Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the United States, a harvest festival with elements of a more general event for gratitude. Those who wish to emphasize the gratitude aspect will often decry that Thanksgiving has become too connected with the Christmas shopping season. Their criticism would be: how inappropriate that a day to count our blessings is the day to launch a month of acquisitions and striving for more to give or get.
Earlier in this frankly troubling week for my family, with losses, stresses, and dissatisfactions, I happened upon a photograph from Twitter user Gary Hornseth, who specializes in archived photos and scans from my region. As I glanced at it, I first noticed that it was a very nice urban nightscape shot. The photographer, either freelance or working on a newspaper’s staff, was able to get a long exposure and the right amount of what painters call chiaroscuro to make the high-vantage-point monochrome shot eye-catching. The archivist’s note didn’t tell us who the photographer was, but they say its source was the November 23rd 1949 edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press newspaper.
I don’t know who the photographer of this midcentury downtown St. Paul shot was. Fine work.
But then the next thing intrigued me. Hold it, I know that section of St. Paul Minnesota. I worked for 20 years just a couple of blocks away from that corner later in the 20th century. There — that must be the church spire next door to where my coworkers and I worked for a radio network. Back then, from the 4th floor or the roof of my workplace, nearly the same viewpoint on the night was on offer. The streetcar that runs down Wabasha in the old photo? That would be ancestral to the light rail that eventually ran down the street by my work. I looked closer to see what else I could find in the photo. Oh look, there are Christmas decorations spanning the street. Many cities and towns used to string them between light poles for the season, and there they were, like a Minnesota Bedford Falls, arrayed across Wabasha. I checked a calendar. Just as today’s 23rd of November, the day this photo appeared was the eve of Thanksgiving.
And finally, I saw the one thing that drew me furthest into that picture. At the left margin of the photo, silhouetted in a lit window on the 4th floor of an office building, is the single human figure in the shot. Not enough detail to say who they are, just their unmistakable human form. A cleaning person, night watchman, midnight-oil-burning worker, or business owner? Could it even be a writer such as myself? Because they are not so blurred in the photo’s long exposure, we know they were standing still, looking out for a good moment. To look out at the night on a settlement of people, especially from a high vantage point, is to have a thought, or the experience of something that may be more encompassing than an ordinary thought. Here then, as I would have seen decades later, are people and their creations, their government, their religions, their workplaces, their schools, their hospitals, their arts, their businesses. All of them have someplace to be or someplace to be lost from, something to celebrate or something that does not fit them. The gap in time from 1949 to now, is something like a lifetime of moving through those states, even on one corner in St. Paul Minnesota. To someone my age, that doesn’t seem that long.
In conclusion, that’s the real and balanced Thanksgiving, the one of all of us satisfied or unsatisfied, grieving or gathering, living in justice or injustice, may observe.
I wrote today’s piece you can listen to below after viewing that photo. It started somewhat prose-poem-like, which I revised more toward prose. It’s a couple minutes longer than most of our Parlando Project pieces and I didn’t have much time to put together a performance of it, so I decided to go word-jazz, working as spontaneously as a one-man band could do so. I quickly ran through the piano part, worked with percussion samples to get a drum track that worked (easily the longest task), and then played the fretless bass part. The spoken word story recording was one pass, not perfect, but close enough considering the time I could devote to this. You can hear it with the player gadget below, and where that gadget isn’t displayed, with this backup highlighted link.
Back in 1916 American Poet Robert Frost published this short poem about what we’d today call Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is that syndrome where the increased darkness and other autumn changes set off depression in some individuals. Like many early Frost poems, it’s a beautiful, graceful poem with effective yet unaffected rhyme and meter — but when I saw it early today in a Twitter post by Cian McCarthy I was struck at the unusual way Frost treated this account of seasonal depression.
