Frederick Douglass

Today’s piece uses words by Robert Hayden, who was a 20th Century American poet who often wrote about that essential American subject, Afro-American history. He was born just before WWI, and was writing poetry both before and after WWII, during the rise of the New Criticism, which held that the poem exists as a thing created as a conscious work by an author but is best judged irrespective of who that author is.

Douglass and Hayden

Frederick Douglass used the power of the charismatic portrait as well as his  powerful words
Robert Hayden had to rely more on the words alone, but what words they are!

To the degree that this theory was actually practiced, it solves a number of problems. One of them are the issues of discrimination, old-boy networks, and literary log-rolling where who you know or where you are in the social and academic order pre-emptively decree the worth of writing. It helps deal with thorny problems, like having poetic Modernism’s great progenitor Ezra Pound becoming a Fascist propagandist during wartime. If it was still in vogue, it might assist in considering issues around artists in our time who’ve committed heinous acts or supported political opinions we judge to be beyond the pale.

There’s a saying: in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; but in practice, there is. Historically, the New Criticism as a critical movement didn’t consistently break down cultural barriers, though things like the post WWII GI Bill certainly did. Extra-academic movements like the Beats and their successors, and the Black Arts Movement did so as well. Great cultural shifts such as the civil rights movement have literary impact. In the end, the New Criticism seemed to restrict itself to giving students and academics a framework to discuss literature without the need to refer to the problems in their authors lives.

Perhaps too, it’s just easier to judge works based on friendship, affinity groups, or cultural and political stances. Even for an artist, how much can we live in an artistic world separated from the daily, inescapable effects of the political and economic world?

But let’s not be too unfair to the New Critics. They cared about the work as it exists, treating art not as inessential decoration for something else. They offered open structures, criteria that were open to any to master. When Robert Hayden, born in the crowded Detroit ghetto swelling with southern migrants looking for industrial work, mastered those structures, he (eventually) earned a place in the culture of his time. How did this play out as my generation, born after WWII, came of age? Let’s look at the tape.

15 minutes from a Robert Hayden interview in 1975.

This is a time capsule from over 40 years ago, yet it could be longer for all the patina of time. The monochrome of the film makes the impassive white interviewer, the smoke from his constant cigarette, and the later-life Hayden all look gray. You see the coke-bottle glasses on Hayden’s face, but not the tint of his skin that would have born him instant misjudgments throughout his life, misjudgments that he would have to have dealt with along with his art. You will hear him make the claim I made to describe him at the beginning of this: that he’s an American poet who will write about Afro-American subjects, and hear him begin to make the case as to why this distinction is important. I can clearly hear how important he believes this is.

Around 10 minutes in, he’s asked to engage with the separatist strain in Afro-American culture, and he offers his full-throated disagreement with what he thinks are their goals. That’s too big a subject to deal with here, but apparently at the point at which he was finally achieving some recognition for his poetry, some aligned with the Black Arts Movement saw him as an assimilationist. Some might view this part as a “damn kids, get off my lawn” generational moment.

Also, in the film Hayden reads two poems. One is probably his most well-known work “Those Winter Sundays,” and the other is today’s piece, “Frederick Douglass.”   In the later, using only the eloquent words in his sonnet, Hayden makes that argument that he could write a political statement timeless and yet incisive, and in the former, he writes a poem of gratitude to his foster father, an unpoetic man who made it possible for him to be a poet.

“Those Winter Sundays”  will be featured this month on Poetry In America on PBS. It’s a fine poem, and I’ll be interested in seeing what they do with that poem’s details, things that one needs to linger a bit to see. I, on the other hand, had already chosen to present “Frederick Douglass”  for my first Robert Hayden poem here. If you take the poems together, you’ll see two arguments for paying attention to Hayden. One the universalist for liberation (a political theory Hayden shared with Frederick Douglass) and the other the argument for gratitude to those, however imperfect, that helped us.

When I first read Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass”  this year I was immediately struck by the poem’s uncanny details, laid in-between the eloquent flow. It was written over 50 years ago, but it’s more current than that B&W film from 1975. Perhaps you’ll hear them too if you attend to them: freedom that can be beautiful and terrible, hunted aliens, metal statues more valued than lives made possible.

