Stratocaster, a story

Here’s a little story, about a one-eyed man named Leonidas, who you might think at first is not worthy of telling here at a place that talks about poetry and music. Was Leonidas an artist? Well, he started off an accountant. That’s important. Alas, the Great Depression happened, and even accountants were made redundant. Next, he opened a radio repair shop, since he’d been handy with electric circuits since he was a teenager. Better to repair a radio in those days, so he was able to make a go of that.

So, when does the art come in? Patience. Perhaps you know how revisions, pentimento, second drafts work in art? Then too, do you know the old saying about the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.? That’ll apply too. There’s musical elements coming up, and we’ll end up in the Museum of Modern Art.

Gris-Picasso

“No painters stroke…” Juan Gris’ fractured guitars. Picasso’s uncomfortable angled arms.

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It wasn’t just families’ home entertainment radios that came into Leonidas’ shop. Musicians would come in and ask him to repair or construct public address systems. Leonidas’ region was bustling. First with agriculture, and soon with manufacturing. Workers wanted music at dancehalls, bars, and roadhouses, and the small affordable music combos with growing and sometimes rowdy audiences needed to be heard. Leonidas could make things loud.

Some of these musicians played electric guitars, a newish invention. The big hollow reverberant wooden boxes that had formerly needed only to be loud enough to provide a discreet chop of propulsion to large brass and saxophone led bands were now equipped with magnetic pickups which drove amplifiers so that one or two guitarists could replace that horn section. Simple accounting — the venues wouldn’t necessarily increase pay for larger, more elaborate groups. Slim down, but get louder.

One catch. The louder noise these big hollow guitars now made with pickups mounted on their surfaces reacted with a hellish howl from their resonate bodies’ underground cavities when the volume got loud enough. Leonidas’ amplifiers could make them loud, but the guitars couldn’t operate well in that loud environment.

Leonidas was the one-eyed man who knew nothing about guitars, but he’d been wiring electric pickups for a particular kind of electric guitar that was going through a bit of a fad: the “steel guitar.” A steel guitar wasn’t a guitar made out of steel, it was a simple flat piece of wood, like a small, narrow end table, with some strings and an electric guitar pickup that was played with a steel bar slid by one hand up and down the strings while the musician’s other hand plucks the notes the bar’s position has stopped on the length of the strings.

Leonidas got the notion to make a guitar that could be played in the regular way, with fingers fretting the notes, but still with a solid wooden body. He made a very practical instrument out of this idea. It was cheap to make, using inexpensive wood with an ingenious neck that could be removed in a minute with a screwdriver. Some musicians loved it, while guitar makers thought it crude. The simple plank of wood that made up a steel guitar wasn’t all that visible, being played flat like a table. This unadorned plank guitar was hardly more sophisticated, yet it would be hung around the musician’s neck for all to see. A musical end table is one thing, but hanging one around your neck while you sang or performed on stage? That’s just not right thought the existing guitar makers.*

Turns out musicians cared less about that incongruity, because Leonidas’ guitar was so practical, affordable, and it sounded great.

Soon other guitar makers responded to this success — but with fancier, less spartan iterations. The competitor’s responses might have golden paint or hardware and the same graceful arched tops the hollow guitars had, though now on top of solid bodies. Others had metalflake sparkle or fancy sunburst two-tone paint.

Leonidas may have been a non-guitar-playing accountant turned radio repairman, but he and his associates figured out how to fancy up his next design. The guitar he came up with next was curved and wrapped like a flowing scarf, shaped like an abstract painter’s asymmetric amoeba in the moment of forming itself into or away from the classical shape of a guitar. It would come in a variety of new-car-show colors. It had not just one, not just two, but three whole electric pickups. And it had a whammy bar, a spring-loaded vibrato device that let one easily swoop whole chords up and down in pitch. It was named like a Strategic Air Command bomber or the upper atmosphere verging on outer space: the Stratocaster.

Tele Strats Super 400

Telecaster: like hanging an end-table around your neck and calling it a guitar vs. the colors and curves of the Stratocaster. A big Super 400 guitar forcing an arm akimbo.

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Leonidas “Leo” Fender was born on this date in 1909. He never learned how to play the guitar — but he helped a whole lot of other people make music with one, by making his guitars affordable and durable like an accountant watching the logistical details. And as a repairman and tinkerer, he made his guitars easy to repair and modify. By choosing a modular design with interchangeable parts he made it possible for infinite variations of his original design to flourish. One could fill a store’s walls with a hundred variations of his Stratocaster — and eventually that is what happened. It’s the most popular electric guitar ever.