“My November Guest” is set in the time of year we’re experiencing in my part of Minnesota this week. We’ve had two days of dark rain, even thunderstorms, the rain falling unbroken through the bald branches of the trees. It was around 60 degrees F. when I awoke this morning. I rode my bicycle to breakfast at a café wearing shorts as I might in spring, but when I rode past a small pond on my route I noted per the Keats of memory that “The sedge has withered from the lake/And no birds sing.” I returned home and spent an hour or so reading on our porch, but the forecast says it’ll be 26 F by midnight. Snow and ice will be falling north of us over the evening. “Robert Frost” is certainly the correct name for a poet to describe this.
Within the poem’s 20 lines Frost recounts a conversation between the poem’s narrator (we’ll say it’s Frost for simplicities sake as I paraphrase the poem) and his “Sorrow” (the poem’s name for depression.) Most of the conversation are points sorrow (simultaneously personified as external nature) is making to Frost. Sorrow/nature is stating that these dark days could be seen as beautiful. Frost says he is listening to this, feels what his sorrow is telling him has worth. The poem continues: the absent bird song, no colorful leaves on the trees, the cold mist — is it the dullness of grey or the burnish of silver? “You can’t see this as beautiful” nature concludes.
Here is the song I produced from Frost’s poem in songsheet format. I present these in hope that better singers than I might perform them.
Frost’s last stanza is his part of the conversation. “Yes, I know how to read the book of nature — or at least the calendar. I wasn’t born yesterday.” His day, the poem’s day, like my day today, may have been dark and damp, but it wasn’t yet the winter that is coming over the walls of the calendar’s date-boxes soon. I know I’ll miss sitting on the porch, biking without mitts, streets only wet not packed with snow or ice. The early and long November darkness may overwhelm us, set off mad clocks inside us, but that’s only dark, only hidden. Or so we tell ourselves and light our LUX lamps. Frost says it’d be vanity to tell his sorrow and this nature this, his mere knowledge, for nature knows the is of this that surpasses knowledge.
Today’s music is a simple arrangement: me singing with acoustic guitar, as I quickly spent the middle of the day setting Frost’s poem to music and then recording it efficiently in my studio space before I need to hide my microphones from HVAC noises there. You can hear it with a player gadget where you can see that, or with this backup highlighted link for those who can’t.
Are you new here? If so, this is what the Parlando Project does: we take words (other people’s, mostly poetry) and combine them with a variety of music we compose, create, and perform. I find this fun, and I also find that even more than reading another person’s poem — even reading it aloud — performing it illuminates corners inside the text that I might otherwise overlook, so I write here about that experience. Then when you listen to the pieces you get to hear the poem in this new context to freshen your appreciation of poems you know, or to allow you an entry into a poem previously unknown to you.
Most of the time I’m faithful to the texts I use to create these pieces. Oh, I might take a part of a poem and make it a refrain/chorus, or I may select some tasty phrases from a prose paragraph so that expresses something more sharply, as if it was a poem — but my usual idea here is to honor some poet or their poem no matter how famous or little-known it is.
John Gould Fletcher is shelved in that little-known section these days, even though he was associated with writers and movements that are still studied, still read (at least by those interested in early 20th century American Modernist poetry.) I wanted to look at some of his work because I read that one of those associations was with those pioneering Modernists who took to calling themselves Imagists. Imagism was often that 2:40 punk-rock single of a hundred years ago. Instead of spendthrift merely decorative language, rhyme, and imagery, the Imagist poem wanted to get right down to it: direct treatment of something observable, not some ideal distilled from abstract thoughts imagined or philosophically proposed. No extra points would be scored for extra words. Rhyme, while not forbidden, was also not the main point. If rhyme led to extra words, those unneeded ones, it was worth discarding.
The musicality of poetry wasn’t thrown out, but like Modernist music, Modernist verse wasn’t interested in the old formal beats so much.
Best as I can tell from my early readings, Fletcher’s personal interpretation of Modernism and Imagism was not the same as others. He didn’t write much in hyper-short forms, while many of his fellow Modernists published whole collections, or sections in collections, made of sub-20-line poems. At least at first glance, Fletcher cared more for sound and less for freshness and concreteness in his imagery than others.