Here’s my performance of Hayden’s words about Douglass. Use the player to hear it.

Thanks to the publisher for permission to perform this. “Frederick Douglass”  is Copyright © 1966 by Robert Hayden. From COLLECTED POEMS OF ROBERT HAYDEN by Robert Hayden edited by Frederick Glaysher. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Company

The Burial of the Dead

Well, the rooks were wrong about Winter passing, at least for now. As much of Minnesota is covered with a foot or more of forgetful snow, with more remembering to fall over the top of us all day, it’s a good time to return to T. S. Eliot’s landmark of Modernist poetry “The Waste Land,”  the poem that, by beginning with the famous line “April is the cruelest month” is largely responsible for National Poetry Month being set in April.

The first lines of The Waste Land

Other than the “Dead” thing and the sinister Roman numeral,  seems normal enough;
but “The Waste Land” will soon get stranger and darker than anyone expected in 1922.

 

We’ve been performing it on the installment plan this month, following up on our performance of the first segment of it last April. But, it occurs to me that because so many of our listeners hear us via the podcast section of Spotify, which perversely doesn’t allow podcasts to be placed in playlists, that it might be good to combine what we have completed into one longer piece.

So, here’s the more-or-less complete first section of “The Waste Land”  titled “The Burial of the Dead.”   Eliot intended his poem to be musical, so even though it’s sprawling and includes many voices, it’s been fun to make audible the musical implications in it. As I do this, I’m reminded again of my first encounter with “The Waste Land.”  I didn’t understand any of it—well, that’s not completely true, I could extract meaning from a few lines—but the whole thing could just have well have been a symphony with notes in place of words. Even now, for me, “The Waste Land”  remains a hard poem to love, and unlike many poems and poets of our current scene, it’s not asking us to love it.

So, if it’s hard to understand, and hard to love, why listen to it?

Because it is a great poem? I doubt that would work. Because it was so influential historically? Well, that influence is now largely historical. It did move things powerfully one way, and then, after decades, things moved another way, in part in reaction to it. Because there are still fresh experiences to encounter in it? Now we’re getting closer. Art isn’t immortal only because it’s great in some ideal way, an art work’s immortality happens from our mortal human actions, our human reactions  to it, and some of those become richer when the work has become strange to us from a change in fashion.

But in the end, I ask you to listen to it consistent with our overall tactics here in the Parlando Project: listen to it as music first, do not worry at the overall meaning immediately. I hope I can illuminate some meaning with my performance and music, but simply to comprehend “The Waste Land”  as this suite of voices and moods is to comprehend much.

Here’s the player gadget to hear “The Burial of the Dead.”  Since it combines what had been four pieces issued separately here, it’s longer, at 13 minutes, than our usual stuff. If you’re looking for something brief, why not take a random walk through our archives for one of the more than 200 shorter pieces we’ve available.

 

Snow Storm on a Blank Page

Longtime readers will know that one of the principles for the Parlando Project is “Other People’s Stories.” I partly do this out of a contrarian streak, as the Internet is full of folks telling their own stories. Yet, obviously, I do not take my path due to a condemnation of personal stories. After all, without other’s stories, I would not have the ones I present and react to here.

I believe something additional happens in my process of presenting my encounters with other people’s stories. You, the valued readers and listeners here, add a third part to this. Do you see, what I see, as I am looking at, speaking someone else’s silent words; while you remain off to the side, with your ears at each side of your own mind and memory, your eyes parallel to your own mouth? No, you will see something slightly different.

Yet, this morning, let me violate my self-imposed principle, and write, as if this were a conventional blog, about myself.

I awoke today after a week that finally found promised 50 degree Fahrenheit temperatures to an utter snowstorm that had itself awakened from a night sky that fitfully dreamed rain, sleet, hail, and freezing rain. The wind outside had someplace to go in a hurry.

I am an Amateur of Velocipeaes by Leonara Carrington

Leonara Carrington dreams of bicycles with oversize tires

As a contrarian, I dressed and took to my marvelous Minnesota invention, the fat bike fitted with 4 inch wide studded and knobbed tires. A morning with few moving, yet full of noise. Snow crunching under the tires, wind restating its case more insistently over again, the typewriter of snow against my goggles.

