Around America people are getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, a sort of remembered harvest festival, now a family get-together mostly celebrated by eating as most Americans are separated from farm work by some distance and decades. However, back in 1914, American poet Robert Frost was close enough to that work to write a masterful and closely observed poem about harvest time that I’m going to present for today: “After Apple Picking.” While I hope you’ll listen to my audio performance with my original music below, here’s a link to the poem in case you’d like to follow along with the text.
This poem is full of sensuous detail. Encountering it — even if you don’t do farm work — you should feel the completion and weariness of the poem’s speaker who is falling asleep at the end of his harvest season. The poem’s farmer has been working in an orchard, and that place is full of the scent of apples. In a fall orchard such as this, much of this scent may be from fallen apples which, even as they start to rot, give off a sweet musk. And it’s frost time, not just the poet’s name on the poem, but the livestock water-trough has a frozen sheet on top, so the picker has been racing against a loss of the crop. In a piece of rural surrealism, the farmer has, that morning, picked up a plate of this surface ice —which would be thin, wavy, and fragile — and looks through it as if they are magic spectacles at the morning frost on the grass. This lasts but a moment, the magic glass will disintegrate in his hands, but that’s of no matter, there’s work to complete.
While falling asleep his body is still weary, his feet are sore from standing on the round ladder rungs, but as dreams approach his mind once more magnifies and intensifies reality like the view through the wavy ice sheet, and he’s haunted by apples, by his job of picking and inspecting, his rush against the end of season frost.
As the poem moves to its conclusion the farmer seems to imply that his work to gather the crop before it’s lost is like unto the work of salvation. We might remember and notice that the poem started with a ladder pointing “toward heaven.” And those apples that touch the earth are held by it and not offered heavenly worth.
Frost ends his poem whimsically, not with an angel or a prayer, but with a small rodent, the woodchuck, which hibernates (“his long sleep”) in the winter. As the farmer falls off to sleep, he wonders how long a rest he has earned.
How big a slice of apple pie do you want? Stand back, I’ll cut you a piece.
When Frost wrote this poem about a third of Americans were farmers and farm workers. Now, most of us have other labors. Our harvests may not be food, we may not be tied to the cycle of seasons as exactly. My wife will be getting time off from working in a medical clinic, where she works to gather as many as she can, and Thursday she’ll be making a meal for us and her mother with dementia. I’m working past midnight to bring you a presentation of this poem. Our labors are many, they may make us weary, but perhaps, yet, we can be thankful for them.
My audio performance of Robert Frost’s harvest poem “After Apple Picking” can be heard with the player gadget below, or with this highlighted hyperlink. My music today is percussion, piano, cello, two violins, horn, and harp.
It was difficult to return to work on new pieces for this project yesterday. November was blustery and very gray, the whole world seemed to shiver. It was weather to huddle up, as curled and still and hidden as one could be. None-the-less I rode my bike to breakfast, and when I rode past a small pond I could see three ducks on the soon to be frozen water. I wondered; did they miss the migration memo? Are three enough of a formation to make the long southward flight? Are they waiting for a greater flock to gather that I suspect won’t be coming around?
Having completed my Kurt Vonnegut series, I am reminded of a whimsical concept his made-up religion Bokononism introduced: the “karass,” a term for a group of disparate people strangely linked together without their knowledge that yet still seem to be working with a common purpose and unknowable goal.
If so, poet Robert Okaji and I may be in such a flock.
Ostensibly independently, Okaji and I both find creating American English translations/adaptations of classical Chinese poetry rewarding. We even often use the same source of literal glosses of the poems since neither of us understand the language those poets wrote in. Okaji’s practices have informed some of what I do with translation in that he allows himself to extrapolate English poetry from these old poems where his or the modern American reader’s understanding might otherwise be puzzled, unsure, or unmoved.* This weekend I read one of his adaptations, “Sheng-yu’s Lament (after Mei Yao-ch’en)” and was struck, as he apparently was, by the depiction of grief and loss.
