Letters to Dead Imagists and A Pact for National Poetry Month

Within the limited time I can find for it, I’ve been informally surveying what others online are doing for National Poetry Month. I’ll make one casual observation, unbacked by rigor or focused study: a great deal I’ve seen this April is aimed solely at the supply side for poetry.

I’ve got nothing against urging more folks to write poetry. How could I? I’ve contributed additional verses to the Olympus of written —and albeit years ago — to the avalanche of published poetry. I’ve even advocated here for more poetry that isn’t judged as “great poetry,” or even intended as such, because I don’t believe in a poetic Gresham’s Law. Two others in my house have even started the “write a poem-a-day” challenge. If urging more poetry to be written is a crime, I’m part of a criminal syndicate.

But I find some things lacking. Some things that should be as large or larger but seem (on first glance at least) to be noticeably smaller this month: a profound and compelling case for the poetry already in existence, statements of its impact on us as poets or just people. I’d welcome testimony that folks are reading a poem a day on average, as a challenge if it must be, as a pleasure if possible.

Committed poets, like committed musicians, often talk freely about influences, while beginning or occassional poets seem to shrink from this. Are they afraid their individual expression will be blunted by reading others? Or that they will only find other poems lacking the particular thing they seek to write? I think most poets start by being compelled to write poetry. Should there be a time shortly after that when they see a need, as most musicians quickly find, to consider themselves as part of a continuum of poets?


In one moment in the video I Ken Burnsed it into trying to make it seem that Pound and Whitman were having a glare-off between each other.

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Today’s piece, re-released from the archives of our first two years of the Parlando Project with a new lyric video, is an example written long before the first National Poetry Month of two crucial poets speaking to influences. First off, one of my own influences, Carl Sandburg, speaks of how Emily Dickinson’s view of transcendental nature illuminated him. I should note, Sandburg was writing this only 25 years after the world first saw Emily Dickinson’s poetry and long before her stature had risen to current levels. Note too that few would think of Sandburg as a nature poet. This old guy reminds himself, that in his time Dickinson was fresher than “classic rock” to Sandburg. The next influence Sandburg testifies to might be more at a “guilty pleasure.” Stephen Crane’s The Black Riderswas a book of gnomic free verse that was directly influenced by Crane being given a freshly published copy of Emily Dickinson’s first collection. Caught between creative monuments like Dickinson and Whitman, Crane’s contribution to poetry seems slight to most then or now, but Sandburg says that he picked up imagistic honesty from it.

Ezra Pound, an indispensable promoter* of the Modernist English-language poetry revolution as well as a poet, gives us a more ambiguous note of influence. His “A Pact”   is an example of just how useful it may be to read poetry that you don’t care for, or that just misses the mark, as a way to find out what it is that you do care for.

By doing what the Parlando Project is doing, today and for six years, we’re trying to add to the demand side of the poetry table. Constrained by practicalities of copyright and respect for living writers, we use mostly older poems, but they are part of our continuum. You can hear my performance combining Carl Sandburg’s “Letters to Dead Imagists”  with Ezra Pound’s “A Pact”  three ways. There’s a player gadget below to hear it for most of you, a video picture link above for those who’d like to watch the new lyric video, and then this highlighted link as an alternative way to hear the performance.

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*Sandburg, who probably even then was politically at separate poles from Pound, said as much. See this 1916 piece where Sandburg sings Pound’s praises.

Anne Spencer’s “Dunbar” for National Poetry Month

In 1922, amazing Afro-American polymath James Weldon Johnson* published an audacious anthology titled The Book of American Negro Poetry.   Not only did it claim that there was a tradition worth an anthology at that early date; in his preface Johnson made the observation that Afro-American music was disproportionately important in American musical culture, and furthermore that he saw no reason that Afro-American’s literary impact shouldn’t also arise to that level.

A century later Johnson the prophet could be charged with underestimating Black American’s musical impact, but we are entering an era when his predictions about Afro-American poets are no longer considered exceptional cases, and not even a “why not” situation — but instead an “of course” predilection.

