The Vanishing Red

Do you think you know Robert Frost? You know: steadfast New England farmers, Currier and Ives snowfalls, happy roads less traveled by. We might think of Frost as the friendly Modernist, with good ol’rhymes and rhythms and narratives of American scenes of Americans bearing up to the burdens of life.

Robert-Frost on a wall

Robert Frost. Wry poet of the good old days—or maybe not?

 

Today’s piece is instead the hard-boiled Robert Frost. It’s blank verse, but the beat is implied, the sentence structures beat against it, and my performance choice was to not emphasize the meter. What “The Vanishing Red”  portrays is, straight up, a racially-motivated murder, and the way Frost tells the tale uses sly ways to frame this story.

He doesn’t get out of the first line before he starts this framing. One of our characters is called the “Red Man” by history. A term roughly equivalent to the N-word for indigenous Americans, but one that in Frost’s time was not considered socially unacceptable.*  Frost wasn’t going to shock or disgust his readers in 1916 with that epithet at the start of his poem, like he might some today, but he wants us to know from the start that the race and history of this man is material to what is going to happen—but we don’t meet him yet.

Instead we meet another man, the Miller, who’s talking in a way we might find familiar. He starts out by telling us he’s not guilty of something before he’s even been charged with it, claims too that he’s not one of that PC brigade who “talks round the barn” instead of straight talk, that he’s a get-it-done doer.

Frost adds just a tiny bit of narration after the Miller’s speech. Some may read this narration as excusing the man, but the narrator’s pointing us to think about two things as the story will continue. The narrator says, let’s not consider this as history (“too long a story”) or politics (“who began it”). As we’ll soon see, we’re going to consider this as an Imagist poet would consider it, as a presentation of what Ezra Pound called “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” History can be dulled by time. Politics says there are two sides.

Old Grist Mill

Nostalgic postcard or dark satanic mills?  Frost reports, you decide.

 

But first we have one more exchange of dialog. Our unnamed “Red Man” is at the Miller’s mill, and we hear nothing he says directly, but we do hear what the Miller puzzles about what the other man is communicating. The Miller portrays the other man as without English words, but he interprets some “guttural exclamation” anyway as surprise, and this is somewhat sketchy. Is the native American puzzled by the mill’s mechanism? Surprised at being seen by the Miller?

Is the Miller even reading the other man well? I think not. Afterall, the Miller has another reaction, stronger than his sense of what the other man may be feeling, and Frost’s narrator also doesn’t “talk around the barn:” it’s disgust. But that’s not what our Miller portrays in his next piece of dialog. He acts friendly, offers to show “John” his mill.**  Ah, the “Red Man” has a name, he’s not some reductionist cypher for an entire continent’s indigenous peoples, and since it’s an English name, we might surmise that he might even be one of the Massachusetts tribes that attempted to synthesize with the new rulers, taking to Christianity and living in “praying towns.”

And now the Imagist poem begins, ten lines. The Miller opens a trap door and shows John the water-power wheel, and a poem that has been entirely without imagery suddenly gets a vivid image. The wheel’s water forebodingly is like struggling, thrashing fish. The door closes, and the door’s handle (a metal ring) we are told makes enough noise with this shutting to be heard above the noise of the mill. And the Miller returns upstairs, alone. The wheel’s turned around to the beginning of the story where the Miller laughs, though it’s not quite a laugh. He meets a customer carrying more meal to be ground at the mill, who doesn’t understand what has just happened. We ourselves are just understanding what has happened.

What has happened? The racist Miller has thrown John, the “Red Man” into the mechanism and killed him. Frost wants you to feel that by showing you this moment in time, but he also wants you to vividly feel the lack of notice, the vanishing in the title, which isn’t some passive mystery, it’s an act of human cruelty.

Today’s music is two pianos, bass and drums. I’ve been suffering from a cold for the past few days which made completing today’s spoken word component a challenge, and I did miss one phrase in Frost’s text and didn’t get another one completely correct, but you didn’t get to hear any of the coughs and voice cracks from the bad tracks either. To hear “The Vanishing Red”  use the player below.

 

*For example, the college I went to over 50 years ago called its sports teams the Redmen then. I had a tiny part in the beginning of the process to change that.