Okaji’s version is quite good, but I still wanted to try my own adaptation. I approach translating classical Chinese poetry like I approach translating from French, German, or Spanish. My primary goal is to understand first what the poet wants us to see, to sense — the imagery. With poetry the “word-music” is highly important in the original language, but generally I do not try to transpose the sounds or even the sound-organization of the original language into English. I do like to retain something of what I call “the music of thought” in the original poem, the order and arrangement of the images in the poem’s journey.
I always start wanting to honor the original poet, the original poem, but despite that I often get carried away with a desire to change the way the poem ends to something that occurs to me from the experience of the other poet’s poem. This may be a failure, a fault on my part, and so when I do that here I try to cite what liberties I took. Okaji has a concise way to handle this issue: he calls his adaptations into American English “After…” which gives one license to do what the muse wills.
I started out thinking about how to render the first word: “heaven” in the gloss, a word carried over by Okaji. Best as I understand Chinese culture, the term “heaven” often carries a connotation closer to the concept of “fate,” and I actually used fate in the second draft, and then reverted to heaven in the final version. I decided I needed the listener to be firmly in the experience of mourning and grief, and to a Westerner, heaven does that. My next problem to solve were two lines both plain and puzzling: “Two eyes although not dry/(Disc) heart will want die” Interestingly, they rhyme in the English gloss, and early-on I decided to make that into a refrain. The narrator seems stuck, and refrains are a great device to show that situation. Okaji plays his “after card” here, with the very fine “my heart slowly turns to ash” that may not be in the original but adds vividness.
I wanted to bring forward Mei Yao-che’en’s image in the next set of lines — that there are things that seem elusive, that we think of as gone, but they still exist —and there are objective, work-a-day methods to go into the depths to retrieve them. I was unable to find out any additional context for the Sheng-yu whose lament the poem is said to be reflecting. Given my own age I read this poem as an older man, a widower who has now also lost his son to death, although given the historical dangers of childbirth it could be a tale of a woman who died of childbirth complications and then the infant too dies. The poignant specifics of the pearl sinking into the sea asks for allusive meaning, pearls coming from oysters on seabeds, and so a returning, perhaps a child-soul coming forth and then returning to where it came from. Or given my old-man framing, a widower throwing a dead wife’s jewelry into the sea. If the story of Sheng-yu was known to Mei’s readers this might be understood more specifically, but lacking knowledge I let this specific mystery remain.
Mei’s lines “Only person return source below/Through the ages know self (yes)” are hard to grasp. Okaji made his estimate, and I made mine. My aim was in part to underline that this section is a contrasting development of the supposedly lost things in the depths of the earth or the sea.
Okaji’s adaptation ends strongly, and it seems to me to be a more likely accurate translation of the poem’s final line. While I like my solution to the next-to-last line, I decided to go with a much odder final line. In my choice, inspired by what I felt in Mei’s original poem, and from being an older person with many grievings — the dead whose immortality is, in part, made up of my remembrance of them — is that I do not have to dig down deep or dive deep to see them, that they are with me. In the thin depths of a mirror I find them, and that my fate is to join their fate soon enough in my passage of years.
Musically I wrote an entire other tune for this, a bit more R&B like, which I abandoned early in my attempts to record this. Instead, I returned to my thought of some unusual colors associated with the Velvet Underground, and particularly John Cale,** the Welsh viola playing member of that band. I created another spare and eccentric percussion part inspired by Velvet’s drummer Maureen Tucker’s inventions, and then laid down an electric bass line that anchors the melody. My guitar part came next, not R&B at all this time, the atmospheric arpeggios perhaps subconsciously connected to Chinese string instruments. The top instrumental lines are a cello and viola.
You can hear my performance of this lament with either this highlighted hyperlink or where available, this graphical player gadget you may see below.
**Two early John Cale solo LPs The Church of Anthrax and The Academy in Peril, like his settings for Nico recordings in the early Seventies, aren’t to everybody’s tastes but hearing them opened my mind then to different ways to combine orchestral instruments with modern songwriting and electric instruments. If you want to explore them now, I’d suggest starting with 1972’s The Academy in Peril which is the most accessible.
In discussing last May how much fun it is to perform Bob Dylan songs I mentioned that when Dave Moore and I get together to play we often throw in a Bob Dylan song along with our own music. Last month* we finally got together after a long break due to Covid-19 and other infirmities, and as per that tradition the next to last song we played was a Dylan number.
