempt at a sampling instrument used memorably in many late 60s and 70s British Prog-Rock recordings. The real thing is finicky, bulky, and hard-to-find and maintain, but the Mellotron’s sampling of real instruments to strips of recording tapes, whose notes can then be played by a keyboard press, is an easy trick for the computer-hosted Virtual Instruments that the Mellotron inspired and I use.

King Crimson with Mellotron on stage

Robert Fripp, on the right with King Crimson, declared after dealing with voltage issues on tour: “Tuning a Mellotron, doesn’t”

 

Want to nerd out on things Mellotron? This site looks very complete, and for the dabblers, they have just a listing of all the English Top 30 singles that used a Mellotron, which might refresh your memory on where you’ve heard that sound before.

 

Walter de la Mare’s Winter

I know nothing interesting about the life of Walter de la Mare—other than he was a successful writer in poetry and prose for roughly half of the 20th century*. There appear to be no interesting movements or manifestos to tie him to, and though his lifetime corresponds roughly to those 20th century Modernists I often like and present here, he’s not considered one of them.

Famous British Authors Willis Trading Cards

20th century British authors who got trading cards in cigarette packs level fame.

 

Certainly, his poetry doesn’t sound or look like Modernist verse. It’s frankly musical, and supple yet regular musical verse of his type is not that easy to write in English. Modernists took up with free verse for a number of reasons, partly because they were likewise enamored of the wider and more fanciful rhythms of Modernist music and visual arts, and because they wanted to explore new ways of relating reality, and the tight and formal clothing of metrical forms and rhyming seemed to restrict their range of movement.

There were folks with a Modernist sensibility who worked in rhyme and more regular metrical forms. Early Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay did. Frost in particular is often writing Imagist poetry with fresh, plain diction that rhymes in the era when his fellow Modernists were immerging.

Today I use a short poem of de la Mare’s, “Winter,”  and the first thing that struck me about it is the word-music. Every line rhymes, and with perfect, not partial rhymes. Though de la Mare uses common rhyming words, the poem seems effortless, there are no lines that seem twisted to make the rhyme. But notice something else about “Winter:”  the way it treats its matter, as opposed to its music—that’s close to the Imagists credo. It directly shows a winter scene. The opening lines “And the robin flew/Into the air, the air,/The white mist through;” are solidly in the Imagist mode. That opening “and” making sure we know this is an immediate experience. The entire second stanza too is Imagist through and through. Nothing is “like” anything. This is a real, immediate scene, and we stay there. The robin** flying through white mist is a bird flying through white mist, not a mere symbol, a counter for something else. Frozen bushes waver in the slight breeze casting varying reflections from the new rising moon or last sunlight. Yes, what we are apprehending through the poet has connotations, has feelings that will be invoked, but we aren’t told by the writer what they are, he assumes we’re capable of forming those ourselves.

Only in the ending stanza does de la Mare break the rules of pure Imagism. In his last two lines he personifies a speaking star or cardinal direction which speaks the final line. For me this works largely because this contrasts with the rest of the poem. If instead, de la Mare had started with talking stars giving us messages in so many words and continued in that vein through the poem with bushes and birds telling us what the poet wants them to say, the impact of the conclusion would be lessened, and the poem would be trying to work, not just sound, in the old way.

Musically, I unabashedly say I like what I did for this one. The piece began for me with the guitar part, which I was going to play on acoustic guitar, but my family came home early and there’d be no chance to record that with an open sensitive mic, but then many acoustic guitar parts translate well to the Telecaster which I substituted. The bass guitar part is unusual in that it’s played entirely on open strings, a sound that the instrument is rarely allowed to use. But it’s the orchestral parts which really pleased me. There’s a bunch of tracks here combining “real” strings played via a virtual instrument with a somewhat overdriven Mellotron violin mixed in there which brings the string section some grit***. I gave a top line part to an English horn. Use the player just below this to hear my performance of Walter de la Mare’s “Winter.” 

