T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, an eclectic musical performance

I sort of meant to do this last month as I wrapped up my five year serial presentation of Eliot’s Modernist landmark. This will not be a wrap-up of all the discoveries and feeling that living with this poem each April brought forward for me, but instead a single post that allows one to find the whole thing as I presented it over the years. The kinds of music I wrote and performed for this project varies considerably: blues, folk-rock, punk, orchestral instruments, synths, and solo acoustic guitar. I think this fits with Eliot’s design for his poem, which varies its voice and voices throughout too. Listening to all the parts below in one sitting will require a longer period of attention than this project usually asks for, over a hour. Not for you? Feel free to look at other posts and audio pieces here which are usually under 5 minutes in length.

Taking T. S. Eliot off the page and onto the wings of music for five Aprils.

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First, here’s The Burial of the Dead,  the opening section.  If you don’t see a player gadget, this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab that will have a way to play my performance of this section. April and spring and remembrance falls off into a rather gothic take on the “unreal city.” In-between we get the most popular single sub-section in the entire series, the “Hyacinth Girl.”

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Next, we move on to A Game of Chess,  which opens rather sleepily*  and finishes with the appearance of the project’s guest voice Heidi Randen. A player will appear for some, and otherwise, here’s the hyperlink for those that don’t get one in their reader.

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The poem’s third section, The Fire Sermon,  has some of my favorite performances of the entire series, the ones that I think work the best, and from first to last it’s the one I’m most proud of. Gadget below for some, or this highlighted hyperlink for others.

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The Death by Water  section is by far the shortest, and here it is. By now you know the drill, gadget if your blog reader allows it, or this highlighted hyperlink.

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I have not rolled up the final section, What the Thunder Said  yet because it would be extraordinarily long. In place of the entire performance of the poem’s longest section, here it is in four subparts as first presented this past April. Highlighted hyperlinks of each part precede the player gadget that some will see and some won’t.

Part 1

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Part 2

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Part 3

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Part 4

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That final, 4th segment, just above differs from every other one in that it’s an earlier LYL Band live performance which is rough, and ready to take on the complex conclusion of The Waste Land  from a hotly-felt cold-reading of the text (complete with some mispronunciations on my part) .

As I occasionally warned readers here, The Waste Land  is not for everyone, though I think it can be enjoyed simply as a wash of contrasting moods and mysterious words without need for “Will this be on the test?” understanding and extractable meaning. None of these pieces have been particularly popular here, but still the effort to complete this has increased my appreciation for Eliot’s achievement. I’d like to thank in particular Dr. Oliver Tearle over at the Interesting Literature blog whose posts helped illuminate various things regarding this poem and the WWI era while I was creating these performances.

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*Conceptually, my idea for the opening of this section, to conflate the mood of Eliot’s poem here with Blonde on Blonde  era Bob Dylan was fine, but my execution of that kind of languor wasn’t as effective as it should be. If I ever was to do a new, improved version of something in this entire performance, that would be the sub-section I’d think most needs it.

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In England Now (Home Thoughts, from Abroad)

One of the odd things that can happen to a poem is for a single line to become remembered while the poem itself may fade out of fashion. Today’s poem, which is likely to be our final poem for this April’s American National Poetry Month was published in the middle of the 19th century by an Englishman who was away from his home country in Italy. So yes, this one goes out to my faithful British listeners — but, at least in my country, about all that remains of it is the poem’s opening two lines: “Oh to be in England/Now that April’s there.*”

I didn’t know what poem it came from before this month. I didn’t even know it was from a poem, or that Robert Browning wrote it. A poem like his wife’s Sonnet 43 “How Do I Love Thee? Let me count the ways.”  may be similarly antique in age and language, but I recall, however hazily, something of the whole of that poem, it’s sense, and meaning.

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Robert Browning, making the chin-beard somehow work for him.

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Since it’s likely that many of you don’t know this poem more than I did, here’s a link to the full text as Browning wrote it.

So, what is this poem saying, what is it on about? It’s a poem very much of longing for one’s home. A romantic catalog of nature details from the English countryside is mentioned: birds, trees, flowers. I’m ignorant enough about such things that I can’t tell you the song or plumage of any of the birds (I even mispronounced the name of one of them in my performance), I know little of the exact trees, and only a bit more of the blossoms and flowers listed, but I think the poem survives this ignorance. The catalog is enough to demonstrate that there’s a specific spring, specific to place (and by now, perhaps to time), that Browning is missing.

There are three telling lines in the midst of this nature catalog. Early in the poem Browning says that if someone simply wakes in an English April morning, they are unaware. This is of course not universally true, some will awake to marvel at a Spring morning wherever their bed is, but Browning’s point is that some will not, and by implication that he himself often didn’t. Another telling line: in remembering the birdsong of the thrush** he says that the bird sings each song twice, seemingly to prove that the bird had fully absorbed and internalized the rapture of Spring, so that it can recall it at will. That opens the question of if Browning feels in his poem if he has been able to do the same, to recall what he is now separated from. Perhaps it’s more so than remembrance. It’s often said that nostalgia and memory increase the sense that what is gone was better and more intense than it was.

