Forever and Crumbling. So if I disregard the outsized number of listens Hopkins’ poem got, this summer’s most liked and listened to was another Emily Dickinson-based piece where I joined two short and somewhat abstract Dickinson poems into what I thought was an interesting combination. I called my combination “Forever and Crumbling.”
“Forever” talks about the localized instant we all live in, that Dickinson lived in too. “Crumbling” talks about decay happening from a chain of those instants. In theory the two pieces, that Dickinson wrote separately, change/enlarge when related to each other. That and my musical performance of them is my contribution. Your likes and listens say that some of you found that worthwhile.
I’ve sat here most of the morning and now into the afternoon trying to write something useful in addition. If we are charged to “live in the moment,” 2020 makes that especially challenging. If we seek to halt and reverse the cobwebs and rust on our ideals and nation, like Dickinson’s “Crumbling” it will take more than an instant’s act. Nothing I wrote today brings what I can believe adds anything to our instant in time or repairs our current state of dilapidation. When I first posted this piece in the first week of June, I felt the same awkwardness. I have faith (or is it only habit?) that art and beauty have worth, but it takes a lot of faith some days.
Wishing all of us justice and mercy, and some wisdom to see a balance of those.
Well before we break the suspense and reveal the most liked and listened to piece of this concluded summer, let me say just a bit about overall listenership and readership. Both are up to historic heights this summer. When this project officially launched a bit over four years ago listens of the audio pieces (which are also available as podcasts, even though our typical sub-5 minute “just the musical piece” format is not the norm for that talkative format) were listened to at a rate substantially greater than the page view stats for the blog posts. This may indicate that podcast listeners are more prone to sample new and little-known podcasts than blog readers, how older blogs with more posts and links get ranked in search engines, or it could say something about how folks like you may have changed how you consume content. Go figure. Then in the middle of last year, Spotify unilaterally stopped distributing the Parlando podcast audio, which apparently was because they decided that our format is unsuitable for their purposes. Not a big thing, as they were never more than 15% or so of our audio listens, and if you would like to hear Parlando Project audio in a podcast reader, most other podcast services, including Apple’s still carry our audio—but around the same time blog page views started to take off, and this spring and summer were the best yet. Then in August something odd started happening with listens to the audio pieces. I’m not sure what it is, or if it represents “real” listeners or something else, but unique listens to the audio in both August and September nearly tripled the average month earlier in the year, and September still has a week left!
More people reading this blog, more people listening to the audio pieces. Thanks!
One thing that gratifies me when I look at the stats is that there are people listening to the old audio pieces all the time, and a great deal of the blog readership seems to come from folks finding a particular post, often one that is several years old, from a web search. It’s not uncommon that the most visited post in a day or week’s report is an older one. If literature was the news that stays news, the web hasn’t changed that. Another thing that gratifies me is all the listeners and readers from outside the U.S., which is one reason why I spend less time on current American politics than many other blogs do.
But those listens bring me to an issue in determining what is the most liked and listened to piece this past summer.
I said it was complicated. A number of older pieces got significant listenership this summer: Jean Toomer’s superb love poem “Her Lips are Copper Wire,” William Blake’s parable “A Poison Tree,” and Carl Sandburg’s summer neighborhood hymn “Back Yard.” “Back Yard” was nearly a repeat visitor this summer’s Top Ten by the audio listening stats. But then I noticed ¾ of it’s summer listens were from Washington state—a fine part of our country, but how had Sandburg or my performance spiked in interest there? Odd that. 90% of “A Poison Tree” listeners this summer were from Great Britain. OK, Blake is more revered in his home country. But there was an even more runaway oddity in the Summer 2020 listenership: Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty,” an audio piece from last fall, got nearly twice the listens as most of the pieces you’ve seen so far in our Top Ten. I’d be calling it our most popular—and then I noticed: all but two of it’s listens were from Malaysia. The listens didn’t come in one big bunch, they were spread out almost equally between June, July, and August.
It looked like someone caring enough to game the system. Now I like Hopkins and what I did with his poem, and if this just happened out of genuine love for the poem or my performance, I thank that possible someone for their enthusiasm. As the listens for “Inversnaid” this summer show, whoever that was isn’t alone in liking to hear Hopkins done the Parlando way.
So, decisions of the judges are final, and there will be another poem that will be named tomorrow as the most liked and listened to piece this past summer.
But here are player gadgets for those “golden oldies” to listen to why you wait.
