Langston Hughes’ Dream Variation

Returning now to the poets presented in Alain Locke’s 1925 The New Negro  anthology, we’ve come to the poet I most associate with the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes. Though he was born in the Midwest and traveled some, Hughes actually lived for much of his life in New York City, unlike some others associated with that artistic flowering. And though Locke’s book concentrated on young, up and coming writers for the most part (Hughes was 23 when The New Negro  was published) Hughes’ literary career continued on a more or less continuous path until his death in 1967.

So, if I was asked “Name a Harlem Renaissance poet.” My first answer would have always been “Langston Hughes.” And if Locke’s book is the launch point for that, Hughes was as prominent as any other young writer featured there and then, even if in 1925 he had yet to publish a single book.

Young Langston Hughes

Young Langston Hughes. Hey Pharrell, pretty sharp work on those fedora creases don’t you think.

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This makes it strange then when I went to do a little research on how Hughes was judged during his 40 plus years as a literary artist. The summaries I read often point out that he was down-rated during his career, and to some degree up to the present day. Why? Well, he did have to go through the dangerous 1930s when political engagement was expected of writers, and like some others he had to handle the double-bind of associations and sympathy for the Russian Revolution and Communism and then later criticism of its faults. Many of the promotors of The New Negro  era were so focused on up-lifting the race and demonstrating high-culture acceptance that they were uneasy about Hughes’ embrace of a wider range of Afro-American experience. And finally, there seems to be an element of purely literary judgement he shares with Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman (two of Hughes’ influences) that what he wrote was judged as too simpleminded and unironic. Sure, the high-culture critics would essay: that kind of poetry might have readership broader than many, but it doesn’t fit the literary criteria ascendant as the 20th century unrolled.

Today’s piece, “Dream Variation,”  one of Hughes’ poems printed in The New Negro,  is a short nature poem. Here’s a link to the full text of it.* Like a lot of lyric poetry, you can read it quickly and superficially with some pleasure. It has rhyme and its rhythms.  It counts off some pleasant if not overly spectacular word-music. The first time through you may think it’s just pointing out a commonplace, something one could summarize as: “Hey, it’s nice when it sunny and you’ve got a day outside. And then a summer night when you finally go to bed — that’s nice too.”

Wait a minute. What’s with Hughes’ title: “Dream Variation?”   First off, that seems to say that kind of summer carefree pleasure isn’t something the poem is experiencing right now. Like Wordsworth’s daffodils, the poem’s speaker is experiencing this mentally, as if in a dream. That’s a different thing isn’t it. In the same way that a love poem about lost love is not the same as a poem about present love, this is a poem containing longing. Many of us are reading this during this February in North America. Likely you may relate to that state the poem is actually portraying.

I have no way of knowing what the weather was like when Hughes wrote his poem, but Hughes estranged father lived in Mexico where Hughes visited him before embarking for New York City and the beginnings of his literary career. So that titular variation may be a dream not only of passing seasons but of lost places too.

But there’s another way that variation means. In music it’s when a composer modifies elements of an established motif and we see it morph into a new related shape. Do you see what Hughes does here in his short poem? There’s a statement about dancing, arms wide and accepting, in the sun — and then resting in the evening “beneath a tall tree.” An interlude, when inside the body of the poem they express that this is “my dream” — not what they’re doing as they speak the poem. Next we learn that the “bright” day is now described as “quick” and the following “cool” evening is now “pale” evening. And finally, the real metamorphosis: the poem’s speaker is now not “Beneath a tall tree” — there is just a tall tree that remains as night comes.

This variation is subtle and somewhat undefined, mysterious, once you notice it. Is this a statement of the poem’s speaker’s absence from the warm place, that in the variation he’s no longer present? Has the speaker’s life, the proverbial “quick day” ended? Or, is it something even stranger: in the dream he’s no longer the external dancer beneath the tree, external to the day, external to the night, but now he’s become them?**   In dream logic it can be all those separate things at once. That’s part of why a dream experience can be so striking!

In this poem, like in some of the poems of Sandburg that I’ve presented here, I maintain that the simple language and seemingly straightforward scene of the poem has misled some readers and some critics. If I was encountering this poem as if I was translating from some Tang Dynasty Chinese classical poet, I would be aware that the poem may not be whamming me on the head about “Look it’s clever metaphor after metaphor! My, how complex a plot I can stuff into my poem! I bet no one ever said anything as complex as this ever before!” Perhaps the assumption is that a working-class Afro-American or the son of a Swedish immigrant can’t be thinking anything more complex than class-struggle position papers.

In my performance of Hughes’ “Dream Variation”  I consciously sought to bring out the mysterious element here. Stubbornly the harmonic progression I composed sticks closely to a core around the D note of the scale. Chords move between major and minor however and there’s a rub up and down with a D# Major7. The player to hear my musical performance may appear below, but if you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to hear it.

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*I used the text as printed in Locke’s anthology for my performance as it’s in the public domain. The version I link to is later and includes some, well, variations. In the newer version taken from Hughes’ Collected Poems,  the title has become plural, “Variations,”  “the bright day” has become “the white day,” and a couple of other smaller changes were made. One could speculate that the “bright day” vs “white day”  could have been suggested by an editor as less confrontational.

**And I haven’t even entered into the significant racial aspect that is there as well. The dark night in the poem’s first experience as being first external to the poem’s speaker and being one with it in the second “Black like me.” As an Afro-American poet, Langston Hughes almost certainly intends this, and it may be the most consciously intended message he wished the reader to receive: that poem’s journey via its variation is from experiencing one’s Blackness as externally to an internalized appreciation of it, and that later revision from “bright” to “white” for the first instance of the day underlines that reading.  I featured the above reading not to obscure that, but because our particulars as persons bleed into our commonalities as people. When William Butler Yeats or Joseph Campbell speak of being colonialized Irish, it’s not just about their particulars. When Du Fu speaks of being overcome by great events, it’s not just 8th century China that has felt that. When Emily Dickinson’s mind grasps onto a flower or abstract thought and sees its edges always curling, she’s not reduceable to a bourgeois New Englander. And so to when Langston Hughes speaks about being Afro-American in 1920s America. And frankly, I’m hesitant to assume an Afro-American identity as a performer of Hughes’ poem, even as I want to bring it forward to your attention.