One has to give Johnson credit for declaring this back then, with what poets had managed to be published or otherwise eked out a career at a time when the ex-enslaved were still living. A few of the poets he put in his anthology would soon be known as the vanguard of the “Harlem Renaissance” and yet others would remain little-known afterward. Only one, Paul Laurence Dunbar, really had made writing a career at that point, and a large part of that career’s viability was on the back of a 19th century fashion for dialect writing, with rough printed approximation of regional and ethnic speech being put forward as evidence of America’s diversity or oddness. Reading Dunbar’s dialect poems today is rough going, a lot of context and translation cultural and phonetic is required.** But Dunbar also wrote fluent poetry in the rhymed metrical styles of the day, and those are the poems he’s remembered for now.

And what about those “deep cuts” in Johnson’s anthology, those poets and poems that aren’t required in a modern summary anthology of American poetry? One of those is Anne Spencer.  It’s an imperfect analogy, but you could roughly think of Spencer as a sepia Emily Dickinson. The two poets even shared a passion for gardening. Except there wasn’t a preserved and handed-down pack of good copies of poems in Spencer’s case. Imagine what we’d know of Emily Dickinson if the tiny number of poems that were published in Dickinson’s lifetime were all we had?

It’s plausible the proximate reason that Spencer’s poem praising Dunbar was included in Johnson’s anthology was that Spencer’s home was a waystation and salon frequented by Black artists and civil rights activists in the Jim Crow era, which would have included Johnson. But let’s just be grateful, it’s a lovely short lyric making in a handful of words, the case that Dunbar, and by extension Afro-American poets yet to come, can stand with and extend the tradition of British poets then considered “canon.” And by linking Dunbar with the struggling working-class poets Chatterton and Keats, and the exiled radical Shelley, Spencer may have been making a subtle point about where poetry could, or should, come from. And like Johnson, she predicted with her poem’s linkage that by our present time we’d remember Dunbar as a supple lyrical poet unlinked from the fashion of dialect poetry.

The lyric video includes a poster for a Dunbar performance and some photos of Spencer. Spencer wrote poetry throughout her life, but didn’t focus on publishing.

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Three ways to hear my setting and performance of Spencer’s “Dunbar”  today. You can use a players that will be shown below in some ways this blog is read, or this highlighted link if you don’t see the player. And, as we’re doing this April, there’s the lyric video above.

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*Polymath? Well, let’s see: key early civil rights leader, helped found NAACP, poetry, novels, wrote the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing”  (aka “the Negro National Anthem”), diplomat, teacher.

**Dunbar made a go of it touring and reading his poetry, the sort of thing that was the YouTuber or podcaster route for extra-literary revenue and publicity then. His dialect poems were often touted on the billings, and so may have been the crowd draw. I don’t know how integrated his audiences were, or indeed how the dialect stuff was presented. I’m unaware that any recordings of Dunbar exist, and I don’t know that we even have secondary recordings such as exist of folks who knew Twain, imitating him on early records from direct memory of performances.

Zeppelins for National Poetry Month

Here’s another piece from the early days of the Parlando Project that we’re re-releasing for this year’s National Poetry Month. This is the place where I’d often encourage you to listen to the musical performance made from this poem, but I also could see why you might want to skip it and wait for tomorrow’s.

The poem “Zeppelins”  is by F. S. Flint, a too-little-known man who rose from poverty to help launch English language Modernism early in the 20th century as one of the original Imagists who shucked off the expectations of overused poetic tactics and filigree for what he called “unrhymed cadences.”  As a piece of poetry, I think it still sounds modern, still hits this listener with an impact you can feel.

