Confucian Ode on Blake, Dickinson, and Whitman

It’s time to wrap up our National Poetry Month celebration, and once more I’m going to present a piece where I wrote the words as well as the music, a piece in celebration of the unpredictability of poetic genius. In the “Song of Myself”  section I presented a few days back, Whitman proclaims that America contains multitudes, plain and profound things, contradictions—and furthermore that everyone of us can contain all and each of that.

He could have spoke the same of the world, even if he was a believer in American Exceptionalism. But he wasn’t alone in American beliefs. Artist, printmaker, and poet William Blake thought as much in London even as we struggled here for independence. And in the era Blake wrote his “America, a Prophecy,”  in our America, a young woman, who had been abducted from Africa and enslaved, Phillis Wheatley, filled the next fold of her future by writing her book of poetry.

And by Whitman’s time we had Emily Dickinson, born a free white woman in a prosperous household, yes, but not yet in a time when those of her gender could hold for the power of her own mind. Her grandfather, her father, her brother all made and read the law, but she fully became Shelley’s unacknowledged legislator of the world.

In all the oppressions and focused indifference of America and the world, humankind still has these poets. Let us wonder and rejoice in them—and also those living now—who, whatever their given lot in life, open themselves to a blessed consciousness and find someway to convey it to us.

Speaking now of my poem that makes up today’s text: I think I called it a Confucian ode not only because I tried to use whatever understanding I have of how Li Bai and Du Fu expressed themselves in 8th century China, but in the sense that the much older odes collected by the school of Confucius were intended to instruct society as a whole, not just serve as an anthology for other poets.

Confucian Ode to Blake Dickinson and Whitman

Here the text of today’s piece. Classical Chinese poems don’t use punctuation either.

 

The process of explaining poems can suffer from the explaining the joke or speaking about music dangers. But since I have a passing acquaintance with this poem’s author, let me say a few words about my intent this time. In the first stanza, I note the priors from which our three poets came: William Blake’s father was a hozier, a maker of socks,*  Emily Dickinson, as we’ve already discussed was the daughter of a lawyer, and Walt Whitman’s father was a house carpenter.

If poetic accomplishment was a matter of instruction, none of them would have stood a chance. Of course, there are other poets with fine educations, and poets whose households were steeped in literary culture and expectations; but in the area of poetry, they historically stand side by side with these of more modest backgrounds.

A couple of years back I presented two poems together, one by Carl Sandburg and the other by Ezra Pound that spoke of Dickinson and Whitman. The better educated Pound takes a side-swipe at Whitman who he declares he once merely detested, saying Pound’s time is for carving, though grudgingly, that Whitman “broke the new wood.”

Pound has a point. I too think Whitman could have used a good editor, though perhaps then he wouldn’t be Whitman, so capable of maddening us to contradiction with his excess. In this year’s portion of “The Waste Land,” “Death by Water,”  editor Pound took the exceedingly well-educated Eliot’s lengthy tale of a shipwreck and drowning and carved out the sharpened epitaph we now know, that I could present this month. So, in the second stanza I make my bow to craft, and to those of us who help preserve and present the work and souls of poets. I speak of this craft and preservation as a container, much as the poets are containers for the blessed consciousness they open themselves up to receive.

In the third stanza, I make a new connection to the first two stanzas. I speak of those wealthy in this world, with fine socks and gloves, lawyers to take care of their contracts, and builders to make their towers. If you are an American these days, you may think I refer to a particular someone who puts his name on lots of tall buildings—but that name is writ in water. By such actions and pride they are saying the buildings are not the point, they—their selves—are what is contained in them.

Trump tower with shadow on name

If we’re labeling things, the top on the other side should say “noggin.”

 

I end the poem with another stanza and a final couplet, continuing to tie the preceding in. This is my attempt at the “music of thought” I speak about often when I speak of poetry: a power that finds harmonies in thoughts, images—rhymes in things not only in words. Why must we say and share our poetry? Because it’s not ours. In acts like the Parlando Project and histories of much, much more, humanity preserves and presents it, and celebrates it in National Poetry Month.

Yes, if we wrote it, we stayed still to write it down, practiced the discipline to convey what blessed consciousness may have conveyed to us, removed the words and other personal cruft that obscured it, cut the cord and buried the now shabby afterbirth. We share it, not because it is ours, but because it has worth.

Thank you for reading and listening, thank you for the kind words. Thanks to Dave, Heidi and Bert for helping make this project happen. April is ending, but May can be filled with poetry too, so follow this and spread the word. The player to hear my performance of “Confucian Ode on Blake, Dickinson, and Whitman”  is below.

 

 

 

*And so, by way of a footnote, our April-born William Shakespeare’s father made gloves.

Death by Water

Long-time readers here will know that the Parlando Project has been performing a section of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  each year to celebrate National Poetry Month.*   It’s been a major task, and if one were to listen to all those past sections, you’d get a fair sample of the variety of original music we create for these performances. Similarly, the amount of work that goes into all of the Parlando Project has been huge (we’re rapidly approaching our 450th piece), but this year’s section of “The Waste Land”  is small—the smallest section of Eliot’s Modernist landmark.