Which brings us to the third telling line, which is almost a throwaway in Browning’s version of his poem, but the one I’ve chosen to make a refrain that I think changes and reframes the poem: “In England now.”

Browning’s use of the line may have been largely a rhyming choice in the series of “bough,” “now,” “follows,” and “swallows” — but rhyme, like chance effects beloved by some Modernists, may cause the mind to go elsewhere or to bring out things it would not consciously choose. By making “In England now” a refrain, it sits beside and comments on nearly every part of Browning’s original poem. My intent is that this refrain will bring out different responses to different listeners, perhaps even different responses to a single listener as it reappears. To test that out, you can hear my performance with a player gadget if you see it below, or with this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab and play it.

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*Given its English subject matter it may be somewhat more remembered by our British readers. Back in 1995 it placed in the middle of the pack of the best loved poems in a British survey. And in an even more Parlando moment, the poem’s title and its enduring worth were both sung in 1973 by an English singer-songwriter Clifford T. Ward, who had a minor hit in the British Isles with it.

**In other April poetry, we’ve just finished our serialized performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  which features a thrush singing in its concluding section performed and presented here earlier this month. Eliot’s thrush singing in the pine trees he wrote in his notes to “The Waste Land,” was from his personal memories of camping in Canada as a youth.

Jazz Fantasia, a pioneering work of Jazz Poetry

This Friday is International Jazz Day, and for a project that subtitles itself “Where Music and Words Meet,” it’s a little odd that I talk less about the musical half of what we do. My project assumes that poetry, even on the page, can be defined as words that want to sing. What manner of tune fulfills that desire? It varies.

Early in this project it became apparent that I was going to feature a lot of early 20th century verse as it was the newest poetry that was clearly available for reuse. This was the time when literary Modernism came to English language poetry, greatly expanding the tactics that could be applied to poetry, and it came in too with an idea that much of what had become expected of poetry was tired and worn out, inauthentic and false.

Almost simultaneously, a very similar movement was happening in music. Though largely segregated from European Modernist composers in person, Afro-Americans were developing at the turn of the century a twisted helix of musics that came to be called Blues and Jazz. Differentiating between those two things is a complex matter. Blues is a nearly inescapable element of Jazz, and Blues is more substantially a vocal music, and so Blues needed a poetry from the start. That means that Blues song lyrics are the Modernist revolution as originally expressed by American Black people, though because of their context and place in American culture this was not understood as such. Like Modernist poetry, Jazz and Blues too demonstrated freedom to use new tactics, and they too wanted to replace tired and false musical tropes.

Poets, even those who intend for their work to be published and read on the page, can’t help but be informed by the music they know and admire. Earlier this month I’ve speculated on Emily Dickinson’s use of 19th century hymn-song meter and a possible connection for her deviation from strict poetic forms informed by her own improvisations on piano. By 1920 we had a Modernist Jazz music coming to America’s attention, and literary Modernist verse, though not without its naysayers, had reached an American audience too. It’s like flame and gasoline, isn’t it? When are they going to meet?

I can’t say what the first Jazz Poem was, or who wrote it. If it was composed by an Afro-American it may have been unnoticed, unpublished, and unrecorded (save by the oral tradition and the folk process which didn’t keep their names). Some of the traditional folk-blues lyrics seem to date from the turn of the century, but they were not printed as poetry then — and even as vocal recordings, the oft-cited first blues record, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,”  dates from 1920.*  The recording history of Jazz predates that a bit, with the all-white but still claiming “Original” Dixieland Jass Band’s broadly comic “Livery Stable Blues”  coming out in 1917, and that’s sometimes cited as the earliest Jazz record. Two poems already featured here: Ray Dandridge’s “Zalka Peetruza”  and Fenton Johnson’s The Banjo Player”  were available in 1922 for James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry.**   The former’s “tom tom” beat and the later’s Modernist free verse could make them Jazz Poetry. Some articles cite Langston Hughes’ “The Weary Blues”  of 1925 as the first Jazz Poem, and it is unquestionably a Jazz Poem, but even Langston Hughes had some issues to overcome with it. Back in our February focus on Locke’s The New Negro  anthology of 1925, recall that the elders mentoring and gatekeeping The Harlem Renaissance weren’t yet welcoming Jazz into high culture and were unsure of its effect on their project to elevate America’s appreciation of their race.



No, not that Prince’s band. A 1915 example of proto-Jazz and Blues being integrated into society dance music.

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Which brings us to the underrated Modernist figure of Carl Sandburg,***  the white Midwesterner who had won the Pulitzer prize for his free-verse poetry in 1919 while being based in Chicago. In 1920 he publishes a follow-up collection, Smoke and Steel containing today’s poem called “Jazz Fantasia.”   This too is clearly Jazz Poetry. It appears to be portraying an instrumental performance, and while unlike Hughes’ poem it quotes no Blues lyrics, it’s clearly a Jazz performance with its imitation of horn sounds, the husha, husha, hush of brush work on the high hat, and their sandpaper swish on the snare, the tin can of cowbell, and the knocking pan-metal ring of stick hitting rim.