Update: An alternate primary reading that the first dream variation is an unachieved dream and that the second is a reflection of the reality of Afro-American life colored by racism seems widespread. Widespread enough that I wonder if Hughes wrote of his intent or understanding of his poem’s meaning at some point. For example many of the alternate readings say the poem’s second dance and whirl is work-a-day and likely menial work inside a Capitalist and Racist system that wouldn’t value Hughes. Hughes experience and political thoughts could be consistent with writing a poem that expressed that. As much as I should doubt my reaction to the text of the poem as printed in 1925, I’m still not seeing that as being the inevitable and singular reading of the second variation, but I offer this update as a self-confessed non-expert on Hughes’ work and because I suspect not a few students come here via web searches to seek insight into poems, and so they should be aware of this other reading.

 

The Sky Is Low

This little poem by Emily Dickinson seems at first so slight, little more than a tiny winter nature lyric using the risky literary trope of the pathetic fallacy* deftly enough that it doesn’t cloy. The language is almost entirely simple and plain-spoken, but in such a short poem the words that aren’t entirely clear may reward further attention.

The Sky is low manuscript

Dickinson’s handwritten manuscript for today’s poem from the collection of Amherst College.

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The Imagists that came decades after Dickinson’s work weren’t much for the pathetic fallacy, but if one ignores that element— something possible to do because it’s so swift and unpretentious about it — this poem does work like an Imagist poem or like one of the models Imagism sought to emulate, the classical Chinese short poem.

Let’s start right at the first line, and the first word that requires some figuring out. “The sky is low, the clouds are mean” sets our stage. A “low sky” and “clouds” would indicate that this poem’s day-moment is overcast, but what does “mean” mean? It would be easy to think it’s saying, pathetic-fallacy-wise, that the clouds seem angry and spiteful. I think many modern readers will hear this sense primarily, and I cannot eliminate that Dickinson intended that at least as an undercurrent, as it seems a pair with the complaining wind we meet in the second stanza. Yet, in the context of the sentence that makes up the first stanza, my best thought is that she is presenting the clouds as a secondary definition of “mean” (now somewhat obsolete) as shabby or stingy. The image she’s setting up is that it’s overcast, but it’s not a snowstorm, there’s only a modicum of that mentioned: a specifically singular “flake of snow,” so that may be all these clouds are producing.

Our snowflake does have feelings. From its actions, aflutter in the wind and singular enough for the eye to want to follow it as an individual, it seems indecisive about what route to take over the landscape. It might fly high (“across a barn”) or low “through a rut.” It’s frozen (sorry, can’t help myself) in a moment in the poem and we never find out. In its concise way, Dickinson’s snowflake is like Robert Frost’s chiding portrait of his friend Edward Thomas: two possible roads, and the snowflake thinks it’s important to choose one.

The pathetic fallacy gets stronger as the second stanza begins. A cool or cold gusty wind is presented as if it’s complaining for hours on end. For an old/weak bicyclist like myself who tires of headwinds that seem to always be in my face no matter that one has changed direction, this is an ascribing of malice and forethought that I can appreciate. If you look at Dickinson’s own manuscript, you can see that she considered using a legalistic term**  “some parties,” but “some one” seems the broader and better choice. Here, in a different aspect from the snowflake who thinks it has at least a binary choice, it appears the wind is saying it’s been diverted or prevented from something.

In this small poem’s presentation, these two things are joined. The snowflake thinks it can decide, but we know the wind will send it where it directs, but the wind thinks it has been in someway enjoined. Pathetic fallacy aside, it cannot choose, meteorological forces and barometric lines will send it where they will.

In the last two lines, Dickinson doesn’t tell us how it comes out — she refuses to leave her poem’s lyric moment. Her final line brings one more uncommon word choice. It has it that “Nature, like us, is sometimes caught/Without her diadem.” A diadem is a ruler’s crown, worn to signify that the wearer, well, rules, decides. Once more, the pathetic fallacy is invoked: nature is the decider, but for the poem’s moment they have momentarily forgotten to put on the device that lets them take on that power — but in a tiny aside (“like us”) Emily Dickinson says we actual humans, who can actually think, feel, decide are sometimes also in this situation, we may blithely follow what seems like a free will choice or complain that we are forced into our directions. Which is it, really? Did you forget your diadem?

Read this poem, or many an early Imagist poem or classical Chinese poem, and it may seem a miniature painting of a mundane scene. We may be charmed briefly, or we may think, “Oh, that’s too slight to be a thoughtful poem.” Did Dickinson consciously or unconsciously intend what I see here? The number of times she was able to pull off effects like this poem can produce, and the subsidiary writings demonstrating how she thought***  indicate that even if she didn’t consciously work out the complexities underneath her simplicities in some grand and lengthy inner symposium, she put herself in the place where she could receive and express these charged moments.

As usual, I’m going to perform “The Sky Is Low”  with some original music. The player gadget should be below, but some blog reading software won’t show it. If so, this highlighted hyperlink will also play my musical performance.

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*The pathetic fallacy is the tactic of ascribing human emotions and thought to inanimate objects or forces. Despite the literal words of this poem, it’s not debatable that snow does that, and the wind doesn’t really have some angry dispute.

**I’m not sure how many scholars have considered that Dickinson grew up in a family of lawyers, and even though as a woman that field was not open to her, it’s likely that some of that was picked up by her avid mind.