In 2015 while visiting New York I got to see them introduce a Stratocaster guitar into the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Thinking of the radio repairman’s art-shaped art-tool in the midst of MOMA’s paintings and sculptures I wrote this short ode to Leo’s Stratocaster in that context, and then I performed it with the LYL Band the same year. You can hear it below with the player gadget (where that’s seen) — or if you don’t see the gadget, with is highlighted link.

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*Leonidas named this guitar that superseded his radio repairman line of work after the entertainment device that was obsoleting his radios, the Telecaster. I make the Telecaster sound crude because just like an Imagist poem that Modernists suggested could replace more elaborate and sufficiently “poetic” poetry, it did seem incomplete to many then. As an instrument however it’s surprisingly versatile to those who know their way around it. Despite the greater and continued popularity of the Stratocaster, there’s a solid cadre of players who give the secret handshake and declare “Leo got it right the first time.”

Yellow Air (Heat)

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.*

Yellow Sky the Picture 2

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.

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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:

Yellow Air song PRINT VERSION

Here’s “Yellow Air” with chords in case you want to sing it yourself.

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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.

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*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.”

John Gould Fletcher’s weird “America”

It appears that no one reads or is concerned with American Modernist poet John Gould Fletcher these days. I came upon him in a passing mention that he was associated with Imagism, a pioneering English-language Modernist style that I find worthy of sustaining. Turns out this was only the half of it: in Fletcher’s “associated with” resume, later in the first part of the 20th century Fletcher was associated with a southern American ruralism movement known as The Agrarians which then morphed into The Fugitives who furthermore helped birth — not sheep or lambs — but the monastic New Criticism that reigned supreme when I was in school as a young man. I’ve learned only a little about Fletcher, so don’t make me out to be an expert on him, but this linked short bio is much better than his sparse Wikipedia entry for flavor and detail, and it makes it sound like sometimes Fletcher’s “associated with” was a brief prelude to a falling out.*

John Gould Fletcher by Edward McKnight Kauffer 1024
“Tell you ma, tell your pa, gonna send you back to Arkansas!” Fletcher traveled and lived overseas early in the Modernist era, but spent the last part of his life back in his home state of Arkansas. Here in 1924 he could pass for “Remain in Light” era Brian Eno don’t you think.

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Thanks to the wonderful collection of scanned books at the Internet Archive I’ve spent this month looking through two of the nine books that Fletcher published in the era surrounding WWI. My impressions are early and will be subject to change, but he seems to be writing in a different mode than other early American Modernists that I admire and have presented here.

Like early Pound you can see elements of Victorian era poetry remaining in his verse. He’s generally less interested in short poems of specifically observed moments than many Imagists. His free-verse often has a definite beat and attention to sound — using, a century ago, word-music techniques that a skilled modern slam poet might select today. Reading poems like today’s selection, I could imagine a live in-you-face-off between Vachel Lindsay and Fletcher in their primes in front of a raucous audience.

He’s a more genteel poet than Lindsay, and among the 19th century influences I see in what I’ve read so far are Whitman, Rimbaud, and William Blake, and today’s selection will help illustrate that I think.

Fletcher’s “America, 1916”  comes in near the end of his 1921 Breaker and Granite  poetry collection. This “America”  is a six-page prose poem that, like the poems that precede it in the collection, attempts to sum up the state of America in 1916, but ends, in the final section that I performed, rhetorically like one of Blake’s prophetic books sung to the word-music of Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat.**   There are no good online sources for the full text of this poem, but I’ll link here to a Google Books result that may allow you to read the whole thing.

Is there a prosaic political point to this poem? In the context of the rest of the poem it could be reduced to a call for America to enter World War I — which though the war had been raging for two years in 1916, was something that wouldn’t happen until a year after the poem’s date. But like Blake’s America, a Prophecy  (which after all includes specific contemporary references of the American Revolution) Fletcher’s poem is doing so by making a more esoteric call for an elusive greater spiritual body of America to be born.

Is America still in an extended, excruciating, labor toward that birth? I’m no prophet, I won’t tell you, but I’ll do my best to give voice to Fletcher’s 100-year-old-words. The final sentence of the poem is one place where I made a slight change in Fletcher’s text. Weirdly, in a way I can’t quite pick out the intended significance, Fletcher ends his piece with “thou shalt arise, perhaps in vain shalt seek, to rule the earth!” As a prophecy of the subsequent “American Century” this could be counted as a palpable hit. Here in 2022, I sought to echo the internal subtlety of Bob Dylan’s opening line to his “License to Kill:”***  “Man thinks ‘cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he pleases — and if things don’t change soon, he will.” With Fletcher’s last line I did it mostly by repeating the “in vain” twice more to add weight to the dangers of vanity.