If not Blues form as such, two details from Sandburg’s 1920 words (here’s a link to the full text of the poem) stand out to me. Half-way in, there’s a car, a cop, and… “bang-bang!” Striking to hear a still modern pain in a 100-year-old poem isn’t it! And the poem’s conclusion makes a case for the breadth of Jazz expression infrequently made in the fad for Jazz during the Jazz Age: that it wasn’t only frantic music with comic musical effects suitable for careless youth further forgetting their cares, but that it could also portray some green night lanterns and the boats ceaselessly beating against the current.

It was imperative to me that today’s musical performance for International Jazz Day must use some approximation of Jazz. I play no brass instruments and I find them hard to approximate with virtual instruments articulated by keyboards, so you’ll hear an anachronistic, more modern, Jazz trio: drums as featured in Sandburg’s poem, guitar, and bass. The player gadget for this may appear below — and if it doesn’t, this highlighted hyperlink will also play my performance of Sandburg’s “Jazz Fantasia.”


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*In 1903, Afro-American composer W. C. Handy encountered a Blues playing guitarist in Tutwiler Mississippi, noted he was singing a Blues song with recognizable Blues lyrics. He thought the music was “The weirdest thing he’d ever heard” but by smoothing it off and adopting it to the composed brass band and society dance music he was familiar with, he made use of those Blues elements.

**Other examples of Jazz Poetry influenced writers I’ve managed to sneak in here are Kenneth Patchen who read to Jazz music, Le Roi Jones/Amiri Baraka, a poet who also wrote widely about Jazz, and even words by Laurie Anderson who was influenced by fellow Chicagoan Ken Nordine who had released several LP records he called “Word Jazz.” The music on Laurie Anderson’s recordings doesn’t read as Jazz to most, but focus instead on her voice and you’ll hear that same ‘50s cool jazz phrasing.

***I often make the case here that Sandburg’s poetry contains some admirable examples of the compressed and spare Imagist aesthetic, but besides poetry he’s intimate with the rise of photography as an art via his wife’s brother Edward Steichen, he was reportedly the first daily newspaper cinema critic in Chicago, and he was an important popularizer of American folk music.

And speaking of Langston Hughes achievement, Hughes’ early poetry often sounds unmistakably to me like he had “heard” Sandburg and taken some of his riffs into his own heart to be further extended by Hughes’ personal familiarity with the Afro-American experience.

April Rain Song

As we continue our celebration of National Poetry Month, I remind us all that not everything in poetry needs to be heavy business. For example, here’s a poem by American writer Langston Hughes, a man known largely for his poetry that deals frankly with the Afro-American experience, and this poem of his was published in a magazine founded by W. E. B. Du Bois during the famed Harlem Renaissance.

But wait, not only is this a poem about springtime, it’s a children’s poem written for Du Bois’ children’s magazine The Brownies’ Book.  I first learned about this pioneering publication for Afro-American children at the My Life 100 Years Ago  blog, which among other things often covers what was happening with magazines of that era.

Hughes himself wrote today’s poem when he was a teenager, and The Brownies’ Book  was the first publication to publish his poetry. “April Rain Song”  is a charming poem, and in rhythm and poetic tactics it reminds me of Carl Sandburg, a fellow Midwesterner whose writing influenced the young Hughes. Here’s a link to the text of Hughes’ poem if you want to follow along.

The Brownies Book

Check out the high school graduate in far right middle row. Yup, that’s Langston Hughes.

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It’s been April rainy the past two days in my city, so working on making “April Rain Song”  a Parlando Project piece had overcast and setting. Hughes here shows me a mode I sometimes aim for: it’s a nature poem, but specifically set in a city, not in some rural nature. The rain meets sidewalks and street-gutters, not some Eden.

Rain, specifically spring rain, has a strong memory element for me. Perhaps you share this? Outside in rain I’ll often recall other wet spring days, watching from the current distance my child-self walking beside miniature gutter rivers, observing for no particular reason their sweep around last years’ leaves and last winter’s final dusky ice clumps. Or perhaps you recall a particular roof on which fell our general rain? Was Langston Hughes too young yet to have that experience of memory when he wrote this poem? I cannot say, but I have that now, and so I add a bit of wistfulness to his words today.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Hughes’ “April Rain Song”  is below for many of you, but if you don’t have it, this highlighted hyperlink will also play the song I made of it.

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Oscars, then Oscar, during National Poetry Month

I hope to still have at least one more piece ready here this month, but I’ll admit that I waylaid some time yesterday watching the Academy Award “Oscars” while restringing and doing some deferred maintenance on a couple of guitars.

Awards shows — which are of course promotional events regardless of their area of the arts and the event’s prestige or pedigree — seem to be going through a rough patch of late. The Nobel literature prize even got removed for a year, so I’d judge that less prestigious awards stand in greater peril. The question of their value, or even if they have become counterproductive, has become commonplace. The use of these events for airing political and social issue positions is one sore point for some.