This Project likes shorter pieces, even more so now because my time and opportunities to compose and record are less than in the Project’s early years. In reading through a couple of Fletcher’s collections from a hundred years ago, I did come upon this short poem that was part of one of those roman-numeral separated sequences like other Modernists used. “Heat” seemed an attempt at the short Imagist poem to me. Here’s how “Heat” goes:
As if the sun had trodden down the sky,
Until no more it holds living air, but only humid vapour.
Heat pressing upon earth with irresistible langour.
Turns all the solid forest into half-liquid smudge.
The heavy clouds like cargo-boats strain slowly against its current;
And the flickering of the haze is like the thunder of ten thousand paddles
Against the heavy wall of the horizon, pale-blue and utterly windless.
Whereon the sun hangs motionless, a brassy disc of flame.
Short as it is, it’s a little wordy and formal in its manner of speech compared to other Imagists, but a palpable feeling is evoked in the description. I could have performed “Heat” as it is above — but then a week ago tonight, I was sitting on my front porch after a summer thunderstorm when the entire outdoors started to take on an intense yellow cast.*
It was hard to get a modern digital picture of last Tuesday evening’s sky with a phone. The smartphone kept correcting the heavy yellow and darkening cast to that sky, and as I looked at the photo preview on the phone I wondered why my phone wouldn’t believe me as it showed things brighter and blue. I resorted to using a much less smart device with a lesser digital camera to get this.
I decided then and there to use Fletcher’s poem to remark on that experience. This recasting went through a few drafts and produced this reuse of some of Fletcher’s words in a different poem:
Here’s “Yellow Air” with chords in case you want to sing it yourself.
What did I change? I wanted my own yellow air in a hot, humid summer experience to be portrayed. Though I retained many of Fletcher’s original words and phrases, my variation is present tense and uses a much less literary/formal sentence structure. Mine’s 61 words — Fletchers, 80. The clouds as ships image is borderline cliché and Fletcher’s “cargo-boats” wasn’t specific enough to fight that, so I substituted my own upper-Midwest image: the 18th century indigenous cargo-boats of our region, the voyageur canoe — still reflected even today by those who use their modern canoes to carry themselves and gear into the Boundary Waters for camping. I wanted a more definitive ending too, and so ended my “After…” poem with the sun portrayed as a ruling strong-man who doesn’t care that the sky is yellow and the heat and humidity oppressive.
What I kept, or even tried to bring out was Fletcher’s word-music. Rhymes near and perfect were increased in number and paused on, and I tried to make this variation more easily singable than Fletcher’s more prolix lines.
You can hear the resulting song with the player gadget below, or if that won’t show up in your way of viewing this blog, with this backup highlighted link.
*The Twin Cities Weather Service explained last week’s yellow sky cast this way: “Behind thunderstorms in the evening, high clouds remain. The setting sun emits light that is bent with longer wavelengths. While the blue (shorter) wavelengths are scattered out, the yellow-orange-red part of the spectrum remain, thus producing the sky we’re seeing tonight.”
The world of this poem is scribed with the understanding that when you’re on a lake’s surface you are at the boundary level of two worlds. Like unto angels in Medieval drawings, those fishing are pulling the fish from the aqueous world into the sky world, and I often felt I could sense the hooked fish’s wonder and distress. “Who are these scale-less giants unconcerned by gaseous air?” This poem is called “Anglers.”
Meanwhile, back in Chicago, the Yip Abides blog and rmichaelroman caught this wall painting in 2009. Whimsey aside, the very fish the anglers are seeking to catch in Minnesota today are spending their day trying to catch other fish.
It’s unsaid in the poem, but I was in the boat described. I didn’t put myself there because I wanted to focus the reader’s attention on the two brothers and yes, on the fish. There are other undercurrents that I think I kept out of the poem, and someday should make at least one other fishing boat poem. If any in this blogs’ diverse readership reads this before or after getting in a boat and wetting a line, net, or spear, the poem asks you to consider this if you like to think on the water and not just chum with talk: you are frighteningly miraculous.* Don’t let it give you a big head or anything. There are angler forces without skin on another level above our surface.
