To the Roaring Wind

Fifty years ago I picked up a copy of The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens  in a college bookstore. It was a paperback edition, and looking at the price, I can see why I might have selected it. The cover says $1.45 if you can believe that. Cheaper than a record album, and chock full of more strange words and mysterious lyrics than any batch of LPs that might sit in a dorm room in 1969.

Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens

Yes, $1.45!

 

I’d probably run into a few Stevens poems before then, but my actual teenaged poetry bookshelf had no other entire volumes from Stevens early 20th century Modernist cohort yet. After reading it, I immediately set out to write poems that looked and sounded like Stevens for the next few months.

That edition started off by reprinting Stevens’ first collection, Harmonium,  from 1923. And now after a pause of decades, works from that year are now in the public domain and available for presentation.*

So now 2019 is here, and 1923 is freed for reuse. By sad coincidence, I learned last night that David Shove who organized a long-running and well-loved monthly poetry reading series had died on New Years Eve. And so that evening I started reading Harmonium,  until I finished it this morning, thinking of David Shove and his dry humored manner as he would introduce poet after poet to an audience, and how I’ll miss that. The obituary said that the monthly reading that would have happened tonight may still go on, but to my shame, I couldn’t face a crowd of people tonight.

I learned last night that David Shove who organized a long-running and well-loved monthly poetry reading series had died on New Years Eve.

Unlike crowds, with art you can allow your feelings to shake and settle into a form. It’s a smaller group, just yourself and sound. So I plugged in my Telecaster and started working on a droning riff to accompany the last poem in Stevens’ Harmonium, “To the Roaring Wind.”  Supporting the guitar I played—well, why not—harmonium, double-tracked cleanly and through a fuzz-box. I then improvised the vocal tracks using Stevens’ words as best as my voice would allow today while thinking of David and those readings.

Wallace Stevens is the Lemony Snicket of Modernists, in love with unusual words, and in the 13 words of “The Roaring Wind” one is “Vocalissimus.” Heard in passing it may remind you of “vocalization,” but someone with an education in Latin has supplied a further, more exacting, explanation.

If souls hover around, David Shove and those that sound with him, this is for them. The rest of you with mice and screen-fingers can hear “The Roaring Wind”  using the player below.

 

 

*A somewhat complicated story, but in the U.S. a law was enacted in 1998 that changed the term of copyright long after the works were created. For a few commercial properties this extended their revenue potential, but for a large portion of poetry and other non-commercial work it only helped make them largely unavailable for re-vitalization.

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To John Renbourn Dying Alone

A perennial question asked of songwriters is “Which comes first, the music or the words?” Here with the Parlando Project, the words often were written centuries before the music; but with the pieces where I write both the words and music, the method is for the music to come first with the words.

By that I mean, I tend to compose the words first, but the words emerge for me as melodies do, as a series of sounds that may precede any idea of their meaning. And even when I sit down to write “about” something, the improvisation of their melody can lead me to change what I am writing, even in the end, change what I believe I think about something.

While it’s a good assumption that my methods may come from my visceral attraction to music and poetry, this sense that the act of writing shapes, even reshapes, the thought is a common finding among writers. Have you ever thought yourself, “I didn’t know what I thought about this until I wrote about it?”

So where do melodies come from, whether they are melodies played on a string or melodies played on words? The answer, after millennia of human thought and knowledge gathering, is “We don’t know.” That area of knowing that it is, but not knowing why, is the genesis of myth.

The classical Greeks and their Roman inheritors ascribed these creative incidents to “the muses”—nine goddesses that could engender music or poetry in humans. Their stories told of the bad ends that would come to those who would mock the muses by claiming they could practice the arts without them.
This sort of thing gradually fell out of favor. Shakespeare in his 38th sonnet claims his beloved is as good or better a muse as one of the nine classical muses, and by the 19th century his humanistic idea that another human could serve as a muse to an artist became the common myth.

Nine Muses and Apollo

No, you didn’t count wrong. I think the 10th dancer is Apollo, wearing the knee-length number.

 

So, what use then is this old myth, the idea of an inexplicable outside source that informs artistic expression? Here’s one use I’m attracted to: it lets the artist relax a little bit about their efforts. Ever try to be inspired? That rarely works. Even the inspiration tricks that worked once, twice or twenty times may wear out and bring nothing. Have you ever been impelled with an idea, shape, thought, or melody when it’s inconvenient and unexpected? Ever beat yourself up when the ideas and expression just won’t come? Using the myth, the metaphor, of the muses you can get a handle on these things. This does not mean you don’t work at art. This doesn’t mean that discipline isn’t a valuable artistic trait. This doesn’t mean you sit on the mountain top and dawdle. Worshiping and honoring the muses just means if you sit on the mountaintop and nothing comes up, you might try the valley next time, but that “nothing” is not your fault. If you look for inspiration 365 days a year and it only comes around a dozen times, that’s a dozen more times than it would come if you never looked. If you look for inspiration only a dozen times a year, it will take 30 years to do what you could have done in one.