Parked at the curbs, even the most fearsome cars were growing a white carapace, their windshield wipers stretched out, insect arms, quivering in the wind.

Windsheld wipers stretched out insect arms

“Insect arms, quivering in the wind”  wipers left out to keep them from being encased in ice

To be an old man on a bicycle is to know gratitude. Does a fierce April snowstorm tell a story? Perhaps it does. Is it beautiful, or a false and comfortable frightening that leaves others inside, deciding that internal pleasures are best this morning. But I wished to hear its story today, to see it. As I rode, the wind said yes and no in its one direction. The snow said music is frozen yet moving. The whiteness says color can only exist if you make it.

In the middle of the week I had driven two friends to the airport. They saw this sign “If you see something, say something.” I thought, isn’t that the fourth Imagist rule, one unstated by F. S. Flint and Ezra Pound? Yes, you must honor the thing and your reaction to it, using no word just because you believe you must use that word, and remember you are making music, not marching. But the first rule, which I understand now in the multitude of a blizzard: if you see something, say something.

Millay’s Spring

Yesterday’s Edward Thomas poem “Thaw”  had an irony, he had rooks, a bird used symbolically to represent death, as messengers of Spring’s arrival. Walt Whitman ironically used early spring flowers to start his Lincoln elegy, and T. S. Eliot in “The Waste Land,”  a long poem that we’ve been performing this April for National Poetry Month, followed flowered suit. Here’s a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay that tackles some of the same tensions that Eliot put in in his longer poem, but in just a few lines.

“Spring”  is Millay at her most Modernist. It’s free-verse, not the metrical verse, often in traditional forms, that she used elsewhere. Is she copying Eliot’s landmark poem, as many would try to later? No, “Spring”  was published in 1921, a year before “The Waste Land.”

One of the good things about doing this project is moving from looking for poems to use, selecting them, and then one-by-one grappling with how to perform and accompany them with music. This poem is so full of complex, multivalent perceptions that I think I could perform it many different ways. Because of the production schedule I’ve set for myself here, I almost never spend more than a week on the production of any one piece. That means I must decide things about the composition and presentation fast. In the absence of limits, this piece could have gone on in search of a more perfect version. I’m comfortable with many of the choices I made here, but one bothers me still.

I decided early on I would sing this one. That decision came from the text itself, it wants to express a variety of things intensely. Good actors (something I’m not, or not yet) can put great shading on a speaking voice, but the singing voice has more tools to bring to the expression of a text. I am under no illusion that my singing voice is strong or skilled, and I think a better singer could improve this. What you hear here is simply my honest attempt to do the best I could with a text that I grew to admire considerably as I worked with it.

Musically I once more found myself using several tracks of Mellotron, the primitive 1960s tape-sample “virtual instrument” before it’s time. The topline melody is carried by violins and the famous Mellotron flute samples that are an audio madeleine for anyone who listened to certain English bands in the age of groovy. Each note played on a Mellotron keyboard sets running a short length of tape playing that pitch recorded from the “real” instrument.

 

Some random dude shows off the cheesy rhythm machine no one used before playing something you may recognize.

 

I can’t afford the cost and complexity of an actual Mellotron, but I use a good approximation issued by MOTU a few years back. One thing I perversely appreciate about it is that, just like the real thing, any note just stops after 8 seconds, when the strip of tape in an actual Mellotron would come to its end. Avoiding this can force you into some odd playing techniques when used in a slower tempo piece. If you listen very closely in “Spring”,  I just let that abrupt tape end-stop happen for effect several times. For a sustaining note to end like that gives it a catch-in-the breath gasp effect.

 

For electro-mechanical nerds: the low down on how the real Mellotron worked, mostly.

 

One image in Millay’s poem puzzled me over the week I worked on it. “Life in itself is nothing…a flight of uncarpeted stairs.” I can find no one who has made any sense of it. The best I can figure out, knowing houses from Millay’s time first hand, is that while any stairs between floors of a properly furnished home would have likely had carpet runners, utilitarian stairs, such as ones to the basement would not be carpeted. I took that understanding, and had the melody fall down as the word “stairs” is sung.

Anyway, after all this talk about the utilitarian work of making these pieces, please take time to listen to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Spring,”  using the player below.

