Four Things I Learned from the Poetry of Kevin FitzPatrick

It’s taken me a few days to write this post after learning of the death of Minnesota poet Kevin FitzPatrick. After someone dies, someone you know at some level, there’s an emptiness. While it’s impossible to feel emptiness, it may be the first obligation of grief to hold that sense for a little while. Was for me.

I didn’t know Kevin well. We were different sorts, and I myself am quite bad at friendship. But I knew him somewhat, and over time quite a bit as a poet. With some interruptions on my part for over 40 years I’d see him every month in a meeting that sometimes had as many as ten or so writers and sometimes was just Kevin, alternative Parlando voice Dave Moore, and myself. We’d meet in one of our places and those present would break out new work for comment and feedback.

I said we were different sorts. Back in the 1970s I was chiefly influenced by some hermetic and oppositional poetries: French Surrealists and para-Surrealists and those Americans who had read or influenced them. These poets tended to be ecstatic in mood and unafraid to puzzle or offend. Kevin had a different vision — he wanted his poetry to be comprehended and welcomed by ordinary folks, including working people of our parent’s generation. Is that the first or fifth thing I learned from Kevin? No, I’m still learning that one.

Let me speak ill of the dead. In our common youth I thought Kevin was prissy and way too afraid to offend. But we were young men then, and by now my younger self has passed from life to a degree near to what Kevin’s entire non-written life did this week. The way I see it now is that we were both half-right — but his half produced better poetry more often. So, I doubt he learned much from me, but I learned several things from him. You might want to learn some of these things now or later, so I’ll offer four things I learned from Kevin FitzPatrick’s writing today.

Kevin Obit Photo

“You can’t tell a book by looking at it’s cover.” Kevin FitzPatrick edited the urban working-class Lake Street Review, but today’s piece has some farm boots in it.

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Characters

Here’s the first and primary one, a lesson that I often told Kevin I would try to remember. Around the time of his first collection, Midwestern writer Meridel Le Sueur said that Kevin’s poems were poems with other people in them. Given Le Sueur’s life twining activism with writing, this was a fitting observation for her to make about Kevin’s writing. But stop and think for a moment of the poems you write, or even the poems you read or rate highly. How many of them have actual, flesh and blood characters in them? A great many poems, and to wildly generalize, many poems by male poets, have nothing but the poet’s own consciousness reflecting on itself. If something external intrudes on this, it may be nature or incorporeal spirits — or if human, they may appear as masses or classes in sociological case-folders. Kevin’s poems had a range of characters: friends and antagonists, folks that are richly neither, and people who you just run into in life. Kevin himself appeared in his poems, yes, but in many examples the poem was as much about Kevin as the novel The Great Gatsby is about Nick Carraway.

You may think that poetry, with its freedom of language and musical force can dispense with characters, that poetry may be particularly suited to delve into an individual’s own consciousness so otherwise unrepresented in human life. Good poems have been written from that conviction. But is that all  it can be? What a lonely art making itself lonelier would result.

Dialog

Kevin’s use of dialog goes along with the characters. If you’re going to allow them to appear in your poetry and have autonomy, then they need to seem to speak independently. Kevin’s characters were not kept silent, and a good many of his poems had the texture of a compressed short-story, including the effective use of dialog.

Again, I’d argue that we are too exclusive when we talk about the poet’s voice and poetry as self-expression to the exclusion of all else. Yes, the world may be enriched by 100 poets writing in their own voice, saying out-loud or on the page their own individual experience. But if some of those poets would allow other voices to speak in their verse, to join in the choral and antiphonal song that is human experience, we might have at least 200 voices, if not 500, speaking in our poetry. How we speak, how we express ourselves is important. How we listen, what we hear, that too is important. The poet’s ear shouldn’t be cocked for just iambs and trochees.

Work and Workers

Why shouldn’t the world of work appear in poetry? I mentioned that earlier this month in dedicating my performance of a poem by Carl Sandburg to Kevin that Sandburg didn’t shy from talking about folks working, how that felt, what they encountered. FitzPatrick extended that in his poetry with a good degree of specificity. In his poems about encountering agricultural work in his fine final collection Still Living In Town, the specifics and groundedness of farm chores were taken into his poetry.

Yes, let us concede a dialectic. Many readers (and poets) go to poetry to escape that everyday grind, to celebrate the exceptions of romantic love, cosmic visions, rare events worthy of celebration. Fine. But why can’t poetry inform and illuminate what we are doing for a third or so of our lives?

Rural-Urban

Between the rural-urban divide is a great place for a poet to sit and write. I spoke of Kevin’s final collection from 2017, Still Living in Town  above. In America, there’s an increasing division in outlook between those living in cities and those living in rural areas and small towns. Kevin’s poems in that collection, including characters, dialog, and those work-a-day issues, also allow us to see different locations and outlooks as he travels between his urban house, his capitol city office job, and a small farm.

How few travel between those worlds with open eyes, ears, and hearts and write verse about it! Kevin FitzPatrick did that in his final book. As I said above, I learned things by how Kevin approached his poetry and characters, but it’s important to also make clear that he’s not just a  “poet’s poet,” but also a rewarding and entertaining writer to read. Books from the publisher of Still Living in Town  are not available from the large, easily linkable mail-order booksellers — which depending on how you feel about such things may be a feature not a bug. Here’s a link to the WorldCat listing for FitzPatrick’s 2017 book which includes library availability and the ISBN number that might aid in ordering from your favorite indie bookstore.

OK, should there be my customary Parlando audio piece at the end of this post? With some trepidation I’ll offer this one, my performance based on an early version of a poem destined for Still Living in Town.  It’s an old recording from 2013. Shortly after I recorded it, Kevin heard it and thought I misinterpreted the song. As I said, we were different sorts, though over the years I like to think we grew closer from our shared love of what poetry could do. Kevin said I missed the poem’s point; it was about the difference between the urban and rural cultures he was observing and writing about. He’s right, I undersold that element, seeking instead to stress how a customer service interaction went sideways from mistrust and was eventually resolved. I think he also might have reacted to my edgy, angsty delivery and music. Kevin was a calm, dry speaker in performance, and the speaker in this performance isn’t. It’s also important to know that “Returns”  is just a piece of a greater work that took him several years to write. This isn’t the most singularly impactful poem Kevin ever wrote, just one in his series that I happened to perform one day because I liked the vignette, and that I had handy to put here today.

A few bits of scene-setting before you click on this performance: Kaplans* was a clothing store specializing in utilitarian work clothes and outerwear that was located then on Minneapolis’ famous working-class-to-under-class Lake Street. Wheeler Wisconsin where the scene shifts to in the conclusion is a town of 300. Tina, the deus ex machina of the poem’s story was Kevin’s partner who decided to buy an 80 acre farm which Kevin commuted to every weekend during the time of the book.