Dave has been extraordinarily prolific with songs over the past few years, so it’s most often I who bring the Dylan to the table. Hipster-wannabe that I am, I often like to cast a wide net for the less-covered or celebrated Dylan songs. This time it was “Went to See the Gypsy” off of Dylan’s little-remembered New Morning LP of 1970.
At the time it came out New Morning seemed important, as Dylan had stumbled badly with his previous record Self-Portrait. Self-Portrait seemed to many a lackadaisical record about being lackadaisical, and those many weren’t having that in the turbulent and searching summer of 1970. Think about this: that LP was released almost exactly a month after nine college students were shot and four died on a Midwest college campus. Of those four dead, two were protesting what seemed a widening war in Southeast Asia and two were somewhat distant onlookers between classes. A few days later two more students were killed at Jackson State in the South. The average youthful Dylan fan was less likely to be interested in tunes about all the tired horses in the sun at that moment.
So, less than six months later this other Dylan album, New Morning, came out. In retrospect it wasn’t really a return of the fiery prophet of Sixties Dylan, but a lot of rock critics had made their bones considering that earlier Dylan style and made the best of what they had in it. One song, and one song only, could be parsed as if it was in that style “Day of the Locusts,” a protest tune about getting an (honorary) degree from an Ivy League university while that year’s crop of “17 Year Cicadas” chirped their Dada chorus. Maybe some college students dug that one.
With the passage of time, New Morning’s necessity to rehabilitate the great songwriter’s reputation has lost its utility. Dylan has had at least two greater “return to greatness” moments since then, easily supplanting the importance of New Morning. And of course the measure of the artist over such a long and important career makes bumps in the road disappear in the trailing dust. Though little thought of now, New Morning is what it may have been intended to be, a much better record of relaxing with the mundane and interrogating it.
“Went to See the Gypsy” is about nothing happening, a topic that many of the fraught students of 1970 would eventually need to come to grips with, and maybe it fits this second summer of Covid-19 too. The singer goes to meet the undefined titular “gypsy,” who maybe only figuratively that (the word derives from a now considered pejorative term for the Romany ethnic group). I think that character title is used to convey someone exotic and transitory. There may also be a suggestion that the gypsy could be a fortune teller, as many songs that Dylan would have known would have made explicit. The meeting is a big nothing. The two have a nighttime greeting in a hotel room (transitory housing), and then the singer has to go to the hotel’s lobby to make a call. Modern people, sit down in a circle around the fire, and let the old ones speak of this: in those days you couldn’t text anyone if you were running late or you had to get some info or agreement, you were required to go to a place where there where iron-clad telephones chained to a wall that took coins to accomplish that.
In the lobby an attractive girl (“dancing,” intimation of transient movement) begins to do a hype man spiel about the gypsy. How much time passes? We don’t know. Does the singer try to make time with the girl or vice-versa? The song doesn’t say. It only says that dawn is approaching (often the signal to end a song or poem) and the singer returns to the gypsy’s door, which is open and the “gypsy is gone.” The door being open is a telling detail, as it indicates that this wasn’t some planned leaving. The gypsy rushed out or was rushed out by someone. The singer returns to the lobby, the dancing girl is gone. Was she part of some planned distraction? We don’t know. The song ends with the singer instead “watching that sun come rising from that little Minnesota town.”
Now this song all could have happened in a little Minnesota town. One thing that many non-Minnesotans think about Dylan’s home in the Iron Range was that it must’ve been some ethnic Northern European monoculture, which it wasn’t in the least. Personally, I’ve always thought this final scene is a poetic jump cut, and that Dylan’s final sunrise is times and miles away from the events before in the song, but that’s just me.
In summary, a song about things just happening that keep things from happening. Your fortune won’t get told, nor will the mysterious guru tell you what to do, you won’t get to go through the mirror, and a pretty girl may have her own agenda.
Here’s today cover version of Bob Dylan’s “Went to See the Gypsy” Alas, there’s a couple of typos in the captions that flash by. I blame working too late.