**Acton Massachusetts had a grist mill and more. I can’t find any pictures of them, but the town still has a Grist Mill Road.

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I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose

After our short trip to Chinese translation, let’s return again to Emily Dickinson, who is observing another morning.

This LYL Band performance of “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose”  is a bit imperfect. Alternative Parlando Project reader Dave Moore takes the lead here, but he and I are singing instead of our usual recitative, and we’re caught at the top of our singing range as well. Dave even bobbles a word in the line “The hills untied their bonnets.” So, yes, this leads to some imperfection—but this lyric is so perfect that perhaps it can carry us along anyway.

I suggest you listen to this piece now and then read my discussion of what I see in it afterward. Dickinson, like a good melody, doesn’t require understanding before enjoyment. The player to hear it is at the bottom of this post.

“I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose”  begins with a homespun 19th century village dawn, and the singer starts right off almost bragging that they can tell us how the sun comes up. As proof, Dickinson unleashes a string of lovely, singing metaphors for sunrise, looking down from the dawn only once to let us see the squirrels running about as if with the news of the day. She concludes this section with finest simplicity: “That must have been the sun!”

Isn’t that a strange way to sum up dawn? It comes up and it’s already past tense, like Meng Haoran’s morning in the last post, and Dickinson comments on this common splendor as if she’s a surprised alien from another planet who has never seen the sun. Her boast that she can tell us “how the sun rose”—something she and all of us should already know, set in nothing more special than a prosaic town—becomes instead a small, whispered, apprehended wonder.

In the second section, Dickinson shifts gears so smoothly that no matter how many times you read or hear this poem you will never notice. There is a little engagement of the gears as she says of sunset “I know not,” unlike our first gear’s “I’ll tell you;” but we’re soon on to a rural scene with the sun rays like children climbing up and then down a stairway over a hedge or fence row (a stile).  At that point, there’s a bustle in your hedgerow as the dusk becomes a grey robed “dominie,” a strange and archaic word perhaps even in Dickinson’s 19th century, and a sure stumper for any modern English speaker.

A dominie is a Latin word meaning the leader of a congregation, a minister, a pastor—and ‘pastor” is derived from the word for shepherd—and that’s just what our grey dusk becomes as it leads the children of the dawn, now dusk, away like a flock, closing the bars, closing the gate, so that they cannot return.

Some readers are so charmed by Dickinson’s first section that they feel it is pedantic to think that this sunset section is describing a passage to death, “The undiscovered country from whose bourn, no traveler returns,” so no wonder that Dickinson moved from “I’ll tell you” to “I know not.”

That dominie seems so removed from the pleasant village of the first section, so foreign. Another subtle word choice contrasts the two sections. There’s only 88 words in this piece, and five of them are colors. “Rose” puns for dawn pink in the first line and then dawn is “amethyst,” a word for both purple and a semi-precious stone. The sunray children are “yellow”, and our strange dominie is dusky “gray.” The stile sunset stairway that the sunray children are climbing is “purple.” So out of our five colors, one of them is roughly the same color. In the first section, it’s semi-precious and wondrous, but in the second it’s just purple—a ruling, royal color perhaps—but those sunset ray children’s steps are ruled over not ruling, not shining like the amethyst steeples of the dawn.

stile sunset

Putting on the stile

 

Did you listen to the performance of “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose”  before reading all this? I feel a bit here as if I’m acting  like that dominie myself, leading you past the plain and beautiful dawn, over the stile, and closing the gate to simply hearing the sound and the manner of expression of Dickinson. Too often we make too much of the meaning of poetry, and particular the deeper meaning of poems. Just as Meng Haoran’s poem from last time can be understood well enough to be enjoyed by children, this poem too can be enjoyed as compressed observation. Perhaps it’s because I am an old man, one who has tried to write and make music for many years, that I care to see what is underneath the sun rays, to look over the stile, and to find what is inside Emily Dickinson’s expression.

To hear the LYL Band perform “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose,”  use the player below.

Winter is Good

Here in the upper Midwest we are now in the middle of winter, and so are in a various ambivalence about it. Part of us doesn’t like the burden of winter, part of us wants to taunt it, and show that we can still have the upper hand over it, and some of us, those who don’t want to stop reading the book of nature, can find a cold, white chapter to puzzle over and admire.

