The Poet to Death

Here’s a short piece using a poem by a person who started out as a poet but who spent the greater part of her life working for her country, India’s, independence: Sarojini Naidu.

Sarojini Naidu, like Edna St. Vincent Millay around the same time in the U. S., impressed people as a capable poet while still a teenager. Her talents lead to her being sent abroad to England for college, and eventually she connected with the Rhymer’s Club, the turn of the century London organization that was the last stop in the 19th Century for some of the poets who would launch the poetry of the 20th century.

Today’s piece, “The Poet to Death”  was first published in England as part of Naidu’s initial collection of poetry The Golden Threshold  in 1905. Fluent in several languages, the pieces in The Golden Threshold  are in Naidu’s own English. Some accounts say that the young Sarojini was modest about her poetry at the time, worried that her work was less-substantial because it is lyrical and song-like; and retroactively English-language Modernism did discount that sort of poetic gift. So, while her poetic work is still remembered in her homeland, where Wikipedia says she’s called the “Nightingale of India,” Sarojini Naidu will be a new name to most of our reader/listeners.

During the WWI years Naidu transferred her focus from poetry to working for Indian independence, a cause in which she became a principal, alongside Gandhi and the other independence leaders.

Did the world loose a poet for India to gain its independence? Perhaps. I do not know enough to say. In her English poetry, I can see the influence of the earlier 19th Century English romantics, but her language is less extravagant. She can remind me at times of Christina Rossetti (readers here will know I consider that a good thing), and “The Poet to Death”  is a concise version of a trope Keats used as well.

Sarojini Naidu Real Folk Blues

India gave us chess. Chicago gave us Muddy Waters on Chess records.

 

Today’s music employs a polyrhythmic blues. Perhaps I was subconsciously moved by the “till I am satisfied” line in Naidu’s poem to think of Muddy Waters and his “I can’t be satisfied,” though what I ended up playing has some elements of Skip James’ guitar style too. At a conscious level, I was working on this while thinking of poet Donald Hall, having read a review of his new collection of essays coming out this month, and then hearing later in the same day that he had died at age 89. In his last couple of decades, Hall has often written of what continues until it ends in the course of aging.

Donald Hall
Donald Hall. His book of essays “A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety” drops in July.

 

For some reason the version of the text I worked with did not have Naidu’s first stanza, which specifically speaks, as a younger poet, for death to stay his hand. In the remaining two stanzas, the age of the speaker is less determined, and so the situation is joined whether it is a young poet or old. The blossoms are always there a short time, at any age.

To hear my performance of Sarojini Naidu’s “The Poet to Death,”  use the player below.

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Blues Summit in Chicago 1974

Let’s continue for a one more episode on the theme of the musician, but since here in the Parlando project we believe music and poetry to be naturally joined, let us go there though a poet.

Decades ago, in a small Midwestern classroom, a teacher wrote on the chalkboard “It is better to read (or study) Homer than to be Homer.” I do not remember the teacher’s name. I do not remember who was the author of this epigram–though I have vague memories that the teacher wrote that down too—and no amount of modern web searches have ever been able to give me the source of it. But except for that one ambiguous word (“read” or “study”) I have never forgotten that line. Perhaps what helped me remember the line is the teacher gave us no context. I simply encountered what they had written on the blackboard.

Though I’m going to violate that impact here in regards to that epigram, I endorse it with the Parlando project’s audio and podcast element, where the audio pieces are meant to stand alone without resume or external authority. None-the less, if any readers here do know where the Homer epigram I remember came from, I’d like to know.

What I took that line to mean is not just that the life of an artist may be difficult or cursed by troubles; but the revelation, emotional resonance, and sensuousness of art when it is experienced, can easily be greater than the costs of its creation. Greater for even one reader. Greater than the author’s own understanding of that which is so close to them that they may not see all its sides and size.

So here’s a meditation on that idea. I wrote it after watching a re-broadcast of the initial episode of PBS television’s Soundstage which shares this piece’s title. I believe the producers of the TV show wanted to reproduce a somewhat similar gathering of older and younger blues musicians that resulted in an excellent LP called Fathers and Sons recorded in 1969. Musically, what they captured wasn’t at that record’s level alas, but it was well-filmed and that alone makes it worth watching, for there are small, moving, privileged moments between the musicians captured on camera. About halfway through watching it myself, I found myself noting that almost every musician on that stage is now dead, and it didn’t matter if they were the younger generation or the old guard. Some of the old guard outlived the young guns.

That’s part of the nature of a working musician’s life: there may not be a full measure of it.

And then I looked at the close-in audience filmed at the same time. Since they were my contemporaries I felt I could see through the period clothes and hair styles and make some rough but fairly accurate estimate of their class membership and likely demographic future.

Let’s just narrow our focus to one musician. If you could step back in time, would you ask Michael Bloomfield if it was worth it? “Hey Mike, I’m from the future and I know you’re going to die at 37. Would you rather have stayed in college now knowing that?”  How complex that question is for just that one instance, and equally complex in different ways for each of the musicians on that stage. I suspect some days they’d say “yes” and some days “no”—and much of the time they’d say (in so many words) that your question was beside the point.
 
Now ask yourself:  would you rather Mike Bloomfield had a longer life or you had recordings like Highway 61 Revisited, Super Session, or East/West to listen to? Assuming you weren’t Mike’s friend or relative, and that you know and have experienced his art, then honestly your answer is likely: you’d take the records.

And those college students in the bleachers? Maybe some of them became doctors, nurses, teachers, faithful and helpful friends. Maybe one day one of them will write something on a chalkboard like that epigram I read decades ago, and I will not be able to remember their name.

So to play The LYL Band performing  my piece “Blues Summit in Chicago 1974” click on the gadget below.