I performed only the closing section of Fletcher’s “America, 1916”  today because composition and recording time are hard to come by right now. Lots of drums and I was able to play my own horn section this time thanks to getting short-term access to a better set of virtual instruments than I previously had at my disposal. You can hear my performance below either with a graphical player many will see, or with this backup highlighted link provided for those who won’t see a player.

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*The bio mentions bipolar disorder, which might help to explain the bursts of output and the periods of disengagement.

**Stop the presses, ah, blog post — whatever. I’ve just discovered that the prose-poem style used in this and some other pieces in Fletcher’s collection are “Polyphonic Prose,” a term most associated with Amy Lowell, who Fletcher was specifically aligned with at the time. This short notice of Lowell’s use of the form in Poetry Magazine,  November 1918 shows Fletcher highly praising that poetic form two years after the date of “America, 1916,”  but before the publication of the collection in which I found Fletcher’s poem. Lowell (and to a lesser degree, Fletcher) credit a contemporary French poet Paul Fort as the inspiration of this form. At least in the Wikipedia article on Fort, Rimbaud is not mentioned as a direct influence on Fort, even though I heard Rimbaud word-music in Fletcher’s expression of the form.

***While there are few live-take liberties with the lyrics, this version of that song by Richie Havens is definitive to me.

H. D.’s “The Pool” for National Poetry Month

Ever wanted to visit an old school flame? Maybe not even for romance, just to catch up on what they’re doing, or to let them know what you’ve been up to? Well, in 1911 24-year-old Hilda Doolittle visited London to meet up with Ezra Pound who she knew from the University of Pennsylvania.

Pound was up to something alright. Along with a small group of men including F. S. Flint and T. E. Hulme, he was planning to tear down and repave English language poetry. No more stentorian Victorian third-generation copies of Romantic verse. No. No extra words. No dusty ornaments. Metaphors as decoration? No. Instead: direct treatment of the thing! Incongruous emotional language in tired verse? No. Strict rhythms and forced rhymes? No.

The group were poets, not just theorists, and they were trying to create yes poems to those no ideals.

Hilda showed Ezra some poems and asked what he thought of them. Pound was cat on mouse with that sort of offer, because there was no larger reserve of literary opinions in London at that time than Pounds’.

He liked them. He said Doolittle was already doing what they were formulating. And then with his characteristic audacity, he took his blue pencil to the bottom of Doolittle’s poems and wrote “HD, Imagiste.”

Branding!

Oh, and Pound was the overseas conduit for new poetry to Harriet Monroe’s Chicago-based Poetry magazine. Off he sent some of Doolittle’s poems with her new pen name applied.

Doolittle never liked her family name anyway. She kept the shortened name but dropped the French addition.

“The Pool”  is one of the most anthologized of H. D.’s early short Imagist poems. One can think of it as a just as short, just as spare, contrast to William Carlos Williams’* “The Red Wheelbarrow.”  “The Red Wheelbarrow”  wants us to clearly see something mundane as meaningful, as beautiful. “The Pool”  wants us to impressionistically see something mysterious obscured by water, never framed sharply. WCW seems comforted by and comfortable with the wheelbarrow and chickens. H.D. seems at least a little taken aback by what she sees in the pool, as does what she sees there (it “trembles.”) That it’s the subject of a poem tells us she’s fascinated by it, but we’re not sure she likes what she’s seeing. WCW’s rainwater on the wheelbarrow seems like magnifying-glass raindrops. H.D.’s pool water applies an obscuring filter.


What’s in the pool? Is it some alien-looking sea creature? See below for another possibility. And here’s a third.

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Is this poem a riddle to be solved? If you like, it can be. One reading has it that what she sees is her own reflection, and the strings of the net she dips into the reflection make it “banded.” She can’t catch her reflection or fully understand herself, so the ending without naming the thing in the pool “reflects” that.

We’re still celebrating National Poetry Month, so three ways again to hear my musical setting and performance of H. D.’s “The Pool”  today. There’s a graphical player below for some, and a brand-new lyric video above. Just want the audio, but don’t see a player?  This highlighted link will open a new tab with its own audio player.

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*It just so happens that there was a young medical student at that university too: William Carlos Williams. Yes, they all knew each other in college. And they continued to spar with each other afterward.

Night, and I Traveling for National Poetry Month

A little contrast here in poetic fame from Shakespeare to a poet who’s equally unknown under each of his names: Joseph Campbell/Seosamh MacCathmhaoil. Most of his poetry was published under that first name, not the Gaelic version, and so I’ll use it today, even though I’m always obligated to say “No, not that Power of Myth guy.”  Over the years this project has promoted the idea that Campbell deserves wider recognition. Here’s a brief version of that case.