I recall when I first encountered “The Waste Land”  as a teenager how puzzling the whole thing was. Right from the start it was confusing, with allusions and foreign language phrases that I had no way of decoding. It was said to be important, and it certainly seemed to be quite the accumulation of something,  but its hard to grasp nature didn’t make it easy to like. I could understand only a little about what Keats was saying in a poem like “Ode on a Grecian Urn”  back then too, but the essence of that poem’s longing and attractive mystery was there from my first reading. Eliot’s poem? It just seemed complex, even in an off-putting way.

But when my past-times teenager got to his year’s section, “Death by Water,”  I found poetry I could take in immediately had slipped into the much larger corpus of this poem. “Death by Water”  is a small elegy, and what allusions it had (like Keats’) were alluring. “Phoenician,” even at that age, had the right kind of mystery, what with the seafaring and alphabet. That feint echo of Shakespeare’s “Full fathom five” sea-change coral-bones. The straightforward sense of mourning.

For all its shortness, I doubt I was alone in finding it one of the most impactful parts of “The Waste Land.”  If you’d like to read this short, 10-line section by itself here’s a link to it.

Teenaged T S Eliot
The teenaged T. S. Eliot before he adopted the Harry Potter eyewear.

 

In 1952, decades after “The Waste Land” was written, this section took an important part in a literary controversy. A Canadian critic, John Peter, published an article that year claiming that the key to understanding “The Waste Land”  was that it was almost entirely a disguised elegy to a French medical student who Eliot knew in Paris before the war: Jean Verdenal. The strong inference in this theory was that Verdenal and Eliot were gay lovers. In 1952 this was not only sensational to the degree it might still be today, it was outright dangerous. To be homosexual was more than a notional criminal offence—and furthermore by this point T. S. Eliot was the living model of a religiously conservative Modernist and a Tory in his politics.

Eliot was furious at this article. Lean solicitors were called in. Retractions were demanded. In the end, Peters not only apologized, the magazine that had published the article tried to round up all extant copies and destroy them.

A couple of decades later, after Eliot had died, this reading was raised again, and this concept of the poem is still being explored in our century.

On one hand, Eliot made no secret that he admired the young Verdenal. They shared a love for the poetry of LaForgue and Mallarmé and acknowledged times together as college students in Paris. Eliot opened his first published poetry collection Prufrock and Other Observations  with a fond dedication to Verdenal.

“Death by Water”  was a key exhibit in this reading of “The Waste Land.”   In late April of 1915, Verdenal was serving as a medical officer in the doomed WWI Gallipoli** campaign with the French army fighting along with British and ANZAC forces. Accounts written afterward said Verdenal was heroic in trying to deal with the mass carnage on the Allied side as they tried to gain a beachhead at the edges of the Middle East. He was killed, and there was little ability to bury the dead on the beaches as the invasion failed. They were left to the tides or thrown in the water. A cruel month indeed.

Flea Bass

Now to press levity next to death: I used to mispronounce Phlebas as if it had three syllables. Apparently it’s pronounced with two, phoenicianally/phonetically, close to “Flea Bass”—though I think with a short, not long A sound. The next time you see RHCP, you’ll enter the whirlpool and think of T. S. Eliot.

 

Knowing this, it’s easy to see Phlebas as Verdenal. But I knew nothing of this when I first read “Death by Water.”  And you don’t have to know it either to have the words work for you in some way. Eliot had a theory for that, a well-respected theory back in mid-century: “Objective Correlative.” Eliot, by his own theory then, would hold that it makes no difference what the relationship was for him to this other young man in pre-WWI Paris. Subconscious? Sublimation? Closeted? Self-protection? Platonic, or Dionysius denied? No matter. You consider Phlebas or you don’t. Their bones are picked in whispers now anyway.

So, here’s my new addition to the Parlando Project’s ongoing serial performance of “The Waste Land”  available with the player gadget below. Perhaps another one where a legitimate singer might better serve my composition, but I like the current of the acoustic guitar music enough to submerge you in it.

 

 

*You know: “April is the cruelest month….” That one. No one has said as much, but between the opening line to “The Waste Land,”  the prologue to Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” and Shakespeare’s birthday, April seems like a logical choice for National Poetry Month.

**Another casualty of that campaign, a young British poet-soldier who died of an illness on a ship headed to those beaches: Rupert Brooke. One of the most popular pieces ever presented here is my recasting of a piece Brooke wrote on that troop ship heading to Gallipoli.

An Old Man on Record Store Day

The Parlando Project is mostly about presenting other people’s words. I like that. It adds variety and it lets me write about what encounters with those words bring forth. We’ve done that over 400 times since this thing kicked off publicly in 2016

So, we’re always ready to celebrate National Poetry Month. Any month is poetry month here! But every once in awhile I slip in one of my own poems. Sometimes it’s just because I have something I want to say to this adventuresome audience, but it’s often because I’ve read something someone else wrote and I think of something I wrote (or should write, and then write) that relates to it.