“Her Lips are Copper Wire”
“A Poison Tree”
And yes, “Pied Beauty”
Thanks for reading and listening. While this is a time consuming and non-revenue project, I try to make it worth your attention. So, to see that these encounters with various words and various music have been worth that to you is what keeps it going.
4. A Mien to Move a Queen by Emily Dickinson. My teenager, who suspects my musical output as being less than relevant, taunted me gently by asking as I started writing this post if I was presenting Winnie the Pooh. By “Pooh” we may decode: something simultaneously old and immature.
I can’t quite give you the flavor of this, but there’s a quicker wit in my house than mine even when my wife is out of town.
Well that post just happens to be the one that introduced the 4th most liked and listened to piece here this summer: Dickinson’s “A Mien to move a Queen.” And yes, it is a strange poem, though it draws me in none-the-less. It may be one of Dickinson’s riddle poems, like “May-Flower” though I can’t solve its riddle. Dickenson may be looking at another flower, or a bird or insect.
Did a carefree song seem out of place in our 2020 summer? Or was it something we wanted to visit, if only for the minute and 46 seconds the performance lasts? Well, in any season there is happiness. Seething anger, somber reflection, these may seem to be the noble emotions this summer, but joy is not an ignoble emotion.
The American Midwest loves lawn signs. I ride by many each morning in my neighborhood: election candidates, Justice for George Floyd, roofing contractors, high-school sports teams, and a couple of these too.
2. The Poet’s Voice from speeches by William Faulkner and Bob Dylan. Our current American age is suffering much from insufficiency of empathy. What kills or mutes empathy? Fear is one thing. One sentence in William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech struck me so strongly when I read it this year. Not the one I was quoted so often by teachers then my age now, back when I was nearly 20, the one that went: “Man will not merely endure: he will prevail”—this, somehow, they seemed to be saying would come from literature, of all things, stuff written largely by dead men. Thanks pops. Now let me return to being worried about which of us is going to run out of tuition money or the will to continue this hidebound education, and get drafted. No, that one was Faulkner’s hopeful future, a future we haven’t yet made obsolete. Instead, it was this sentence, earlier in the speech, the one that should make you sit up and take notice:
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it.”
Old man Faulkner, though he may be as imperfect as the brightest and most perceptive person today, is really saying something there. In the context of his entire speech he appears to be referring to the particular fear of a nuclear war, but then how strange that he calls this “so long sustained” when nuclear arms were around the age of our current Presidency’s term when he gave this speech in 1949.
So, if fear mutes empathy, let us acknowledge that carrying someone else’s song in your ear, your mind, your mouth, is the pathway through which it can infect your heart with empathy.
I’ll return soon with the post revealing the most popular piece here this past summer. That’s going to be a somewhat complicated story.
Maybe it’d be a good time to remind new readers what the Parlando Project does. We take various words, mostly poetry, and combine them with original music. Because seeking allowance for performance of words still under copyright is difficult,* we tend to use words in the public domain.
One common response to this capsule description is, “You mean songs?” And yes, sometimes there is singing of words. When I say I compose music for this, particularly when I use orchestral instruments, there’s an expectation of the general field of art song. And when I say a particular performance is me speaking the words in front of a, sometimes live, band, there are generational expectations from the beatnik to the hip hop.
The Parlando Project is not solely any of those things, and in the midst of the various combinations it comes up with, I’d say I’m still seeking, even now after hundreds of pieces and more than four years, for new ways to combine music and words. Song, art song, and the wide range of spoken word with music all seek this too. I just try to do it allowing for exploration of all three.
So, let’s get on to the continued countdown from 10 to 1 for the most liked and listened to Parlando Project pieces last summer.
7. Inversnaid by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Just like with music-music, word-music is a subjective thing. One person’s sublime poetry for sound and flow may not please another at all, and one person’s favorite recording or performance might be torture or boredom to the next listener.
I can sometimes be both persons above, one day liking the complex, the next the simple, in one mood seeking sweet consonance and another day a rich bitterness, or bursts of enormous energy sometimes and then expository slowness other times. It is a good thing that I have access to a range of musics.
But even if for sound alone, the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins tends to please me. It may help that it’s not an overexposed sound. Most modern poetry has an easy conversational feel with underlying iambs, while Hopkins feel for stresses with varying valleys and rills between loosens the lockstep yet retains a home footfall.