Player gadget to hear it below for some, and if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to play it.

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* The first winter I spent in Minneapolis, it was at Kaplans that I bought my first pair of Sorel boots, that genius Canadian design that has a waterproof leather and rubber outer boot with an inner insulating liner made of compressed wool. If you ever have to stand in -20 F cold and wait on a bus that might not run on-time, the un-frostbitten scansion of my poetic feet recommend them.

Went to See the Gypsy

In discussing last May how much fun it is to perform Bob Dylan songs I mentioned that when Dave Moore and I get together to play we often throw in a Bob Dylan song along with our own music. Last month* we finally got together after a long break due to Covid-19 and other infirmities, and as per that tradition the next to last song we played was a Dylan number.

Dave has been extraordinarily prolific with songs over the past few years, so it’s most often I who bring the Dylan to the table. Hipster-wannabe that I am, I often like to cast a wide net for the less-covered or celebrated Dylan songs. This time it was “Went to See the Gypsy”  off of Dylan’s little-remembered New Morning  LP of 1970.

At the time it came out New Morning  seemed important, as Dylan had stumbled badly with his previous record Self-Portrait.  Self-Portrait  seemed to many a lackadaisical record about being lackadaisical, and those many weren’t having that in the turbulent and searching summer of 1970. Think about this: that LP was released almost exactly a month after nine college students were shot and four died on a Midwest college campus. Of those four dead, two were protesting what seemed a widening war in Southeast Asia and two were somewhat distant onlookers between classes. A few days later two more students were killed at Jackson State in the South. The average youthful Dylan fan was less likely to be interested in tunes about all the tired horses in the sun at that moment.

So, less than six months later this other Dylan album, New Morning,  came out. In retrospect it wasn’t really a return of the fiery prophet of Sixties Dylan, but a lot of rock critics had made their bones considering that earlier Dylan style and made the best of what they had in it. One song, and one song only, could be parsed as if it was in that style “Day of the Locusts,”  a protest tune about getting an (honorary) degree from an Ivy League university while that year’s crop of “17 Year Cicadas” chirped their Dada chorus. Maybe some college students dug that one.

With the passage of time, New Morning’s necessity to rehabilitate the great songwriter’s reputation has lost its utility. Dylan has had at least two greater “return to greatness” moments since then, easily supplanting the importance of New Morning.  And of course the measure of the artist over such a long and important career makes bumps in the road disappear in the trailing dust. Though little thought of now, New Morning  is what it may have been intended to be, a much better record of relaxing with the mundane and interrogating it.

“Went to See the Gypsy”  is about nothing happening, a topic that many of the fraught students of 1970 would eventually need to come to grips with, and maybe it fits this second summer of Covid-19 too. The singer goes to meet the undefined titular “gypsy,” who maybe only figuratively that (the word derives from a now considered pejorative term for the Romany ethnic group). I think that character title is used to convey someone exotic and transitory. There may also be a suggestion that the gypsy could be a fortune teller, as many songs that Dylan would have known would have made explicit. The meeting is a big nothing. The two have a nighttime greeting in a hotel room (transitory housing), and then the singer has to go to the hotel’s lobby to make a call. Modern people, sit down in a circle around the fire, and let the old ones speak of this: in those days you couldn’t text anyone if you were running late or you had to get some info or agreement, you were required to go to a place where there where iron-clad telephones chained to a wall that took coins to accomplish that.

In the lobby an attractive girl (“dancing,” intimation of transient movement) begins to do a hype man spiel about the gypsy. How much time passes? We don’t know. Does the singer try to make time with the girl or vice-versa? The song doesn’t say. It only says that dawn is approaching (often the signal to end a song or poem) and the singer returns to the gypsy’s door, which is open and the “gypsy is gone.” The door being open is a telling detail, as it indicates that this wasn’t some planned leaving. The gypsy rushed out or was rushed out by someone. The singer returns to the lobby, the dancing girl is gone. Was she part of some planned distraction? We don’t know. The song ends with the singer instead “watching that sun come rising from that little Minnesota town.”

Now this song all could have happened in a little Minnesota town. One thing that many non-Minnesotans think about Dylan’s home in the Iron Range was that it must’ve been some ethnic Northern European monoculture, which it wasn’t in the least. Personally, I’ve always thought this final scene is a poetic jump cut, and that Dylan’s final sunrise is times and miles away from the events before in the song, but that’s just me.

In summary, a song about things just happening that keep things from happening. Your fortune won’t get told, nor will the mysterious guru tell you what to do, you won’t get to go through the mirror, and a pretty girl may have her own agenda.

Here’s today cover version of Bob Dylan’s “Went to See the Gypsy” Alas, there’s a couple of typos in the captions that flash by. I blame working too late.

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Musically this is me on electric guitar with Dave playing some soft reed organ sounds at first. After those tracks were laid down live, I decided it’d been too long since I had done a full orchestral arrangement, and so after the fact I did just that and had the orchestra instruments come in partway in the song to represent the potential big something that hovers out of reach over this non-event story. I know dawns in little Midwestern towns, far from the chance of Las Vegas, gurus, or those who can tell one’s fortune. There you make your songs and self, yourself.

I should be back shortly with the song we did right after this one, a Dave Moore original.

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*This same session produced The Poem, ‘The Wild Iris,”The Dragonfly,”  and I Am Laughing in the Dark Underground  that have already been presented here.

Mystery Baseball

OK, you’ve come to the place were music and words meet, and where the blogger never tires of drawing subliminal connections.

While writing yesterday’s post about the start of the baseball season, I began to think of American poet Phillip Dacey. Dacey grew up in T. S. Eliot’s hometown of St. Louis, though a few decades later. St. Louis was a town where if you wanted to watch great exciting baseball played in a brash and winning way you could watch the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards led their league 23 times and won 11 World Series titles over the years!

But, what if you didn’t care for any of that?

Well, you could watch the St. Louis Browns, a baseball team who never won the World Series, and whose play was so woeful in Dacey’s youth that their owner once sent a midget up to bat, not just to cheer up their meager fans, but in the sure hope that no pitcher could find the short crouching man’s epigram of a strike zone. Dacey once told me that getting into Browns games back then was easy for a kid, and I’ll add it was probably good for a future poet.