 

Thaw

I like to mix up our musical encounters with poetry here, using both well-known and lesser-known poems. Here’s one you probably haven’t heard before, written by a poet who is less-known in the U.S. than in his native Britain, Edward Thomas.

In 1913, Thomas was 36 years old and was scratching out a living for his family as a freelance writer on whatever topics could generate a check, but his real passion seemed to be as an enthusiastic naturalist. He liked nothing better than to walk about the countryside reading the book of nature, jotting down notes about what he’d seen. Then he met a similar no longer young writer, a 40-year-old American who wanted a career as a poet.

The American had not found his own country in agreement with his vocational desire, and so he had flipped a coin to strike out somewhere else: Canada or England? He knew no one in either place, it was just a hunch that someplace different might change his lot. The coin came up England. He took a cottage in the Cotswolds, near to where Thomas was living. The 40-year-old American poet? Robert Frost.

Over the next couple of years, the two men developed what would be the most significant friendship in their lives. Now Thomas had a companion besides his notebook on those nature walks. Although Frost had published only a handful of poems in periodicals at this point, Thomas saw his talent, a man who could write metrical verse so supple that it didn’t seem like poetic diction. In turn, Frost saw another poet in this self-described “hack writer” with his avocational notebook.

Thomas and Frost

Nearing 40 years old and yet thinking about poetry. Edward Thomas and Robert Frost.

 

Frost published his first two books of poetry in England, “A Boy’s Will”  and “North of Boston,”  and Thomas reviewed them enthusiastically, helping launch Frost’s literary career. And with Frost’s encouragement, Thomas’ notebook jottings became poems.

In 1915 Frost moved back to the U. S. where publishers would now publish American editions of his poetry. Edward Thomas, and his family, were to follow. The two poets were to live near each other in America and continue their fruitful friendship.

These two men, these two friends, who each could write tremendously concise poems in which a natural drama could play out in but a few lines, had one constitutional difference. Frost was reconciled to chance and fate. He would jump oceans with a coin flip. If lost on a road by a snowy woods on the darkest night of the year—well keep on driving that buggy onward in the dark. Thomas, on the other hand, believed that introspection and judgement, an ever-closer reading of the book of nature could discern the right choice. If two roads diverge (as they would when he and Frost walked the Cotswolds) your honor derives from making the correct choice from the inconsistent evidence.

Back in the USA, Frost wrote his famous, misunderstood, poem about those two paths and sent it to his friend, still tarrying in England, and Thomas became the first person to misunderstand The Road Not Taken.”  No matter how much we honor the author’s intent, the poem exists after it’s creator. Thomas’ outlook saw the undercurrent in the poem, that choice could be important. Thomas thought: if Frost was making gentle fun of that, no matter, that was the point.

Here’s a small, four-line poem that Thomas wrote about spring, “Thaw.” As often with Thomas’ poems “Thaw”  is set on a nature’s large stage, but it’s a very short drama. Winter’s snow, as it is here in Minnesota today, is half-melted. Crows are cawing in tree tops, as the crows I saw today on my morning bike ride to breakfast were too, speaking the inscrutable language of crows. I saw one swoop down and frighten a foraging squirrel on a lawn, the black bird somewhat larger than the squirrel—and then, larger yet to it when the rook spread its wings and hammered out its hard-consonant caw.

The squirrel hopped like something had exploded underneath it and disappeared. These natural decisions could be read if one picks up the book of nature.

In Thomas’ “Thaw,”  the poet has come to understand that the crows know spring is coming, they are nesting already, and their treetop kingdom, unlike the ground beneath the poet’s feet, is snow free. They have read the book of nature more perceptively.

In Frost’s “The Road not Taken”  the comic narrator will sigh “ages and ages hence” about not having read nature right, of having lost the experience the road not taken would have given him. Edward Thomas decided not to move to New England to live next to Frost. Edward Thomas decided, though he was nearing 40 years old, and with a family to leave behind, that honor and his sense of correct decision required that he enlist in World War I, then half-way over. Within a few weeks of arriving at the front, a German artillery shell, following the arc of nature’s laws for men’s unnatural needs, killed him outright.