My grandfather’s actual Johnson Seahorse outboard motor mentioned in the poem
I recall that the more published and noticed members of my little writer’s group Kevin FitzPatrick and Ethna McKiernan were not particularly satisfied as readers/listeners of this poem in an earlier version, and I may have made a couple of changes based on that in the version you can hear today. I think they may have been puzzled or unimpressed** by the pun at the heart of the title: that on the flat surface of the lake, the “anglers” are the highest upward length of a right-angle to the water surface, the sharpest break vertical the fish would ever experience. And then there’s the even more obscure eye-rhyme-ish pun of anglers and angels. Neither of them cared much for puns, while Dave Moore and I indulged generously, enough to wrinkle the other half of the group’s noses.
Now Kevin and Ethna have been, like the fish, also pulled through the surface, and today there’s a church-based memorial service for Ethna which I don’t think I will be attending, though I’m glad to have attended a poetry-centered one for her earlier this year, and I’m planning to attend the poet-focused one for Kevin later this May. In lieu of today’s service attendance, and out of guilt from my absence, I’ll say that if their skin-less existence is in wonder and distress, that my thoughts go with them, and in my dim watery existence here I ask us on all our levels to turn our circle-eyes toward wonder.
And I know too there are practical voices in the fishing opener today. “That’s what I get for getting into a fishing boat with a poet. Such high-flown thoughts! Damnit. I’m trying to get a worm on this rig’s hook. We feed worms to fish, and then well, we feed worms.”
If you’d like to hear my performance of my own poem “Anglers” there’s an audio player gadget below this for many of you, and for those who can’t see that, this highlighted link will open an audio player for it in a new tab. My music for this uses what I often call my “punk rock orchestration.” I use very simple orchestral instrument colors both because I lack the knowledge/skill to do more complex ones and because I think there’s a direct charm remaining and being featured by stripping that sound down.
*Ah, footnotes, the sinker-weighed lures bobbling along near the bottom! No, I’m not out fishing today, or most any days in this part of my life, though I think about my hours of fishing as a young person. I always considered the fish though, a little to a lot. One thing’s simple though: every poet wants to be miraculous.
**When a poem or poet doesn’t “hook” us, these two feelings can be cause and effect in either order.
Here’s a sonnet of my own about the oncoming spring. I live in Minnesota, and here that season’s arrival is something of a lottery ticket. Oh, it’s likely that by sometime in February a Minnesotan is tired of winter, and we know that somewhere around May Day we’ll not have snow or cold to deal with for a few months, but when today’s high got to 40 F, we know no more than that. When I moved here, I was told that on days like today we might see folks wearing T-shirts outside — and yes that’s so. We are so in a hurry for spring that what would be a 5-degree Celsius winter day in more temperate regions seems time to ditch the jacket. Yet we are still likely to have more cold, and even more likely to get substantial snowfall, particularly in March.
So it is, from late February to late April is a two-month season of “what d’ya got” in our state. That’s what my poem performed today deals with.
Things are still snow-covered around here, but it’s not fluffy, Christmas-card snow— more at rugged crusts. I still ride a bicycle nearly every day year-round, and so winter means that I pay special attention to the surface conditions of the side-streets that I most often ride. You know the old factoid that Inuit peoples have a multitude of words for snow in their vocabulary? A day or two after a snow what’s often found is compressed and polished snow with some patches of white glaze where tires’ friction has buffed a gloss.* A few days later there will be areas where that surface further abrades and patches of dull-brown porridge-like snow aggregates are scattered on the roadway. I call the later “brown-sugar,” and the earlier hard white surface looks to me like the smooth inside of a shell.
Spring-time bike rides in Minnesota aren’t necessarily what you think.
Low-pressure studded bike tires work pretty well on the hard shiny stuff, and large knobby treads are the thing for the loose brown sugar. My deep-winter bike’s tires are a pair of Venn diagram hoops circling both.
That’s a poet’s bike ride for you: metaphors per hour.
The meter’s a bit loose, yet not loose enough to cry “Kings X — Free Verse!” either.
Does any of this help “translate” my poem for those without my climate? That’s my hope anyway. Though the title of my poem is “Unrequited March,” my wish for you, curious or stalwart reader/listener, is that spring will love you back this year. The player gadget to hear about the uncertainty of that is below for many readers, and for those whose way of reading this blog won’t show that graphical player, this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab to play the performance just as well.