***Long footnote ahead! What can we gather from how Dickinson used this poem that might indicate how she considered it? This poem was “published” in a personal letter to the wife of a couple that were long-time friends of Emily. The husband in the couple was Josiah Holland, a medical doctor and lay preacher. By the time this poem was written in 1866, Josiah had become a well-known journalist, lecturer, poet, and author. He was a principal in the Springfield Republican  newspaper which famously published seven of Dickinson’s poems during her lifetime. He had just published one of the first full-length biographies of Abe Lincoln, and would a few years later found and become the first editor of Scribner’s Monthly.  His wife, to whom the letter with the poem was addressed, Elizabeth Holland, has no known literary work — but read the letter by following this link.  Here one may get the sense of how another important literary personage who Emily Dickinson interacted with, the formidable Thomas Higginson, remarked about how Dickinson wore him out. The amount of philosophical legerdemain, reference, and zen parable in this short letter is striking to me. Did Dickinson expect Elizabeth Holland to understand that letter?

Emily Dickinson’s correspondence and friendship with the Holland couple seems to have been one of the most stable and ongoing in her life, equal to those who were Dickinson’s blood relatives. Whatever bonds were between them, this letter shows the expectation of considerable intellectual understanding, and for “The Sky is Low”  to be enclosed indicates that Dickinson had goals beyond the simplistic for it.

Two Butterflies

My wife remarked this morning that nature is often more beautiful than it needs to be—and if you need a testimonial to that, I present butterflies. What a marvelous structure their wings are, as if the most intricately colored flowers could fly. And fly they do—and unlike birds, they often seem to have no compunctions about flying near us oversized and under-winged creatures.

Butterflies close up

The Wordsworths didn’t carry a device that let them take pictures of lake country daffodils, but here’s the pair of butterflies that inspired today’s poem by flying over my shoulder.
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This is a prelude to today’s diversion from our usual practice here of using “Other People’s Stories,” other writer’s words, for these encounters and performances. Since I wrote the words this time, I’ll have less to say about what I’ve found out about the author and how I react to their experience. Not that creative writing doesn’t lead to that sort of thing—far from it—but in a way I’ve already chosen how to present those things inside the poem that is today’s text.

I will say this instead: the course of this project, though it takes energy that I might apply to my own writing, as helped my own poetry. As a chronic and justified self-doubter, finding the variety of strengths and weaknesses in a range of others’ work gives me hope in my own attempts—but more importantly, each time I figure out how to present and perform the variety of words (mostly poetry) for the Parlando Project, I must find what is worthwhile, what is valid, vivid, and engaging. It’s a commonplace that reading and studying poetry helps figure out how you may write it, but performing  it helps you understand how to advocate for it, how to let its soul out.

In recent years I’ve increasingly watched other poets read their work. Regardless of the level of accomplishment I might recognize in their words, it’s not uncommon on all levels to hear them read it as if apologizing for the interruption, as if they themselves aren’t sure what to advocate for in what they wrote. Some do this because performance isn’t easy for many people (let me present another testimonial: my singing voice). I believe some do it because to fail with a level of over-florid reading, with too much Am-Dram-Ham, would be such an embarrassing failure. Even to purposefully aim for some anachronistic disinterested beatnik cool could be an unforgivable mistake.

Well that danger is  there. I’ve heard poets read with an attitude that what they are reading is important that I don’t share.*  That disconnect doesn’t make me like the poet or poetry in most cases either—but think of the automatic failure of not claiming the worthwhile nature of what we do. A danger of failure is not a license to aim for it. If performing your work as if it isn’t worthwhile is your defense, consider changing what you write so that you can more unabashedly attempt to claim an audience’s attention.

Yes, a great many poets (I’m one) are driven by doubts. Perhaps you are too. Poetry, like nature, like butterflies, is writing that is more beautiful than it needs to be. That beauty is there to illuminate those limits and doubts. Are they, limits and doubts, ugly? It depends, but illumination changes them.

Two Butterflies

Attentive readers might connect this breakfast scene with this summer’s earlier piece “Breakfast in a Pandemic.”  Yes, same outdoor seating.  City Lights Books is welcome to contact me for a potential chapbook “Breakfast Poems.” This month I think of the woman in that earlier poem who stoppeth one of three to ask “If you had to choose between Trump and Covid, which would you choose?” Now? We don’t have to choose!
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There’s little room left to talk about my poem, but hopefully it speaks for itself. The poem expects the reader to know two pieces of information: the proverbial “Butterfly Effect” where small things like the flapping of an insect wing can change complex systems, and the metamorphical life stages of butterflies where the lithe butterfly begins life as a devouring worm-like caterpillar. The player gadget to hear my performance is below.

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*My teenager, a Douglas Adams reader, has asked when I’ll feature Vogon poetry here, but then they think most of what I present here is close enough to Vogon poetry in effect. Poetry audiences, or those that fear being press-ganged into being part of a poetry audience, often recall Adams satire—but yes, many of us writers of poetry think of it too.

Parlando Summer 2020 Top Ten, numbers 7-5

Maybe it’d be a good time to remind new readers what the Parlando Project does. We take various words, mostly poetry, and combine them with original music. Because seeking allowance for performance of words still under copyright is difficult,* we tend to use words in the public domain.

One common response to this capsule description is, “You mean songs?” And yes, sometimes there is singing of words. When I say I compose music for this, particularly when I use orchestral instruments, there’s an expectation of the general field of art song. And when I say a particular performance is me speaking the words in front of a, sometimes live, band, there are generational expectations from the beatnik to the hip hop.

The Parlando Project is not solely any of those things, and in the midst of the various combinations it comes up with, I’d say I’m still seeking, even now after hundreds of pieces and more than four years, for new ways to combine music and words. Song, art song, and the wide range of spoken word with music all seek this too. I just try to do it allowing for exploration of all three.

So, let’s get on to the continued countdown from 10 to 1 for the most liked and listened to Parlando Project pieces last summer.

7. Inversnaid by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Just like with music-music, word-music is a subjective thing. One person’s sublime poetry for sound and flow may not please another at all, and one person’s favorite recording or performance might be torture or boredom to the next listener.

I can sometimes be both persons above, one day liking the complex, the next the simple, in one mood seeking sweet consonance and another day a rich bitterness, or bursts of enormous energy sometimes and then expository slowness other times. It is a good thing that I have access to a range of musics.