Musically this is me on electric guitar with Dave playing some soft reed organ sounds at first. After those tracks were laid down live, I decided it’d been too long since I had done a full orchestral arrangement, and so after the fact I did just that and had the orchestra instruments come in partway in the song to represent the potential big something that hovers out of reach over this non-event story. I know dawns in little Midwestern towns, far from the chance of Las Vegas, gurus, or those who can tell one’s fortune. There you make your songs and self, yourself.
I should be back shortly with the song we did right after this one, a Dave Moore original.
I’ve been tardy in many things for this project lately — but let me get on to recounting which pieces were most liked and listened to during the past quarter.
It may be a bit strange to revisit a winter we are glad to be emerging from, but poetry is about remembrance of all kinds of emotions and experiences. Which ones did the Parlando Project readers and listeners most connect with?
As we usually do, this is a countdown, so we start with the 10th most listened to and liked piece, and then over the next few posts we’ll move on to the most popular this winter. The bold-faced titles are links to the original post that introduced the piece in case you want to read what I wrote then.
10 Trifles – I Know What Stillness Is by Susan Glaspell. I wanted to do something special for this project’s 500th audio piece, and I decided to try to use some words from my distant relative who was herself a figure in the Modernist revolution of the early 20th Century that I mine for many of the pieces used here. Glaspell is not a poet like most writers I present, but this short scene is from what remains her most famous work: a still effective short play about two women who have accompanied their husbands who are charged with investigating a murder* in a remote 1900 Iowa farmhouse. At this point in the play, we know that a farmer has been strangled there and that his wife, Minnie, has been taken into custody as a suspect, even though there is some doubt that a small, quiet woman could have had the motivation and strength to commit such an act.
While the men continue their very official investigation, the two women discover a dead canary entombed in a fancy box and connect it with the lonely life of the farmwife. Should they tell their husbands what they found?
I solved a difficult problem by treating this scene as “poetic” enough to work with the music and then locating a dialog performance that let me avoid trying to do the voices of the two women myself. I’m also quite proud of the music I composed for this one. You can hear it one of two ways: this highlighted hyperlink, or for some of you, a player gadget below.
Susan Glaspell getting her work done. Per the radio-play practical audio-effects tradition: in the wintertime it’s nice to sit next to the crinkling cellophane and work on your manuscript.
9 The world is a beautiful place by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I bent the rules to publish this older performance that Dave Moore and the LYL Band did with my off-the-cuff reading of a piece from Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind collection that so many treasured decades ago. These words are not in the public domain, and I had never received a reply when I sent in inquiry about presenting them here a few years back, but on the occasion of Ferlinghetti’s death I felt I had to share this with you, some of whom are among those that treasured those words.
But maybe some of you hadn’t “met” Ferlinghetti’s words before. Buy or read his book and meet more. Perhaps a few of you have an idea that the label “Beat Poetry” requires a dour and slack protest, a litany of muttered and solipsistic defeat. Maybe that’s not so.
.8 Escape by Georgia Douglas Johnson. I still know little about this “Harlem Renaissance” writer who wasn’t actually located in 1920s New York City. As time for this project gets harder to locate, I still hope to remedy that. Despite my deteriorating ability to complete new pieces, I made an extra effort this year to do work celebrating Black History Month this February, using work found in the landmark The New Negro anthology published in 1925. “Escape” was the one that found the most favor with this Project’s current audience.
Musically, I used the magic of MIDI “virtual instruments” to pay tribute to the Afro-American fiddler tradition, playing the featured violin part on my MIDI pickup guitar. At the end of the recorded performance, I tacked on a verse by the altogether unrelated Moondog, a musician who ironically was connected to New York City. Here’s the link to hear my performance, or if you see it, you can use the player gadget below.
*Glaspell was able to use her earlier reporting on an actual Iowa murder case as matter in her ground-breaking play.
How many poems celebrate the poet’s dream, or dreams? This one doesn’t.
It’s fair to say that American poet William Carlos Williams had a curmudgeonly streak. In this poem from his 1921 collection Sour Grapes he holds the line for the style that early Modernists had championed to break free from the poetic fancies that preceded them. By the 1920s the Modernists were moving on to new things, and it’s safe to say that many of them had developed new fancies. Indeed, in three-years-time the first Surrealist Manifesto would be published. The Surrealists went further than our usual sentiments about the value of an individual’s personal dream presented in the context of following one’s dream with the idea that it would integrate into our plans for work or a place in society. The Surrealists didn’t want to domesticate one’s dreams to society, they wanted to bring the full wildness of dreams to the fore and let society make whatever of it.