Let me not waste too much of your time, but to summarize my belief on that last issue: the whole purpose of art is to share human experiences in a way that nothing else does. How things are run, how we experience that, it just can’t be separated from art, and once that is allowed, the questions about what should change and what should be maintained can’t be fenced off as off-limits. This risks of course that wrong and half-wrong and outright misrepresentation is going to be propagated in shiny works of art. An even more subtle risk is that what will be presented must be simplified in some way, even within arts’ ability to present strange non-binary states. Resulting work can be painful or dreary even for points of view we already agree with — and outright hurtful or disgusting for things we find false. The criticisms are true, but this can’t be avoided if we are to have figurative/narrative art at all.

Film is extravagantly more expensive to produce than poetry, and by reputation successful people in the movies most visible roles are well-paid for their contribution to that capital-intensive industry. Garden-variety actors, directors, and writers outside of commercial film, who may not share this wealth, rarely get to speak about their beliefs on international live TV shows. Does this make it bad when the wealthier artists speak, or should we have no actors, writers, directors speak at all?

As a change, I enjoyed the trimmed back show, with many fewer in the main room and with little attempt to make it a spectacular variety show. Different compared to the traditional Oscars, but also not revolutionary. It made the show very like most smaller awards shows, the kind us regular poets or writers might attend. I felt there was a substantial emphasis placed on current social discussions, particularly diversity, representation, racism, violence. I’m no expert, but I suspect that may well be, to use the old Hollywood term, “box office poison.” So, if the ratings turn out to be bad, I will not be shocked. Given that I agree with many of the viewpoints expressed or embodied, should I consider that then brave?

Here at my keyboard today, I started to write a further reflection on those elements. Then I decided to drop it. Then I decided to include it again. Then dropped it. I doubt there is any demand for my extended thoughts on these matters.

But it is still #NationalPoetryMonth. Two of the award recipients made poetry a substantial portion of their acceptance speeches. Did anyone else note that?

Chloe Zhao began her speech for Best Director by saying that her father would banter with her when she was a child by reciting parts of the Three Character Classic*  back and forth to each other from memory. She then recited that poetic work’s opening two lines in Chinese and then in English translation. Let me print those two lines here, and also the two that follow, which add additional illumination I think:

“People at birth
Are entirely good
Their natures are similar
But their habits make the difference”

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The White Hen or was Dick and Jane ghostwritten by W C Williams

William Carlos Williams concision and white chickens meet Confucian respect for elders. Maybe I need to reassess Dick and Jane?

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The second bit of poetry was both even more subtle and yet striking too in its poetic compression. Although Best Actress winner Frances McDormand opened with a tiny, informal comic aside, I think she intended her entire acceptance speech to be this:

“I have no words, my voice is in my sword!’

The sword is our work.

And I like work.”

I was stunned. First of all, the concision overwhelmed me, but I believe I caught some intense meaning in these 19 syllables making 19 words. The opening line is MacDuff’s from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. That character utters it as he seeks to revenge the killing of his family. In McDormand’s context, I think the Blakean sword here is not a harvester of souls, but the un-resting illumination of our best work.

Your sword is your work. There is joy in that.

No new audio piece today, but since another Oscar appears in it, and it tells of the plague of humanity being seen as nails, and guns the only tool, I’ll give you former movie critic** Carl Sandburg’s “Long Guns”  with a guest appearance by the spirit of Howlin’ Wolf as MacDuff. Player gadget below for some of you, and this highlighted hyperlink will play it if you don’t see that.

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*Despite developing an attraction for classical Chinese poetry, I didn’t know that work. Zhao’s experience wasn’t unique. I read that it’s long been used as an introductory text for young children. I can only flash back to the Fun with Dick and Jane  readers of my grade school years, which I’m not sure bring as much instructional density.

**No fib. For 8 years he was the film critic for the Chicago Daily News. He wrote hundreds of reviews, interviewed Hollywood figures, and seemed to have a pretty good grasp of a developing art. Someone has collected his film reviews, and here’s Roger Ebert’s review, and another account, and a short discussion on Sandburg and his view of films.

What the Thunder Said Part 4 and completing our performance of “The Waste Land”

During this project’s first April #NationalPoetryMonth back in 2017 I started what has become a 5-year serialized performance of the entirety of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”  And here we are today, finally completing that portion of our Parlando Project.

Why “The Waste Land?”  for this lengthy each-April presentation? Several reasons.

Like a number of literary cultural artifacts, the single thing widely known and carried forth from it is only a single line. A certain significant ratio of us knows “The best of times, the worst of times,” or “Do not go gentle into that good night,” or “To be or not to be” — and so you may know “The Waste Land”  from its opening line: “April is the cruelest month.” That small keepsake of a long poem is much brought forward for anything that occurs in any April, and as much or more than Chaucer’s April preface to his Canterbury Tales, it’s likely the reason April is National Poetry Month. As an opening line it’s not misleading. Much cruelty happens in Eliot’s poem. Is it cruel to be kind as Shakespeare and Nick Lowe might put it? Is it just cruelty for shock effect — or can it cure, however partially? Our long serialization explores that, covering all those parts that you may have forgotten even as you remember and repeat the first line only.