*The large, knobby, low-pressure tires are also capable of riding on fresh snow before cars get to it. Un-rutted light and granular cold-weather snow is kind of fun to ride in. The wetter and clumpy snow that will likely come in any heavy storms for the rest of the season is much less joyful. That stuff is like riding in deep mud. The tires’ knobs will get traction — it’s not the tires, it’s an old out-of-shape guy like myself who’ll get tired quick riding through that.
This winter readers of this blog got to follow my own celebration of the work of Irish-American poet Ethna McKiernan. That was my memorial to her fine work, by which some of you now can know her. I realize that the Parlando Project has a world-wide readership, but for those of you that are in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area there’ll be a live event to celebrate her and her work featuring a number of her Twin Cities area poetic peers.
This will be a bittersweet occasion for me and some others, as Ethna and Kevin FitzPatrick used to do a poetry reading around every St. Patrick’s Day in March, and now of course both of them have died., turning them into memories and their words.
I assume McKiernan’s selected poems collection Light Rolling Slowly Backwards will be available at the event. If you’re not local, here’s the publisher’s listing.
Here’s one of those pieces I did this winter with Ethna’s words and my music. Player gadget below for some ways you may be reading this, or this alternative highlighted hyperlink if you don’t see that graphical player.
The poet and writer Robert Bly was unavoidable here in Minnesota, and to some degree that may be true elsewhere. Today would be the day this week I would have to record something new, but I’m going to write this instead on the week of his death.
I moved to Minnesota from New York in the mid-1970s, and Robert Bly was unavoidable even then, at least within poetry circles. Minnesota is used to single degrees, and it soon became clear to me that one didn’t need to reach a balmy high of 6 degrees of separation to connect a lot of the poets here to Bly.
Now as a younger man I was a big again’er, and so I was often moved to do by what I was in opposition to. Bly was this too, and he retained this spirit well into his middle age. I recall the first time I saw him read and then speak on more general cultural topics at a writers event. The reading was intriguing. I recall he spoke his poems in a Yeatsian* sing-song chant and I believe he may have strummed a mountain dulcimer haphazardly while intoning his poems. That sort of thing is not universally attractive, then or now, but I admired the attempt. The poetry held my attention while not bowling me over. I’m not entirely sure (memories of other Bly readings blur into my memory of my first) but he may have spent time in his reading speaking about the matters the following poem would be a distillation of. In effect a Bly reading sometimes seemed to be roughly in haibun form, prose talk containing associations and context, to be followed by a shorter lyric poem. In the mid-20th century this reading style was an again’er move, for the predominate public literary reading was flatter, trusting the words alone, or the persistence of memory from studying them on the page before or after, to bring forth the impact. The Beat poetry** with jazz thing still existed then, but this wasn’t quite that, and the Beats were still assayed plausibly as a faded popularizing fad with inferior poetry by many. Over the years my fondness/acceptance of Bly’s reading style continued, though I never wanted to sound like Bly reading.
Part of what might seem too much at a Bly reading, perhaps part of why he chose to explain the human connections not always overt in the poetry which followed, was that he really seemed to want us to treasure the words. That could seem vain or self-important — but of course he, or any of us poets, are only borrowing the words.
The video looks like it may be Bly reading around the same time I first heard him.
Later in the event series where I had heard him read, I heard him talk about culture. I recall the core of his talk that day was about how young people (he may have been restricting his subject to young men, even though this was years before Iron John) had this narcissistic irresponsibility and lack of order. He called those suffering from this syndrome “Boy Gods” and he said these two words so close together that I wondered if this was a new word I hadn’t heard before: “buoygaadz.” Anyway, I wasn’t having this. Yes, nearly all writers, and more nearly all poets, have a sliver of un-endorsed self-regard for their thoughts and work.*** And we don’t generally know what to do with what skills we have, but at a young age drawing on our own lives isn’t just narcissistic, it’s also largely what we have any grasp on so far in our short years.