Belfast born, Campbell was active in the Irish cultural revival at the beginning of the 20th century, and like Yeats, he seems to have crossed paths with the London-based Modernist poets circle of T. E. Hulme, F. S. Flint, and Ezra Pound in the years before WWI. His involvement with the militant wing of Irish revolutionaries also grew during this time.*  After Irish independence he lived in America for more than a decade, while continuing to promote Irish culture; but he seems to have stopped publishing his poetry after the establishment of the Irish Republic. Late in his life he returned to Ireland and died there in 1944 where his ghost continues the task of becoming largely forgotten — at best a footnote, and often not even that.

Well, most poets are forgotten, even in a country like Ireland that does a better job of revering them than most, but here are some things that attracted me to Campbell: he worked effectively in the folk-song part of the Irish cultural revival, collecting, writing, and adapting song lyrics.** And his take on page poetry included both that folk song tradition — and uniquely among his Irish generation — a handful of very early poems in the pioneering English-language Modernist style that would be called Imagism.

In fact, I’ll put today’s piece up against any of the more famous short Imagist poems widely anthologized, I think it’s a masterpiece of the form.


Here’s the lyric video of the performance.

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I find “Night, and I Traveling”  a hugely affecting example of direct presentation of a thing and a charged moment in time. Like Imagist poetry in general it does expect the reader to pay attention, as the poet did, and to supply from within themselves the emotional charge the presentation represents.

Campbell was a country walker in Ireland, and the door he observes while walking in the night is likely of a small rural dwelling, plausibly little more than a hut. The door is open. Perhaps the peat fire inside has gathered smoke. Perhaps the occupant is expecting someone to return. Let us also remember, this is more-than-a-hundred-year-old rural night. The ambient light he’s sees in the dark has a landscape context of moonlight at best. There’s a gleam of some porcelain dinnerware inside, perhaps the most valued possession in the hut, perhaps a dowry or wedding item. The poet hears the only occupant, a woman, singing, in the ambiguous, but I think rich phrase, “as if to a child.” Note this single simile in the poem. He could have written “to a child.” He did not, leaving the implication that I take: that there is no child — the child is dead or gone. Campbell passes on “into the darkness” and the poem ends.

Seven lines, and this poem slays me. How much is packed in there to an attentive reader: the poverty of the colonized Irish, the depopulation of those who needed to leave to survive, their meager treasure (part of which is song), the closely-held personal losses.

Yes, poetry such as this requires your attention to work. I ask for your attention to this poem and to Joseph Cambell.

There’s three ways to hear my performance of “Night, and I Traveling.”   There’s an audio player below for many of you, and this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab with an alternative audio player is provided if you don’t see that. As part of our National Poetry Month observation, there’s a new lyric video above for those who’d like to see the words while the performance plays.

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*This revolutionary involvement seems to have been the proximate cause of Campbell’s literary career stalling. In the aftermath of Irish Independence, the Irish Civil war broke out between factions of the new Irish state. Campbell ended up on the losing side and was imprisoned for a while. Despite my admiration for Campbell’s poetry, I’m not an expert on his life or the political issues of the Irish Civil war. But these events seemed to traumatize the writer, and it’s not hard to imagine that politics and associations from a sectarian war might have caused him to be written off by some in Ireland.

**Sort of like Eleanor Farjeon from earlier in this April’s National Poetry Month series, Campbell may be “best-known” in the quasi-anonymous role of the lyricist of a song, “My Lagan Love.”   Campbell’s lyrics in this song include a more elaborated variation of a woman’s lonesome singing heard through a doorway with a “bogwood fire” and the singer ending the song “From out the dark of night.”

In a popular post last fall, I also revealed that Campbell likely originated making the subject of the song “Reynardine”   a supernatural creature.

Her Lips are Copper Wire for National Poetry Month

Even with its most popular and well-known poems, poetry works, works its impact, one reader, one listener, at a time.

Doing this project leads me to read a lot of poems. I’ll go through whole collections, entire anthologies, looking for things that I suspect I can create music for. That sense, “This could work with music” is hard to quantify. I’ve noticed repetition and refrain will often cause a second look. Longer poems will need to presently suggest selections as I’m seeking sub-5-minute pieces. Yes, graceful lines that sing on the page for whatever reason will suggest music. An image or an incident vividly depicted that grabs me will ask me to stop and consider it. Oh, I don’t really know, can’t say for sure, how I select things for this. I’m happy with it being a mystery, and I hope you, reader/listener are too.