“The Waste Land”  is also a landmark, a milepost, a line in the sand for a certain kind of Modernist English language poetry. While this project is not entirely about the rise of Modernism, the current rules of public domain make work from the first quarter of the 20th century the latest I can surely use for my project’s purposes without complications. If time permits me, I may follow up today’s post with a later one about what I’ve learned about Modernist poetry before and after “The Waste Land”  while working on this project; but when I first encountered the unescapable “The Waste Land”  in a schoolbook and classroom as a teenager one thing that I understood about it (perhaps the only thing I understood about it) was that it’s quite musical in most all of it’s movements.

“The Waste Land”  is not, at least in America, a beloved poem from what I can tell. Even among college-education-exposed Americans it’s not commonly memorized, kept in a commonplace way, used for occasions, or re-read for pleasure or new insights. Consistent with that, for the most part, these every-April “Waste Land”  segments have not been among the most popular here.*  Even among poetry lovers there are some that actively dislike it, find it a pretentious mishmash overrated by those afraid to speak plainly. Eliot himself seemed to avoid speaking about it or reading sections of it at later public readings. He may have thought his later poetry more accomplished, but I also wonder if he didn’t care to revisit the more unbounded elements of his life reflected in The Waste Land.

Which brings me to the main reason you’re about to get a chance to hear this performance today: The Waste Land  is not just one thing by design or execution, but it is significantly about someone in the throes of depression. Indeed, much of this year’s final section, “What the Thunder Said,”  was first drafted while Eliot was hospitalized for this. This section is not “The Waste Land”  of scholarly footnotes, bank officer work, gender blurring and questioning, or the knowledge of a night-class schoolteacher for working class women, or the lament of a man who has a personal sense of the intimate losses of a great war. This is the howl of personal despair of a consciousness who can portray those things — and it’s the howl of someone seeking to explode and break out of that state.

The LYL Band performance you’ll hear if you click on the player at the bottom of this post is a live performance from more than a decade ago, long predating the other sections I’ve presented here of “The Waste Land”  over the past 5 years. At the time of that performance I myself was emerging then from an episode of depression, one of two I believe I have gone through in my life. Depression has a variety of feelings and absence of feelings, and if one reads good writers describing their own depression experience you may well get a sense of the blind men’s elephant of fable, but my own feelings on the day and hour this was recorded were largely feeling sick and tired of those depression feelings. At some level I felt this section of Eliot’s poem was similar to what I was seeking, feeling, finding: an expression of an expiation of that, of demons transferred into mad pigs being cast into the sea. This coincidence of my life, a performance, and the poem would make it dear to me.

Ottheinrich Folio casting demons into swine

Jesus casting demons into swine. Guitar feedback not shown.

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As I said, this is a recording of a live performance. Besides my voice and electric guitar playing, you’ll also hear Dave Moore’s voice spontaneously following along as I unfurled mine. I was cold-reading Eliot’s text here, I had not rehearsed or prepared for this performance, other than printing out the text. Embarrassingly, as I reached many of the foreign words in the text and fully in high transport of the moment, I mangled their pronunciation or dropped them from the reading. I used a handful of short samples you’ll hear mixed in the background to restore some of the dropped text.

In later, calmer reflection I continue to think this element of expiation is part of Eliot’s design here. A line I recall feeling strongly and intimately as I came upon it in my reading and performance that day is:

We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison.”

Whatever part of the elephant of despair or depression you might jiggle, touch, or be crushed by, we think of the key. Can we also think, hope to think, expect to think, of the prison as invalidated, destroyed, or obsolete?

What you’ll hear if you click on the player or hyperlink is rough, it has some mistakes, and being recorded live there is little I can do to fix them — and by intent it’s not a very genteel and formal presentation of Eliot’s poem. If that was my intent on that day over a decade ago, I today renew that intent by concluding our long, serialized The Waste Land  with this performance that predates all the other segments. In one of Eliot’s later poems (“The Little Gidding”) that he may have uprated over his 1922 landmark, he wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

And so it is here too: every episode for this serialized presentation of “The Waste Land”  has been informed by that beginning, performed and recorded long before, that is now being used at it’s conclusion.

The player is below in most full-fledged web browsers, but this is an alternative hyperlink for those reading in apps or views that won’t show the player gadget. Yes, a longer audio piece than we customarily present —nearly 14 minutes — but it may still be worth your time and attention.

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*For whatever reason, the Hyacinth Girl segment is one part that does get viewed over the years.

Musicians Wrestle Everywhere — Emily Dickinson hears songs as they are created

I’ve just spent much of a day with Emily Dickinson. I’ll tell you it was enjoyable, not the least because there is a factor in many of her poems: they grow when you spend time with them.