But even if for sound alone, the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins tends to please me. It may help that it’s not an overexposed sound. Most modern poetry has an easy conversational feel with underlying iambs, while Hopkins feel for stresses with varying valleys and rills between loosens the lockstep yet retains a home footfall.

A great many of you listened to and liked my performance of Hopkins’ “Inversnaid”  this past summer. As I mentioned in the original post, this is not a poem that is easy to understand through and through for meaning, but the sound of it can carry one over the spillway of it’s wilderness waters.

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Falls at Inversnaid

A falls at Inversnaid. There’s a hotel right next door to these. Hopkins’ nature was to well, use nature to represent things. Sandburg often chose to use human-made things to explain humans.

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6. Good Night by Carl Sandburg.  I remain immensely comforted by the range of Sandburg’s poetry. His concern for the commonality of people echoes one of this project’s goals: “Other people’s stories.” His eye for injustice is clear. Modernism has a reputation for solitary individuality, but in his best short poems he harnesses the continued freshness of Imagism with these concerns.

In times like these I can find in Sandburg the things I need, the necessary skepticism, the necessary hope, the indispensable love that allows endurance and asks for change.

One thing I’ve encouraged during this project’s presentation of Sandburg is to assume that he, no less than other Imagists, deserves deep reading. Obviously, many current aesthetic theories say this is true of anything, but I think for whatever it’s worth that it’s likely part of Sandburg’s intent in his best early work too. If he wrote in a garret in Paris. If Sandburg never achieved any of the general renown he accumulated (renown the times and mores eventually spent down during the 20th century) scattered scholars might look for that.

Is there something below the surface of his “Goodnight?”  I think he, the artist, chose  the trains and steamboats as the leaving things of sleep and its longer analog rather than conventional poetic things from a palette of sur-human nature. Now technological progress has added a nostalgic note to his specifically steam-powered leaving. That may be an accident the author didn’t intend, giving this poem an extended feeling, extending out down the track, down the river, over the horizon.

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5. The Workman’s Dream by Edgar Guest. Does deep reading of poetry tire you? It does me sometimes. Does the chance that you’re missing the “real” meaning of some piece embarrass you once, and once is enough? Are you brave enough to laugh at Dorothy Parker’s smart-set summation** of the coolness-factor of “The Workman’s Dream’s”  author and still listen to him today?

Like Sandburg, Guest was a working journalist. Unlike the entire Sandburg, Guest’s poetry retains a certain work for hire desire to please over the coffee. Can we allow poetry to do that (sometimes) and not harm it? Well for Father’s Day I performed this one. The bold-face heading to each top ten listing will open in an new browser tab the original post I wrote, where in this case you can get the chords I used if you’d like to sing this one yourself.

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*My estimation: mostly because the poetry rights holders don’t care to seek this—and even when asked. This indifference is also mixed with some concern that it could reduce their control over how the material is presented and any (improbable) revenue.

**”I rather flunk my Wasserman test then read a poem by Edgar Guest” said Parker.

Inversnaid

Before we get to this gorgeous poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, let me talk a bit about what I believe regarding our experience of poetry. One of the reasons this project presents the (mostly) poems it uses as audio pieces is that I have a conviction that poetry has a word-music, a sound that is inherent and relevant to the form.

That doesn’t mean that poetry has to sound pretty in some immediate way, have regular meters, rhyme up, or even have some sense of “singing” imbedded in the authors intent. None of those things harm poetry in and of themselves, but all of them are just techniques of word-music, in the same way that the “rules” of music are discovered on a form that expresses itself in a variety of ways which may be successful with varied audiences.

Nor does it mean that poetry on the page isn’t a useful alternative way to experience poetry. Particularly complex poems, with subtle relationships, may more easily impress themselves when they can be comprehended in a non-linear way on the page where one may look up and down the stanzas and see relationships or indications of linkage. On the other hand, some complex and hermetic poems, or poems that use language in ways that are not in the form of ordinary literature, may be best experienced as we often experience songs or memorized verse (like nursery rhymes, folk sayings, or mnemonics) in a way where we encounter them more than once, in a portable form that we can hear in the background of other events and situations. Our memories as a playlist.

And now we return to Gerard Manley Hopkins and his poem “Inversnaid”  after that preface. Is there subtle thought in it? Yes, there may be. One could write an essay on deep ecology based on it. I suppose it could be a metaphor for Hopkins theology and philosophy, of which I know enough only to say that he was self-aware and concerned in those areas. Essays could be written, perhaps whole books inspired, though because it’s a short poem, it’s possible that one can carry “Inversnaid”  in a way that neither and essay or book can be.

But I’m not there yet with “Inversnaid,”  and I’m only the near-partway into my journey with Hopkins. No, what this poem is for me yet is: beautiful, sonorous, passionate, intense—it affects me. Frankly, I see only a bit of its matter, a little more each time. It shows the way that poetry, while it can contain ideas certainly, isn’t about ideas so much as it’s about the experience of ideas.

gerard-manley-hopkins

Another remarkable thing about Hopkins: like his near contemporary Emily Dickinson, he wrote his poems largely without thought of publication, and the extent of his work was unknown until a 1918 collection was published after his death.

 

Though Hopkins was a 19th century poet, a Victorian by calendar, and “Inversnaid”  is end-rhymed and follows Hopkins own appreciation for how English poetic metrics can work (ideas inspired from older Anglo-Saxon poetry) this is in some ways another Imagist poem before it’s time. There’s almost not a single emotional word in the entire poem. “Despair” and “bereft” do occur, but this poem doesn’t seem to be about either of those emotions except in contrast to them. Instead, like a good Imagist poem it’s about the immediate experience of a moment before those emotional words have appeared to frame or fence the experience in.