A blog I read regularly by Paul Deaton has ranged over various subjects in the past couple of years, but lately he’s been writing some about the past, including lives that range back into his parents and grandparents generations. I’m not going to go back that far, I’m only going to go back to when I was a young man. Given my age, this is “Boomer” territory that’s been already over-farmed—but bear with me. This isn’t really a poem about the past, it’s about someone in my generation who has a past, but presently. For those Gen X and Millennials who find this insufferable, I remind you that I’ve been priming my High Schooler who isn’t a Millennial to blame Gen X and Millennials for ruining things for the current and subsequent generation. I urge other geezers, crones and wise-ass elders to do the same. As our aged, but still very stable emperor demonstrates, the best thing to do to deflect blame is be proactive in shoveling it elsewhere. I don’t know why that should work, but it does!

Anyway, I’ve presented quite a few poems this year by younger-than-mid-life poets whose poems speak as if they are aged.

Besides National Poetry Month, April is supposed to bring us Record Store Day. It would have been last Saturday, an annual celebration of those venerable little stores that once again were selling dark flat petroleum circles that sing when you poke them with a needle. Our current crisis has canceled that.

Now back in my day…Oh man, having a past and dragging it around does make one insufferable doesn’t it…this sort of thing was serious business for me. I had little spending money, but I would hope to have it in order to buy one of those foot-square pieces of art with the circles inside. Something cool. Something that represented my generation.

I can remember a particular spring afternoon. Somehow my girlfriend and I had caged a ride in a keyboard player’s new AMC Javelin to travel to Iowa’s capital city where there was a “head shop” (which is where the best new records were sold, along with, well, “smoking accessories.”) On the way we listened to an 8 Track tape of the Moody Blues To our Children’s Children’s Children.  When we got there, I could merely marvel, as I had barely enough for one record album, and couldn’t decide which one to get or if I might need the money for something else. So, the only thing I bought was a pinned badge: a smaller, paler circle, containing a bit of the cover art to the Cream’s Wheels of Fire  record.

Badge
A circle from “The Sixties.”

 

Recalling this day 50 years ago or so, says paradoxically to me what music and recordings meant to me then. A record was a precious clue to take me through days or weeks. Foolishness? It’s always been partly that.

But of course something else was on my mind, and the mind of some of my generation on that non-official, just another record store day. War. Justice. The cutting edge of the then gap between generations and elders that had been through WWI, WWII and the Korean War, and were often sure we were ducking our war turn. Our best thoughts of ourselves were that there were more important battles, and of course some of us didn’t succeed in avoiding the war they wanted us to fight. And some of us went off looking for Eden, a place you can sort of find, and then lose track of again.

What else does that memory mean? What does it mean presently? That’s what today’s short piece is about. The player gadget is below to hear it.

 

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 152

Besides being National Poetry Month in America, April is also the birth month of William Shakespeare. The 23rd of April is sometimes celebrated as his birthday, though we don’t actually know that, only that his family baptized him and entered him into their church’s records on April 26th. The 23rd is also a handy date in that it’s the day Shakespeare died in 1616 back in the same small English town he was born in, only 52 years old. One theory has it that he’d just celebrated his birthday—well, a little too much—and that did him in.

No one knows exactly when Shakespeare wrote his sonnets, but ironically for our 2020 April they were first published in 1609, when the playhouses of London where shut down due to a plague.

The sonnets present themselves as outpourings of personal feelings and thoughts, which makes them tempting clues to the personality and biography of Shakespeare, but of course Shakespeare made his bones as a playwright, and so was well able to create characters and put them in motion with various plots and outlooks. Since today is the anniversary of his death, I thought I’d perform Sonnet 152, which can be viewed as the last sonnet in the sequence, since the two sonnets that follow it are an unconnected coda based on a classical poem about Cupid.

Sonnet 152 is a lover’s fight where we hear one side, with an overall structure as if the speaker is investigating the matter of lovers’ relationship to the truth as if it was a legal contract dispute. You might think that an odd choice, though there are lawyer-poets. Wallace Stevens comes to mind, and I think at times Emily Dickinson’s mind was fully capable of succinctly absorbing the modes of her family of (male) lawyers.

Was Shakespeare having fun with this? Perhaps. Anytime one writes 152 sonnets you’d have the opportunity to try out a lot of metaphors. Even if he was drawing on life experiences of some actual tumultuous love affair, it is a showy poem that renders the breakup as if Perry Mason or John Grisham was closing the case—but since the Elizabethan-era language may make this less than clear, I’ll summarize how I understood this poem today.