Thomas had continued writing his nature poems through his boot-camp training, and presumably at the front. He was still seeking to find what it knows that he doesn’t.

You can hear my performance of “Thaw”  using the player below. In the middle section I tried to give the impression with electric guitar of the sounds of a flock of crows.

If you like what we do here, particularly as we celebrate National Poetry Month (#npm2018), you may want to let others know about The Parlando Project on social media or elsewhere.

 

Unreal City

Today we continue our performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  as part of our celebration of National Poetry Month this year (#npm2018). We’ve reached the end section of the first part, “The Burial of the Dead”  which started with it’s famous stance, opposite to April and Spring, before proceeding through some scattered bittersweet pre-war reminiscences and a satirically murky attempt to read the future. In the concluding “Unreal City”  we present today, we move on to an even darker scene.

In a dreary London day cast with brown fog, the poem recounts a hellish procession of desultory men walking to work over London Bridge. Compare this to Carl Sandburg’s Chicago-set treatment of a similar bridge scene written just a few years earlier. Sandburg, the working-class political radical, knows well the worldly bargain the workers face in addition to the human condition. Eliot, the conservative bank officer personally grappling with depression, will connect the weary enervation to a spiritual brokenness.

Readers differ on what level of reality we should ascribe to Eliot’s scene, which after all is labeled “unreal.” Is this a vision of the dead of World War I arising in a zombie walk? Or is this some level of Hell or Purgatory, in which urban London is only imaginary set-dressing for immortal torment? Or is it an actual observed moment in Eliot’s London living life which seems as trapped and without options as death? Imaginary gardens with real frogs in them, or real gardens with imaginary frogs?

Eliot develops this scene with the deepest gallows humor in the whole poem. One of the sighing walkers on his unvarying path is called out, greeted by the speaker in the poem as a fellow veteran of a naval battle between Rome and Carthage in 280 BC. I’m sure Eliot would have appreciated the anachronistic pun before its time, as by happenstance that Punic Wars battle at Mylae can now pun on the infamous 1968 My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war.

“The Waste Land,”  which had begun with lilacs bred by Spring, now speaks of a corpse planted in a garden as if it was the bulb of a prized perennial flower. Eliot’s writing this nearly a hundred years ago, but poetically his iconography has taken a step toward a late 20th Century Heavy Metal album cover. I’ve double-checked Eliot’s notes on this poem. No, he wasn’t listening to Iron Maiden when he wrote this poem.

Unreal City Cover2

Would Ezra Pound have said: Make it New! (Wave of British Heavy Metal)

 

The section closes with a French quote from Baudelaire that translates to “Hypocrite reader! My fellow, my brother.” Eliot is inviting us into his nightmare, asking us to come along with him. If you haven’t read “The Waste Land”  before, or recently, where do you think Eliot will go next, now that he’s put us in grisly post-World War unreal corpse garden land? Fulfilling his poem’s design, it will be somewhere completely different.

Musically, I didn’t attempt NWBHM to accompany this section of “The Waste Land.”  Instead, I combined a fat synth motif and Rhodes piano with some electric guitar stabs and burbling bass. Listen to my performance with the player gadget below.

 

Poetry

Today’s audio piece marks the 200th published by the Parlando Project! Since presenting our first piece, Carl Sandburg’s “Stars Songs Faces”  back in 2016, we’ve combined words (mostly poetry) with original music as varied as we can make it. Those who’ve followed along know that the words we use are generally written by others, because that lets me encounter them, as I hope you do too, freshly, to discover anew what charms they have.

Not only does the music vary, but how we present the words varies too. Sometimes we sing the words, sometimes we just speak them, sometimes we chant or intone them.

Marianne Moore with pony

“Like a horse that feels a flea” Marianne Moore around the time she wrote “Poetry”

 

Through this past couple of years, Dave Moore has been the alternate reader here, and I expect that you enjoy the break from my voice once in awhile (as I do). For today’s 200th piece, and for April’s National Poetry Month, I’m pleased to present Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”  read, not by me, but by the “Lake Street Writer’s Group,” a small group of usually poets who’ve met since the 1970s, which took it’s name from the inner-city commercial street near where they lived. The first voice you’ll hear is poet, musician, and comics artist Dave Moore again, the second is poet and writer Ethna McKiernan and the third is poet Kevin FitzPatrick, who has the honor of having the latest book published by a member of the group, Still Living in Town”.