It started late last night. I noted that I had been looking at early examples of “jazz poetry,” poetry from the previous Twenties that celebrated jazz music and jazz musicians. A thought occurred to me: I’ve gone too far into #NationalPoetryMonth without a Dickinson poem. Which of her poems might deal with music?

“Musicians Wrestle Everywhere”  came up in searches, though it was not a Dickinson poem I’d seen before.*  Here’s a link to the full text, and here’s another to a manuscript of it in Dickinson’s own hand. After my first reading of it, my reaction was, “I don’t know if I can fit this with the jazz poetry. While ‘Musicians’ is the first word, the musicians largely go away and we’re off into Dickinson’s headspace.” Well, my second thought was, “This could work some other way and time, disconnected from the Jazz poetry stuff. Let me see what I can do about making it a song for later use.”

Dickinson attracts composers. She often uses a folk-music meter adopted also by many Protestant hymns,** and the compression of her poetry leads to short texts ideal for art-song. “Musicians Wrestle Everywhere”  has already been set by eminent American Modernist composer Elliott Carter.

I didn’t want to go toe to toe with Carter. My mood today was to make this somewhat foggy poem more immediately understandable on first listen, while Carter emphasized the poem’s more abstract thought-music. Wrestling with Dickinson’s words and my desire today as I tried singing it and working out my music, I decided to make some minor changes to the words*** and to add a refraining line. The former tactic is generally frowned upon, and many a living author will forbid it. The later, repeating a line or section, is generally allowed. One of the reasons that page poetry often seems less effective as song is that we have a strong desire for repetition in song. I think if even when silently listening we are “singing along,” and we desire to know when some part is recognized as coming around again. Refrains bring us into the song, even on first listen.

So, what is the poem’s point that I hope to make clearer in my song and performance? I believe that Dickinson is saying that musicians, and herself, extract from the time and vibrations of crowded reality our new tunes, rhythms, timbres, and harmonies. Those composing ears aren’t merely transcribing. They might refine melodies within the strife of conflicting environmental sounds, but to some larger degree they are hearing the unheard music that does not exist, though founded or surrounded, in observable reality or philosophy. In the final verse she mentions some think what inspires composers is the pagan “music of the spheres” or some choir of angels, or the departed in heaven — the later a place the skeptical Dickinson is not sure of.

So where does new music come from, if not just imitation, transcription, a cosmic mechanism or ancestral angels? This is the reason for my refrain, to make more adamant what I think Dickinson may be saying. Why are our April trees budding? Why is there new life in our spring without our trying or thought — and in notion of our stewardship of the Earth, despite our neglect? “I think it’s that new life” the now refraining line repeats. Life, creation, poetry, music, it wants to happen.

Elmo Hope is a thing with feathers

I would be ahistorical to suspect that Emily Dickinson’s piano improvisations were anything like Elmo Hope. On the other hand, if my lame joke tempts you to listen to some of Hope’s recordings…

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By the time I’d worked out a meaning to Dickinson’s poem I’ve come to think that it is a compliment to the Jazz poetry I was looking at before after all. The Jazz poems of the previous Twenties I’d seen mostly observed the musicians and provided a listener’s appreciation of what they were putting down. In Dickinson’s poem, she’s the musician, the composer themselves.

By late this afternoon I’d completed the music and recorded the acoustic guitar, bass guitar, cello and violin parts for my song setting of “Musicians Wrestle Everywhere.”  The player gadget to hear my performance is below for many of you, but if you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab to play it too.

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*She wrote over 1800 poems, so another fine thing about exploring Dickinson is that there can easily be a new poem to experience. Which reminds me to point out that this project has over 500 pieces to experience here too.

**Yes, I know the bit about how you can sing many Dickinson poems to the “Gilligan’s Island Theme,”  or “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” or as this post reminds us, many hymn tunes. The post also has a short summary of what’s known about Dickinson’s musical involvement. The author notes that Dickinson was familiar with mid-19th century string-based dance music as well as having some ability to improvise on piano. I wonder at the Celtic and African strains that might have crept into Amherst by the 1860s. The only instrument Dickinson mentions in her poem is the tamborin, which appears to be an African derived hand-held drum instrument.

***I wanted to modernize the syntax and usage a bit to add to the clarity for the contemporary listener. A line in the third verse uses one of the few archaic terms in this poem “Dames” which has largely fallen out of American usage even as a faux-genteel slang term for women. By expanding the following term from “Men” to gentlemen I echo a somewhat outdated formality and may have helped make clearer that the “bright Majority” of “vanished Dames and Gentlemen” are the dead of the past.

Branches

This project’s subtitle Where Music and Words Meet  portrays its interest in the ways words, mostly poetry, might interact with music. How that works varies. I use different kinds of poetry, and different ways to combine those words with the music written for this project.

Song lyric writers, who intend their words to be sung from the git-go usually rhyme their lines, and most song lyrics are at least roughly metrical. That practice has continued even as free-verse without regular rhyme and strict rhythm became a substantial portion of literary poetry written for the page.