Perry Mason and Shakespeare

Well, I’ve looked over this book contract and it doesn’t say you need an ending. But Will, I’ve got this idea for a sonnet…

 

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll just call the speaker of the poem “he” as if he’s Shakespeare for the rest of this discussion—but as I said above, we don’t know that. And this particular text isn’t even gendered, and a woman could play the text in the first person without needing to change a word.*

He starts out saying that he and his lover are both sworn, as if witnesses or officers of some court, as lovers are often said to be to each other. But he then claims that the lover has in effect taken two oaths. This is ambiguous to me, some read this if the lover is married to another (and if “he” is Shakespeare, so would he have been too). A “bed-vow” has been broken and some faith has been broken too, a state of new hate after new love has broken out. Is this the lover forsaking their spouse for the he of the poem? Or the lover forsaking the he of the poem? Or both? Shakespeare may be intending this confusion, laying out the case that the adulterous lover may be just as untrue to him as to their spouse.

Now goose and gander here, if we play the “he” speaking in the poem as the married Shakespeare, then he’s just as guilty regarding marriage oaths. But he’s onto his next point. He confesses! Look, you broke your vow to me and to your spouse: that’s two. But I’ll say right out I’ve done ten times more oath breaking!

Six lines in, he, and the poem make a turn. He starts to layout his lies, his broken oaths, his sworn perjuries:

Yes, I’ve vowed that I’ll only misuse thee. “Misuse” in this era has a strong connotation of exploiting someone for selfish sexual pleasure. So he’s saying that now, he’s now hooked in love.

I’ve placed faith in you. Sort of a “I’m culpable because I should have known.”

I’ve “sworn deep oaths” that the lover is kind, loving, truthful, and constant.

I’ve been blind to the lover’s deceit, and I made my eyes swear they aren’t seeing what they are seeing.

Obviously every one of those statements is ironic. He’s saying he was “living a lie” when he trusted that the lover was really devoted to him, and that he has moved from thinking of them as someone he could dally with (misuse) and move on. And yes, if you are judging the character of the poem’s speaker, he seems to be a bit slick in his legalese.

So, an odd ending to the series of sonnets. It’s like one of those TV series that gets cancelled right after an episode with a big scene which is never resolved. And that could be exactly what happened. Shakespeare may have left off writing sonnets. Or the publisher may have only had access to part of what Shakespeare wrote. Accidental or not, like the lovers in Keats’ painted urn chasing each other, we’ll never know if anything will be resolved, and that somehow keeps them alive in some strange way, hundreds of years later.

Musically, I threw together a small orchestral arrangement for this.You can read the text of the sonnet here, and unless you’re reading this on the WordPress reader for Apple IOS, you should be able to click on the player gadget to hear my performance of it. IPhone and iPad users who use the WordPress reader should catch the performance by opening frankhudson.org in a regular web browser like Safari on their phone or tablet.

 

*After posting this yesterday, I looked at the a few other readings/performances of this sonnet. A number of them were by women. I think this one, posted the same day I did mine, is the best I’ve seen.

Song of Myself (I Contain Multitudes)

Is he joining me in celebrating National Poetry Month? Last week Bob Dylan released a new song called “I Contain Multitudes.” It’s pretty good, mixing the elegiac mood and the bittersweet blues. Like Dylan’s other new release, “Murder Most Foul”  from earlier in the month, folks quickly swept through the lyrics to collect and note the allusions. They found that “I Contain Multitudes”  has literary references mixed in with the musician and cultural touchstones. Poets William Blake and Edgar Allan Poe get name-checked.

But for some reason, the main poetic link Dylan seems to intend was missed in most of the early write-ups I read. The song’s refrain, which also supplies the title, is a line from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”  We’re going to fix that today.

Over the years of this project I probably haven’t presented enough Whitman. He’s the indispensable ice-breaker of poetic Modernism, even for those that didn’t attempt to closely follow his style. By writing in free verse with no set line length, irregular meter, and no need to make the rhyming word, he freed poetry to be infinitely expansive and did for poetic music what Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane did for instrumental music. Once this idea of freedom was demonstrated, any number of other Modernist approaches eventually developed, some of which don’t directly bring Whitman to mind as a model, though that doesn’t mean that they didn’t benefit from his revolution.*  And some subsequent writers did  show the influence of Whitman’s characteristic word-music: Carl Sandburg, John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Allen Ginsburg. Stop for a minute: all three of those writers—all examples where one can trace the lineage of Whitman easily—are influences on the language and expression of Bob Dylan. Whitman, like Dylan, loves the wide-ranging catalog, the linking of things plain and exotic, the workman’s comment and the sage’s koan.

So maybe it was time for Bob to give a nod to Walt—and for me to do so too.

I’ve chosen today to present the last two numbered poems in Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”  Besides the “I contain multitudes” line, this selection also includes some other of Whitman’s most famous proclamations: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself,” “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” and “Look for me under your boot-soles.”

Walt and Iggy

Barbaric Yawp in action: “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Well, maybe if you take off the hat and remove your shirt Walt.