I’ve already spoken here about how Minneapolis was settled as something of a colonial outpost of New England. The author of the words for this episode, Emily Dickinson was a lifelong New Englander, steeped in Transcendentalist thought, so we know she’s read that Winter chapter.

Just before dawn this morning, I jumped on my winter bicycle and took a ride to my favorite breakfast café.  It was seasonable, 20 degrees Fahrenheit and snowing, the streetlight globes surrounded with particulate halos of pelting snow. My tires were crunching the snow, the big knobs of their tread like typewriter keys imprinting the blank pavement’s page. It really was quite beautiful, if obscure of meaning. Summer rain saturates us, inebriates us. Snow surrounds us, but we are never more than a transient part of it, unable to understand its dance.

Roughneck in snow closeup

Winter is good – his Hoar Delights!  Also, there is tea and a frittata involved.

 

Emily Dickinson’s words are featured here a lot because she’s a great lyric poet and her words fit with music almost without effort. I learned decades ago that Dickinson favored “hymn meter,” that 8,6,8,6 syllable verse that makes much of Dickinson singable to the melodies of “Amazing Grace” or the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song. For “Winter is Good” I decided to throw out that pattern, turning some lines into refrains and marrying it to a melody similar to the Christmas carol “Joy To the World” instead.

Dickinson’s second verse is a doozy. Just 17 words in her text, but it twists so wildly. “Generic as a Quarry”—there’s winter’s white page I suppose. “And hearty – as a Rose-“ not sure where we go there. Dickinson was an avid gardener, and she no doubt missed her summer plants, but my best guess is just rosy cheeks.  And finally, the concluding two lines “Invited with asperity/But welcome when he goes.” A jokey finish that seems like it’s singing the old joke about the pleasure of hitting oneself on the head with a hammer because it feels so good when you stop.

Our various ambivalence aside, that’s what the Winter chapter in the book of nature says to us Northerners, our words arise and are recovered over by the white page; our music only the spaces between silence, soon to be drifted in.

To hear the LYL Band play this hymn to winter with words by Emily Dickinson, click on the gadget below.

An Old Man’s Winter Night

This is the most difficult set of words to read coherently that I’ve presented so far in the Parlando Project. Robert Frost’s “An Old Man’s Winter Night” looks on the page like any other chunk of blank verse (“blank verse:” unrhymed iambic pentameter). Shakespeare wrote whole sections of plays with this rhythm, and the walking one/two with a backbeat of an iamb has a forward propulsion that leads the reader to flow through the words.

The problem is, that even the most iron-lunged and fleet-tongued rapper has to pause for breath sometime. In general, it helps to pause for meaning, where the break for breath adds meaning. However, in the Parlando project I’m seeking to merge the words with music, and the musical cycles also suggest pauses.

Robert Frost larger

I saida hip hop,
The hippie to the hippie
The hip hip a hop, and you don’t stop

“An Old Man’s Winter Night” was tough because I decided on a cycle of chords for the music, rather than basing the harmony around a drone, or simply “through composing” the music to follow the words without a repeating structure. I made that choice unconsciously, but I think I was responding to Frost. The poem seems to repeat itself, and my sense of the syntax was that the sentences seemed to start and begin again, like unto the central incident in the poem of an old person in a room not remembering why he had gone to that room. So the problem was: where to break the cycle of the circular speaking, keeping to cycling verses of chords, while helping the listener understand the meaning.

I got it almost right I think. I was further inspired as I worked by being in the midst of a Midwest below-zero cold snap while recording this.

I normally do not base my readings on others, though it might have helped me to listen to other solutions to my reading problem. Only after committing to the version you’ll now hear, did I listen to Robert Frost’s own reading of his poem and another good reading which does an excellent job of bringing out the meaning. Of those two, Frost aims to bring out the music in his rhythms, but it’s not a perfect reading. Authors have an advantage, in that they likely know the poem’s meaning—but they are also disadvantaged by that—since they know, they cannot always choose what the listener will need to have emphasized. By combining “An Old Man’s Winter Night” with music, I have another advantage over Frost’s own reading: I don’t have to follow the word’s rhythms closely to bring out the music.