Eliot and Dacey

Looks like they’re going to call on a pinch hitter. Yes, here’s the announcer: “Now batting for Thomas Stearns Eliot, Phillip Dacey”

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That said, there’s no record if Eliot was a baseball fan before decamping to England, at least there are no real Eliot and baseball connections I can find from a quick search,* but due to that research I did read that Ernest Hemmingway, no fan of donnishness he, once slammed Eliot by saying “He never hit a ball out of the infield in his life.” But then watching baseball is not an athletic contest, anymore than watching bullfights and writing about it is. Literature isn’t about being able to get around on the fastball or launch angles off contact. Literature is about observing the material particulars of mysteries and being able to share that experience.

So, as evidence that watching a team lose in any way possible might be good for a poet, I’ll say that Dacey wrote a couple of good poems about baseball, and today’s piece is the one I remember the most. I heard him read it more than once, and since he was an excellent reader of his work one could open the question if it might have been his performance that sold the poem to me, so we’ll see today if it still works in my voice. If you’d like to read the text yourself, here’s a link to the poem.

In an interview later in his life, Dacey described how he came to write poetry:

In my mythologizing of that moment, I imagine the Angel of Poetry tapping me on the shoulder and saying, ‘Hey, Phil, you’re one seriously lost soul. Pick up a pen and write what I tell you. I’ve come here to save you.’  In short, I’m grateful to poetry for giving me the life I’ve had, and if I’ve worked hard at it over the years, it’s out of that gratitude, out of a wish to serve the art. Although my self-deprecating joke (but not entirely a joke) is that if I really cared about poetry, I’d quit writing it and just spend the rest of my life reading the poetry of the dead greats, who never have enough readers.”

Hmm. That last part sounds like a good idea, Phil. I wonder if…**

Ah, all these ideas, and now I’ve dropped the ball of trying to connect baseball and this Dacey poem with T. S. Eliot and “The Waste Land!”  OK, how’s this: when I return to Eliot’s landmark poem it’ll be in the section where Eliot’s narrator believes someone unknowable but sensed is near him in the Waste Land. Dare I say, not unlike the mysteries of the 10th baseball player somewhere on the field in Dacey’s poem?

Speaking of players: to hear my performance of Phil Dacey’s “Mystery Baseball”  some of you will be able to use a player gadget below. Is that player invisible to you? Well, as Eliot will have it, “There is always another one walking beside you” and that’s this highlighted hyperlink that can also play this performance.

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*Parodic verses and humor articles yes — but nothing documenting anything in Eliot’s actual biography. And I found a few baseball fans whose opening day shares the month of April with #NationalPoetryMonth breaking out the famous “April is the cruelest month…” opening to “The Waste Land.”  Not that I would be so desperate as to stretch for a connection like that! So, you will not find me expanding my reach to suggest that Madame Sosostris’ Cards are not but tarot, yet also Cardinals, and that “The Waste Land’s”  Gashouse gang by the smelly river is a prediction of the rough and ready Cardinals team that would rise in the ‘30s. Students reading this blog for homework help, don’t drop those last two into your papers on “The Waste Land.”

**If you’re a poet, you are going to read that hyperlinked Dacey interview aren’t you? Dacey was a great teacher, you’re missing your chance if you don’t. Near the end he writes about an idea for a “poetry jukebox.” May I suggest this project is one, and it doesn’t even require a coin to be dropped into the slot.

End of the Sky–A Doomscrolling Sonnet after Du Fu

In the 8th century, in China, there was a poem written by a man whose name we now write in our alphabet as Du Fu.*  It’s a short poem, 8 lines, and in it Du Fu addresses a friend, another Chinese poet of his time, Li Bai. Du Fu was able to compress a lot into those few lines about their shared task of writing. I’ve seen the poem’s title translated as “Thinking of Li Po at Sky’s End.”

Here’s a literal gloss of the original Chinese ideogramic text translated into English:

Cold wind rise sky end
Gentleman thought resemble what
Goose what time come
River lake autumn water much
Literature hate fate eminent
Demons happy people failure
Respond together wronged person language
Throw poems give Miluo

I’ve been carrying this gloss around in the background since August, thinking about how to render it when I chose to translate a poem by Li Bai instead. Then this November I was taking time out from the Parlando Project for a task I complete each month: to write up my reactions to a small group of poems from a circle of poets I’ve known for over 40 years. I try do do my best at this. The members of this group are generally accomplished, two of them markedly more so than I. In-between responding to their work, I continued to consider the Du Fu poem.

This project that you meet me at here has allowed me to explore intensively how I respond to poetry, poetry that is often of widely different styles. This only makes me more worried as I respond to this circle’s new work. I’ve seen varied ways poems can work, but I’ve seen the varied ways they can fail with an audience too. I try to respond authentically to the circle’s work, with an open heart, just as I do with the poems I present here, but in the end, what do I know for sure about what works or makes something work better or less well? What then to tell other poets, perhaps ones better than you?

After all, the same thing that seems to succeed in one poem seems to fail in another. I often think of how many musicians and writers have said that if they had the maps and mechanisms to make their art work each and every time, they would go to that place and never leave.

Similarly, if we knew as readers and listeners how to always pay the proper attention, would more poems, songs, or tunes succeed or fail?

This year I’ve begun writing a series of sonnets about my inability to come to grips with a number of simultaneous crises: a viral pandemic, a wider and painful realization of our racial caste system and its costs, the climate change frog-potboiling, and a government in proud, foolish, and willful disarray regarding these things and the judgement of voters. Round and round I go trying to find out what I don’t know. Trying to figure out what’s best to do. No next thing I read or watch will answer that, and some of what I come upon will dismay or anger me. That syndrome has been given a name: “doomscrolling,” and perhaps you have found yourself falling into it too. In honor of the obsessive nature of us little people trying to make sense of these senseless things and manage some mitigating protection for ourselves, friends, and family, I’m calling my series The Doomscrolling Sonnets.  We try to puzzle these things out, just as we continue to try to make poetry or other art work.

I think that may be what Du Fu wants to tell fellow poet Li Bai he understands in his poem.**

In my roundabout way, I came to a decision about how to present Du Fu’s poem. I decided to use it as a rough framework, an inspiration, as the kind of translation as starting point that is most accurately described as “After Du Fu” rather than an attempt at a faithful translation.***  This poem isn’t going to be written to Li Bai, it’s going to be to my friends, and to you if you too read, write, speak, or listen to poetry in this troubled time when our rudder is stuck hard to one side and we circle endlessly.

End of the Sky

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I love dividing the 14 lines of a sonnet in various ways. Instead of an octet and sestet, this one is two 7-line stanzas with the turn/volta in the middle, and a closing couplet. Rather than end-rhyme, I decided to use a variety of internal rhymes, repeated words, and near-rhymes. The effect I’m aiming for here is a constant but irregular little chime occurring rather than a fixed rhyme that has the reader settling into an expectation.