But, here’s Williams’ poem “Thursday,” which you can find by following this link. First off, I see that he uses very plain language here, and there’s little trickery or poetic obscurity in his manner of speech either. There are no references to ancient myths, no quotes from Latin or Greek, or even Elizabethan English. He starts by noting the ubiquity of dreams, and at least for the purposes of this poem, he doubts their worth. I like the choice of words he uses here for why he’s going to skip the value of his dreams aspirational or Surrealist: “carelessly.” In other words: I don’t care about that all, at least in this poem’s now. Instead, he spends the body of the poem inhabiting the body of the poet — as we the reader may too if we come along with Williams.
WCW at the wheel. “Yeah, but I’m driving and we’ll have some good ol’Imagism and none of that pretentious stuff.”
This is part of what I found intriguing when, as part of this project, I revisited the original English-language Modernists early work. I loved Surrealism as a young poet. I liked Dada referencing nothing and T. S. Eliot referencing whole libraries. But before those evolutions existed, what Modernism first used in English to break free and “make it new” was very concrete and radically simple: the presentation of the experience of brief charged moments that could include the revolutionary act of taking notice of the mundane and unexalted.
Like just a “Thursday” in Williams’ life, in your life, in mine.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Williams’ “Thursday” should be below, but if your blog reading software doesn’t show it, this highlighted hyperlink will do the job too. More work with piano this time and a return of an orchestra section. I keep hoping to return to more fierce electric guitar soon here. We’ll see.
I made it! This is the 500th audio piece presented here as the Parlando Project since it began in the summer of 2016. In the month of December I’ll write more about what the work for this project has been like, and what I think I’ve learned. I’ll also share with you, my valued audience, what I plan to do going forward in some upcoming posts, but let’s get onto presenting today’s piece based on a small portion of Susan Glaspell’s pioneering American play about pioneer women and their isolation.
I’ve long wanted to do something with a text from Susan Glaspell since she’s partly responsible for this project so often dealing with the beginnings of Modernism in the first two decades of the 20th Century. In America, I think we have a cultural tendency to forget our pioneers, to think of them as imperfect, “beta test” versions of what we consider to be the current and vital expressions of art. We owe them some gratitude, an obligation, but it turns out that looking at first attempts, first intentions, can reveal insights we’ve forgotten, potentially useful tactics we set aside. That said, there’s coincidence in wanting to point out Glaspell’s work here, I’m related to her in one of those fractal-branched family trees; and elderly relatives I once knew, now dead, knew her as a living person, a person with roots in Iowa along the Mississippi River, a place that was home for some time to my people.
Susan Glaspell at the keys. Can’t have a Modernist American theater unless someone writes some plays!
In a previous post I’ve noted that some figures important to American Modernism came from that mid-river region. Carl Sandburg, the forgotten Imagist with dirty fingernails was one. Glaspell was another, not just forgotten as a Modernist, but forgotten as a prime-mover in Modernist American drama. You see, she and her husband had a wild idea while living in an artist’s colony on the East Coast: plays that reflected the “make it new” ethos, radical social analysis, and the symbolic undercurrent that European dramatists were exploring. The theater she organized in 1915, The Provincetown Players, was nothing less than the CBGBs of independent and experimental American theater.
The one-act play that supplies today’s text is her ground-breaking “Trifles.*” It’s now remembered largely as a primary piece of feminist drama, rightfully so, and that outlook might see it as a piece of the social-realist school. There are good reasons for that. Recent scholarship has uncovered that Glaspell, as a young journalist, had covered a murder trial in Indianola Iowa with parallels to the story of “Trifles.”