Sometimes that attraction is strong though. The moment I finished my first reading of Jean Toomer’s “Her Lips are Copper Wire”  I knew I had to write music for it and do my best to realize it in performance. Perhaps I can’t say why that is. Little matter. The pull, the attraction, was undeniable.

This Surrealist love poem, like E. E. Cummings poem from last time, was written before the first Surrealist Manifesto, and is proof Americans could use English in this mode early in the Modernist era. Long time readers here will know I sometimes like to mesh in Blues and Jazz flavors with my music,* but Toomer, an early Afro-American Modernist, seemed to have already suggested that with this poem, so that I didn’t have to underline the point. I suppose it just strongly communicated the wonder of desire to me.

Cane cover

This poem was placed into Toomer’s Modernist masterpiece, the book-length mixed-form “Cane.”

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It’s National Poetry Month, the reason I’m going through early Parlando Project pieces to present a more rapid posting schedule here this April. NPM tries to increase interest in poetry, but it’s hard to get a read on how significantly it achieves that. Arrayed against it is every poem someone didn’t “get” for whatever reason. Every poem that says only “Care about what I’m saying, even though you won’t understand,” poems without the bridge to “Here’s how you connect to this.” Every poem that bores us keeps us from poetry, and we are so easily bored. How many poems does it take to put up a wall against poetry, and will putting a poster on that wall dissolve the wall?

Is this the fault of the poets, their poetry? Is that the fault of us, the readers/listeners? Are there social structures that surpass us in enforcing this distance from the art?  That’s a mystery. I don’t know the answer. But I know that once in awhile I come upon a poem like “Her Lips are Copper Wire,”  and like another Surrealist love poet Paul Éluard I’m left compelled “to speak without having anything to say” — anything to say other than the words of this poem. That limerent pleasure is likely why you’re here, reading this, and listening to the performance of Toomer’s poem. Thanks to that mystery and you.

No lyric video today, but you can hear my performance of Jean Toomer’s poem with a player gadget below. Don’t see that? Well, this highlighted link will also do the job.

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*I’ll bring that musical influence to any text, breaking out Delta slide for T. S. Eliot, turning German Dada verse and Robert Frost into blues stanzas — and anachronistically seeing Emily Dickinson as a scratchy blues 78 record, or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at a beatnik Jazz café.

Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.) for National Poetry Month

It’s Easter and time to close my short Edward Thomas series for National Poetry Month with a short elegy written by a poet both less and more known than Thomas in the United States.

But before I get to that, let me fill in a few spaces in the Edward Thomas story. I ran into Thomas while researching Robert Frost’s stay in England before WWI. During this time three things happened that are part of our story: Frost published his first poetry collection in London (no one in American publishing was interested in Frost then). Frost was praised by Ezra Pound as an authentic new poetic voice and he finally gains attention in America. A man who made and kept few friends, Frost made one with Edward Thomas. Accounts have it that it was Frost himself who told Thomas that he was a poet who could and should write poetry, starting off the around two-year binge of poetry writing that comprises Thomas’ legacy today.

Thomas’ poetry, metrical and rhymed like Frost’s, has, like the best of early Frost, a sense of the direct object that the Imagists (promoted by Pound) were all about. Read quickly and with casual attention this poetry can seem cold or slight. Who cares about the red wheelbarrow, or that it’s quiet in an English village when the train stops except for a spreading universe of birdsong, or that there’s an abandoned woodpile in a frozen bog? Where’s the breast beating, the high-flown similes, the decoration of gods and abstracts?

In the face of World War I, a war the old gods and abstracts seemed to cause and will onward — to the result of turning “young men to dung” as Thomas said last time — all that seemed beside the point. Thomas knew that, and knew that. He was philosophically a pacifist, an internationalist. None-the-less in 1915, in his late 30s and the sole breadwinner for his family,* he enlisted in the Artists Rifles. He had one other offer: Frost had asked Thomas and Thomas’ family to join him in America.

There’s this other famous point in the Frost-Thomas connection: what may be Frost’s most beloved poem, “The Road Not Taken”  was written about his friend Thomas and their walks about in England. Frost meant to gently chide his friend’s intense observation and concern for choices on smallest evidence, though many who love the poem today take it as the motto for the importance of life choices. Some misremember Frost poem as “The Road Less Travelled By,”  when in the text the poem’s speaker says the two roads were ‘really about the same.”  Thomas’ two roads in the matter of the war were not “really about the same.”