I open the poem trying to render Du Fu’s autumn setting with some extra elaboration, though I translated it to my colder Minnesota clime. I think of the geese here as our occasional encounter with our muses and sometimes the song we hear from them isn’t as sublime as we’d like. And late autumn reminds us of what we must, and have, finished, what we’ve written down: the dried, settled ink and frozen surfaces of pages.

Chinesepoems.com, the source of the gloss above, gives us a helpful hint at what Du Fu is getting at with his closing line. Qu Yuan is a poet who, in a time of despair, threw himself into the Miluo river and drowned. In tribute, poets would come later and throw poems into the Miluo at the site of Qu Yuan’s death. Here again, I had my own localization to apply. I used to walk every day over a bridge crossing the Mississippi River, that mighty stream that runs through the middle of the Twin Cities and the rest of our country. A couple of years before I came to the Twin Cities, John Berryman, a poet and professor had copied Qu Yuan (or Hart Crane) and jumped from that bridge, a direct downward path taken presumably in giving up his own doomscrolling life and literary problems. I knew nothing of Qu Yuan or Du Fu back then when that was my daily walk, but I too once dropped a poem over the side of the bridge. Maybe Du Fu spoke to me before I knew his name? Muses will do that.

This poem’s two best lines I think are my attempt to directly translate Du Fu:

True literature doesn’t care if it is popular, and
It is only demons that care about a poet’s failures!”

You can stick that one by your keyboard or in your notebook. I think it’s better to listen to muses than demons, even if the muses lead us on, because muses tell us to write poems which we may throw in the water rather than throwing ourselves. I say that, even though I have reminded you here over the years: “All artists fail.” And so, we, poets, will fail. We fail mostly.

Mostly.  That’s important.

You should see a player gadget below to hear my performance of “End of the Sky.”  If you don’t, you can use this highlighted hyperlink to hear it.

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* Du Fu is also spelled out as Tu Fu, and Li Bai as Li Po. The poet Ch’un Yuan referred to at the end of Du Fu’s poem can also be spelled Qu Yuan. It all has to do with the problem of taking Chinese language and portraying the names with the Western alphabet.

** Du Fu’s poem was written in a troubled time. The government of China was in turmoil, the country divided in civil conflict. Both Du Fu and Li Bai were imprisoned during this conflict, and Li Bai eventually had a death sentence handed down against him. Li Bai’s death sentence was commuted, but he was sent into exile. The two friends were separated for the rest of their lives.

*** I read poet and blogger Robert Okaji’s version of Du Fu’s “Thinking of Li Po at Sky’s End”  last month. Okaji, faced as I am with the challenges of translating Tang Dynasty poetry into an unlike language in a place centuries later, calls his versions “After…” rather than presenting them as translations. This year after reading some of his “After…” poems I’ve decided to do the same sometimes. Here’s a link to Okaji’s fine rendition.  For other examples of how “After a poem by…” translations may work see Campion’s “Let Us Live and Love”  after the Latin poet Catullus and Ezra Pound’s free translation of Li Bai’s “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.”

Reading Du Fu in the Ruins (with hope)

I’m still unable to think of completing new content here, but let me quickly follow up to say that we seem to have passed through the worst nights featuring the burn and bust cadres on Lake Street in Minneapolis. Which leaves only the sorrow and injustice, more than enough to tamp down my muses.

If plagues, oppression, and fires seem Biblical, then we get miracles too. Take the scene of the semi-truck coming down the freeway with thousands sitting on the pavement in focused protest just past a gentle curve. I have surely slighted the murmurations of crowds in a recent post, because they parted in an instant of flight seen in the video that looped over and over in coverage last week. Moses and Aaron never saw the like—not a single significant injury. Knowing America bristles with guns governmental and otherwise is not a comforting thought any night for me, but also the guns barking hardly at all* (so far) seems nearly as miraculous.

 

Plagues and miracles: additional phone video showed some of the first to the cab stopped retribution being taken on the driver. 

 

I continue to be amazed and gratified at the racial diversity of the protests here. That shouldn’t be a miracle, but it’s noticeably different than the earliest BLM protests. This may be a result of the clear casual atrocity of the George Floyd killing or some “Great Awokening” kind of evolution. Call them the Prince Rogers Nelson brigade. Afro-Americans seem to be leading the protests and observances now and focusing on the issues and pain. When people jumped on the still crawling forward semi-truck and yanked the driver from his controls in the furious moment when several tons had just missed killing and maiming hundreds, it was Afro-Americans in the crowd who stayed the blows.

There’s been much chatter in the neighborhoods/local social media and in some mainstream media articles about who the smash and burn cadres are, and if they are in some organized sense. From watching hour after hour of coverage and trying to use what rusty “radar” I have from old activist days, I suspect at least some small-group organization aided by modern cell-phone tech and automotive mobility is a factor. When I talked to alternate Parlando voice and keyboard mainstay Dave Moore last week I said “Give me 50 agile young people with some hand tools and fire accelerants and I could create all the significant destruction of the past week.” Five teams of ten, even if they aren’t together, would work just as well. Largely unconfirmed reports have these as anything from leftish anarchists, to younger right-wing militia types who hate the police too, to drug seeking gangs.**

Multi-racial neighborhood people seem to be on edge about this. It’s not just some rehash of the old “outside agitators stirring up our good local Negroes” trope. As the protests become more focused and organized, they also seem more effective at recognizing adventurist acting out and curbing it.

When I spoke recently about the Gloomy Gus progressives, the ones who will sagely tell us how nothing ever gets better, and how this or that supposed progressive advance was an illusion or failure, I perhaps should have made clear I was talking to an element in myself too. My nature and life says the human condition is limited, even though it can store immense amounts of hate and love, creativity and indifference.

What are those limits? What elements will be part of the solution or part of the precipitate? What I think about these things, what I can do about them, is less important that what you and you and you think and do.

So, nothing new today, but here’s Dave Moore and I performing a poem written in a set of wet ruins by the supreme classical Chinese poet Du Fu centuries ago, and translated by myself. Was Du Fu a Gloomy Gus? Maybe, though like Robert Frost when he was lost or downhearted, he knew to press on anyway. Here’s the text if you’d like to read along, and the player gadget for the peformance is below unless you’re reading this with the WordPress IOS app (try using a browser instead to hear the audio piece in that case).

Jade Flower Palace – Du Fu trans. by Frank Hudson

The stream winds, the wind sighs.
Rats are running in the rafters.

The prince who owned this palace–
No one knows his name,
But it stands, abandoned beside these cliffs.

In dark rooms green ghost fires are shinning.
The streams now run over the boulevards.
From the trees I hear flutes? Voices?
Autumn leaves are wet with rain and rattle in the wind.