None-the-less, I find it’s often easier than you might think to sing free-verse. Here’s the text of today’s piece for our celebration of #NationalPoetryMonth: “Branches,”  by one of this project’s favorites, Carl Sandburg:

The long beautiful night of the wind and rain in April,
The long night hanging down from the drooping branches of the top of a birch tree,
Swinging, swaying, to the wind for a partner, to the rain for a partner.
What is the humming, swishing thing they sing in the morning now?
The rain, the wind, the swishing whispers of the long slim curve so little and so dark on the western morning sky … these dancing girls here on an April early morning …
They have had a long cool beautiful night of it with their partners learning this year’s song of April.

One thing I notice right away that lets this take to singing: it’s ecstatic. Some of the sections of what has been our April National Poetry Month staple for the past few years, Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  are hard to cast into singing — even though that poem as a whole is very musical with its repetition and its outright references to musical pieces. Parts of “The Waste Land”  use mundane dialog purposefully, and it’s difficult to sing that sort of thing without transforming its nature. “Branches” too uses repetition, along with sound-tricks like words that sound like what they are describing (swishing sounds like the word “swishing” for example). Repetition can stand-in for rhyme to some degree. Free-verse irregularity of lines is less of a problem than it might seem. Music is fully capable of filling in spaces where syllables aren’t, and it can be made comfortable too with melodic lines of various lengths.

Carl Sandburg himself is an interesting combination of words and music. Besides his early and vital contributions to American Modernist poetry, he was also an important collector and popularizer of American folk song both by playing and singing those songs himself, and by the 1927 publication of his significant early anthology of them The American Songbag.  I haven’t quite nailed down just how important he was in those matters, but I think it’s possible that without Carl Sandburg there’d be no Woody Guthrie as he was, and going forward from that, no Bob Dylan as he was and is.

Sandburg_with_guitar

When performing them, Sandburg accompanied those folk songs himself with guitar

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I’m not alone in liking to set Sandburg to music, though I’m not aware that Sandburg himself ever did, oddly enough. I perform his “Branches”  today with just acoustic guitar, nothing fancy, just as Sandburg himself could have. The player gadget to hear me perform it is below, or if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlink will play it too.

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Reapers

Let me continue in our celebration of National Poetry Month. Yes, but.

Though some of my international readers may not suspect this, others of you may wonder how I’m doing after another incident were someone in my metropolitan area was killed in a government incident that seems unnecessary and unjust. I’d describe my overall reaction as numbed thought, and I’ll leave it at that. It’s not that I don’t have thoughts, but in our instantaneous world, thousands have already written and there’s no scarcity of takes — if you need anyone to supply a template or echo for your own response, you can have that in abundance.

I continue because I think there’s still a shortage of what poetry and music can bring to us. Poetry, like many tweets or blog posts, can make arguments, present hot takes of their authors; but it also can work differently, it can take an attentive reader or listener and by attracting them and presenting something to pay attention to, allow its audience to form their own changes in perception.

Today’s piece, “Reapers”  by pioneering Afro-American Modernist Jean Toomer attempts that. In his 1923 book-length work Cane,  where this poem first appeared, Toomer presents such things, moments and situations that ask for that response from its readers. That’s an inefficient process. How many will read, how many will really read in that extension where we accept the task of creating a whole-hearted response to what the author presents? Some things work on one, quick, reading. We may already believe we know, we agree. A brief amen is all that is called for. Other work may just seem slight to our moods and perception, and we skip any deeper step. Today’s poem is called “Reapers,”  but I think here of the Christian parable of the sower.

“Reapers”  presents two rural scenes. In the first, harvesting or mowing is being accomplished as it had been done for millennia with the reapers being people with scythes. With intent they ready their blades, sharpening the edges with abrasive stone honing blocks. Toomer presents the scything that follows as silent music, a rhythmic swinging represented with precise meter and one pair of perfect end-rhymes followed by another pair of perfect rhymes that are in themselves near-rhymes to the first pair.

In the second scene we are taken to an era particular to Jean Toomer’s time. The mower, the reaper, is a mechanical machine drawn by horses,*  the immediate ancestor to our present engine-driven farm machinery. That machinery was likely not as silent, but instead of presenting the clank of its mechanism, Toomer auditorily zooms in on the squealing sound of a “field rat” picked up and wounded in its belly by the mechanical, systematic blades of the horse-drawn mower.

horse-drawn mower

“I see the blade, blood-stained, continue cutting…” a small version of the horse-drawn cutter in Toomer’s poem

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This poem is easy to see as a pair with another we’ve presented here, a poem by Robert Frost, “Mowing.”  Here’s a link to the text of Toomer’s “Reapers,”  and here’s a link to the text of Frost’s poem. In Frost’s poem, the reaper with the hand-swung whispering scythe scares another animal, a plausibly Edenic snake. Toomer’s rat is not so lucky. Did Frost’s reaper, working like the scythe wielders in the first half of Toomer’s poem, stop their motion and take their poet’s eye, recorder, and projector to the escaping snake? In Toomer’s further observation he asks us to see and hear the horses and more directly the machinery of the mechanical mower that has no such observation, and the horse’s driver is intent on operating them, not the work itself. They do not stop, it’s not their design, they continue, cutting, blood-stained.