A great many of you listened to and liked my performance of Hopkins’ “Inversnaid” this past summer. As I mentioned in the original post, this is not a poem that is easy to understand through and through for meaning, but the sound of it can carry one over the spillway of it’s wilderness waters.
A falls at Inversnaid. There’s a hotel right next door to these. Hopkins’ nature was to well, use nature to represent things. Sandburg often chose to use human-made things to explain humans.
6. Good Night by Carl Sandburg. I remain immensely comforted by the range of Sandburg’s poetry. His concern for the commonality of people echoes one of this project’s goals: “Other people’s stories.” His eye for injustice is clear. Modernism has a reputation for solitary individuality, but in his best short poems he harnesses the continued freshness of Imagism with these concerns.
In times like these I can find in Sandburg the things I need, the necessary skepticism, the necessary hope, the indispensable love that allows endurance and asks for change.
One thing I’ve encouraged during this project’s presentation of Sandburg is to assume that he, no less than other Imagists, deserves deep reading. Obviously, many current aesthetic theories say this is true of anything, but I think for whatever it’s worth that it’s likely part of Sandburg’s intent in his best early work too. If he wrote in a garret in Paris. If Sandburg never achieved any of the general renown he accumulated (renown the times and mores eventually spent down during the 20th century) scattered scholars might look for that.
Is there something below the surface of his “Goodnight?” I think he, the artist, chose the trains and steamboats as the leaving things of sleep and its longer analog rather than conventional poetic things from a palette of sur-human nature. Now technological progress has added a nostalgic note to his specifically steam-powered leaving. That may be an accident the author didn’t intend, giving this poem an extended feeling, extending out down the track, down the river, over the horizon.
5. The Workman’s Dream by Edgar Guest. Does deep reading of poetry tire you? It does me sometimes. Does the chance that you’re missing the “real” meaning of some piece embarrass you once, and once is enough? Are you brave enough to laugh at Dorothy Parker’s smart-set summation** of the coolness-factor of “The Workman’s Dream’s” author and still listen to him today?
Like Sandburg, Guest was a working journalist. Unlike the entire Sandburg, Guest’s poetry retains a certain work for hire desire to please over the coffee. Can we allow poetry to do that (sometimes) and not harm it? Well for Father’s Day I performed this one. The bold-face heading to each top ten listing will open in an new browser tab the original post I wrote, where in this case you can get the chords I used if you’d like to sing this one yourself.
*My estimation: mostly because the poetry rights holders don’t care to seek this—and even when asked. This indifference is also mixed with some concern that it could reduce their control over how the material is presented and any (improbable) revenue.
It’s time to look back over the summer and see which pieces you liked and listened to the most during this season. As always, I’m going to count up to the most popular in a series of posts here over the next few days. Each bold-face listing is a link to the original post, in case you’d like to read what I said when I first presented it.
10. Before Summer Rain by Rainer Maria Rilke. Long time readers here will know that I like to take a crack at original translations, and I even wrote a post this summer about how I, a person with only a little French in high school over 50 years ago, goes about this—and why you might want to try this too. Regardless of your level of language mastery and your obligations to the original writer, a public translator must also take up an obligation to produce an impactful, living poem. It may be unavoidable that you bring your own gifts as a poet to this task—or even up your game to be able to do that while using another poet’s inspiration as your matter.
Rilke currently has a reputation as a poet of spiritual uplift, a man whose lines get Pinterested over photos, quoted in journal entries, and immortalized on refrigerator magnets. In short: the self-help poet of spiritual self-improvement. I’m not going to knock that. There’s a hell of a lot of lesser things that a work of art can do than to make someone feel better, less lonely in their thoughts, or to help them think that they can better themselves. Sure aesthetes, that’s not all poetry can do, and while I’m no Rilke scholar, I think that isn’t all Rilke can do either.
My translation focused on Rilke’s images in his poem, trying my best to make them understandable or at least striking, and to give the poem a working English word-music.
9. Huazi Ridge after a poem by Wang Wei. More translation. The cultural and linguistic audacity to translate classical Chinese poetry has to be a few orders of magnitude greater than translating 20th century German (a language I don’t speak, but I had grandparents who did).
I decided to term what I derived from the sparse literal translation I had of this poem “after Wang Wei,” which is likely more accurate than calling it a translation. But if you are going to use what is more frankly your impression of a poem, the charge remains the same: give us something vivid and give it some word-music that works in English.