 

Although I approach Dylan’s age, yet somewhat in arrears, I’m not going for the old-man lope of Dylan’s recent songs today.** No. It’s time to rawk!   My personal index-thought as I composed, arranged, and started to perform this was “Whitman as if done by Iggy*** and the Stooges.” As with many of my index-thoughts in this project, I missed the mark, but that’s OK, maybe I came close to the bulls-eye of another target nearby. Since I long for the sound of a loose and loud rock band in these days of social distance, I tried to make one myself for this piece, even attempting to duplicate the kind of thing my LYL Band partner Dave Moore might have played on piano when that was possible. My shelter in place partner Heidi Randen kicked in some backing vocals on the chorus. It took me to this morning to get a time when I could crank a guitar amp to get the feedback and speaker interaction for the Ron Ashton-style guitar solo, which I scheduled between my high-schooler’s interactive telelearning sessions.

As always, the next audio piece will likely be different than this one, so check back (or hit “follow”) to see what the Parlando Project does next during National Poetry Month.

The full text of the long poetic series “Song of Myself”  is available here, the sections I perform are the last two, numbered 51 and 52. The player gadget to hear the performance is below. Turn it up!

 

 

 

 

*I believe that even poets who chose to write in rhymed and metrical forms after Whitman can benefit from his break. Formalism became a choice not an obligation.

**I do that in other pieces here anyway.

***I note that secret reader Iggy is taking part in an all-star group performance of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”  this month. You can check out the readings as they are posted starting at the beginning here.

When You Are Old

A few months back I presented a series of poems about old age that turned out to be written by young poets. Here’s another one written by the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats when he was in his 20s.

“When You Are Old”  is generally considered to be written about Yeats’ love for Maud Gonne, who like Yeats was active in Irish cultural nationalism and their country’s struggle for political independence. Yeats’ largely unrequited love for Gonne has a long and complicated story, the kind I’d often delve into here—but not today. This widely assumed context for “When You Are Old”  makes plain the poem’s historical, denotative meaning. One could paraphrase it like this: “You think I’m just another lovelorn suitor asking for your hand, and possibly other leading bodily parts, now—but someday you’re going to be old, and you’ll realize that the others around you were just after you ‘cause you’re a major hottie who seems to have it going on cultural-politically. I’m not like that. I’m your soul mate, who respects that you’re busy with this, and loves you even though you’re out searching for other things. That’s OK. Just know that someday, like when you’re old, you’re going to miss me. You’ll probably want to google William Butler Yeats some night and see if I’m still alive and what I’m up to….”

Yeats-Gonne

Yeats and Gonne. Yeats may be taking the bow-tie thing a bit too far. Rather than the musical style (or that paraphrase) I used today, I might have gone with this bare-faced expression of the same angst. You’re gonna miss me baby!

 

Did I just loose a bunch of readers* with this base summary of a beautiful poem that is sincerely loved by so many people? Don’t understand me too quickly, I’ll get back to what I think when I encounter this poem before I finish.

Indeed, this poem is especially well loved by older people and by a great many women.** If there’s a greatest hits of love poems in English, this poem is there. And I don’t think they’re wrong or missing some unavoidable explication of the poem’s context. I can’t say Yeats’ intent when he wrote it as a young man, or when he published it still being both of those things; but I doubt it was simply to dis an ex that wasn’t exactly an ex. And those that love the poem Yeats made are experiencing it in other contexts close to their own hearts and lives.

I’m close to Yeats’ age when he died, though still younger than Gonne who lived to be 86. The future mood predicted in this poem written by a twenty-something doesn’t ring false to me. I don’t dwell in the past, but it comes to visit me from time to time, and I’ll think of old lovers and not-to-be lovers absent and missing in time and place. For older people, some of those people remembered are dead, and so their present times and places are further obscured by the crowded stars. We often expect our poets today to write of their experience, but it turns out that we aren’t necessarily going to trade Yeats’ skill with a beautiful line for an authentic memoir-poem by an age-group peer.

One could trash this poem on gender role/sexual politics counts. Fine if you do—art is argument to a large part—but I doubt the women who love this poem do so all because they have self-worth issues. And after all, the poem doesn’t predict crushing regret at not bedding W. B. Yeats, or a reader’s personal equivalent. It only asks for a quantity of “a little sadly,” which doesn’t hurt anybody. Patriarchy aside, I suspect every letter in every acronym can accumulate such thoughts over a life-time. And throw out love, sex, and success, and we still cherish memories of any connection where someone saw and bowed to the pilgrim soul inside us. The youth in us seeks it, the old in us remembers it. Even 20-somethings.

So where does this pilgrim soul stand on “When You Are Old?”   That want for connection it speaks of and the word music it’s sung in captures me entirely. It’s good not to trust poetry and poets entirely, but to give oneself over to this song is worthwhile.

I’m sure this poem has been set to music often, but that didn’t stop me. I used an interesting acoustic guitar tuning that someone said had been used by Mary Chapin Carpenter: C G D G B C for this, and then added another of my simple-is-all-I-can-do piano parts. That’s one of the joys of music: sometimes it doesn’t have to be complicated to please us. The player gadget is below to hear my performance. Here’s the text of Yeats’ poem if you’d like to read along. We’ll be back soon with more of our April celebration of National Poetry Month. Spread the word if you can.