“An Old Man’s Winter Night” embodies aged rural loneliness, something that even today’s modern communications can do little to ameliorate. For those of my generation who only remember Robert Frost as an old man, I’d like to point out that Frost first published this when he was 44. Frost beautifully describes being alone, separated, cut off; evoking all the surrounding emotions of that situation—yet he doesn’t once mention loneliness or any of those allied emotions by name. A great trick to pull off, don’t you think?

To hear my reading combined with music, use the gadget that appears below.

Eros

Time and the universe are designed to make us disappear. What makes us cry at that? What makes us laugh at that? What is the agreement we can reach with that?

The words in this piece are from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson is another of those 19th century New England worthies that we’ve touched on before. Many other writers were encouraged, promoted, and inspired by Emerson in their day.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson (Lake and Palmer not available)

If Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are the father and mother of modern American poetry, Emerson is their common grandfather.

For Dickinson, Emerson’s heterodox religious views seem to have buffered her from her family’s more conventional Christianity. Emerson’s ideas of individuality, of attention to inner voices and discernment, and on the book of nature illuminate Dickinson’s world-view. Some of what is obscure and puzzling in Dickinson (a poet whose music can grab us long before her meaning and vision can become clear) opens up when read in the light of Emerson and his circle.

Walt Whitman, that iconoclast who otherwise defies all authority, promoted his career on the back of an enthusiastic letter of praise from Emerson. He published that letter for PR effect, and then blurbed it prominently in subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass. Never shy, Whitman’s work often trumpets Emersonian ideas and concepts, sometimes taking them farther than Emerson would. Emerson may have written this poem and titled it  “Eros,” but Whitman’s poetic accounts of physical love caused Emerson to personally consul discretion to Whitman.

Dickinson’s personal library contained the Emerson poetry collection where this poem, Eros, appeared. When writing to Emerson’s colleague, Thomas Higginson, Dickinson said this of Higginson’s mention of Whitman:

You speak of Mr Whitman-I never read his Book-but was told that he was disgraceful

However, Emily Dickinson was quite capable of portraying herself to Higginson in misleading ways, so one never knows. Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Dickinson’s hometown. He even stayed next door during the visit. Biographers say she attended Emerson’s lecture but didn’t meet him.

Thomas higginson-cyclist

Thomas Higginson, Transcendentalist and long-tail cargo bike pioneer

So Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson. Each of the poets had seen Emerson, each read him, but the other side of the triangle probably never closed. Dickinson was not widely published in Whitman’s lifetime, preventing Whitman from reading her work, and Dickinson may not have read Whitman. So let’s leave it at Ralph Waldo Emerson, and put it shortly:

Emerson is the theory, and Dickinson and Whitman are the practice.

Emerson also wrote poetry, though his considerable 19th century fame came from other things. As a popular lecturer and essayist, he was able to introduce his ideas widely into American culture. As a scene-maker, he declared American independence in cultural matters roughly 60 years after the political fact of independence, and his school of thought, Transcendentalism, was in America the 1960’s counter-culture of the 1840’s.

For such an influential person, particularly as an influence to poets, his poetry is not always rewarding.

To put it frankly, Eros is strangely worded. It’s rhymed and loosely metrical—but despite the casualness with structure, some lines read like someone trying to contort English syntax to fit a strict metrical form. The next-to-last line “And, how oft soe’er they’ve turned it,” is an abomination. It sort of echoes the meter of the first part of the couplet, but it just doesn’t sound good or make it’s point well. I’m also not clear on the image in that line. Are “men and gods,” or some other “they”, turning love on a lathe and not improving its natural form?

So, regarding that line, good Transcendentalists may well just respond: “OK, Ralph, whatever.”  The strong point in Eros, to put “To love and to be beloved” in the center of existence’s meaning is strong enough to overlook infelicities.

In creating this piece, I did some things to try to convey the poem’s strengths. I turned the separated rhyming lines “To love and be beloved” and “’Tis not to be improved” into repeating refrains to bring out that central thought. Musically I use a favorite tactic of mine: repeated motifs that seem at first to be repeating, but are actually changing. Sonically the guitar part has a modulated echo that adds a bit of microtonal warble, and I treated the vocal with a light “throat singing” effect. My sonic goal there was to tip my hat to Emerson and Transcendentalism’s introduction of Asian religious concepts to America.

To here my music and reading of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Eros, click on the gadget below.