The music music here includes my simple approach to the Chinese lute, the pipa. While guitarists might think they have some grounding with this not unrelated string instrument, the pipa, like the western lute, has almost no sustain compared to the modern guitar. Great players can wring a wide range of sophisticated effects from the pipa, but a naïve player like myself just hopes to add a little bit of a different timbre that reflects the culture that produced such distinctive and highly compressed lyric poetry.
If you like to hear what the pipa is capable of, Gao Hong demonstrates it’s range while performing her composition “Flying Dragon” in this video.
8. Government by Carl Sandburg. Carl, whose parents spoke Swedish, makes things easy for me by already writing his poem in informal modern English. Sandburg worked for the Socialist* mayor of Milwaukee before he started his career as a poet in Chicago and published his first collection, Chicago Poems, where this one appears. His day job in Chicago was working as a newspaper journalist in the era made famous by the play and movie The Front Page. These things mean that when Sandburg writes this poem and says repeatedly “I saw…” it’s not just some poetic trope.
His final stanza is a fairly sophisticated analysis of politics. Interestingly it’s not—in this poem—a ringing call for change. The statement here that government is made up of humans, and that it therefore inherits human characteristics, is on the face of it an explanation of the political failures this poem testifies to. But nested in this also is the idea the government can change as people change (and change it). No, it won’t be perfect, but it can be better.
*Midwestern Socialists of Sandburg’s time reached the highest level of Government administrative responsibility in US history.
Emily Dickinson didn’t mind at all being strange or odd in her poetry. For example: today’s poem, which after an opening line quickly goes off to a strange place and then stops at eternity in less than 40 words. In one of her best-known poems, “Because I could not stop for Death,” she saunters at a mid-19th century horse-drawn pace to eternity. But with today’s poem, rocket ships couldn’t leap as fast. Here’s a link to the text of “As if the Sea should part” if you’d like to follow along.
It’s not only pace that separates Dickinson’s mode of expression in these two poems. On the face of it, “Because I could not stop for Death” begins as a somewhat friendly and homespun gothic, a tale of a clearly metaphoric trip told with homey touches in its imagery: children playing at recess, harvest-ready fields, the early chill of oncoming autumn night. “As if the Sea should part” starts with a miracle which might draw us in, as if we’re to be following Moses across a divinely separated sea. But it’s not exposed seabed and astonished crabs we’ll see as the sea parts. It’s “a further sea.” And we’re off!
And then that further sea parts, and reveals another sea. This is all beyond the speed of even these few words, it’s almost beyond the speed of thought or revelation. Li Bai’s mental presumption conjured up some drinking pals here a few posts back, but Dickinson’s poem progresses too fast to present itself as mere fancy. Dickinson had a famous two-factor definition of poetry: a goose-bump chill that would make any clothing as insufficient as a gossamer nightgown outdoors in autumn—or the top of one’s head being taken off. This poem intends or portrays the later.
I get the impression, the three seas are only a start, this first parting of the waters to reveal other waters which also then part. Why does she stop at three, other than it being the minimum to establish the pattern? I found one reading that thought the capitalized “Three” in the poem may be intended as the Christian Trinity,* the three-form God-Head. Many of Emily Dickinson’s family and cohorts took to revivalist Christianity, something that Emily specifically resisted. We also know that she knew of and may have had an affinity for Transcendentalism, an American movement that sought a more immanent, first-hand spirituality based on the soul of humanity and the revelations of the book of nature. The experience in this poem seems more the later than the former, but “presumption” is a key word at the center of the poem. After all, the poem begins with “As if…” telling us this is imagined, not direct observation. This entire poem is her mental flight, and not a meditation on the seashore, which after all would be a hundred miles from Dickinson’s Amherst.
The final stanza is extraordinarily difficult to follow. “Periods of Seas” starts out gnomic, and the best I can extract from it is that Dickinson’s mental traveler is now also seeing not just the measure of oceans’ surfaces, but the measure of time when seas might dry up or form—but all those eons are being seen in a measure of three words. Even at the speed of her vision she realizes that there is no way to reach all the shores of seas in this infinity, for at the greatest speed of mental travel they will part and show new seas.