 

 

*I’m hopeful I didn’t, if only because listener/readers here should already know that I’m going to mix things up. If you think today’s music is what I’ll do next time, you should hear the #NPM2020 piece I’ve been working on—and you probably will be able to in the next few days.

**Here’s a 10 minute video where someone old and someone woman both declare their love for this poem.

Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock

As we continue our April celebration of National Poetry Month, here’s a poem by Wallace Stevens. Like Keats, Stevens was another poet I liked as a teenager, and like Keats I read him for his language without having a substantial grasp on what exactly he was getting at yet.

“Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock”  is however fairly straightforward, even if it also exhibits several tactics of early 20th century Modernist verse. For example, it’s crazy for color adjectives. The poem has 66 words, and 10 of them are colors. I don’t know how many other readers* of this poetic era notice this like I do, but that sort of thing was widespread. The Imagists who helped initiate English language Modernism often favored visual images, and color is one way to add vividness without resorting to worn-out metaphors. And painters in England and France had already been using a brighter and more colorful palette for some time, probably influencing the poets.

It’s a subtle point I noticed today after working with this poem, but when Stevens launches into his litany of colors that he imagines would make a more exciting gown, he moves like a color wheel. He starts with green and ends with a robe of yellow and blue—pigments that if mixed, would make green again. Is this an inside painter’s joke?

Re-justifying my teenage love of Stevens, I found this poem, though free verse, does have its word-music. Besides that circling riff on gown-colors, there’s the near rhyme of the litany’s end-word “rings” with the concluding “strange” at the end of the list, and the lovely chime of “old sailor” with “here and there.”

It wouldn’t be a Stevens poem without an odd word or two. “Ceintures,” a French based fashion word which I may have mangled a bit in performance** is a beaded belt. “Periwinkles” does at least double-duty besides being an unusual word choice. In the context of the “old sailor” it may be referring to a small sea-snail, but it’s also a violet-hued flower that has given its name to a color.

Wallace Stevens and night-wear

Couture, rings, ceintures, strange. Wallace Stevens waits to slip into something more comfortable. The long gray trousers could conceal lace socks.

 

The point of Stevens’ poem is the better necessity of imagination and of fancy, set against a fixed early bedtime and bland nightwear. I do think that original color litany is something of a forced march, as if the poems speaker may be trying to break out of that mundane scene in a rote manner, as if reciting colors would bring imaginative dreams as counting sheep might bring slumber. Then we meet up with the drunken sailor who can’t be bothered changing into nightwear: sleeping, dreaming with his boots on of that any-sorts snails and great apes, and chasing, and even more, catching tigers, unafraid.

I wrote this on guitar but decided to play this as a piano trio with drums and bass. The piano is mostly a Fender Rhodes, an early successful electric piano that used amplified tuned-tines rather than strings. It was common back in my youth for these instruments to be run through guitar amplifiers, picking up some grit from an overloaded circuit, and often reverb and tremolo from the amp too. If you listen carefully in the minor chord part of the piece, the pianist is doubling the piano part with another electric piano, which brings in a bit of an amplified string sound to the more bell-like Rhodes. That was my idea to make the major chord and minor chord sections contrast just a bit more.

You can hear my performance of Wallace Stevens’ “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock”  with the player gadget below. The text of the poem is here if you’d like to read along.

 

 

 

*It was something that the Spectra hoaxers of 1916 picked up on when they sought to parody poetic Modernists, speckling their verse with lots of color adjectives. The name of their hoax movement could even be read as referencing that color fixation.

**I often have trouble with pronunciation of French words, something that I sometimes wonder is similar to those with stuttering or other speech impediments. Well, assuming you don’t know the word, it may be enough for its effect in the poem to just sound exotic!

The Easter Flower

I could have chosen another poem for Easter, but besides this one’s song-setable qualities, “The Easter Flower”  is a poem about a Christian holiday written by a non-believer.

No, let me strike that casual term, “non-believer,” which doesn’t seem to fit McKay. He was a life-long radical, an unwavering believer in workers rights and social justice, always stalwart against colonialism and racism. As a radical, black, gay, immigrant man these beliefs were no simple balm to his soul, and by that I judge his beliefs to be strong and tested. McKay was also a confirmed skeptic, analyzing situations and sometimes changing his views on how these goals may be achieved, but that doesn’t alter those beliefs.

Now some of that may or may not resonate with you. Believers who do not share your beliefs can be rough companions to your reading or listening. Rest easy, this poem isn’t like that.

Here’s a link to the full text of the poem.

First off, like Wordsworth’s famous “Daffodils,”  this is a poem about a past-tense experience, something that exists for the poem’s singer only as a limerent memory as he sings of the flower. McKay who grew up in rural tropical Jamaica spent much of his life in more northern climes. The weather forecast for Minnesota calls for a few inches of wet snow for this Easter, and if non-tropical Minnesotans find this disappointing, all the more so for McKay.

