Sunset from Omaha Hotel Window

Have you ever noticed how little poetry deals with the world of everyday work, with the employments that occupy such a large portion of our lives? Some of this is due to the positioning of art as an escape from all that humdrum and haplessness. We go to poetry, or to music, partly to divert ourselves from it. It promises us the respite of beauty, or at the least a music to shake ourselves down from the defeats and stress of it.

On the poets’ part, some of that may be because poetry is almost never their “day gig”—and that other regular bills-paying job is, at some level, an embarrassment. After all, Lord Byron didn’t have that waitress job, Edna St. Vincent Millay didn’t have to sweat getting the reports done by EOD, and Homer didn’t have to stay awake wondering if he should raise a stink about how his co-workers are dumping too much of their work-load on him. Poets, if they are to make it to the level possible in our modern culture, can at best aspire to the level of college teaching with sabbaticals and a modicum of grants. That necessary rent-paying day gig is an admission that they are marginalized as artists.

Carl Sandburg seems unaffected by that embarrassment, one of the reasons to treasure him in his years as a pioneering Modernist. Since he was politically aligned as a socialist, some kind of workers-solidarity stance might be obligatory. Luckily, the early-20th Century Sandburg rarely reads that way, and his life demonstrates reasons why this is so. He was born of working-class immigrants, and all through his Imagist years, while he was focused on becoming a poet, he remained working class through and through.

You may not share Sandburg’s politics (any more than I share Ezra Pound’s), but even through the superficial changes in the decades since he wrote them, you can find in Sandburg poems a real, felt, understanding of day to day work for pay. His first three poetry volumes are filled with this understanding. Today’s piece, “Sunset from Omaha Hotel Window,”  from his Pulitzer Prize winning collection “Cornhuskers”  is suffused with this.

Much of Sandburg’s 1918 “Cornhuskers”  seems to be reflections published some 20 years later of his experiences while still a teenager in the 1890s when he hoboed out west from his native Illinois, working day labor and various farm jobs. Some of its idiom is unclear to me. I am not sure what is simply obsolete vernacular and what is figurative language invented by the poet.

hotel-by-a-railroad by Edward Hopper

He: You know my boss says I’m in line to be a supervisor if I just keep at it.
She: It says here “An image is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”

 

“Sunset from Omaha Hotel Window”  tells you right off it’s allegiance to Imagism. It’s titled like a painting or an art photograph, and while Imagism wasn’t dogmatic about visual images, the visual arts were undergoing their own revolution influencing Modernist poetry; and as a practical matter, visual images have a directness that lend themselves to Imagism’s rejection of abstract and tired poetic tropes. And the poem’s first lines start, like many an Imagist poem, with colors and objects: a sunset over the Missouri river valley separating Omaha from Iowa. But then a line that’s a bit allusive: “The long sand changes.” My first thought was “like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” That maybe what Sandburg was intending, but I don’t know if it’s some obsolete saying or something Sandburg invented. Sandbanks formed on a river channel are sometimes given this name, and that may be part of the meaning, and the wandering Missouri river has formed and erased many of them.

Later we meet up with two more lines like that: “Time knocks in another brass nail. Another yellow plunger shoots in the dark.” The first is partially clear, as the driving of a nail is a job of work with a sharply defined end. But why brass? It’s something akin to the still extant idiom “getting down to brass tacks” which is clearly understood to mean “getting down to the real, basic, concrete issues,” but the brass-tacks image that idiom presents, and its origin, is a mystery. The second part, the yellow plunger, I understand even less. I thought: meteor? Some meteors have discernable colors. The sun? He says in the dark, and his sunset is red from the first lines. As I sang it I just thought: shooting star, but I would welcome any ideas.

Still, the meaning of the poem is not hard to discern for any working person. As an Imagist, Sandburg doesn’t have to say what he’s feeling—weary, sad, cheated, worried, broke, lonely, unappreciated, angry—he just presents the scene. In my arrangement of this piece, I added repeats of Sandburg’s refrain “Today is a goner and today is not worth haggling over.” Time passes, work is done, and the issues of work, however numerous, enduring, undimmed, and uncontrolled by us are as stars—they are distant and present for a moment in Sandburg’s poem.