Am I reading too much into this? And is this just so much mystical “Oh, wow man, I just realized the universe is like infinite, ‘cause even if you reach the edge of it, what’s beyond would be just more different universe still forming, you know!” Well serious cosmology and humankind’s sobering spiritual awe at nature, or its foggy analog of too many bong hits, Electric Kool Aid, and cups of Chinese wine, it’s all a little too much. Dickinson had a garden to keep, food to prepare, poems to write and sew into little books. Why did she write this down? To briefly remind herself of what happens when the top of her head lifts off perhaps. She may never have intended it be something for us to read and understand, though we might still hear it, somewhat muffled, over the roar of parting seas.
“I believe I’ll go out to the seashore, let the waves wash my mind, Open up my head now just to see what I can find” are not lines from Dickinson’s poem. Also kids: drugs and vinyl are both overrated. Sarcastic political activism is too, but which of these are necessary?
A tip of the hat (or is that the top of my head?) to the Fourteen Lines blog where I came upon this Dickinson poem for the first time. Today’s audio performance of Emily Dickinson’s “As if the Sea should part” relates to the particular foggy analog of mid-1960’s psychedelic music, a little like something that Country Joe & the Fish would fry up back then. The player gadget to hear it is below.
*This reading then has the “presumption” as the poem’s speaker scoffing at the presumptive idea that the God-Head could be limited to merely three manifestations.
My teenager asked me what I’m doing, overhearing me test-shouting the text of today’s piece Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “England 1819.” Here’s a link to that text if you want to follow along.
“Shelley, the perfect English Romantic Poet, might have been the most radical poet of his time. In matters of sex, religion, politics, aesthetics and philosophy he was explicitly in opposition, and he was chased out of England for it. But still he was capable of being driven to a new level of outrage by events.”
“The ruined statue in the desert guy?”
“Yeah, that’s him. And some readers forget that as beautiful a poem as “Ozymandias” is, that there’s real anger behind it—but you can’t miss the anger in this one.”
So, once more I’ll write today about the process of translation. Not from some other language to English, but from perfectly fine English and a past you may not know, to our time. “England 1819” is 201 years old, and some superficial particularities could make it seem a little antique. It wasn’t so when it was written—and it just so happens that the rhymes of history may make some other specifics in the poem ring out to a reader or listener today.
What was it that set Shelley’s anger to a new heat point? In August 1819 a large meeting was planned by reformers in Manchester England. The organizers seemed to take care that it be a powerful but peaceful demonstration. Chief among the subjects of the event: the granting to ordinary people the ability to vote.* On the appointed day, tens of thousands turned out, including whole families. Many were dressed in their “Sunday best” to hear speakers in St. Peter’s field, an open space in Manchester.
I’ll summarize the brutal details of what happened. Given that it’s 1819 there are no photographs, no bystander cell-cam video: one has to read and use imagination to picture it. Mounted police were sent to arrest the speakers and organizers on a temporary stage in the midst of the large field while the event was happening. Their horses were slowed and tangled in the crowd (described as so dense, that the hat brims of the attendees touched one another). This led to additional mounted militia and eventually regular soldiers that had been held in reserve to be sent against the crowd. Sabers were used as the horsemen struck out at those surrounding them, and of course the horses themselves were trampling on those who fell or were in the way. In some ways it seems miraculous that “only” eleven were killed. Hundreds were injured: men, women, children. The organizers were arrested, convicted, and jailed.
Wikipedia says the banner the woman on the left is holding that day would say “Let us die like men and not be sold as slaves.”
One of those who was injured, and who died a few days afterward from his wounds, was a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo, the famous British victory of four years earlier. With bitter irony this event was called “The Peterloo Massacre”
It took a few weeks for the news of this outrage to reach Shelley who was in Italy. That September he wrote today’s sonnet, along with a longer work “The Mask of Anarchy” and a third poem in a song form. Despite that he was already a self-exile abroad, none of them were published during his lifetime. There was a reason for that: merely publishing an account of The Peterloo Massacre was considered sedition and libel. He asked his friends to not publish them, for there was a real risk of imprisonment for them to do so. The poems were circulated informally, and finally published over a decade later after Shelley had died.
“England 1819” then has some specifics. The stabbed in line 7, the army in line 8, and the sword in line 9 aren’t only metaphors—they are, albeit second-hand, reportage. Adjusted for the speed of communication in Shelley’s time, they are roughly as immediate as a blog post, just in the form of a sonnet.