So, the lily in the poem is likely a childhood Caribbean memory, and the plant the Trumpet Lily, the Easter Lily, is not native to these then English colonies. It was introduced there by a missionary who brought it from Japan in the 19th century. I don’t know if McKay knew that, but this flower he remembers at Easter time amidst thoughts of home is a colonial artifact as well as a Christian symbol.

Claude McKay and Easter Lily

Claude McKay and the flower of his complex memory

 

In the poem’s second stanza McKay modulates the flower memory, displacing the pale flowers in his mind by liking it to a formation of “rime,” the hoar-ice that forms along shapes when foggy water vapor freezes rapidly, uniting the poems present voice in a colder Easter with the warmer past. The end of this stanza and the beginning of the next form a vivid spring rebirth image, as devotional as any Christian mystic could have written.

And then the poem let’s us know that McKay isn’t a Christian. Indeed, at the time the poem was written he was an atheist.*  Therefore, the remembered image of the Easter flower is extraordinarily alienated from the singer. It’s in the past, in the ground of a country he no longer lives in, it’s a religious symbol not of his religion, it’s a non-native plant introduced by colonialists, growing in a climate of soft fragrant April nights, not a sleety cold northern city.

How easily we might skip through this poem, hearing but it’s lovely sounds and involuntarily resonating to the memories of a holiday with flashbacks of chocolate bunnies and jelly beans—or for devout Christians, one might hear only the inspiration of the image of the tomb earth giving way in resurrection. But that’s not this poem. McKay ends saying that he, “a pagan,” is overcome by this none-the-less, worshiping at another religion’s shrine. Why? From what? I think he chooses to make it undetermined. Homesickness even for a colonial homeland he felt he needed to leave is there. A certain ecumenical mystery too. The sensuousness of the flower is an undercurrent, the night smell of the flower has pheromonic power.

To hear my performance of Claude McKay’s “The Easter Flower”  use the player gadget below.

 

 

*In the last decade of his life, 20 years after this poem was written, McKay was attracted to the Catholic worker movement. After a period of self-searching he became a member of the Catholic Church.

I Have Loved Hours at Sea

I don’t plan ahead with this project much, which has it’s benefits and costs. Often one piece sort of kicks off the idea for the next one and so on. That was the case with doing my roll up of last year’s section of “The Waste Land”  for National Poetry Month, and then following it up with a very short poem by Sara Teasdale, T. S. Eliot’s contemporary in growing up in St. Louis Missouri.

But I had looked at doing another Sara Teasdale poem other than her “Morning.”   I even went so far as to write a sketch of the music I would use. I liked what I had there, but “Morning’s”  striking compression made it more of a contrast to Eliot.

This project has a lot of inefficiencies like that, poet’s collections I read or skim and then find nothing that inspires me to go further. Ideas for musical combinations that don’t quite bear fruit. Poems that jump out at me as compelling, only to find that they aren’t in the public domain and therefore free to use. Ideas that seem sound but get pushed aside by other ideas that step in front of them.

Given the extraordinary work that I put into this project: selecting my own texts, researching what to say about them, and then composing, playing and recording multiple musical parts, these inefficiencies could trouble me. I certainly don’t want to increase them, but I’m somewhat comfortable in them. Like a meditative walking maze, there’s something in the time and indirectness that lets other thoughts in.

Pink Moon

The Official Moon of Shelter in Place. None of you stand so tall. Pink Moon is going to get you all.

 

I’m continuing this project in a time of a global pandemic, which doesn’t aid efficiency either. Luckily so far, I haven’t had to deal with any family members or friends suffering from the Covid-19 virus. In their place, there’s the toll of artists who have succumbed to it. It’s been a tough week for that. Bill Withers, who in his too brief time singing through the music industry, produced songs and performances of them that could carry this troubled workman through his clocked-in days. Adam Schlesinger, a songwriter after my own heart who liked to jump and mix genres. Hal Willner, that most underappreciated functionary in the arts, the impresario, who melded other artists into projects many and wide, projects often aimed (as this one does) to celebrate other artists. And then John Prine, the singing mailman from the outskirts of Chicago, who came from nowhere quickly into the Seventies age of the singer-songwriter, and then stayed like a little public park that you knew was always there, visited by yourself, some others, some pigeons, but nothing elaborate and scenic enough to celebrate.

Prine had some interesting things to say about his job. He said that he considered his mail route as “a library with no books.” As it turns out, he didn’t fill it with books—though he returned more than he checked out—but with that portable, walking art: songs. Actor Viola Davis once said that graveyards contain the stuff of her art while urging you to make it part of yours too.