I will not write a post here about systematic racism. It’s a term with some value of conciseness, and from that, the easiness of easy rejection or restatement. The term has one mooted objection for example: that it’s not even racism — which to any extent that’s true doesn’t make it better, it makes it worse. Ethnic prejudices leading to evil acts are as old as recorded history, likely as old as the first bone scythes and then metal, beaten, plowshares — but Toomer’s poem asks us to watch its successor: a colder mechanized blade of efficient expectations and ways of doing.

A player gadget to hear my performance of Toomer’s “Reapers”  in my modest acoustic guitar setting may appear below. If you don’t see a player, this highlighted hyperlink will open a tab or window to play it too.

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*My father, born around the time of Cane, late in his life wanted to make clear to me that he’d driven horse-drawn farm machinery in his youth. He did this late enough in my own life that I heard him, and thought, and think, about what he was trying to present to me in that.

What the Thunder Said Part 3

As part of this project’s celebration of #NationalPoetryMonth we now return to our serial performance of the entirety of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”  When we last left off in the landmark poem’s concluding section, the narrator was seemingly alone in the dry waste land of the title. Some ambiguous creatures have been observed on the bleak landscape, but in this section the narrator reveals, and yet doesn’t reveal, who else is here.

Right as today’s piece begins, two more possible persons are introduced, yet never named. Besides the narrator, there’s someone they are speaking to, and what the narrator first says to this second is that the narrator senses there’s a third present. We are told nothing about the person the narrator is speaking to, but some mysterious elements of the third are stated.

Who are the three? Let me cut to the chase: I don’t know. Critics and readers can provide plausible guesses, but their evidence is not determinate. I’ve always read the narrator in this section as being the poem’s author, the poet T. S. Eliot himself. Reportedly much of the poems final section was drafted while Eliot was hospitalized with what was characterized then as a “mental breakdown.” So, I’m going to call the narrator Eliot from now on. Who is he speaking to? As I said previously this month, the second could be the reader: you, me, us, those who have followed this fragmented journey from its opening memories of Europe before WWI through a series of disconsolate scenes and characters who speak in a variety of voices, and who seem both connected to immortal time and yet stuck in an inescapable post-war meaninglessness.

It could also be Eliot talking to himself, or part of himself, and since this second person is not described as mysterious, they seem well enough known to the narrator to not need any description or introduction — after all, when you talk to yourself, you don’t need to ask for an ID. And the third, the one that Eliot says he sees walking beside the other two? All we learn is that what they wear is non-descript, a brown hooded garment, and that Eliot can’t even tell their gender.

So, we don’t know, it remains a mystery. It’s been my experience in writer’s groups that elements like this will often be pointed out as errors, oversights or faults to be corrected. While this is a judgement made by fellow writers, I’m not sure if all (many? most?) readers feel the same in a case like this. That said, in performance, performers often feel they do need to have a working theory that they can tie their work to. And for me, I’ve worked here with the idea that the other two, besides the distressed narrator Eliot, are in an amorphous sense: us the audience, another element of Eliot, and our potential healing future aspects. That’s odd 3 into 2 math, but it makes sense emotionally to me. Other than one being known and the other unknown, there’s no real difference in this working theory between the second personage and the third, they are fractured into separate aspects from the first, the narrator. That fracture is partly why the narrator/Eliot is distressed, but that he can see these elements and begin to speak to them can be part of some level of reintegration.

Eliot himself said that he took the idea of a mystery third person materializing from a contemporary account of a remarkable adventure story: the Antarctic survival saga of Ernest Shackleton’s explorers party whose ship was trapped and destroyed in ice.*  While trekking across his waste land, Shackleton had written that he saw an extra man helping with their load. Enough others have had similar visions that the phenomenon has even been given the name “The Third Man factor.”

Eliot and Shackleton

Eliot and Shackleton. Third man not shown. Should I have looked for a picture of Harry Lime or Jack White?

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Please don’t take this as a take-it-to-the-bank or make-your-grade definitive exegesis of this piece of “The Waste Land,”  but instead as a thought, a suggestion, that in times of trouble you may be visited by that element of your future that wishes to heal you, and that creature will be hard to recognize as you express this internally or externally — for in our troubles we may believe there is no future, no future you or us. Let this third walk beside you, even if you can’t quite know them, or know them yet.

My performance of this part of “What the Thunder Said”  from T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  can be heard either with a player gadget some of you will see below, or with this highlighted hyperlink which will open a new tab or window to play it.

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*Eliot probably learned of this from Shackleton’s own accounts published around the time Eliot wrote “The Waste Land.”  I learned about the Shackleton story 22 years ago from a crackling-good hour-long radio documentary made by a former co-worker of mine, John Rabe, which I’ll link here. Note that Rabe’s documentary sums up the lesson many draw from Shackleton’s story then and now, that we can endeavor to survive unimaginable trials, and that we can survive.