What about the possible correspondences of history/rhyme I mentioned? I could write how in some way that the charges laid out against the 1819 English government power structure and the insidious way they used their power could be compared to my country in 2020. I almost wrote just such a section—but anyone who remains in my audience can likely do that for themselves. I personally found some of them as bitterly ironic as the decision to call the 1819 event Peterloo. You may think otherwise. Feel free to do your own translation today. As to prophetic Shelley’s concluding “glorious Phantom,” the Phantom that may emerge from the graves created and filled by those that then recognize they are dying themselves: what tempest will that day bring? A cleansing, nourishing rain, applauded in the leaves of trees, or a hurricane?
The player gadget to hear my performance of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “England 1819” is below.
*For over half-a-century in my life, voting is something that would seem uncontroversial—at least since the heroes of the Civil Rights movement, some of whom died to make that mundane. Indeed, how many radicals have I met who invoke the saying that if voting could really change anything, they’d make it illegal. Now I hear that statement backwards. If there are current efforts trying to impede voting, reduce it, and denigrate it—there must be powerful people afraid of some change it could bring.
This Monday is American Labor Day, so here’s a poem about work from Robert Frost: “Mowing.” Like a lot of Frost’s early poetry it’s an example of words that want to sing, and so I’ll sing them today. Also like a lot of Frost’s best poetry it seems simpler than it means. It doesn’t scare the reader or listener away with its surface, but if you really stop to ask why it says exactly what it says, a more complex and subtle work emerges. Here’s a link to the full text of the poem if you want to follow along.
That about scythe’s it up. NC Wyeth’s “The Scythers”
On first reading this poem is a description of mundane work, mowing a field with the time-honored hand tool: the scythe. How old is that tool? It goes back to the pre-historic days of agriculture, to the making of the first blades for that, and then for the battles over that. It was still in use in Frost’s youth, in the late 19th century. And in the house I grew up in, in the mid-20th century in Iowa, in the crook of a tree in the big back yard there was a scythe caught there, high above my head, stored, captured, put away until it seemed as natural as any other part of the tree.
So, the poet or his speaker counterpart is mowing with a scythe. And since that poet is Frost, we get sound imagery regarding that work. The Imagists contemporary with Frost didn’t require their images be visual, but as a practice they strongly preferred them to be. Frost, on the other hand was the audio guy, not the word painter. The scythe as it swings and cuts, punningly sighs, but Frost has it as a whisper. About this, the poet is curious: if it’s whispering, what’s the scythe (and by extension, the work the man and tool are doing) saying?
The maker of this video on Frost’s poem demonstrates the sound
Frost’s poet says he doesn’t know. Interestingly he speculates it might be talking about the heat of the workday, and the phrase he uses “The heat of the sun” may well be reminding him of a poem from Shakespeare we recently featured here: “Fear No More.” Shakespeare’s poem and the connection with the scythe has with the “grim reaper” brings in an overtone of death.
And then he speculates it may be about why it’s whispering, why it’s not speaking something out-loud and plain.
Next the poem moves on to the realness of work inherited from its physicality. It’s not a dream or imagination without consequence. And it’s not some fairy story. Gussying it up with such trappings or comparing it to mental work with no embodiment would be enervating it. The poet instead calls this work “earnest love.*” This isn’t some secret crush, even with the whispers and all, this is actually sweaty stuff.
Frost then drops one of his better-known mottos: “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” That line is end-stopped with a period, and set off that way it’s a statement that real work on real things is superior to mere fancy. But this is Labor Day, so I performed it as if there’s a colon after “The fact is” and that its meaning carries on through the period and into the last line. The sweet dream then is the scythe whispering and the concluding matter of the hay.
What is the scythe whispering?
Because after all, there’s an unanswered question from the poems opening. What is the scythe whispering? It’s something intimate it wants to say, that good work says, but doesn’t say. It says it is—paid or unpaid, self-employed or employed, the labor of a poet or of a farmer, done grudgingly or with joy, appreciated or overlooked—it says it is done with love. Not the magic love, not the imagined love. The earnest love.
Happy Labor Day to the readers and listeners here. Wishing you good work and earnest love.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Robert Frost’s “Mowing” is below.
*This section of the poem, lines 10 through 12 in this unusual sonnet, is the most mysterious. I had to perform it before I could figure it out. There may be an overtone here (something that English folksong often made a practice of) of farm work being used as a metaphor for sexual lovemaking. There are snakes, flowers, and then named flowers that are “orchises” which are a genus of flowering plants and also etymologically testicles. Frost made a choice for what flowers he names, and his poet/scyther could have scared off a field mouse or chipmunk not a snake.