They are the only profession the celebrates what it is to live a life

“Become an artist. They are the only profession that celebrates what it is to live a life.” – Viola Davis

 

When something, someone, goes away it’s a good time to notice what a sum total of things are. Some people are heroes for one thing they once did. Some have career highlights, a dozen or half-dozen models of importance. Others do things for decades, just doing what they do. Prine’s like that. Here’s a guy that in the decade that got called “The Me Decade” wrote songs that had other people in them.  He kept writing, forging his trademark take on the human condition into song after song. No big thing. That’s what he does. Or did, because now he’s dead and you notice something: there aren’t a lot who did that, and we have songwriters and songwriters still who will do something other than that.

Anyway, these thoughts in a pandemic brought me back to this other Teasdale poem, the one I didn’t use, “I Have Loved Hours at Sea.”

It’s a premature, self-elegy. That’s a hard form to pull off, but I think Teasdale does. It’s bitter-sweet, but that’s what we should expect from Teasdale, poem after poem. It can be read as a poem with a moral, a lesson, that we should live our lives fully so that our container of time is fulfilled—but also as Teasdale often does, there’s a gothic undertone to it all: many the blessing she recounts is qualified or undercut and stated by this young poet in a past tense. Here’s the full text of her poem.

So, as you can see with the player gadget below, I decided to go through with performing this second Teasdale poem in a row. I even decided to write and perform a short piece for strings as an introductory lament. In the delay of inefficiencies and skimpy planning, “I Have Loved Hours at Sea”  now seems to have a reason to be performed, and perhaps for you to listen to.

 

Teasdale’s Morning

It’s easy to figure T. S. Eliot as an English poet—after all, while his “Waste Land”  spans history and cultures, its landscape is distinctly English and European—but he grew up in St. Louis Missouri, a middle-of-America river town.

I promised you a different poem by a St. Louis poet last time, and so now we return to the compressed lyricism of Sara Teasdale. Just four years older, and with a family that would have crossed paths with Eliot’s in similar social circles, there’s no indication that I’ve seen that these two ever met in childhood.

And oh how different in some ways this poem of Teasdale’s is. “The Waste Land”  is hundreds of lines long. Even it’s third section, which I presented in whole form a couple of days ago, takes over 20 minutes to do it justice. Teasdale concentrated on the concentrated, and her poem “Morning”  first published in 1915, is just 8 lines long, and I assay it in less than 2 minutes.

“The Waste Land”  is a cathedral of High Modernism, and a poem like “Morning”  is what? A little song? A diverting lyric? A small bit of uncomplicated thought or feeling? A mouse in the wainscoting of the sanctuary? A facet light dropped from a stained glass window? In the end we are left with the question of how big is big and how small is small.

One of these songwriter poets is not from St Louis

One of these cats is not from St. Louis.

 

But here’s one thing the two poets shared. Both of them suffered from some form of depression. Eliot’s poems are generally seen as a search for meaning. Teasdale’s poems are seen as about a search for love. The former seems grander, the later more feminine. But how different are the essences of these two consolations really?

I am an old man. I haven’t answered these questions. You, reader, may well be younger, perhaps you’ll get further in this?

Morning

I went out on an April morning
All alone, for my heart was high.
I was a child of the shining meadow,
I was a sister of the sky.

There in the windy flood of morning
Longing lifted its weight from me,
Lost as a sob in the midst of cheering,
Swept as a sea-bird out to sea.

 

Before I leave you with my performance of Teasdale’s “Morning,”  let me just talk a bit about how I experienced it. Like “The Waste Land”  it starts in the spring of April, our U. S. National Poetry Month. The second line may trip off the tongue in song, but it’s a strange one: “All alone, for my heart was high.” One could write an essay on that line I think. My first reading was that the poem’s singer is experiencing heightened feelings which bring forth her sense of aloneness. But it also seems to be an image of feeling a oneness with nature, as outlined in the following lines of the stanza, away from humanness. Uncannily, the conclusion of the stanza seems like the John Lennon anguished lines in his song “Yer Blues:”  “My mother was of the sky/My father was of the earth/But I am of the universe/And you know what it’s worth.”

The second stanza tells us in its second line that longing, this aloneness, has been lifted by the flooding experience of this natural morning. The resolution of the final two lines is deeply ambiguous as I read them. The line “Lost as a sob in the midst of cheering”—anyone who has suffered depression, or even a moment of intense sadness, recognizes this image, and I don’t think we can read this as a simple consolation of nature’s largeness. I feel the final line, lovely and sound-rich though it is, is also ambiguous. The sea may be home to a sea bird, but is it home for the poem’s singer?

So only 8 lines, laid sideways, infinity.

You can hear my performance of Teasdale’s “Morning”  with the player gadget that should be below. If you’re reading this post on an iPhone or iPad with the WordPress reader you’ll be wondering what I’m talking about, but if you use the box-with-arrow share/action gadget in the iOS WordPress Reader app you’ll see a choice to Open in Safari, and the player gadget and your ability to hear the audio performances will be visible in the full browser.

 

 

Thanks for reading and listening. This project doesn’t ask for funds, but if you’d like to help it consider helping spread the word about it, particularly on social media during this National Poetry Month.