But the Provincetown group wasn’t just about plays about issues, or gritty realism in opposition to melodramatic fantasy, gaslight adventures, and blithe romances. Modernist poets were also playwrights and actors in the group. “Trifles” isn’t a verse drama, it isn’t a choral poem, but it’s also not unaware of those forms of dramatic expression. In the play’s language, Glaspell uses extraordinary compression, objects representing feelings not explicitly told, and long arias of extravagant emotional expression are conspicuously absent. I’ve never heard it called such, but it’s not outrageous to call “Trifles” an Imagist play. In today’s presentation, which I call “I Know What Stillness Is” I have extracted a section of dialog near the end of the play between two women incidentally drawn into a murder site investigation. One, Mrs. Hale,** a neighbor of the murder suspect, speaks first; the second speaker, Mrs. Peters, is the wife of the sheriff leading the investigation.
Picture of the original New York production of “Trifles.” The woman playing Mrs. Peters at the far left is Marjorie Vonnegut. Yes, she married into that Vonnegut family. So it goes…
In my presentation, as per the ways of the Parlando Project, I want to combine music and words in some useful way that illuminates the piece. So, while not rewriting, I removed some sections of dialog, slightly compressing the scene, and added one subtle use of refrain not in the original text.*** If I was a bel canto singer perhaps I’d think of making this an opera, but instead I’ve kept the dialog spoken word, but by setting this to music I want you to hear the dialectical conversation the two women are having as one would listen to it sung. Does this work? Maybe, and that’s what I wanted to try.
One challenge I had in completing this given our pandemic isolation and my lack of collaborative resources was how to perform the two women’s voices, and I broke through that issue by finding and using recorded voices from a reading of the entire text of the play collected by Librivox. In the performance I used, the part of Mrs. Hale is played by Elizabeth Klett, and the part of Mrs. Peters by Arielle Lipshaw. The whole play is performed and is available here, but it’s a reading of the entire 1916 script, which includes Glaspell’s extensive stage directions which are read interspersed with the dialog.
I could go on about the things expressed in the play, the remarkably early and clear-eyed feminist analysis contained in it, but I thought my audio piece does well enough in portraying the sense of isolation that rural women of the time faced (and to some modern degree face again in our current pandemic.) There is an extensive overview of things others have noted in the “Trifles” Wikipedia page. Before leaving you to listen to our 500th audio piece I thought I’d say instead something about the music I composed for this. It’s an orchestral strings score with a female vocalese part, all of which I played via my MIDI guitar interface and little plastic keyboard. Musical mavens will note that I use simple musical devices in my orchestral stuff, and if I was high falutin I might call myself a Minimalist composer—but frankly, when exploring composition I’m naïve enough to find the simple musical materials produce results that I still find moving and effective.
I started this project thinking I might get to a nice big number of pieces combining various words with original music, like maybe 100, or dare I dream, 200. Thanks for reading and listening along the way!
Since this is the 500th piece, I decided to provide a bonus today for those that would like to listen more distinctly to the music I’ve composed by also providing a separate version without the dialog, just the instrumental music. The version with Glaspell’s words performed in a way to suggest the word-music in them, “I Know What Stillness Is,” has a player gadget below. If you don’t see the player gadget, this highlighted phrase is a link that may work to allow you to hear it.
*Glaspell later transferred the script into a short story which was titled “A Jury of Her Peers” and the piece is therefore known under two titles. Much later (in that year that read the same upside down and right side up: 1961) the somewhat revised and extended script became an episode of the TV anthology show Alfred Hitchcock Presents under the “Jury of Her Peers” title. In titling my excerpt and attempted recasting of the piece with yet a third title, I think I’m following a tradition.
**The part of Mrs. Hale was also played by Susan Glaspell in the play’s first production in Provincetown.
Here’s a surreal, enigmatic, and yet compelling story by Dave Moore that I adopted and combined with some orchestral music I composed for it several years ago. Dave wrote this during a period when he had returned to Iowa to help is aged father who was dying, and while nothing in the piece refers directly to that situation, this reader feels something of that experience is present in its absence in this.
Dave’s father was a Protestant minister, and so church buildings of various sizes would have been part of his upbringing. And the mysterious boxes within boxes that the story’s protagonist must pack may be a visual image for the tasks of dealing with the stuff of wrapping up a life. But neither of those things can completely anchor the way this tale unwraps itself.