On the other hand, he may be just saying that like all artists his work will fail, some flowers get scythed. And the snake could be a Garden of Eden thing.
Or the flowers and snakes may be the beauty and the evil of what we do, that the Grim Reaper scythe will cut off.
I’ll often choose a piece to present here from an instant impression. I’ll be reading another blog, looking at a writer connected with something else I’m looking for, or paging through an anthology and there’ll be this poem that strikes me as more interesting than the one before or the next one after.
Somewhere last month that happened with this piece. You can find the full text of Charles Kingsley’s “The Poetry of a Root Crop” here. It starts off as a garden poem (I may have been looking for one of those) but it soon gets a bit strange. “Swede” is the British term for what I (and Swedish-American Carl Sandburg) would call a rutabaga. “Golden globe” is a turnip. The “Feathered carrot” is a nice image, I see the root tendrils—but by the second stanza we’re getting weirder: “angel’s alchemy” is somehow involved and “blood and bone.” I think of the orthopedic snap of crisp root vegetables and what, beet juice? Sure, it is rhymed couplets, but this is very modern imagery. I knew nothing of its author: I thought late Victorian or maybe one of the “Georgian poets” from around the time of WWI who often use modern imagery inside of traditional forms.
And then the poem starts to take on visionary or prophetic imagery. There are also elements in here, pace the “angels’ alchemy” phrase that call to mind esoteric terms of alchemy.* Where is this going? As the poem closes it becomes clear. This is a graveyard—and/or a garden. Which is it? I think it’s to be both.
By the time I’d finished reading the poem for the first time I’d decided I wanted to write some music and perform this. Those who consume the Parlando Project as a podcast hear only the short audio pieces, and I already knew this would be arresting there if my music worked out. But here, for my blog readers, I’d need to find out something about the author. Who was Charles Kingsley? I’d never heard of him, and it’s likely you haven’t either.
Charles Kingsley. If the British royal family is related to Odin, is there a part for Queen Elizabeth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
The weirdness didn’t end. First off, this poem was older than I figured it was. It was written in 1845. On first reading I would have guessed a contemporary of Yeats, but instead William Wordsworth was still alive. And Kingsley was strange. He was an ordained minister of the Church of England. He knew the British royal family and Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley. He was an early proponent of Christian Socialism, and he was an advocate for increased worker’s rights.
But he believed in a historic basis for the old Norse gods, and thought the British monarchy was descended from them. He attacked Catholicism and thought Emerson and the American Transcendentalists were poppycock. He was a defender of the brutal suppression of the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica.** If one wonders if that last was some technical or procedural objection, Kingsley’s Wikipedia page quotes what has to be the trifecta of a racist statement written in a letter to his wife after a visit to the County Sligo*** in 1860: “I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country [Ireland] … to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black one would not see it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.”
So there you go: if you are a person of color, Irish, anti-colonialist, anti-racist, Catholic, an atheist libertarian, or I would suppose, a sentient chimpanzee, Kingsley is despicable.
Yes, these ideas caused, and cause, suffering and death, but his little-known poem brought me some pleasurable surprise. Big and little things.
Maybe I’m a bit glad that this poem is older than I thought. The vegetative minerals of Charles Kingsley are long absorbed into the earth, and I’ve performed Ezra Pound poems, so I guess you can put me down in the group that says the art can exist—at least eventually—separate from the artist.
Is the opposite so? The better, the more evolved, just, and righteous that a reader is, the smaller the number of poets they will be able to read?
The player gadget to hear a performance of “The Poetry of a Root Crop” is below. My music for this is acoustic guitar and electric bass today.
**Wikipedia says Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Charles Dickens and Alfred Tennyson also served on a committee with Kingsley defending the actions of the British colonial governor of Jamaica.
***I’m moved to mention that within a decade, a certain young boy named William Butler Yeats was in that same County Sligo a lot during his childhood. Some chimpanzee, Kingsley. See Yeats moving poem in his primitive tongue: “Me Tarzan, You Maude Gonne.”
Our last audio piece this month had American satirist Mark Twain pointing out incongruities in the longstanding trope of the tortured poetic genius who dashes off “weird, wild, incomprehensible poems with astonishing facility, and then gets booming drunk and sleeps in the gutter.”