Minneapols Moline Tractor

MM of another color. Minneapolis-Moline once built tractors in a Lake Street factory. Marianne Moore was once asked by a car company to suggest the name for a new model. One of her suggestions: Utopian Turtletop

 

It was my idea to ask them to read Marianne Moore’s poem, since Moore herself breaks her poem up into various voices, not only from abrupt changes in diction but with the use of quotes. My thought was the changing voices would emphasize the poem’s stance of speaking for poetry’s audience.

I broke this on the group of poets cold, and they are reading the poem off a page I gave them, which divided “Poetry”  up in small beats and phrases of the poem. Remarkably—well, maybe not all that remarkably, Dave, Ethna, and Kevin are all excellent readers of their own poetry—what you hear is one take, just as they read it, just as they handed it off verbally from one to the other around a room. They had no musical backing to hold their cadence, only Marianne Moore’s words. I wrote, played, and recorded the music later: drums, bass, guitar, and piano.

What I hear coming out of this is the same thing I aim for often here. Just as you are encountering the poem’s words freshly, as they hit your ears, the performers are doing the same. Sure, we may have heard or read the poem before, but it’s another’s voice, happening now, that is conveying it to you. We use music with the words here, and with the other Parlando Project pieces, for several reasons: it reminds us that poetry is musical speech, that poetry works in its sounds, its rhetorical flow, and the harmony of imagery like music; and because it offers the option to relax the cause of the words meaning.

There’s not one missed word in the trio’s cold reading, which is more unusual than an accident.  When I’m improvising melodic lines freely, I accept that I’ll need to deal with “wrong” notes, musically creating (to vary from Moore’s famous line) “imaginary gardens with real clams in them.”  To hear the group read “Poetry,”  use the player gadget below.

 

Madame Sosostris

Look at a picture of T. S. Eliot. Chances are you’ll see a proper English gentleman looking back at you. You might suspect a teacher, or if not that, a bank officer. By the time he wrote “The Waste Land”  he’d been both, and the later job was considered by some in the Modernist circle a small scandal from which he needed to be rescued. Respectable, English, settled—you would trust him with your money or your child’s education.

T S Eliot looking very donish

T. S. Eliot in costume to play Harry Potter’s great-grandfather

 

Eventually Eliot became a British citizen, a confirmed Anglican Church believer, and a canonized poetic figure. So that man in the picture is what he intended to become. But the man who wrote “The Waste Land” wasn’t him yet, even if he could dress up as him for a portrait. What he was, was a thirtysomething American trying to engage a European culture that itself was now refugee after an unprecedented World War, a man also in a disastrous marriage and suffering from “doctor’s orders” depression.

Except for the World War part, one could, from some standpoints, look at this and file Eliot’s situation under “first-world problems, see also: middle-class white male.” And while WWI had profoundly changed Europe, Eliot seems to not have had any direct experience with the war, unlike many of the Modernist circle, so you could add to that “survivor’s guilt.” Let’s just center in on that depression part. That’s apropos, depressives are often told that their real situation is not as bad as all that.

I’ll blindly wager that many, probably most, reading this have suffered at some time from depression. Considered as a disease or syndrome, it’s a very common one, like aging or pregnancy—it’s not some rare, god-sent, lightning strike calamity. Yet, that’s not how it’s most often experienced. A depressed person feels trapped in themselves. One thing that is common to many in depression is the distrust of any judgement or decision. Whether it’s your own, or some outside others’, whether it’s a judgment of praise or damnation, you distrust that it’s true and fear that it is.

The Hanged Man

Is he being punished, or just looking at the world another way?

 

As we reach the “Madame Sosostris” section of “The Waste Land”  we meet a fortune teller, a line of work that should be helpful to one in this depressive trap. In Eliot’s intended scheme for the poem, she serves as a Deus ex Machina to introduce, as part of a pseudo Tarot card reading, some mythological themes of the poem. But if we are to understand the emotional core of “The Waste Land,”  which is the poetic expression of a person suffering from depression, the undercutting of her authority begins right away. If Madame Sosostris is some kind of enlightened and advanced being, she’s suffering from a mundane head cold. Her patter as she reads the cards is perfunctory, only occasionally rising to the level of oracular obscurantism, and she all to quickly jumps out of her clairvoyant trance to the details of delivering some work for the comically named “Mrs. Equitone.” There’s no relief, no reliable guidance here.