The young palace ladies,
Once painted on scrolls:
Now yellow dust buried in the earth.
What use now their robes,
their makeup and kohl?
And his gold chariots and the men who drove them?
There is only this carved stone horse.

I sit down on the grass and try to write of this,
But my ink is overcome by rain or tears
There are many paths away from here
How long are any of them?
None of them go on forever.

 

 

 

*One man reported shot and killed in what was sketchily reported as a looter/store-owner confrontation is all I know of. He seems forgotten in the surplus of events.

**One publicized arrest so far is a white guy (from, of all places, Galesburg Illinois, the hometown of Carl Sandburg) who live-streamed himself doing stunt arson and looting for a following that looks smaller than this poetry and music blog. The main argument for gangs is that far away from many of the crowds of protesters that unintentionally provided herd-cover in the early days of this, a large number of drug stores got broken into across the city.

The Stare’s Nest at My Window revisited

For Heidi

It’s been a rough series of days in the Twin Cities. Other than no great new loss of life (only fear of it) there’s not been much accomplished in my home or in my city.

I have a few new pieces in various stages of completion, and ordinarily I’d be working on additional ones for this project. This spring the pandemic quarantine measures have been bothersome, but so far Dave and my family have been coping and doing the best they can. Given the number of people sickened and killed by Covid-19, bothered and coping might as well count as “the best we can do.”

Then comes a public act of callous manslaughter. Worse for not being unprecedented. Worse for being tied to the sickness of racial oppression. We have a vaccine and a natural immunity for that: It’s empathy and love. Yet, many refuse to be vaccinated, or don’t have the vaccine available to them.

The phrase “the best we can do” has fallen into disrepute. Perhaps you’ve come upon this piece after reading or hearing someone else remarking on why this phrase is dispensed with, or should be dispensable.

For the last two nights the quarantine from the virus has been trumped by the fires and murmuring crowds. Crowds with the wisdom of crowds, which is to say, not much. Crowds work like a jangling overstimulated nervous system, tingling with pleasure and pain receptors, with a prejudice for why not.

My family, my friends, my artistic compatriots, my neighborhood are at the epicenter of this. Long time readers may know that alternate voice here Dave Moore was associated with a 20th century literary magazine that called itself “The Lake Street Review.”  Minneapolis’ Lake Street is (insert here the English verb that needs to be invented that stands for the balance of hope/fear/despair in our present moment poised in is/was/will be) a multi-ethnic, multiclass (if mostly working class) strip of enterprises where you can get diapers, groceries, your prescription filled, that part to keep your old car running, foods from fast to global, places where bands used to play before Covid-19, bookstores, libraries, arts labs, paper and toner for your printer, intoxicating beverages, hardware stores, your laundromat-load destination, where you go when your car needs gas and air for the leaky tire. It’s were the Latin Americans and African and Asian immigrants have their shops. Lake Street is an early 20th century construction. Apartments still over the retail ground-floors in older buildings, houses and apartments right next door behind the stores, closer than modern codes allow. Great portions of this are now gutted, looted; still smoldering from last night or cold ashes from the night before that.

I’m sure what we live  is a hugely interesting phenomenon for commentators, political philosophers, or folks just looking for a “news hook” to write or say something. Some will be civic sports-bar-tone arguments for who needs to be shot on sight for the sight of their targets, others will be earnest explainers about how rioting is the only effective language of the dispossessed, and that the wreckage of the places that a large percentage of those from the middle on down to the homeless frequent and depend on isn’t the disaster for them that it looks like to those less-evolved in their political consciousness.

As I’ve said already, I myself fear I’d dishonor this with my broken prose and dim eyes. And what old men think about this is less important than what those younger who may read this think, resolve, and do.

The Stare Nest at my Window text

Yeats poem written while sequestered in Ireland with his wife during a civil war. “Stare” is a old name for the starling, considered a nuisance bird.

 

Beneath the beach, more paving stones.

Friends of my family since both our children were born spent the hours around midnight wondering if the unchecked flames from a torched gas station would spread to the homes next door. My neighborhood post office (the same one where Lake Street Review  submissions used to come in) went up in big black smoke as it was deliberately broken into and set aflame. I’m not sure if anyone looted stamps.

My wife asked around midnight if we should flee.

“Where would we go?” I asked.

“Away from the flames.” She said.

All this is happening in a mix of memorializing assemblies at the site of the callous killing, protest marches with pointed aims, and then the looting and vandalism. I’ll offer one piece of observation that you may have not seen in the reports and thumb-sucking think-pieces: the memorializing, the protestors, and the vandals are an integrated lot. Skin tone and hair, those markers for ethnicities we use in our great cultural mythology of race, is My Rainbow Race in these events from the pious, to the protest, to the break and burn brigades. Watching cell-cam videos and media long-shots has impressed on me that the palette of the sufferers and perpetuators of these actions are not one shade. Racists are going to need to ignore these visuals as they form their illness’ distortions. The guy smashing the library window, setting fire to the auto parts store, or acting like a drunk frat boy he would never righteously be as he shoves the burning dumpster nearer to the building might well be white in these nights.*  And the “Nothing-ever-changes” cadre of gloomy-Gus activists** are likely too tired and weary to notice that the white, Asian, and Latin American participation has increased markedly in this time’s repetition of events sad, demanding, and chaotic.

I used gendered pronouns in moving to the vandal side of things, as that part does tend to become a sausage-fest. My wife is going off to join others this afternoon to sweep up broken glass. Not to get into gender stereotypes here, but how much do you want to bet that the gender mixture there will be distinctive too?

Tonight, I do not know what will happen. The memorializers will continue to do so, for George Floyd is still dead. The protestors will continue to protest, for it’s still wrong. And the vandals, not even interested in the materialist desire of the looter *** for a case of beer, a flat-screen TV, a book of Yeats collected poems or LeRoi Jones’ liner notes will continue to maintain that the best refutation of a failed “the best we can do” is: “the worst we can do.” The tao is too strange for me to know. Blessed be if they are right.

This is all the squishy thinking and writing I’ll be capable for a while. Tonight, I will probably not sleep, or fall asleep in imponderables. Will my wife be able to sleep the night before our anniversary? Will someone’s laddish fire, set with self-congratulating righteousness, find its equivalent of four Birmingham Sunday-school girls? When will America’s Valkyrie gunfire (I say with dread: remarkably rare so far) begin to sing? Will progressive change crest and recede? How happy is Donald Trump, our king of misrule, as his empire expands while progressives proclaim nothing ever changes as proof of their progressive acuity. Tell me, I want to believe, I need comfort: are you sure too it can’t get worse?