Easily the strongest, most enigmatic, and potentially objectionable image in the tale is the encounter with a young woman. A listener may meet this image in the story and react to it quickly (or thoughtfully) as an intrusion of some kind of male gaze trope, that thing that can be a tiring and reductionist frame on the real lives of half of humanity. But to my reading of this, it is the core image of this piece and it’s remarkably faceted with a cubist/surrealist multiplicity of reflections: an anima, a reminder of the exiled female in the masculine church, a strange mixture of sexuality, ambivalent reactions to sexuality, and yet also with a bit of the nature of parental caretaking roles reversing themselves. Many a time when I revisit this image by listening to this piece, I see something new in it.
Long time readers here will know that I admire Dave’s work, and once more I thank him for his contributions to this project with his voice and keyboard playing—but for you that is of little matter. Perhaps my specific and not necessarily popularly aligned taste, or knowing Dave and the circumstances around this pieces creation including that it’s my own music and performance that presents it here, distorts my evaluation of this image; but listen to this piece and see if you agree that the strange encounter at the center of this dusty and enigmatic tale is a remarkable image worth contemplating.
The last two times I presented poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar here I went out on a limb on subtexts that might be present in those poems. “October” is on the surface a harvest “Happy Autumn” poem, but there’s an element in it of the personified rich harvest’s carefree possession of wealth. Just a handy poetic metaphor? Perhaps. And then there was his valentine of a poem “Kidnapped” which could plausibly be connected to the Cupid and Psyche myth, but specifically deals with the narrator being captured and taken from its home. Just another recasting of a widely utilized myth? Could be.
But you see Paul Laurence Dunbar is the first successful Afro-American poet. A man whose parents had both been slaves, whose ancestors would have been very non-metaphorically kidnapped, and a man whose race in his 19th century were the harvesters who retained none of the wealth that accrued to the owners.
Today’s piece by Dunbar carries its subtext clearly—it’s hardly subtext at all! One cannot read or hear it and not see it as a statement about freedom denied. Partly because it can be applied so directly to Afro-American history, it’s become one of Dunbar’s best-known poems.
Dunbar with violinist. Seems like an idea….
I don’t need to add to Dunbar’s words today. But since my ego claims I should say something, I’ll note this: Dunbar chose to write his poem as a universalized statement. There’s no lack of Afro-American experiences of freedom limited, other-defined, and outright denied—but the poem he wrote speaks universally of that issue.* The specifics of racism and economic deprivation would be self-evident to his Afro-American readers anyway.
Was writing about denied freedom in metaphor a commercial choice, in accordance to the poetic style of his time, or an example of a largeness of his soul? Well, now his poem exists, and it speaks to freedom denied to anyone who encounters it.
I started thinking of wry captions for this. Nope, the picture doesn’t need’em.
Another setting from me using violin, cello, and acoustic guitar today. I went out last night after working much of the day on this audio piece and saw songwritersplaying acoustic guitar at a local venue. I enjoyed the concert, but also in the background I was thinking: alas, I can’t really play guitar or write songs like they do. I watched them changing chords rapidly compared to what I could do earlier in the day. That’s so useful I thought, recalling that I had had trouble rendering my leisurely cadence earlier.
I’m not sure why I thought that. I’ve been doing both of those “I can’t” things for over 40 years, despite limitations on my part that change over time. When I returned to the piece today my guitar part didn’t sound as wanting as I remembered, and the uncommon “i, III, VI, v, i” hopscotch chord progression of my composition seemed worthwhile to the morning’s ear. My violin line (played on guitar via MIDI) seemed better than I remembered too. I still wish I was a better singer, but I can express my own way with melody on an instrument even if my singing limits me. The piece seemed valid to me again.
What lesson to draw from that? Comparing your art to others can be fraught. Sometimes when you need to improve, observing others can show you the way. Sometimes when you’re different, it’s still good, and not a falling away.
*A good argument could be made that there is a specific to the Afro-American experience in Dunbar’s metaphor though: the caged bird’s song. American music, that stuff that we (and a great deal of the rest of the world) have come to hear as the strongest part of our American culture is disproportionally Afro-American music.
This week I met with a small group of poets that have been sharing their work with each other for a few decades. At the end of the night one of us said that, despite the date, that love poems had been rare.