That Imagist effect is somewhat masked by Hopkins’ obscure language. This is a 12-line poem, not even sonnet length, written by a man whose shortened lifetime overlapped human beings whose lifetimes overlapped mine—yet there are more words than I, something of a language maven, didn’t know than one might find in an 16th century poem or the deepest subculture patois of a rap performance. Only the last quatrain stanza is in what one would call standard contemporary English.

One could intimidate a reader or listener easily by giving them a definition pop-quiz after hearing this poem. “OK, so you liked this poem! Well then, tell me what these words mean: burn, rollrock, coop, flutes, twindles, fell, degged, groins (stop snickering, this will be part of your final grade!), braes, flitches, heathpacks, and beadbonny.”*  I’d be surprised if many American English speakers could define a third of these. Residents of the British Isles might do better, but would they get over half?

We’re in near “Jabberwocky”  land here as readers. But we’re not quite as lost as listeners, because like Carroll’s nonsense poem, the sound makes us sense something of the intended meaning without dictionary. And the sound!

One could intimidate a reader or listener easily by giving them a definition pop-quiz after hearing this poem. ‘OK, so you liked this poem! Well then, tell me what these words mean: burn, rollrock, coop, flutes, twindles, fell, degged, groins (stop snickering, this will be part of your final grade!), braes, flitches, heathpacks, and beadbonny.”

This is really a proof-of-concept example of Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm” where unequal metrical feet are subsumed to attention to the set number of stressed syllables or words. And every one of those obscure words add to the sound so strongly as to be forgiven.

My performance of “Inversnaid”  should be available with a player gadget below. Full text of the poem if you like to read along is here. Thanks for reading and listening!

 

 

 

*I say this because I think I’d have gotten four as an American English speaker, and only that many with help from my love for old English-Scottish border ballads. Perhaps I should be docked a point though, for in my performance I misread “degged” instead as “dregged,” a word which sort of made sense to me. Some have attempted a glossary for this poem, here’s the best one I’ve found in a quick search.

Huazi Ridge (after Wang Wei)

It’s been awhile since I last presented one of my fresh translations of a poem from another language here. Today I’m going to sing a version of a poem by classical Chinese poet Wang Wei, but first a few words about translation.

I’ve grown to love doing translations from other languages here. I view it as an extension of the Parlando Project where we combine various words, usually poetry, almost always by other people, with music we compose and play. That means that most everything here is a translation of a kind, as the author probably didn’t intend for their words to be combined with music, nor are they available to tell Dave or I how to read and present their words.

Translation from another language to English is an additional layer of the author’s work being filtered through what I see and react to in it. Sometimes the Dadaist in me comes around, and I supply music that isn’t conventionally appropriate for the text. This doesn’t bother me.*  But in translating their text, the words someone else wrote, I do  worry about being accurate, being a good steward of their cultural contribution. And I should  worry. I speak no foreign languages. I had High School French. A grandmother and my mother spoke German as a child, but not as an adult with us. I live in a neighborhood with many Spanish speakers. None of this adds up to any fluency. That makes translation a difficult process and my efforts are no guarantee against misunderstanding of the author’s work in their native language. Now add to this the time and cultural gap to Wang Wei, the 8th century Chinese poet—a greater degree of distance than Rimbaud, Rilke, or Neruda.

There is some help in the shortness of this poem. It leaves you fewer lines to recode. Wang Wei was not as slight as his poem is though. Indeed, he was quite the hyphenate. He was a painter, a musician, a poet, and a functionary in various positions in a Chinese government which was facing a serious rebellion in his time, which led to a period in which he was a political prisoner. He was said to be a Buddhist. I know little about the background of this individual poem of his. I first came upon it in another English translation by poet Robert Okaji, who long-time readers here have already been introduced to. Here’s a link to his translation. Okaji has a good tactic for dealing with the extraordinary difficulties in translating a poet so far from us as Wang Wei. His translations are taken, as my Chinese translations are, from a supplied literal transliteration into English. He titles his as “After….,” an indication that he only claims to be sending forth his impression and inspiration from the original author’s poem. Good idea. I chose to do the same today.

Here’s the literal transcription he and I used as our entry into this poem:

Fly bird go no limit
Join mountain again autumn colour
Up down Huazi Ridge
Melancholy feeling what extreme

My guess is that Okaji was struck by the visual imagery in Wang Wei’s poem, and more than I eventually did, Okaji well-portrayed that aspect. As an accomplished painter, Wang Wei was unsurprisingly known for the corresponding strength in his concise portrayal of natural scenes in his poetry. Though I didn’t go that way with “Huazi Ridge,” I often chose this route in translations: finding a way to make vivid the imagery the poet presented in my modern English.

I instead chose to go with two other aspects. The first that struck me was a strongly implied parallelism in this tiny poem: the birds who “go no limit” in the first line and the “Melancholy…what extreme” in the final line. The birds can fly, their possible course seems infinite. Even a mountain is no barrier to them. Sadness, suffering, dissatisfaction, and humanity’s attachment to that, is at the core of Buddha’s teachings. So, in trying to get at the meaningful linkage between those two lines I chose to see the birds as choosing to return to this mountain, this massively material earthly obstacle (perhaps as a migration or habitat) even though they could fly seemingly anywhere.

Here’s what I came up with in English:

Look these birds can fly without limits
Yet they return to this mountain in red autumn
All up and down Huazi Ridge
What then are the limits of sadness

A central fact in this poem remained unsettled as I worked on my translation. Where is Huazi Ridge and the associated mountain?** What is the landscape, why would Wang Wei choose it in particular? There some extra degrees of difficulty in a web search on Huazi. The western alphabet I’d search on is an approximation, and place names everywhere change with regionalism and time.

Web searches on Huazi often led to a Chinese Mount Hua. Here’s a somewhat irreverent but illustrative video of what it’s like to climb up and down it.

Turns out there are easily a dozen videos out there of what it’s like to climb the path up Mount Hua, but I still like this one.