 

 

English Robin in Winter

English robin showing its all-weather operational capabilities

 
*I recall reading some of de la Mare’s ghost stories decades ago, but I hadn’t really considered his poetry until I was reminded of that by Toby Darling, who does a lovely job of writing and playing music to sing many de la Mare’s poems to.

**Residents such as I who live in the Northern parts of the U.S. may be surprised that de la Mare has a robin in his winter scene. The American robin is a different species, which migrates south for the winter, and as such the robin here has a strong symbolic association with spring. English robins stay put. The same name for different North American and European species could lead one to read some promise of spring that de la Mare didn’t intend in his poem, in the same way that Robert Frost’s American winter hemlock branch may not have been a Socratic hemlock branch. Anyway, both robins have a bright red-orange breast, which even though de la Mare doesn’t state it, adds a dot of color to the white mist flight.

**The Mellotron was an early, primitive attempt to do what modern “virtual instruments” do. Typically, if a virtual instrument wants to present a “real” violin it will sample a violin playing various notes, and the notes as well with a variety of articulations which are stored and organized as digital audio files to be played later. The 1960’s Mellotron had a simple tape strip of a violin playing a note in one legato articulation assigned to each key of an organ-style keyboard. The former can sound strikingly realistic if care is taken to make use of the various articulations (vibrato, marcato, pizzicato, etc.) while the later sounds artificial despite the tape strips being conceptionally the same. Of course, “artificial” is a state of mind, and the close-but-not-quite sound of a Mellotron instrument always reads as “England” to my ear due to it use on many 1960s and ‘70s recordings by English groups.

Edward Thomas and World War 1

In my roundup of World War One War Poets earlier this week for the upcoming centenary of Armistice Day, I only mentioned Edward Thomas in passing. He shares the military service and the battle-related death of the others, but his writing about the war is different. Though he was working on notes that could lead to poems during his short front-line service, I’m unaware of any Thomas poems that tell of his experiences of battle. Many of his poems instead deal, intentionally, or inherently in their time’s context, with the change in norms that the war brought.

A poem like his much loved “Adlestrop,”  if read in the context of the war’s coming outbreak, speaks even more intensely of the peace and unnoticed wonder that pauses in the muddle of an unscheduled train delay.

“Adlestrop”  doesn’t mention the war though, and it’s based on one of Thomas’ journal entries from before the war. On the other hand, a poem like his “Gone, Gone Again”  speaks intentionally and masterfully about the changes in his beloved countryside “before the war began turning young men to dung.” His highly condensed “In Memoriam, Easter 1915”  is another that intends to mark the war’s changes.

Edward Thomas in Nature 2

Edward Thomas, a British nature poet that events bent into a War Poet

 

If you look at a continuum* from his “In Memoriam”  through today’s “The Owl”  to “Gone, Gone Again”  you can see a journey from a short and moving, though impersonal, elegy/pastoral through “The Owl’s”  introduction of a linkage of his own corporal experience to those on the front, and concluding with the even more personal and aching conflation of his own state with his country’s situation in “Gone Gone Again.”  For this reason, I’m going to put the audio player gadgets for all three in the post today, so that you can follow Edward Thomas’ journey as he decided as a middle-aged family man to enlist—volunteering for the front-lines, and his eventual death.

Here’s “In Memoriam (Easter 1915)”  as Thomas begins to weigh the costs of war.

 

 

And this is today’s new addition, “The Owl.”  It’s not important to the poem, but the pendant in me wanted to know what species of owl Thomas heard. England helpfully has fewer species of owl than North America, so it must have been a male tawny owl, as the other candidate, the barn owl, has a screechy call that couldn’t have been cast as melancholy.

 

 

And finally, here’s “Gone, Gone Again.”

 

 

*I don’t actually know what order that Thomas wrote them, or even if “The Owl”  was written before the war, as some particulars of the journey he describes echo the book he wrote about a bicycle tour he took from the suburbs of London to the border of Wales in 1913. But for performance reasons, seeing the three poems as a narrative seemed defensible to me, or at least no more anachronistic as having the artificial tang of  Mellotron strings and flutes to stand in again for England in the music.