And there’s the rub regarding this poem. It intends to be disturbing, to communicate an intimate dread and revulsion. Not everyone respects Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow”  celebration of utilitarian beauty for its insistence on simplicity. There are probably even some who won’t “get” Frost’s exuberant ode to the shaping of nature’s gusts to singing words. But neither of those poems will disturb you, and our lives may have enough disturbance that I can see one not wanting to seek out a poem that gives us more of that. Flint’s poem is the story of one of the first aerial bombing raids on a city, an attack in May of 1915 on London that caused around 100 casualties, including children.*

Furthermore, this poem from 1915 is disturbing for another reason: it’s still topical. It was so when I first posted it in 2017 — cities and towns were being bombed and civilians killed then. So it is today. As another bombing witness was wont to say: “So it goes.”

Imagism in action. Note how Flint intimately invokes confusion, dread, and fear directly in this rapidly accelerating narrative poem

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So skip today’s poem if you don’t want to be subjected to that, if your life is already strafed. I’ll understand. Poetry like “Zeppelins”  can serve as a powerful witness, we should respect that, but I can see why we may ask poetry for something else too.

The performance is available three ways. You’ve seen the picture of the lyrics video above, you may see a graphical player below to play the audio of the performance, and then there’s this highlighted link to also play it.

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*I felt obligated to put an advisory on the video, not because I desire a world of poetry that cannot frighten or offend, but because such a piece may be too much for children who may be introduced to poetry during National Poetry Month.

The Aim Was Song for National Poetry Month

It’s National Poetry Month, and we’re celebrating here by re-releasing some of my favorite pieces from early in this project’s six-year history. Today’s poem’s poet is American Robert Frost speaking about spring, spring winds, and the poets’ transcendental task of continuing and shaping nature.

I’ve often reminded readers here that I didn’t care for Robert Frost when I was a young person. He was still a living poet while I was a teenager, and I associated him (wrongly) with dreary homilies and his placement in the school anthologies as the most recent poet included. More than once I complained to teachers and any fellow students who seemed at all interested in poetry that there had to be something, someone, newer and more relevant than Frost that could be studied.

What I didn’t know then was that Frost could be a nimble lyric poet delivering subtle messages, and that he was, in the generational nomenclature that would come 20 years later than my youthful 1960’s complaints, “a slacker.”

Frost spent the first 40 years of his life basically failing and flailing as a poet and human being. American interest in his poetry was nil. Only after wandering to England did he find a publisher for his first collection and a key promoter in fellow American in pre-WWI England, Ezra Pound. Pound was nearly a dozen years younger than Frost.

Frost didn’t write poetry as memoir, as many modern poets do, but all that experience made it into his poetry. Frost wrote often of failure and limitations* — but today’s poem “The Aim Was Song”  isn’t one of those poems. First published 101 years ago, this is Frost exulting in the triumphs of poets and poetry after he had finally broken through into acclaim in his home country. And it’s a good one for the Parlando Project to perform during National Poetry Month because Frost’s imagery here celebrates the oral, vocal, and musical heart of poetry. Also it’s an excuse for the composer to tell the guitar player: “Why don’t you turn up and play some.”**

Laptops were larger and more wooden in Robert Frost’s day. 

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As with our other re-releases this April, you can hear my performance of this poem with the player gadget below (where seen), or this highlighted link, as well as with today’s low-budget lyric video that is trying to catch the attention of additional listeners to the Parlando Project.

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*By the time his poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay”  was made into a motif in The Outsiders  movie in the 1980s, “slackers” could sense that kinship that I missed.

**OK, it’s the same guy, so the guitar player has considerable influence over the composer.

The Red Wheelbarrow for National Poetry Month

Besides being the first day of National Poetry Month, it’s April Fools day, so maybe it’s a good day to present a poem that caused many readers to wonder if it’s a joke: William Carlos Williams “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

I’m not against a poem causing wonderment, are you? It’s fine to look at it and respond “You can’t be serious — is that really a poem?” but I urge you to follow that question with other ones, such as “What use is it?” “Is this just an artsy provocation?” or “What should poetry be then?”