To hear the LYL Band’s performance of Sandburg’s “Sunset from Omaha Hotel Window” use the player below.

 

The Parlando Project Winter 2017 Top 10 Part 2

Picking up from where we left off yesterday, here are the next three most popular audio pieces based on readers here hitting the like button along with the number of streams and downloads counted during this past fall.

Number 7 is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “”Sonnet 43”.  I seem to be coming to a greater appreciation for Millay as I do this project. Like my long time favorite Carl Sandburg, Millay “suffered” from too much popularity in her heyday, and like Sandburg I believe that her popularity in non-academic circles at the least caused critics to feel that they need not bother to examine her work more closely.

I’ll admit, I was one of those that thought she sounded like someone trying to be a 19th Century poet when the 20th Century was well and truly underway. Now in the 21st Century, I find this less of a crime, and when I let go of that, I find I like this sonnet’s complex appreciation of love’s limits.

Musically I love that I was able to play a convincing arco bass using a MIDI-controlled virtual instrument for this one. Bowed string bass is like the snoring of the bear mother in a winter den to me, immense, and yet sweet and comforting.

 

 

 

Speaking of Carl Sandburg, his “Autumn Movement”  made it all the way to number 6, and that’s remarkable because it was only released on October 20th and thus had less than half of the Fall interval to pickup likes and listeners. I love the central autumn image in this one from Sandburg’s “Cornhuskers”  collection, and it reminds us that Sandburg, known also for his acutely observed Chicago poems and journalism, was from the very start of his career interested in conveying rural life as well.

Musically, this piece demonstrates how recently I had seen Bill Frisell in concert—and seeing him, and the musicians he plays with, is something I try to keep always recent in my experience. Of course, Bill Frisell has an immense amount of musical vocabulary under his fingers, and I don’t; but I tried to make the best of mine, which is all any musician can do.

 

 

Bill Frissell with books

Besides his music, I admire Bill Frisell’s interior decorating sense and, alas, his sartorial style.

 

Our number 5 piece in popularity this fall was T. E. Hulme’s report from “Trenches St. Eloi.”   Many of the Modernist soldier/poets who served in WWI grew not only to  hate war, but to distrust their country’s cause and justifications for their particular war. Hulme is something of a exception. As far as I can tell, he remained supportive of the British war effort in which he eventually lost his life. That doesn’t make “Trenches St. Eloi”  propaganda, for it’s far from blind to the horrors and difficulties of extended conflict. Hulme’s death shortened his career and helped mask his seminal contribution to modernizing British poetry.

Since starting this blog, I’ve been following the centenary of World War I off and on in the background, which meshes well with much of the material I can present here without running into rights issues, since modern public domain status cuts off at 1924. The material from the poets who served in the war or were otherwise touched by it, is, not unexpectedly, downbeat. Just as the Modernist revolution changed poetry, WWI changed how war was written about, breaking millenniums-long Homeric traditions of war heroes, that however flawed, were able to shape battles by their character, into stories of endurance like this one.

This is another one where the bass guitar gets to carry a lot of weight.

 

 

Thanks again for reading and listening. It’s been a huge amount of work this past year to bring you the Parlando Project pieces, hundreds of hours of reading, studying, translating, composing, playing, and recording these unique combinations of various words (mostly poetry) with various original music (as varied as Dave and I can make it). That wasn’t drudgery—far from it—it’s brought joy and amazement to me to see what’s out there that I haven’t heard or imagined before, and I hope some of that wonder and discovery comes through to the readers and listeners here, because it’s our goal to surprise and delight you, to show you new facets of poems or poets you thought you knew and to introduce you to some writers that didn’t get included in your textbooks.

Here’s what I ask you to do if we’ve succeeded in that, even if only for a piece or two out of the more than 160 pieces we’ve presented so far: let others know about it. Tap them on the shoulder, show them the URL, link us on your blog or on social media, stick an earbud in their ear. Every like, listen, link and comment helps me keep doing this. I know I should be a better promoter of this work, but frankly, I’m too engaged in the work itself to do as much as is needed.

And standby, the next three most popular pieces from the past fall will be posted soon.