I said that I do try to look for love poems to present here as part of this project, but when I do I’m often waylaid by something gloomier—“But then, love poems can be as complicated as any other, and there’s always Lorca where the poem is ‘I love and desire you even while we’re between one foot and our whole body and soul in the grave.”
Did I mention the group is all old poets? Young poets can choose to be poète maudit types, and to mine the tropes of love, separation from all, and death—but past a certain age, us old poets have an organic attachment to that role that we’d have to actively deny to escape.
So, for Valentine’s Day, here’s a free-verse sonnet of mine that speaks about a kind of love that old partners may have. I think some readers could miss that aspect in “These Phones in our Hands (are so Magical),” working as the poem does to contrast the little glowing palm-shrines that are now common to most of us with other kinds of connection.
Long time readers here know that we’ll be back soon with performances of poems I didn’t write.
The magical incident it describes, of a phone that can display a picture of a couple seven years in the future is not entirely fantasy. As the poem jokes, there are processes that can age a photo to show how a person might look at an older age. For someone older, the assurance that one might see proof that one will be around for seven more years is magical in a more above and below-ground earthy sense. Young lovers can wonder if their partner will stay partnered with them. Old lovers know that they will part.
The final couplet may be tricky. The empty hands are not just empty of their magical smart phones.
I almost presented this with just the drums, but in the past week or two I’ve spent composing time blowing on the guitar because my fingers have been up to it, and maybe I can recover a little of the few chops I once had. Yet, in the back of my mind I’ve reminded myself that it’s been awhile since I composed an orchestra piece for this project, and that led to the strings today. The player to hear it should be below. If you’re reading this in the WordPress reader on an iPad or iPhone the player gadget may be missing. Why? I don’t know, as the player shows up fine in Safari—but you can subscribe to the audio pieces by themselves in the Apple Podcast app or many other podcast places as “Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet.”
For several months, as summer 1913 turns to ’14 through autumn and winter, a 35-year-old woman is creating the manuscript for her first book-length collection of poetry. Creating a book-length manuscript is always a challenging task, and regardless of whatever realistic expectations the author might have for its reception, hope is normally the fuel for this. First collections are like that, as a poet figures out how to introduce themselves to strangers.
But this woman, Adelaide Crapsey, is also producing her final collection of poetry, and she likely knows that. She’s not working in her study or at some granted writer’s retreat, but at a sanitarium* where she’s suffering through the last stages of tuberculosis which has spread to her brain. If 1914 is The Year that Imagism Broke, it’s also the year that she will die.
The book that she is working on will be published in 1915, and it will be the place where she’ll introduce her own poetic form, the cinquain. The cinquain is a short five-line verse form, primarily iambic, that uses an increasing series of syllables: two in the first line, four in the second, six in the third, eight in the fourth, and then back to two in the final line. Some have noted that the increase creates an expectation of growth or expanding sense, only to have the ending come up short and terse. I’m not the first to see this as a symbol of Crapsey’s life and art itself.
Still it’s remarkable that Crapsey chose such a small, tight form into which to pour her thoughts on illness and approaching death. Some might choose a short but loose form to conserve energy; others might turn rangey trying to get all their last expressions in. Crapsey seems to find in the form’s limits the borders within to hold her place.
Here are the three cinquains I used today. Illness and the eventual passage of dying is something we all share. Crapsey used tiny poems to bear vivid witness.
In the early 20th century world of Modernist American poetry, her tragic story lent a degree of publicity to the posthumously published book, but it was a small fire which soon burnt out. As I mentioned last time, extremely short poems and the direct lyric impulse is not where Modernism headed after the 1920s—but in the long run, we can still access these poems the only way that poetry can be reached: by directly taking them inside us. These cinquains don’t ask for a large place.
For my performance of three more of Crapsey’s cinquains of 1913-1914 I composed music for strings which sounds acoustic even though there is some spare, bell-like Rhodes electric piano and a cello line that is treated with a strong resonant echo that I think adds some poignance. I don’t know where this melody and counterpoint came from, but as I tried and played some string lines on my MIDI guitar it came to me quickly, as if out of the air. You can hear it with the player below.