Witch Hunt

I’ve spent a lot of words this month talking about the history of poet and songwriter Dave Moore, who’s been the alternate voice here since we kicked things off more than two years ago. Today I’m going to end the history and get back to the present, shut up a bit, and let Dave’s words and performance tell its own story. Here’s a recent Dave Moore piece performed with the LYL Band this fall.

Let me tell you another thing about witches

Little to do with Dave’s song, but I can’t resist including a still from René Clair’s “I Married a Witch”

Is this a Halloween song? A political commentary? An investigation of something that precedes and supersedes civilized politics? An excuse for me to fire up my Mellotron virtual instrument again? I could talk. You could listen. Today let’s choose the later. The player gadget is below.

The Temple of Summer

I spent Saturday riding my bicycle on the Mesabi Trail and visiting Hibbing, the Minnesota Iron Range hometown where Bob Dylan grew up non-ferrous.

To the visitor, the landscape there has a strangeness. Since the late 19th Century, open pit iron mining has been the industry of the region. An open pit mine is not the kind of underground tunneling and mole-dark pick-axe work you might visualize when you hear the word “mine.” Instead it is the removal of cubic miles of earth with explosives and huge shovels, work my wife describes as “making your own Grand Canyon.” The iron gives exposed rock and dirt a Martian red hue, and this colossal earthwork of generations of open pit mines has added extra hills, ridges, gorges, and small lakes. Though trees and brush eventually regrow and give these acts of men something of the appearance of nature, some hills retain the terraces where the trucks drove, giant Northern ziggurats or Mayan temples, now sprouted with pines—the Hanging Gardens of Bob Dylan.

postcard mesabi iron range

“Making your own Grand Canyon”

 

Since Bob Dylan grew up here, the strangeness of this landscape may not have impressed him in his youth, but an adulthood away might have eventually revealed its uniqueness. It is a singular place on a Labor Day weekend where one can see the mark of daily labor sculpted in a giant tableau.

How many of us can say the same for our labors? Children are raised, daily cares are met, that meeting makes a decision, a sick person is comforted and will live another couple of decades, the number of widgets on the planet increases infinitesimally, a project that will impact things for a few years is completed. In contrast, in the land around Hibbing, Virginia, and Mountain Iron, vistas are forever altered to mark a work life.

Virginia MN Bridge view

A view from the highest bridge in Minnesota spanning part of a no longer active open pit mine now filled with water outside the town of Virginia. The landscape you are viewing is man-made, not a natural feature.

 

An artist’s work, for all the literary pretentions to immortality, is at least as ephemeral as other work. The work is finished, and the earth has not changed its face. The work is read, seen, heard by its handful, and it melds at best into a memory in some part of those.

So, punch a clock or not, these are the same jobs, the same work. The poem, the performance, the painting, no less, no more, the product effort of applied human energy as any other work.

Occasionally, someone gets to be a Bob Dylan, and the vistas change. Leonard Cohen said that giving Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain. I stood next to my bike on the state’s highest bridge spanning a man-made gorge and thought, maybe somehow, even subconsciously, this landscape gave Bob the idea.

Iron Range Truck

“Cruising down the highway in a Greyhound bus/All kinds of children they was hollerin’ at us…”

 

Today’s audio piece will not remind you of the Bard of Hibbing, as it is a fuzzy epitaph using Mellotron instead of giant earth-moving trucks to get its rocks off me. Here’s wishing all Parlando Project listeners a lanquid fall into the fluffiest possible snowbank. As you exit the Temple of Summer, listening to the music using the player below, I remind you that the Parlando Project appreciates your attention, but still needs listeners and readers. If you can, let others know what we’re doing here, and if you’re new to us, you may want to check out our archives with 250 other audio pieces combining various words with original music.