I think Williams’ poem is a late but effective representation of the movement that launched Modernist poetry in English: Imagism. Fairly quickly, a great deal of English language Modernism soon moved on to more complex poetry, a poetry that was often hard to grasp due to intense but hermetic personal material or elaborate references to other works of art, but “The Red Wheelbarrow”  is none of that. Instead it expresses, like a sub-two-minute punk song from the mid-1970s, a rejection and clarification of overly elaborate poetry.

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and this place has chickens. Also a short 12 tone-row composition.

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I think Williams genuinely thinks the rain-water makes the wheelbarrow beautiful, and he doesn’t even think he needs to say that word “beauty” or make some elaborate metaphor to seal the deal. To say that, and just that,* is a provocation against poetry that asks more, and to readers that expect the poet to give them more. But it’s not just the momentary rain-water glaze that makes it poetic: it’s useful, something to depend on. Now that’s a goal for poetry (or any art) to meet at least some of the time, don’t you think? Self-impressive poetry, trickster poetry, poetry that gathers and unites widespread allusions — all have their place as well, but sometimes it’s good to see what there is seen naked in the rain. When the cave dwellers put their hand or the hand of their child up against the wall of the cave and blew red ochre dust around it, that’s art — not of the artists showing us skills, but the art of our shared and transient experiences made fixed.

Musically here I decided to use another contemporary early Modernist tactic: the tone-row. If one knocks “The Red Wheelbarrow”  for not having poetry’s elaborate or fanciful imagery, or some tight connection with the artist’s personal biography, perhaps this performance will show something traditional it retains: a lovely, largely iambic, word music. Yes, it’s music in miniature, but still that poetic element was there for me to express.

To hear my audio performance of William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”  set to my own music, you can use this highlighted link, or (if visible) a player gadget below. And as I’ve been doing with our National Poetry Month re-releases, there’s a simple, low-budget, lyric video at this link.

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*Well, he also admires the contrasting chickens.

Kicking off our celebration of National Poetry Month: Stars Songs Faces

Aha! I have a plan for National Poetry Month.

You might think we’d need do nothing but what we usually do — after all, we’re always celebrating poetry here. We have over 600 pieces you can find in our archives, performances that combine words (mostly poetry) with original music we compose and record ourselves. But here was my problem as April arrived: time to compose new pieces is inconsistently available.

So, I’m going to lean on that collection of pieces we’ve done and make this also a celebration of what the Parlando Project has done over this past 6 years. My plan is to regularly repost pieces from the first half of our history this April. For many of you who joined this Project already in progress these may well be pieces you haven’t heard, but an additional goal is to introduce new listeners to these audio performances.

Why do that? Readership of this blog, originally intended as brief “show notes” for the audio pieces, has grown tremendously over the past year, but the audience for the musical presentations has increased only by a small amount over the same time. I’m hoping to capture more ears for those performances and the poets whose work we interpret, sometimes in surprising ways.

To gather more ears I’m going to be making new low-budget YouTube videos for these classic pieces, mostly just “lyric videos” that display the poet’s words we are presenting. Most new people find us via search engines, and my wild guess is that putting things in front of YouTube searchers may bring more listeners and readers.

To begin this series? Why not use the first piece from this project’s official public launch in 2016: Carl Sandburg’s “Stars Songs Faces.”   Speaking of strange, The LYL Band performed this on January 11th 2016, the day after David Bowie died. Carl Sandburg didn’t have the opportunity to prepare a eulogy for Bowie, since that American poet died in 1967, but back in 1920 he wrote this short evocative poem that we used for the words in this performance. Spookily, Sandburg’s poem presented this way makes it seem like he did write a eulogy for Bowie. And to eerily evoke that short time when both Sandburg and Bowie were extant, the music makes use of one of The Sixties most distinctive sounds: the wobbly Mellotron that could sound like a string section whose batteries were running down.

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“What will I be believing, and who will connect me with love?” The young Swedish-American and the star with songs and faces.

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Here’s a link to that simple YouTube lyric video. And here’s a link to just the audio performance if you’d like to rest your eyes. And finally, some of you will see our traditional audio player gadget below, another way to just play the audio.

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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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