 

The translation I came up with—my impression, however mistaken, yet (I hope) worthwhile—of Wang Wei’s poem sought to portray an earthbound, flightless human noting the birds who could easily fly over the mountain and anywhere else they would choose, but instead they return, captured perhaps by the autumn beauty or the immense thereness of the mountain. Ah, notices the poem’s speaker—“Look!” he urges, see this too: even the flight-blessed birds who do not need to trudge up and down at great peril and effort choose not to step off the wheel of return. What then are the limits of suffering, sadness, unsatisfaction? You climb the mountain once, twice, how many times? The noble truths of the Buddha’s teachings says that you will return, as the birds do, until you can choose to see all that is not the mountain.

What’s the other thing I sought to put in my English impression? I rendered it in metrical verse. And since it is said that Wang Wei played and composed for the pipa, the Chinese lute, my music today uses my attempt to portray a little of that instrument using the MIDI interface on my guitar along with a more Western drums, bass, and electric guitar ensemble. The player to hear my performance of “Huazi Ridge”  is below.

 

 

 

*Bother me? Hell no, it’s great fun—and unusual juxtapositions sometimes demonstrate something that otherwise wouldn’t be revealed in a work we perform. Since we use material in the public domain, there are no rights issues with authors preferences.

**I couldn’t even find a pronunciation for “Huazi,” and my fear is that this performance’s guess could be risibly bad by Chinese standards. I know I have some Chinese readers. Is Huazi mountain and/or ridge a well-known place that would be meaningful to a Chinese reader?

Some Rainbow coming from the Fair

There I was, thinking it’s been over a month since I’ve presented an Emily Dickinson poem here. I didn’t start this project thinking that Dickinson would be so prevalent as a source for texts, but that’s what happened, and during the past four years my appreciation and wonder at Dickinson has increased greatly.

One thing I came to sense in her poetry that I had not noticed before was an air of the mystical combined with an almost psychedelic playfulness. This can be dark or light depending on the poem, but since many of the things I’ve been working on lately have been in a darker, more gothic vein, I thought I’d look more to the lighthearted side. I started a search for Dickinson and spring, and while I’m not sure exactly what keywords I used, this poem turned up very near the top, and it immediately captured me. I had thought I’d be searching for a while but found my next piece in less than 10 minutes.

“Some Rainbow coming from the Fair”  is not one of the most famous of Dickinson’s poems, nor has it been commonly set to music (unlike many other Dickinson texts). Here’s the full text and a picture of the manuscript in Emily’s own handwriting if you’d like to follow along.

It opens with two remarkable and attractive lines that don’t present a distinct image. I’m not sure which meaning of the word “Fair” we’re to understand in the first line. Fair as in a celebratory meeting or market (like a county or town fair) or fair as in beautiful, but rainbows and fair in the first line and we could almost be in My Little Pony land if Dickinson doesn’t launch us further out quickly into a “A vision of the world Cashmere.” I first thought of the luxurious wool,*  but she also could be using this word as an alternate name for the Asian region called Kashmir. Peacocks complete the luxurious imagery of the first stanza. In later context we’ll see that this is an image of wildflowers, but at this point we’re still in mystery and allure.

Next stanza is lovely in sound and more specific in what it pictures. Butterflies are butterflies, ponds have insect sounds again, and in an image that might make one laugh out loud, bees are “barons” out of their castles and on the ambling march.

Third stanza, robins have replaced the enrapturing snow that Dickinson so ably described in a poem many liked here last winter. She next gives us an orchis flower prettying up for an old lover, the exotic Spanish nobleman “Don the Sun” who is revisiting her in her swamp.**  The sensual and the silly playfulness keep mixing it up.

In context we now suspect that the poem is describing wildflowers in its more impressionistic and feathered images. And the final stanza marshals the spring blooms into an army. And then, like it started, the poem departs with two lines that end in mystery. What’s up with the flower children of “turbaned seas” and the “Circassian Land?”

Well first, flowers again.*** The spring flowering tulip’s name is derived from the same word as the Turkish word turban because the bud’s shape is of a like shape to the head covering. The Circassians and their native region in the Caucasus mountains were in the news at the time this poem was written. Imperial Russia had invaded the area, and the Circassians were fighting back.**** Some of the coverage dealt with atrocities including the enslavement of Circassian captives and captured Circassian women being held in Turkish harems. As we’ve discussed before, this last trope was an exotic/erotic fixation for some westerners. Circassians were geographically “Caucasians”—and in the archaic understanding of ethnicity of this time, Caucasians were held to be the prototypical white race. Therefore, beyond the usual fascination with underdog fighters against Imperial forces and humanitarian concerns with displaced refugees, there was this additional element of “White Slavery” and a frisson of the forbidden.

So this is a very particular and odd way to end the poem—but even if you know nothing of the current events of the mid 19th century, it does still convey that exotic flavor. A reader reading this without context may still find it an enjoyable spring celebration poem. It certainly captured my interest at first reading. But wait, there’s one more bit of context!

It may well have been intended to capture it’s reader, as it did me, in that it’s one of the poems Dickinson sent in a letter to her friend, sister in law, neighbor, and possible lover Susan Gilbert Dickinson in 1859. If you look at the end of that handwritten manuscript, it ends with this note:

Emily's Dear Sue Note

Dear Sue, I haven’t “paid you an attention” for some time. Girl.

 

 

As with all things Emily and Sue, there’s a gathering amount of modern speculation and scholarship to these matters. Just a little friend to friend note or a bread-and-butter obligation repaid to a sister in law? Or is this poem meant to be an encoded mash note to a romantic crush?

If it’s consciously or unconsciously erotic, one may be able to see that reading without strain. Cashmere as fabric for a vest or blouse. The pervasive flowers now as the beautiful reproductive organs of plants. And butterflies. The bees, are they singing Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee”  from a hundred years after Dickinson’s poem? That Orchis waiting for a lover? Oh, for certain. Sensuous feathers. The whole captive in a harem as role-playing. It’s not just the spring wetlands that are getting steamy in here!

In the end, the poem may stand either for spring’s desire and delight or the poet’s. And as I said last time, it captures you with it sound of thought either way. The player gadget for my performance is below.