To hear my performance of  “Madame Sosostris”  from T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  use the player below. We’ll be returning to “The Waste Land”  as April, National Poetry Month (#npm2018) continues, but our next post will be celebrating a special milestone in the Parlando Project.

 

The Road Not Taken

As we continue our celebration of National Poetry Month (#npm2018), today we present one of America’s most loved poems, “The Road Not Taken”  by Robert Frost.

This poem is loved, but like many of our lovers, it may not be understood. We think it means, as we think they mean, what they mean to us.

Some love the poem as an endorsement of going against the tide. If an article or personal story includes the line “the road less traveled by” that will likely be the point they are making by referencing this famous poem. So common is this understanding that many people think that phrase is the title of the poem.

Some think of it as a slightly less sure poem that reflects on a common life experience. Many of us can look back at some seemingly mundane choice that we’ve made that has had far-reaching consequences in our lives: that class we took on a whim, that meeting that occurred only because we were late or went to the wrong place, that failed idea that lead to a much better one, and so on. We often love a poem that reminds us of ourselves and the common beats of our lives. We may even be flattered by that.

Robert Frost was adamant that neither of these was the poem he wrote. And if I’m to honor my mid-century teachers—all schooled in the close reading of that then only-slightly-old “New Criticism”—I’d have to say that Frost is right, that’s not the poem he wrote.

As I recounted in my presentation of one of Britain’s favorite poems, Edward Thomas’ “Adlestrop,”  Frost was attempting to make a generalized joke derived from a particular foible of his British friend.  Thomas, who Frost encouraged to become a poet, was a naturalist, and as he and Frost walked around the Cotswold countryside, Thomas was often unsure about the old and sparsely marked paths and lanes that wander through that landscape. He wanted to take Frost to the best locations to see wildlife, and when he took the wrong path, he would regret it and puzzle all the more the next time he came to a fork or crossroads.

Robert Frost against the wall

To you it’s a nature walk, to Frost it’s a way to notice your peccadillos

 

In the poem Frost wrote, the vacillating description of whether there is any actual difference in the roads to choose between at the time of the choice, is meant to describe the difficulty in making that decision. That’s consistent with that second reading of the poem about how seeming arbitrary decisions can have unexpected effects later. We don’t know what meetings to be late for or which whim will turn out fruitful at the time.

It’s the poem’s last stanza that sets out Frost’s poem, in place of ours, despite it ending in the two lines (“I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference”) that are used to sum up the first two subjective readings. First, the conclusion revealed there is stated “with a sigh.” This is not an “I took my own path, and that’s what made me what I am today,” or an “I didn’t know it then, but that mistake was a lucky break” recollection. Those are statements of triumph or benevolent fate, and we don’t make either of those “with a sigh.” And even more subtly, there’s a trick in the two lines before the last one, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by.” Did you notice it?

Perhaps the musicians, the poetic or the score-reading kind, or actors will notice it. Frost has the speaker, announcing his oh so firm and final conclusion stated from the certainty of comically exaggerated “ages and ages hence” to repeat a word. It’s almost a stutter. He doesn’t say “and I took the one less traveled by.” He says “I (pause) I took the one less traveled by.” It’s the slightest tell, isn’t it? It’s not the shouty Townshend/Daltry “why don’t you all just f-f-f-fade away,” but the speaker is still divided about what road he should have taken. Frost called the poem “The Road Not Taken”  after all, not “The Road Less Traveled.”

As it sometimes is with our lovers, we may have misunderstood what he said by misunderstanding how he said it.