I now return you to our usual cultural activities. The most popular piece I’ve posted this year is by a cultural nationalist poet from another nation: Ireland’s William Butler Yeats. When I posted it at the end of January I wondered if I’d done well by it, but I now think I did, and listeners seem to agree. I’m also now sure my reading of this text is shared-heart-true. If you have time, and are interested in the exact background as Yeats wrote this, read the original post linked here.

This is a week where I have been in my own little run-down tower, seeing out my  window as Yeats showed me. Brothers and sisters, read the last stanza of Yeats poem in tears—even though they don’t put out fires directly.

Rather than a link to the text you’ll see it above in its entirety because I urge you to do that. If you’d like to hear my performance and music for this, the player gadget is below.

 

 

 

*Having tasted but not absorbed the fibrous materials of current cultural appropriation tropes, do any white anarchist allies as they smash the state at the library window, or get all dewy being a revolutionary fire-starter in a multi-ethnic neighborhood wonder if they are being authentically respectful of non-white culture from their skin privilege?

**I have long wondered at the futility of the salesman (as an agitator is, to a large degree) who paints their product as ineffective in use and their allies and audience as always deficient. I’m an old man. I understand being sick and tired. I’ll buy the “I can’t believe we’re still fighting these same old battles” T-shirt. But don’t tell me it itches, it’s guaranteed to fall apart, and isn’t available in my size.

***A few years back someone, who I cannot remember in order to credit, said that rioting with looting combines the two least attractive tendencies in American culture: shopping and violence.

A great broken world with eyes gone dim

I took yesterday off from the work of this ongoing project. I spent a good portion of it listening to music.

I said to my wife that afternoon: “It’s odd, but spending to much time composing music, performing, recording, and mixing it largely keeps me from listening to music I’m not working on. If I was a sculptor or painter I could listen to music while working, some even listen to music while writing,*  but you can’t listen to music while working on music.”

I awoke this morning early, bid my wife off to work and went for my morning bike ride. I returned, ate breakfast, and set to work on completing a long piece that I’ve been working on for some time this month. Such work devours hours.

It was only while taking a little break late this afternoon that I learned that what seems clearly to be a horrible injustice occurred last night in my town—so horrible and so near that I could not carry on with my day’s work. Yes, there’s another cell phone video capturing someone, yes, another Afro-American someone, losing their life during a law enforcement encounter. Same and different, each one of these. I will say that this is the third time in my city when I’ve thought that, as terrible and painful as this video is, that it will change the public’s outlook. Is it good or bad to say these are not numbing yet?

Or am I wrong to say this? Perhaps it is numbing. Like when your extremities grow cold in a northern winter. You don’t feel them going numb after all. The villain in the piece, the policeman with decades in a public service job, surely seems numb to the suffering he’s causing. Does evil flow both hot and cold in us?

How many will view this and swear, and then swear that they could never do what he seems to be doing, or at least never do it without copious anger. How many of us will not think about the other policeman, standing nearby, still in the portrait-mode frame. Will we ask ourselves, could we be him? Or will that question slide by us?

“What’s the broken world”  –  photo by Evan Frost for MPR News.

 

I’m a poet and musician. I run nothing, not even my own muses some days. Shelley aside, I’m not a legislator in session. I could do political analysis here, but choose instead to beg your indulgence to talk about how someone else’s words strike me a couple of times a week. However, I spent two decades trying to alleviate pain, fix people up, and keep people alive. My wife still does this work. It offends me when we fail. In the medical field we often know when we fail, and the philosophers kind or callous—who know that in a medical, mortal sense, we always fail—offer only partial relief.

Poetry and the power of music isn’t quite like philosophy. Music doesn’t want to be ideas, but their sound. It can express anger and sorrow and give it a towering spillway for those things to pour out. It’s not healing or justice exactly, but the sound of those things. And poetry is the literary art that uses words in the nearest same way.

If it’s not the actual, palpable, thing we need—if it’s not sorrow, anger, healing, justice—it may teach us to recognize those things, to see and join them in the souls of others.

Why say this? In the above I’ve tried to rationalize what I attempt to do, but tonight I doubt this too much to complete a new piece of music and write about it.

Last time I mentioned Charlotte Mew chose not the mention the specifics of a horrible war in her short poem. She could have written a poem longer than the Iliad  and not covered all the callousness and killing, the heroes and the folly. Only in passing, I mentioned that meant her poem of grief isn’t necessarily tied to World War I, or to Britain—but I wanted very much then to stress another thing about short, lyric poetry: that you can carry it with you, that it can change and grow as you take it back out of your mind during the dealing out of a day or more. So I carry this bit from her poem over, yet another day.

What’s little June to a great broken world with eyes gone dim
From too much looking on the face of grief, the face of dread?

We are the pieces of that broken world. Can you feel the broken edges?

 

 

 

 

*I used to listen to music when writing sometimes, but I can’t recall the last time I did that. It’s probably been decades. In my youth sometimes entire first drafts of some poem would flow out while listening to a piece of music.

The Ferris Wheel (a childhood vision)

In Minnesota there’s this thing, The State Fair, that’s hard to explain. Up to a couple-hundred thousand folks show up each day to it, for various hard to describe reasons. There are events, exhibitions, livestock judging, sales booths, musical acts, lots of fried and sweetened food that can be eaten by hand. You could describe it as an overgrown county fair, and as with those, there’s a midway with clanking and spinning rides and games of chance.

Rural and farm folks come to it from around the state, but it’s held in the Twin Cities, a thoroughly urban place, and most of the attendees that fill much of the fairgrounds are from The Cities. Some like me would be once rural folks, or children of rural folks. A place like the Twin Cities is full of those, people remembering that place not present in location or time, À la recherche du temps perdu,  “In search of lost time.”

I came to the Twin Cities in the 70s, not directly from the small-town Iowa of my youth, but from New York, where there are fewer intimate thoughts of farmlands. Shortly after arriving, a woman I was in love with told me there was this guy on the local classical music radio station, who was no longer playing Liszt and lieder, but rather other stuff—Beach Boys, folk music, whatever. And she said: he tells stories about this small town he’s made up.

I stopped her there. I admired her smarts, the things she knew, but I know how those stories go I said: We’re ignorant and out-of-touch, those rude mechanicals. As the urban-cool Bart says in Blazing Saddles  when introducing the Waco Kid to the little town: “You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.”

“No, he’s different. If you listen, you’ll see.”