So, my again’er back was up. Maybe it wasn’t me he was talking about? Didn’t occur to me. I’d been working full time since I was 20 first in nursing homes taking care of folks Bly’s parents’ age, then in urban Emergency Rooms where people had no where else or no choice but to come. I didn’t need some writer with writing prizes giving me tough love, it was my day job to provide some pretty tough love to some needy people.
That’s often what happens when two again’ers meet. How much did I misunderstand? How much was Bly wrong? As an old man I’m not sure. That again’er part of me still arises, even in old age; but now I’m prone to doubt that there’s one way and one understanding — which was always part of my being against stuff that claims there was. Similarly, I was never attracted to Bly’s denomination of a men’s movement, though some others who seem a decent sort of person in my estimate were. I have no understanding of that part of Bly’s lifework, and so look elsewhere if that’s what you’re looking for. Also missing in my accounting today will be that there was, even more so in the older Bly, a sense of general good humor about our less than murderous follies.
Skip forward some decades and into a new century. Partly from examining closely the early Modernists (who wrote differently than most Modernism that followed) and partly from a renewed interest in how the classical Chinese poets expressed poetry, my poetry became more like Bly’s without any direct intent on my part to write like him (remember, my first impressions of Bly’s poetry were: nice enough, but not impressive or something I needed to copy.) If you’ve listened to some of the hundreds of examples of various performance styles I’ve used here combining poetry and music, I don’t think you’ll find me sounding much like Bly reading — but he is one of several whose courage in trying different ways to make verse work aloud inspired me.
And then, as readers here will know, I started to do more translations. I did this to expand what I presented here, and also because I think it’s a great way to get inside other ways poetry can express itself for my own writerly benefit. In the course of doing that, I would run across works that Bly had translated. My first thoughts? “He put stuff in there that wasn’t in the poem. And he makes them all sound like Bly poems.” Well, there’s my again’er again! I told myself that I want to honor the poet I’m translating — and sure, I can’t move the exact word-music over, but it should remain their poem, not mine. Oh, I still think I’m trying to do that, but I’m failing into doing what I see in Bly’s translations more and more. I’m not sure how I’ll eventually feel about this failure on my part. I’ll say only this (in example) if you think you’re reading Rumi by reading Bly, you’re not. You’re looking over the shoulder or between the ears of Robert Bly reading Rumi. That may be a fine location, just don’t hang the wrong sign on it. Ah, but as with the poetry we write, we’re only borrowing the words.
Have I been too dismissive or hard on the man who has just died, and who earned his honors and esteem and perhaps deserved even more? And who am I to cast this as if Bly and I are peers in any estimation! I worry that I might give some readers those impressions, but no, my intent is to say this in gratitude to Bly; and then to say this to you: if you, even partially, progress by opposition know that opposition may be like a pair of powerful magnets with poles repelling — they may snap around in your intending hands, together.
**While in New York I’d heard Ginsberg sing poetry; and though his pitch sense had issues, he was singing in full voice. Though I left New York before the hip-hop explosion, Gil Scott-Heron was a thing, and again, the cool, sly Beat infused (in both senses of the word) Scott-Heron thing wasn’t what Bly was doing. Bly then was always slowing the flow down, sometimes elongating the words almost like a stage hypnotist. The Last Poets sounded more like drill sergeant chants compared to Bly. Ken Nordine’s“Word Jazz” had moments of that slow, hypno-suggestion groove, but it also had rhythmic variety. Later Bly chopped with a raised hand while reading, chopping also the words off at their feet with more variety in tempo.
***Often fighting with a stubborn bit of self-destruction or outright self-hate. Many artists think they know what they’re doing maybe 51% of the time, and then “I don’t have any idea about how to do it” fills the remainder 49%. The former pride lets us work, maybe even impress the results on others, the later portion calls us self-deluded. Some self-medicate trying to dampen down one portion or the other, but the drugs, drink, etc are not accurate enough.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
* 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.
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.
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.
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.
Looks like they’re going to call on a pinch hitter. Yes, here’s the announcer: “Now batting for Thomas Stearns Eliot, Phillip Dacey”
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 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.
*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.