Thomas chose to sign up with the Artists Rifles. You may think, “What an odd name? What’s up with that?” Well, it was what it sounds like. It was founded about 50 years earlier by some painters who wanted to start their own volunteer military unit. It saw action in some of the British colonialist battles before WWI, and in-between it was sort of a shooting club, a weekend-warrior kind of thing. Sound like an old-school-tie/old-boys club? I guess it was. Even during WWI it was invitation-only from existing members. So what happened with it during WWI? It produced junior officers, the kind of lieutenants and scouts that would account for the unit having some of the highest casualty rates in the war. So, there you have it: an exclusive club where the winnowing greeter is waving you in to the trenches and a mechanized manure-spreader of a war.

Busts of Mars and Minerva are featured in the unit’s insignia. “Artists Rifles” sounds kin to Sex Pistols or Guns & Roses, doesn’t it?

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While still in England and in training with his unit, Thomas was able to mix with his circle of friends. He shipped out to France in 1917. He was killed a few weeks later, during what he thought was a lull in the battle. A late shell or sniper got him. He’d written about 100 poems, none of them published at the time of his death. His friends, other poets, wrote elegies. I know of at least three. Here’s a link to a post on another admirable blog, Fourteen Lines, which includes two of those elegies to Thomas.

One of them is by Robert Frost. Re-reading it again I think, Frost must have been so grief stricken that he’d forgotten to be Robert Frost. It’s filled with the kind of fustian crap, romanticism, and poetic diction that Frost the rhyming Modernist was all about throwing off. I tend to forget the poems that don’t give me strong pleasures, so maybe I’m overlooking something, but this elegy may be the worst poem Robert Frost ever wrote. By the time I got to “You went to meet the shell’s embrace of fire” I was through with Frost’s attempt.

Oh, if he could have concentrated on the concrete, the palpable. He may not have known it, but the records of the British military recorded the meagre personal effects found on Thomas’ body: a small notebook/journal, a watch, a compass, a copy of Shakespeare poems…and “Mountain Interval,”  one of Frost’s poetry collections now published in an expanding career in the United States.

So, to end the story of Edward Thomas, who found himself as a poet in middle age writing about how England changed as war arrived, only to die in that war, I chose to perform the second one in Fourteen Lines’ post “Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.)”  by Eleanor Farjeon. Farjeon, like yesterday’s Edna Clarke Hall, was a young woman enamored of Thomas** who like Frost and Hall enjoyed walks with Thomas in the countryside. While few Americans are familiar with any of Thomas’ poems,*** Farjeon wrote the lyrics to the hymn song “Morning Has Broken”  which became famous on the back of a Yusef Cat Stevens 1971 performance, and as I write this it may be being sung in an Easter service in my country. So, many Americans know a Farjeon poem, but since Yusef Cat Stevens was known as a songwriter, most probably think he  wrote the words.

Farjeon’s elegy for Thomas doesn’t’ make the mistakes Frost made. It begins as particular and offhand as Frank O’Hara’s masterpiece elegy “The Day Lady Died.”   I don’t know if it’s intended, but after yesterday’s poem of Thomas’ “Gone, Gone Again”   Farjeon picks up with Thomas’ love for apples, speaking of a package of English apples she’d sent to him at the front and of the budding apple trees in the orchard around her. Like “Morning Has Broken,” “Easter Monday”  starts in Eden, and where can we go from there?

The oblique grief of her last line? What can I say…

I may or may not do a lyric video for this one, but you can hear my performance of Eleanor Farjeon’s “Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.)”  two ways now. There’s a graphical player below for some, and for those without the ability to see that, this highlighted link.

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*It hadn’t occurred to me, but some have pointed out that a steady paycheck, even if soldier’s pay, may have been one of Thomas’ motivations. His freelance writing work was always running to catch up with the bills.

**Thomas’ wife was open to these relationships, and was friends with Hall and Farjeon before and after Edward’s death. As I said last time, Edward Thomas’ emotional and love life would make a fascinating TV series.

***In England, Thomas is better-known. “Adlestrop”  often ranks in best-loved poem surveys there.

Soul Selector Blues for National Poetry Month

Just suppose that back in the 1920s someone wanted to record a Blues song based on Emily Dickinson’s “A Soul selects her own Society,”  and so they waxed a 78 rpm platter at Paramount records “New York Recording Laboratories,” located back then in, well, Wisconsin.*

If they did, it might sound a little like this.

We offer this sort of nonsense as part of our celebration of National Poetry Month. Then again, maybe it’s not nonsense. Dickinson’s poem does fit into “Old Weird America” and its music shockingly well. Why’s that?