Robert Frost Fear of Roads cover

Not the cover to his “More Songs about Woods and Snow”

 

Musically this started with an idea: do Robert Frost as if performed by the Talking Heads. I came to a fork in the road part way into recording it when it came time to add the keyboard part and I wasn’t able to lay down a part that helped the song. As a result of that choice, I didn’t really use the early David Byrne vocal mannerisms either. In the end I think it’s a clean presentation of the poem, sung. When I noticed the “I—I” thing today after recording the vocal and had finished a final mix, I went back and was pleased to find that hadn’t missed the two I’s, but then I recalled the “I, I, I, I, I!” vocal riff Byrne repeatedly interjects in “Psycho Killer”—so there’s still possible version someone could do to bring that out!

To hear the road I took with this, use the player below.

Hyacinth Girl

Since April is National Poetry Month, let us return to that April epic of  High Modernism, T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”  Readers here will know that I’ve made great use of the works of the pioneering Modernists, that generation that formed itself on both sides of the Atlantic in the years before the outbreak of WWI.

We’ll continue to talk about them later, but for now I’ll point out that one thing they all shared was a commitment to shorter works with new imagery often drawn out of immediate contemporary experience. Given how I later encountered Modernism in Mid-20th Century American schools, I have been surprised at how simple, how commonplace, were the materials they used for their fresh imagery. Subtlety and ambiguity were not forgotten, but they were not belabored.

To “make it new” in this pre-WWI era, it was often to radically simplify. If traditional poetry was referred to, it was not the grand epics or the most serious verse of the past centuries, but the highly compressed Chinese and Japanese forms, Greek lyric fragments, or vernacular verse from folk traditions.

Modernism as it mutated after WWI had no such concentration. Grand themes and grand works were once more the best goal. Allusions to tradition abounded. As High Modernism marched forward toward my own Mid-Century youth, its poetry began to take an air of post-graduate knowledge as a pre-requisite to understanding or enjoyment.

Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  is a landmark for this change. I’m not an Eliot scholar. I won’t presume to psychoanalyze him accurately at the biographic point where he wrote this, with some key editorial re-shaping by Ezra Pound. As I said when I presented the opening section of “The Wasteland”  here last April, the poem is clearly informed by personal depression. Since a large percentage of contemporary people have experienced depression and grappled with it, parts of “The Waste Land”  communicate with us on an emotional, associative level even if we don’t understand it in a “pass the exam” way. This is good for the poem.

T S Eliot at the blackboard

I’ll show you fear in a handful of chalk dust! Evidence of T. S. Eliot trying to invent Sudoku.

 

Eliot’s complex, even maddening, use of distancing tactics in “The Waste Land:”   the rapid dislocation of location, time, speakers, and national language, along with a plan to make everything a possible reference to something else—usually something old and not mundanely immediate—is not at all like the pre-WWI Modernists. Still, that didn’t keep that sort of older Modernist style from breaking in every so often.

Today’s piece “Hyacinth Girl”  is one such part of “The Waste Land.”  If it had been presented as a standalone poem in one of the early Imagist anthologies it would have fit right in. There’s no post-graduate work necessary here, as was demonstrated by an 80s college-rock band who conceptionally used the same trope with no need for footnotes.

Not Eliot’s, nor my “Hyacinth Girl,” and not Winter Hours’ either. This is the original version by Ward 8, a predecessor band that make it sound more like the Velvet Underground.

Studied academically and considered as a part of the rest of the poem, Eliot’s “Hyacinth Girl” section needs not to be experienced this way, directly. One can consider any intended connection to the Greek myth of Apollo and Hyacinth and their tragic Frisbee accident with homoerotic overtones. I did so just yesterday, reading some papers and summaries of papers which if nothing else made me conscious of how often gender is unknown and shifting in “The Waste Land”—but I did this long after recording my performance of “Hyacinth Girl.”  I didn’t feel the need to revise it in the light of the papers or the classical reference, no more than I needed to know if it refers to Eliot’s girlfriend, or his wife, or a young man who was killed in WWI. Pound had once said that the image is “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”  Eliot seemed unsure that it should be only that, if that was enough, which lead him and Modernist poetry to some strange places and practices, but it didn’t stop such direct poetry from breaking into “The Waste Land’s”   manifesto of High Modernism.

To hear my performance of this part of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  use the player below. It starts out with just acoustic guitar and voice, but eventually some bass, strings and piano arrive. What would additional parts of “The Waste Land”  sound like if combined with eclectic original music? Stick around during #npm2018 as we’ll be letting you find out.