He had a 6-9 morning show. We listened together. He’d spin humorous stories of invented events and institutions between records. Some of it was sort of like Jean Shepherd’s shtick, still playing in New York on WOR radio when I left, but as she had said his take on small town life was different. His stories then often had a delicate balance between young Twin Cities residents, some of them college students with literary aspirations such as myself, and their hometown folks. He was generationally close to the former, but he often had them play their pretentions toward great changes for humor against the set in their ways but caring older generation back at the hometown. From my seat then between those two worlds, this was a high-wire act, and he stayed out of falling into the netting or sawdust.

He was also forming up a weekend radio show, that graveyard of radio without the reliable drive-time slots. He’d perform them live anywhere locally there was room for the hundred or so attendees. He modeled it on the radio country music variety show, something that still existed in my youth, but except for the Grand Ole Opry had died out. But instead of country music acts, most of which would have little interest to a metropolitan public radio audience then, he stocked his traveling stage with young musicians that played the West Bank bars and coffee houses around the Twin Cities. Some of these players played trad jazz or blues, some were folkie singer-songwriters, some were from the more museo-wings like Leo Kottke or bluegrass revisionists, others from a variety of old-time-music revivals. In recent decades everyone knows what to call this mixed-bag: Americana. But in the 70s no one did. This weekend show, Prairie Home Companion,  sort of helped make that category up.

A man I knew once charged with programming a radio network liked to say regarding the success that show eventually had: “Prairie Home Companion  is a lousy idea for a show—except for a show with Garrison Keillor.” A lot of folks doubted that thought, and while some attempts to do “something like, only….” have had decent runs, no one else ever made it work to the degree Keillor did.

There seems to have been a reason that the younger, moved to the cities generation in his stories often had writerly ambitions, because Keillor continuously worked a side career as an author of short stories, poems, novels, columns and opinion pieces. The thing that connected that side and the radio show was “The News from Lake Wobegon,”  a varying length monologue that came near the end of each show.

This wasn’t standup, it was storytelling. Unlike the comic and parodistic skit elements that became an increasing part of the show over its run, it wasn’t read direct from a script radio-drama-style, but told, and written entirely by the host. This was the small town and its history he’d made up in its most concentrated and alive form. It had that live performance immediacy. Occasionally there’d be short dead air pauses, some intended. There’d be things repeated, some as intended refrains. Moods and directions would be mixed, sometimes turning within the course of a sentence as it does in ordinary recounting. Is he thinking, and that thought interrupting his story?

Sometimes it was a rousing tale, a good-hearted shaggy dog story on some foible. Other times along with the humor was sentiment, mood pieces buffered inside rueful rural characters. Occasionally, framed through some youthful ambition, there’d be poetic asides and lines such as the passage I bring to your attention today.

Even with the framing, it was a very pure thing, and like most things of that sort, some loved it and others found it somewhere between meh and tiresome. Keillor had a slow, even-voiced recitative, a sighing oboe that could reassuredly uncoil some from a basket while leaving others sleeping inside.

Say it with me, long-time readers: “All Artists Fail.” I last posted 5 minutes of wailing electric guitar arpeggios over my fresh translation of a hundred-year-old French avant garde poem. I’m not going to throw shade based on either some idea of universal criteria for art or a proper recipe for entertainment.

I remember hearing a version that included the passage I perform today. Did I hear it live on the radio on a Saturday night decades ago? Did I hear it later, on a distributed recording? I can’t say for sure, but as this ending summer was beginning, I was on the northern shores of Lake Superior. The cabin I was in, when some spitting rain opened the pores and raised white hairs on the smooth surface of the lake, had a couple of books. One was a book length collection of pieces from the radio show re-cast as linked short-stories and published after Keillor’s first retirement from live performance in the 1980s.*  Reading them was a good afternoon, but only this single small passage was drenched in déjà vu.

Leaving Home book jacket and author photo

Still raining, still dreaming. Keillor reframed monologues from the show he’d ended into a book for my rainy afternoon years later.
The ‘80s jacket author photo surprised me. Neither the bearded ‘70s guy with the light suit nor the older man I remembered.

The State Fair in Minnesota means the end of summer, a lost time that can be returned to and can’t be returned to. Here are a few sentences that a man once wrote and spoke on the radio. I’ll speak them today. Gave them a title of convenience and the music I composed on my naïve piano and then performed with a small orchestra setting using three woodwinds, a flute, and a few strings. My thought is that Keillor’s words could sound different to you when not performed by him, illuminated differently in the Parlando Project manner. The player is below.

 

 

*The book where I re-met this passage is called Leaving Home.  It’s available here or through other booksellers.

Soon Be Gone

I start off talking about the words or context in which I experience the words, mostly poetry, that are used here. That goes on, and I notice that I’m getting near to—or even above—what I consider to be reasonable length for a blog post (around 1,000 words*) and I haven’t mentioned the music.

In the end I’ll often mutter a few things about the instruments used, urge you to listen—and roll the footnotes!

So, let’s start off today talking about the music for a little bit. I enjoy the variety of musical contexts I use for the words here. I have wide musical tastes, and yet there are still genres and sounds I haven’t yet used that I will use as this project continues to push toward 400 audio pieces. Inexpensive technology has offered an enormous audio palette to a composer/musician, unbelievable sounds and resources compared to what was available even to the commercially viable counterparts of my childhood. And yet all these possible variations are not used. How curious. How self-limiting.

Well, there are reasons for that. While I admire musicians that push out the boundaries of what they do, the marketplace often finds such efforts self-defeating, and I don’t know that they are misreading substantial audiences in their verdict on that. I’d like the audience for what the Parlando Project does to grow. Indeed, reflecting on the amount of effort that goes into this, it’s nutty that it continues at this level for an Internet audience a thousands-time smaller than pictures of a sandwich. But I’m also grateful for an audience that can at least tolerate my musical varieties on top of poetic varieties. That’s you. You’re rare. You’re not supposed to exist, and yet you do. That’s the audience this project deserves.

Perhaps a more important reason is that technology, tools, resources—while they can extend what an individual musician/composer can do—in the end revolve around the axis of the abilities of that musician/composer. I’m far from a virtuoso on any instrument, some days I’m not even competent on my core instrument, the guitar. And then there’s a key problem I work around constantly: I’m a poor singer.

I use spoken word, chant, talk-singing, altered timbres, but real, full-voiced, pitched singing of melodies escapes me. A beautiful resource I don’t have available! This limit constrains me, frustrates me—though it sometimes leads me to work on ways of integrating poetry and music other than the existing traditions of art song.**

But some material must be sung. Today’s piece is one of those. “Soon Be Gone”  is imaginatively taken from an episode early in the adult life of my late wife, who left her Twin Cities hometown to follow a mountebank to southeast Iowa where he had a job offer to work as a radio announcer. It didn’t go well, or work at all really, and she traveled back north by north-west to home where she accepted my pretentions.