As best as can be determined, Dickinson wrote “A Soul selects her own Society”  during her highly-productive mid-19th century, but for a variety of reasons, this poem, like almost all the other poems that she wrote, wasn’t published until near the end of that century. Somewhat “regularized,” Dickinson’s poetry was bound then into book-length collections that sold well for poetry by an otherwise unknown author, partly due to the myth of her eccentric later-life used as hype for the verse, and because some of her poetry was disarmingly informal and approachable — at least on the surface.

Literary poetry gradually began to take notice of her. I presented Sandburg’s audacious mention of her in 1914 as an “Imagist” earlier this month, and over the course of the 20th century her work has eventually been judged as important as Whitman’s in presaging 20th century Modernism. Now, I daresay that if one was to survey living poets in 21st century America for what 19th century American poet they read, admire, and use as an influence, Dickinson would beat out Whitman — and those two would leave the rest of the field far arrears.

What else happened around the beginning of the 20th century, but took serious critics and culture a while to notice? Afro-American secular music — Blues and Jazz — which would come to significantly define American music internationally and become the dominant strain of our country’s music ever since. Americans were highly important in English language poetic Modernism.** Afro-Americans had their Modernist revolution to offer too, and a great deal was musical in this era.***

So, in another way, this unlikely pairing of Dickinson and Blues isn’t as odd as it seems.

Paramount’s “race records” ads scattered in this video, like other white-owned firms marketing to Black listeners, ran often in Black publications like the Chicago Defender. Outside of these ads, the Defender of the ‘20s largely ignored Blues as problematic. From examples I’ve seen the Paramount ads were less stereotyped than other “race records” companies’. Paramount did hire a Black consultant, Mayo Williams, who may be partly responsible for that.

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Three ways to hear this performance of speculative fiction: a graphical player is below for a portion of you, but if your way of reading this blog doesn’t show that, this highlighted link will also do the job.  And the new lyric videos we’re doing this month is the third way to hear “Soul Selector Blues.”   Oh — it’s not your speakers or computer — it’s supposed to sound like a Paramount 78 RPM record!

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*Port Washington Wisconsin to be exact. I’m not entirely sure why Paramount Records wanted to make it sound like it was in New York, perhaps for prestige, and despite the name they had no connection with the motion picture company Paramount either. What was a record company doing in Wisconsin anyway? Well, they made furniture (the upper Midwest was a timber source) and that led them to make cabinets for the new entertainment device, the phonograph. And if they made phonographs, why not seek another income stream from the “software,” the disks to be played on them?

If you choose to view today’s lyric video you’ll see a sampling of how they marketed to Black Americans variously (I can hear the meeting: “Who really knows what they like and will buy…”). High culture to gut-bucket, spirituals to sexual rebels (Ma Rainey’s “Prove It On Me” is about exactly what the illustration on its Paramount ad might lead you to think it was about). They had a pitch for your money and ears.

**Curiously, almost exactly 50 years before the “English Invasion” brought British rock’n’roll bands to the U.S., a small but influential group of Americans were over in England evangelizing poetic Modernism. Were The Beatles payback for Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot?

***Even literary minded Afro-American writers, critics, and poets weren’t necessarily ahead of the curve in seeing Jazz music and Blues lyrics as an authentic Modernist revitalization of tired-out existing tropes at first. Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg were exceptions a century ago in seeing this.

On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli for National Poetry Month

Though an often-puzzling poem, Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  is tightly written. I’m not talking about some raw stat like its number of lines, but that the language itself works in its sentences and small phrases directly and without much waste. That’s not a Modernist-only tactic, but early Modernism did make it a goal.

And a large amount of that vividness came not just from the sharpness of the experiences of grief, depression, and failure that Eliot had experienced, but from revision and re-writing, a process famously aided by Ezra Pound suggestions — most often excisions.

Back in this blog’s first year or so I decided to try an exercise based on those Modernist principles. I took this poem, or rather a fragment, written by British poet Rupert Brooke* while he was steaming on his way to the same disastrous Gallipoli landing in World War I that killed Eliot’s friend Verdenal.

My goal wasn’t just to do what Brooke himself might have done if he’d had time to polish up further drafts of his fragment, but to do what Ezra Pound would have done with his blue pencil. Even though I started with a 19-line fragment, I removed over a hundred words, including many that seemed uselessly archaic and flavorlessly formal. This wasn’t just a Readers Digest-style abridgment, I worked to remove the crud and bring forth the images as an Imagist would have.

Here’s the lyric video.

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I maybe favoring myself, but I thought the result increased the power of the remainders considerably,** and once I composed and performed the eventual musical setting, I titled my adaptation“On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli.”   It remains one of my favorite pieces that I’ve presented here for the past six years, and it easily became one of my candidates for this National Poetry Month series where I’m re-releasing some of the earlier pieces from this project along with new lyric videos. You can hear it three ways. The graphical player is below for some, but if you don’t see that, this highlighted link will also play it.  And you’ve seen the thumbnail picture above that will play the lyric video.