 

 

* Dickinson might have had it in mind, as this textile from Asiatic goats had been introduced to western countries, and Massachusetts in her time had mills that wove it into fabric.

** The informal British English meaning for “bog” was not likely on Emily’s mind. However, one of Dickinson’s poetic heroes Elizabeth Barrett Browning had helped propagate the Latin lover trope with her publication of her love poems Sonnets from the Portuguese in 1850.

***Emily Dickinson was an avid gardener, and as a young woman compiled an elaborate herbarium classifying a great many flowers in her region. Whenever Dickinson mentions a flower you can be sure she knows more about it than the average person.

****These overseas battles were covered in the Springfield Republican,  a Massachusetts newspaper that was read in the Dickinson household and which was one of the few places that published an Emily Dickinson poem while she was alive. Alas for the Circassians, the final outcome of this invasion was diaspora and what in a quaint 20th century euphemism was called “ethnic cleansing.” And to think that I sought out this poem because I wanted contrast to other, darker stuff I was working on.

The Birds Before Us

Most days I take a bike ride to and from a cafe I have breakfast at. It’s my conviction that exercise is a good thing for people of all ages, but it’s more at required for folks my age. The kind of sitting that goes into composing music or the reading and writing that contributes the texts this project uses is pleasant and absorbing, so I think that if I don’t start my day with something that gets me moving outdoors all I would see is screens and pages. No matter if they are blank or full pages, the book of nature cannot be found there.

When it comes to the book of nature I’m not well read. When I read poets like Emily Dickinson or Edward Thomas I can easily tell that. Therefore, my only advantage is that I get to read the book of nature as if for the first time.

Rust Lacework Truck

Chemical nature observed. My homage to the Yip Abides blog. I love how the rust has created a sunburst finish lacework that matches the original paint color of this truck I passed this month.

This spring I began to notice birdsong more and more. In early morning rides the birds were active and making a note of that with their calls and singing. Summer writes diminuendo, and by now my northern state is quite silent. Nor do I get to see any birds much, though the streets here are full of the year’s batch of weaned squirrels, now nearly adult-sized, who are dashing about as if they have a plan for winter. And with the squirrels I hear less of the cackles from those that take time to chase another squirrel for sport. I sometimes imagine those pursuing pairs were littermates, another they were once eyeless beside.

No one’s singing because there’s autumn work to be done—but what work? Will it bring reward? What to store, what to leave behind.

Today’s text is a poem I wrote about birdsong, and the larger book of nature in which we are only an entry, somewhere between horseflies and iguanas as alphabetized with our symbols. It’s occurred to me that I have taken time in this later year of my life to listen to the birdsongs, their piercing intervals; and that after I no longer roll down these streets looking for tea and scrambled bird eggs, that there will be birds in spring moving from note to note, and birds in fall, quiet and studious.

The Birds Before Us

Here’s the poem if you’d like to read along as you listen to the performance.

The piece is called “The Birds Before Us,”  and you can hear my performance of it with the gadget below. We’ll return soon with the usual Parlando Project thing: encounters with other people’s words.

Besides the Autumn poets sing

Since we’ve re-established that Emily Dickinson can do simple, here’s a lovely poem of hers that introduces more than a touch of “meta” to her poetry.

This poem’s first line starts the meta thing right off. You could quickly read the opening word as “Beside” without the s, and then the poets are singing in the presence of Fall. I suspect Dickinson wished to include that element but subvert it. “Besides”  means in this context “beyond that, in addition to.” So, there’s this thing: “Autumn” that poets sing about that is what? Well, it’s prosaic (i.e. prose and routine, not poetry and unique/charged). It’s small: “few,” and “little.”

Next stanza, the song now riffs with “few:” “A few…mornings,” “A few…eves.” Dickenson’s diction is still casual here, but she drops a couple of unusual adjectives with that repeated pair of fews. Unusual adjectives are often a weak crutch in poetry. Throw together some out-of-the-blue random adjective with a noun and you’re suddenly all surreal, poetically mysterious and creative—but more importantly, do these unexpected modifiers create a charged image?

“Incisive mornings,” is a bit of a play on words. Incisive here means not just perceptive, as in the coolness and lack of light predicting winter’s shorter days and lack of warmth: but taken in its other meanings, its winds are cutting and daylight is being incised, removed. “Ascetic eves” also speaks of removal, evenings no longer long with lingering light and it hints at spiritual matters this removal may reveal.

The second stanza ends with two references to poets, presumably examples of the ones mentioned as the poem opens: William Cullen Bryant, an older poet contemporary with Dickinson, and James Thomson, a Scottish poet of the 18th century. Neither are well-known today (though Bryant was a very important American cultural figure in his time). Dickinson mentions them and says that the stuff in their supposed Autumn poems are “gone.”*

In the context of these two stanzas, Dickinson is saying: the existing poets aren’t telling us much about autumn. I think that Dickinson’s sly inclusion of those two concise, precise, and original adjectives is cutting. She’s showing that in two words she can say more about autumn than they can in some long-winded poetry.

harvesters by Peter Bruegel the elder

Sheaves get mentioned in passing in Dickinson’s poem, so I get to exercise my love for Dutch painting

 

The second half of the poem has Dickinson unleashing her style of poetry against these musty odes. The third stanza’s word-music is just wonderful. I won’t dance about its architecture today—you can just read or listen to it—I’ll only point out that the end-words “brook” and “touch” have a lovely rhymish echo, even though they aren’t even slant rhyme. This stanza has the superb line “Sealed are the spicy valves” which partakes of the musicality but is an elusive image too. As I read it, I thought of gardeners in our climate planting garlic cloves this time of year, but garlic was not yet a thing in Emily’s New England. After an hour or so of trying to decode the image, to determine what specific spice plant in Dickinson’s time and place is referred to,**  I now think this a more generalized image of withered flowers. “Valves” is used only one other time in Dickinson’s poems, in the more famous A Soul selects her own Society  poem where they appear as “the Valves of her attention.” “Spicy” I’ve judged now is just a biologic/erotic reference to flowers pollination role. We may read the valves anatomically in various ways, but eyelids*** may be intended, as in the closing two lines of the stanza.