That is a long introduction to today’s piece “To John Renbourn, Dying Alone.”  John Renbourn was very good British guitarist and singer. Beginning in the 1960s, and with a small and wondrous circle of his contemporaries, he was fearlessly eclectic: blues, jazz, traditional British Isles folk music, American Appalachian ballads, 19th century broadsides, Asian music, modern singer-songwriters, or Renaissance tunes—all that could show up at a John Renbourn concert, or on one of his recordings.

John Renbourn

John Renbourn. The picture is silent because he could be playing anything on that guitar.

 
Two years ago this month, he didn’t show up to demonstrate once again his amalgamation of music at a scheduled date in a Scottish club. He was not mocking the muses—it was soon found that he had died alone in his modest home.

The day I heard the news, I hoped his suffering had been brief, or if not brief, useful. I thought of him like Frost’s solitary man in “An Old Man’s Winter’s Night,”  or my father imagined in “A Rustle of Feathers,”  or my own dear friend John who had died alone at home a few years earlier. I thought of John Renbourn and wished to apply this myth, this lie, of the muses to this man. An artist like John Renbourn, who informed us with his art, listened better to the muses than most any of us.

You can listen to my audio piece “To John Renbourn, Dying Alone”  by using the player below.

A Rustle of Feathers

As promised, here’s my “bird in the house” piece presented as a companion to Dave Moore’s episode from yesterday.

I wrote this about a decade ago. I was going through a bit of a rough spot in my life then, and just as the words place the narrator in the piece, I was alone in a house in the wintertime, acutely aware of the sounds in winter.  In that house, with no other human sounds but my own, I found myself thinking of my aged father, now widowed, living alone as well. In a somewhat morbid, gloomy mood I thought of unwitnessed death, of my father, or myself, dying alone.

Just as in the dream reported in Dave’s piece “The Bird Dream,” the trapped bird image came to me as I wrote the words for “A Rustle of Feathers.”

Odd that that trapped bird image occurred to both of us thinking of our aged parents. I don’t know if this is a common image or archetype, something that waits in our common human unconsciousness, waiting for a writer’s words to awaken. “A Rustle of Feathers,” with it’s aged narrator in an otherwise empty house acutely alert to sounds, shares a bit of the mise-en-scène of Robert Frost’s A Old Man’s Winters Night”  that was presented here earlier this month. Possibly I had read the Frost poem somewhere in my youth, but I don’t believe it was present in my unconscious as I wrote this; but shortly after I wrote “A Rustle of Feathers,” I did think that Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven”a poem widely known to Americans of my generation—might have been a subliminal influence.

The Raven and Poe

Yes, I am using a plucked feather as a pen—but it’s a goose’s quill—so get out of my house!

Musically I was thinking a bit of a Johnny Cash feel as I composed the music, but I’m not sure that much of that came through in the final result. The guitar sound is a lovely example of a Fender Telecaster using both it’s pickups.

Well the muses keep dancing, and they are hard to keep in our narrow field of vision. The piece got written, and now it’s here for you to listen to. Just click on the gadget that appears below to hear it.

User Agreement for this Poem

Ok, did everyone read those “click here to read” user agreements for their new gift gadgets, software, and computers?  Good, because we’re going to have a little fun with them this time.
 
I suppose the purpose those ubiquitous agreements is to disabuse the user of any assumptions they may have about that new thing they now “own”.  Will it work? Can you do with it what you will? Will it be fair and understanding to you? Does the software or device know about Asimov’s laws of robotics—even though those laws won’t be written down for another 41 years? Have I given up my money, privacy and self-respect for the price of a free app? The agreement will let you know that the answer to all but the last question is “no.”

I_Robot_-_Runaround

He didn’t click “Accept”

 

It occurs to me that poets have been doing the same thing for a long time, intrinsically restricting their subject’s and reader’s rights in various ways, but they don’t even bother with the user agreement. So, let’s fix this right now!

Today’s audio piece, User Agreement for this Poem, spells out those expectations with the LYL Band providing the musical setting. To hear it, you can click on the gadget that will appear below. Please click, but acceptance is optional.