When I wrote “Soon Be Gone”  some years back, not long after she had died, and decades after the events, I made some choices. I think primarily from my grief, I wrote it from the view of the mountebank, who in the piece is reflecting immediately on his loss of her.

Soon Be Gone lyrics

“Hebrew sun?” If you’re facing north, one reads its daily path from right to left

 

The opening two lines of the bridge section before the final chorus are a variation taken from a translation of “The Song of Solomon”  which had a special meaning to my wife and I.***

As a lyric writer I often prefer to leave “the plot” of a song undetermined, and if it works “Soon Be Gone”  doesn’t require that the listener know those things. I mention this as a suggestion to writers here that compression and leaving out details could add a mysterious power to a song or poem. If your listener wants to connect, give them space to fall into your words.

farfisa where the action is

It’s an organ. And it’s LIVE! Forget the dance—run!

 

The difficult and ultimately imperfect task of recording the vocals for this piece aside, I did enjoy plugging my Telecaster into real cranked-up amps and doing the two-guitar weave at the center of this song. The other featured element here is a Farfisa combo organ**** (well, a virtual instrument recreation of one) which is a tip of the hat to Dave Moore who played one with the LYL band back in the 80s.

To hear the results, use the player below. I’ll be back with more poetry and “other people’s stories” soon.

 

 

*It takes time to create shorter posts about complex subjects, but I feel the author owes it to their audience. I’ve subscribed to about two-dozen blogs that I read whenever I get a break from this project, and nothing pains me more than a talented and perceptive blog author with more words than content. Although elaborative words strung together have their pleasures, I’m often in the mood to spend more time thinking and doing than reading. This is probably why I’m drawn to the compressed lyric form in poetry.

**I rather like art song settings of poems, though they often seem to me to be one solution to the problem of setting complex texts to music while there are others less explored (what we do here.) And since I can’t sing them, there’s little incentive for me to write complicated melodic lines for singers, which means that even if I had singers to write for I’d probably find that skill undeveloped on my part.

***For example, the 8th chapter in the King James Christian version which renders things this way: “Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death….”

****It’s falling back into the mists of time, but a player of a small electronic organ shaped like an elongated suitcase and fitted with a folding or removable set of legs was once a common feature of rock’n’roll bands. They were often played through overtaxed guitar amplifiers with only one hand playing arpeggiated parts like I use here. This sort of thing is sometimes associated with “garage rock” combos of the early 60s styled like The Kingsmen, ? and the Mysterians, The Sir Douglas Quintet, or Paul Revere and the Raiders et al. But that trope survived into the “Rock” evolution later in the decade too: The Doors, Country Joe and the Fish, early Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead and so on.

The Farfisa was an Italian-made-and-designed brand used in this role. Later in my century Phillip Glass utilized Farfisa combo organs in creating his version of composed music built on repetitive and driving organ arpeggios. The timbre of those combo organs always had me listening to Glass’ early work anticipating that they would, at any moment, break into “96 Tears”  or “Light My Fire.”

The Fly

The state I live in, Minnesota, has a reasonable list under “claims to fame.” Lots of lakes, a funny accent, Prince, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis* and Bob Dylan. And bugs.

It may be all that water, Some of the Twin Cities sits on what was once marshland, and even when it forgets that, the bugs have longer memories such that the oldest joke in the state is that the Minnesota State Bird is the mosquito. Farther upstate to our northern forests the most feared animal isn’t the bear or wolf, but the tiny biting gnats and other larger and blood-hungry black fly species. All and all, it’s likely there are no vampires in Minnesota. Too much competition.

I’ll go to English romantic poet, political radical and mystic William Blake for today’s piece “The Fly”  from his collection Songs of Experience.  Blake’s short poems can be shockingly brief in a way that Emily Dickinson’s sometimes are too. For a simple looking poem with only small and common words, there are numerous commentaries explicating the mystic or philosophic meanings of “The Fly.”  It opens with an uncomplicated setup: a fly bugs Blake one summer day, he brushes it away, something a hundredfold mundane. In an impossible way, he says he did this thoughtlessly, as he’s got four more short stanzas packed with thought and meditation.

Songs_of_Innocence_and_of_Experience_THE_FLY

Here’s the text of the poem as Blake the artist presented it. Toddler Robert Frost in front right is telling the woman that Allen Ginsberg (pretty in pink) is playing badminton without a net again.

 

For a mere 30 words in two stanzas Blake speaks on the similarities between the insect and himself. In a typical explication of this poem, the first stanza’s shoe-fly act, self-labeled by the poet as thoughtless, is read by those as a swat, killing the fly. But Blake doesn’t describe that as I read it. Instead I read it as a mutual act of interruption. Blake has interrupted the fly who has interrupted him.

The fourth stanza in my reading sums up a value Blake sees in this interaction, a stanza which would be quite obscure if this was indeed a meditation on a sudden death of the fly. The fly’s interruption wasn’t thoughtless after all, it caused thought in Blake.

The “Dance and drink and sing” line is not, or at least not only, a paean to the joys of living. It’s a remark on the superficialities of life for a fly and human, in the Buddhist sense, maya. “Thought is life…and the want of thought is death” is Blake’s precept here. It was good that he and the fly engaged in a momentary summer dialectic. The final stanza is mysteriously balanced. If to think is to live, the unconsidered life is death. The human choice should be then to think, to interrupt thoughtlessness. In the final stanza, is Blake saying that the fly’s insect’s brain cannot choose, and that humans who don’t make their possible choice for thought may be happy flies, but they are not exercising their human potential?

I wonder if Blake was knowledgeable of Socrates and his claim that he must be a gadfly to society, the presenter of bothersome ideas, the interrupter of the thoughtless, or if this was an independent realization. Others certainly borrowed it. Gandhi liked Socrates’ fly thought. Martin Luther King used that gadfly line of Socrates in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”  too, and it even inspired the periodical that alternate Parlando reader Dave Moore started up that he called The Gadfly  a half-century ago.

Minnesota also had a reputation for political progressivism. Maybe it was the bugs?

I won’t interrupt you long for today’s audio piece, my performance of Blake’s “The Fly.”  There’s a player gadget below.

 

 

 

 

*Literarily, a step down in fame, we also have Robert Pirsig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance  living over a shoe-store a couple of blocks away from where I’m typing this, and Robert Bly, he of the deep image and a revised-standard-version of masculinity. Some would even claim John Berryman, an interstate grump who was teaching here when he took a faith or faithless leap off the Mississippi bridge that  I once traveled over between my job at a hospital and my last few dollars of college education. I kept walking, and encourage you to do so too.