The final stanza is Dickinsonian too: nature in Dickinson’s poems is often personified in comical and non-charismatic species, here squirrels. Comically, her thoughts on the matter of autumn and poetry will be of great interest to the squirrel, and in this image she’s pointing out her non-existent status as a literary figure compared to Bryant et al.

It could just be a handy, casual sentiment to finish the poem, but Dickinson may be earnest in her concluding phrase: her mind is the sun that can illuminate the lack of sunlight as Winter solstice approaches.

Mostly acoustic guitar for the music performance today, though if you listen in the background you’ll hear a little harmonium and tambura. You won’t hear it in the rhythm or the instruments timbre, but I put a hidden reference to one James Marshall Hendrix in the music. You can read the full text of Dickinson’s poem here as you listen with the player gadget below.

 

 

 

*Thomson wrote the lyrics to “Rule Britannia,”  and Dickinson is likely referring to his long Miltonic blank verse poem called “The Seasons”  in her 16 line one. Bryant’s poetry may be largely forgotten, but his former cultural salience is still honored with a lot of school, street, park, and place names in the U.S.

**As an adult, Emily ran an extensive garden in the largely self-sufficient Dickinson family homestead, and in her youth she studied botany and produced a remarkable herbarium book filled with precisely identified plants—so it’s not crazy to think that she could have had a specific plant whose lifecycle she understood. A full-fledged farm field operated right across the road under Emily’s window at the homestead. The “sheaves” in Thomson’s poem wouldn’t have been abstract to her either.

*** If one wants to get more biographical in reading the poem, Dickinson famously went for treatment to Boston for some tantalizingly unspecified “eye problems” a few years after this early poem was written.

Pied Beauty

It’s said about significant musicians that a careful listener can tell who’s playing just from their sound. The word-music of poets could be a similar tell, but in the case of poetry we have other kinds of data: subjects, characteristic outlooks, and the kind of imagery they choose to use—and those things often overwhelm the distinctions in the sound of a poet’s poem.

But even 130 years after his death, British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins sounds like no other. The piece I’m going to present today is one of his best known poems: “Pied Beauty,”  and he intended it as a rhymed metrical poem, but Hopkins’ conception of meter and phrasing is so unlike other English poets that it might sound like a piece of free verse.

If Hopkins doesn’t sound like other poetry in English, he does have some similarities to Old English and ancient Welsh poetry, two languages he had some familiarity with. In place of the traditional musical phrases that his Victorian contemporaries might use, flowing lines in regularly stressed feet, Hopkins substitutes shorter, broken and paused phrases and a great deal of word sound echoing beyond just conventional end-rhyme.

Reading Hopkins in the pre-Modernist era at the end of WWI must have been like hearing Thelonious Monk play piano just after WWII. It doesn’t sound “right,” it breaks, or more correctly ignores, rules of how things are supposed to sound. Yes, the phrasing is instantly felt as rhythmic, but that’s no anchor, because the rhythm is part of what’s “wrong.” But also like Monk, to more than a few listeners, it can be arresting, even on first listen. You don’t have to understand the structure, or know how it works differently—that’s not a simple task by the way—to hear something that grabs your attention. You may dig it; but even though we humans are natural imitating machines, you may still not be able to do it.

And so, like Monk, Hopkins doesn’t have as many imitators as he has admirers of his achievement, even today.

Monk Hopkins Genius of Modern Music

His music still sounds more modern than most—both of ‘em.

 

An additional barrier to Hopkins is that his subject matter, though explicitly Christian religious, is also often harrowing. British poets have long explored unrelieved melancholy, but Hopkins doesn’t want to read Job, or understand Job theologically, he wants (or can’t escape) to be Job.*

Which makes “Pied Beauty”  a good introduction to Hopkins word-music, because while it’s making a subtle theological point, this is not a particularly sad, tragic, or even solemn poem. Did Hopkins interject “Who knows how?” mostly to make his rhyme on the 8th line? I don’t know, but I can’t read that phrase and this poem without a little of the feeling of “Ain’t that funny? Unchanging, pure monotheist deity, and yet maker of a world of mixed and changing things.”

Musically, I’m not Thelonious Monk, nor was meant to be—am an attendant lord, one that will do. Still I musically sought to put a certain angle on my usual chords and cadences. Old-time Chicago jazz guy Eddie Condon said the modernist jazz composers flatted their fifths, while his crew just drank them. If so, I caucus with the modernists. Harmony has laws and customs, but the anarchists have melodies.**  The full text of Hopkins’s poem is here. My musical presentation of it is available with the player gadget below.

 

 

 

*Just because he’s so distinctive in his sound and phrasing, we don’t need to overlook the imagery in Hopkins’ poem. Skies like cows? That’s proto-Surrealist, “old bossy in the skies with diamonds” stuff. I have to confess that my eyes once read “brinded cow” as a more conventional if workmanlike “bridled cow.” Brinded means patched patterns as on cows’ hides, it’s an archaic Middle English word, in keeping with Hopkins’ love for the sound of the poetry of the ancestors of modern English. See also firecoal colored tree nuts and painted fish.

**Well this is true at least for me. When I’m not working in drone or heavily home-chord centered structures, I will construct chords and chord progressions based on others’ ideas, or the mathematical commonplaces, testing the results for interest. But for melody, I usually don’t choose to follow rules or commonplaces, and when I find myself approaching those things, I may start to subvert them immediately. Yes, there are pleasures in knowing exactly what note comes next—must come next—but there’s too little music out there that mines disputing that expectation.

I awoke this morning to read that Ginger Baker died, a prime musical iconoclast if there ever was one. I’d read the earlier notes that he was gravely ill and I think I may have tried to imitate some of his playing (those tom rolls…) with the drum track on this.