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*Brooke was — let’s not put too fine a point on it — a very good-looking young man, with full access to the class-bound academic and social circles of early 20th century Britain. Yeats called him “the handsomest young man in England.” He was considered promising as a poet, or certainly something, even before the war. Frances Cornford, a concise poet who counted Charles Darwin and William Wordsworth as her ancestors, wrote of Brooke “A young Apollo, golden-haired/Stands dreaming on the verge of strife/Magnificently unprepared/For the long littleness of life.”

So, when Byronically larger-than-life Brooke saw WWI’s outbreak, he saw a way to join in something big and heroic. He wrote an instantly famous sonnet about the honor of dying for one’s country in battle. That poem was read by the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral on Easter Sunday — and then less than a month later Brooke was dead. Back in 1915, an editor/fate blue-penciled this: Brooke never reached the doomed landing at Gallipoli. He was bitten by an insect which led to a generalized infection, which killed him three days before the battle.

**Perhaps I shouldn’t have left this for a footnote: you might want to try a similar exercise on some other person’s poem or two yourself, and then try what you learn on your own work. Yes, one can add lines and words in a revision, but what this exercise usually does is show how much you can add in power by excision.

Langston Hughes’ Poem

Today’s piece, “Poem”  from Langston Hughes 1926 poetry collection, The Weary Blues, is one of the shortest poems in that book. Here’s a link to the text, all of it, if you’d like to read along. Those who’ve followed this Project as it has looked at early English language Modernist verse may recall that very short poems, even poems that seem bereft of obvious metaphor, were something that many of those early Modernists liked to present. Such tiny poems are pointed darts at the pomposity and long-windedness of the poetry they were seeking to replace.

The sense I get from today’s example is that by using the generic if exalted name of “Poem”  as the title, when what follows is so spare and simply stated, is meant to draw attention to the provocation that this is worth consideration as a complete lyric.

It may be me and my current situation, but when I read “Poem”  I immediately thought it was a memorial poem, a five-line-with-one-refrained-line statement of the essence of loss intended to put itself up against something like the book-length “In Memoriam A.H.H.”  by Alfred Tennyson. I still find nothing in the text that forbids that reading.

But death isn’t the only loss in life. Some, particularly those looking for obscured clues to Langston Hughes’ erotic orientation see this a coded statement of a romantic or erotic breakup with a “He.” Like Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence and Tennyson’s long poem, the poem has a dedication to a set of initials: “F. S.” in “Poem’s”  case. Some articles one can find in a web search identify this dedicatee as Ferdinand Smith, who was in the merchant marine — as was young Hughes before he published The Weary Blues.  Hughes did know Smith, but I haven’t seen a full explanation of how this putative identification was made. Oddly, if this poem of complete separation was written about Smith, Hughes and Smith kept in touch until Smith’s death in 1961. In Real Life there was no utter break between the two — but that’s biographical information, nothing in the text forbids the abandoned love reading either.

Frederick Smith

Frederick Smith, who’s been identified by some as the  mysterious F.S.

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And then too the poet Hughes of The Weary Blues  and elsewhere is very broad in his use of the pronoun I. Not only does Hughes not identify F. S. and what exactly was the nature of the love relationship, Hughes is fully capable of using “I” as a collective or representational singular. Think of Hughes most famous early poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers”  — its litany of I’s is not a Quantum Leap  confession that this certain 20th century poet worked on the Pyramids or rafted the Mississippi with Abe Lincoln.

But “Poem”  does feel like a personal expression, even if Hughes may frustrate us if we prefer poems as memoir filled with explicit self-expression. Yet maybe this is of little importance to the essence the poem wants to express. Grief from loss of a lover who leaves and lives, or loss of a friend who has died — does the heart assay any difference?

Musically today I demonstrated fidelity of a different kind, playing a cheap 40-year-old 12-string guitar that I bought shortly after coming to Minnesota, and a bass that once belonged to Dean Seal, who played in the LYL Band in the early 80s. I have newer better* instruments, but it seemed like a good way to reset and get back to making some new Parlando Project musical pieces after February presented other matters that needed to be done.

You can hear my performance of Langston Hughes’ “Poem”  with the player gadget below — or if you don’t see that, with this highlighted link.

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*My newer guitars are better in that they don’t have parts that won’t exactly work anymore or intonation issues I need to work around, but besides old-times-sake I think there’s some character remaining in these funky instruments sound.