How far back does that trope go? Well at least to 8th century China, and the authentic poetic genius of Li Bai.* Li Bai and Du Fu are the two most highly regarded poets of the Tang dynasty period, and given that the Tang dynasty can be viewed as the artistic high water mark of an extremely long and wide culture, that makes this pair probably the most esteemed Chinese poets. The metaphor is rough, but unavoidable: either have been called “The Shakespeare of China.” Their lives overlapped, they knew each other, even wrote poems that drop each other’s names.
Li Bai both by reputation and through the persona that appears in his poems, has some similarities to Twain’s poetic genius. References to wine** in Chinese poetry are legion, but even against that background Li Bai stands out for the number of poems he wrote about the consumption of wine and examination of intoxicated states. The Li Bai poem I’m performing today, “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon” is one famous example.
I think this poem pulls off a neat trick. Somewhat like Twain’s “Genius,” on the surface it’s comic: Li Bai portraying himself as a sort of Falstaffian character whose meditation practice this evening in nature is to get hammered on some juice. But to my reading this short poem also portrays the progression of his intoxication subtly. The opening has him cleverly figuring out how to bypass any guilt from society’s admonitions regarding solitary drinking. And then he quasi-surprises himself that his plan is only partly working. I love the image of him finding that his shadow is merely a disciple—that Shadow will only follow Li Bai’s own drinking and not spur him on by proposing additional draughts. Then as his hand gets less steady, the moon’s reflection in his wine cup wiggles and dances. He of course doesn’t sense that he’s getting unsteady himself, but that shadow guy, he sure looks shaky. Finally as intoxication becomes deeper, he senses that his senses are going to be blotto, that the disciple Shadow-man, the companion moon, and yes even Li Bai himself are going to be out of it, cast off into some state not in the here and there of his actual moment.
Where does he go, where does his imagination go? The final image is of stars, moving, swimming it seems, movement-blurred. These could be the actual stars if he’s now flat drunk, or even abstract visual stimuli as his consciousness slips away. Footnotes in some translations tell us the idiom Li Bai uses in his ending may be understood as the Milky Way, the visual smear of our own stellar galaxy visible on some clear non-light polluted nights. My reading is that Li Bai may be using that image, but any stars are blurred and multiplied to his character in the poem now.
My new translation of Li Bai for today’s performance.
Oddly, it takes a clear-headed poet to portray drunkenness. Twain may have had some moment of empathy for his dying in rags and dirt “Genius” poet, however foolish he can portray him. Li Bai starts his poem alone—and though he imagines his two drinking partners, he knows that they too, not unlike real companions absent at the start of his poem, will disappear with his consciousness as the wine flows.
In the original Chinese, Li Bai was a meticulous poet, observant of the traditional forms, a fluent user of rhyme and the Chinese version of meter. I can’t tell if any of the poetry Twain’s genius wrote justified the rough and foolish life, but from Li Bai’s esteemed poetry we know that whatever is true of his now legendary life, that his poetry gives us something worth reading. It’s possible the poet Li Bai used the character Li Bai, the dauntless romantic unconcerned for moderation—just as Samuel Clemmons, the ambitious young man who fled west to become a writer, used the character of Mark Twain.
I’ll probably write a follow-up post regarding the process I went through in creating this original English translation of Li Bai’s poem, but in summary, my observation at the start of that task was that most existing translations worked hard to be poetic, and some achieved that to a degree, but at a cost of not vividly embodying the process and character of the poem’s speaker. So, I went another way.
Musically this started out as a rock quartet: two electric guitars, drums and a very saturated overdriven bass guitar that sounds almost like a synth bass. I used some woozy Mellotron strings again, adding a bit of simulated worn tape cartridge wobble. I was going to go with the infamous Mellotron flute (any two or three notes using that, and many will forget what you’re playing and start to go: “Let me take you down, where I’m going to, Strawberry Fields…”) and then I thought: why not a Chinese bamboo flute instead? The last part I played was an approximation of a guzheng, a long scale zither-like Chinese instrument that I thought of since I had recently seen some examples in a museum this summer.
The player gadget to hear my performance of my fresh translation of Li Bai’s “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon” is below.
*The names we type and read in western alphabet for Li Bai’s name are approximations, and the schemes have varied. Li Bai is also rendered as Li Po and Li Bo and if we take the carom shot off the backboard of Japan’s pronunciation (as Ezra Pound did), he can also be called Ri Haku or Ri Taihaku.
**I had to look and see as I worked on this translation what kind of wine was common in 8th century China and would be known to Li Bai. Most Chinese wine in those days was grain-based from millet or rice. There were regions that made fruit wines then, but they were much less common.