The Parlando Spring 2019 Top Ten Part 3

Now we’re nearing the topper-most of the top in our tip-top count-down of the most liked and listened to pieces this spring. Wait—did I just turn into a mid-20th century radio host? Out! Out! Commercial spirit! Timeless poetry knows no acne creams, Yardley scents, Thom McAn Beatle boots or white Levis. Well, maybe some of the music knows them—but honestly, it interrogates those pop intentions and asks us to re-evaluate that intent in the context of greater artistic accidents consciously or unconsciously evolved from the Modernist revolts of the last century.

No, no. Not that either. I mostly just want to make things that haven’t existed before, mix the known and the unknown, like and contrast the unlike, let poetry talk to music, and let music not shut up but talk back. As I do this, I look at things you and I and many others have looked at before and see if they’ve changed. And then sometimes I look at those poets whose names and poetry were writ in water.

It just so happens that our next three pieces in our count-down are from such writers, poets unknown to me, many literature students, and likely to you.

4. They Say Life is Precious. One of the principles of the Parlando Project is “Other Peoples’ Stories.” I don’t dislike memoir, self-narrative, words intended to establish or confess one’s selfhood. I couldn’t, or I’d have much less poetry to choose from to present here. But I feel that’s well served elsewhere, not just in literature but in blogs, podcasts, and social media. So, if and when we want that, we can find it. In the words of a wise boss I once had, it’s “ubiquitous everywhere.*”

What I do instead here is to encounter some other person’s words, see how they sound in my mouth, and ask myself what I hear, feel, and think when they are enthroned there.

I could suppose it’s a failure of a kind that a performance of one of my own poems is in this Spring Top Ten then. And indeed, I usually fall to using my own words when I find I’m behind in getting things posted because the research into the other writers adds to the tasks of writing, playing, and recording the music. “Well” I say to myself “At least I know that writer already.”

An unsafe assumption. We don’t really know ourselves effortlessly.

My favorite part of the music I did for this was the combination of bowed contra-bass with an upper register fretless electric bass part. What does that sound like? Listen below.

 

 

3. Everyday Alchemy. One of the things I love about this project is when I go crate-digging after poets I’ve never read and that I expect you haven’t either. Coming across this poem by Genevieve Taggard was one of those moments.

This is such a poem of sorrowful balance, yet it’s 11 lines contain a piercing analysis of society and its arrangements of obligations that are increasingly out of balance the farther down the chain one goes.

I’ve often spoken about the Confucian Odes  here, designated by the Chinese sage and his school as required instructional material for government functionaries. The Odes  are not, as educational poetry aids today might be, mnemonics of components, checklists or causes; but like “Everyday Alchemy”  they are mostly accounts of daily life near the bottom on the pyramid, a pyramid where the giant blocks of limestone are not lifted by alien magic.

If I were Confucius again, I’d select this poem as required reading. Anthology editors now, or of the future: include this poem! And in the meantime, you can listen to my performance of it with the following gadget.

 

Taggard's Bookplate

EX ARBOR, now dead with its ghost-pale sheets under a bookplate

 

 

2. Poppies on the Wheat. I reviewed the latest attempt at making Emily Dickinson cinematic this spring. TL;DNR: a mixed bag. The film had a consultant who’s a Dickinson scholar, something I’m not, and it’s likely they’ve read more and know more detail about Dickinson that I do. I wanted to cheer them on (forza Dickinson!)  and there were moments in the film where I could. But there were also moments, some of the funnier moments viewed (as intended) as comic bits, that made me feel like they were leading the viewers to misunderstand some of the characters I’ve covered in “The Roots of Emily Dickinson.”

I imagine the film creator’s response: “It’s a movie! Dramatic license! Evenhandedness isn’t entertaining!” Yup. Still felt unfair. It’s only after the movie that I’ve read more about and from Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the literary-connected “Preceptor” sought out by Dickinson who is thought to have misunderstood and underappreciated her genius. He’s used in the movie as a comic personification of The Patriarchy and White Privilege. The author of the second most popular piece this Spring, Helen Hunt Jackson gets one scene in the movie, where she’s portrayed as a vapid sentimental sort who Higginson prefers to the artistic rebel Dickinson.

Yes, that’s one of the reasons we so admire Dickinson, who is never sentimental, even if the 19th century seems to want and need sentimentality so badly. But that charge, of sentimentality, was also a sledgehammer used against most women writers of the age. The same slack I’d expect the film-makers would ask for in presenting their matter in the way present-day movie audiences might absorb it, is what I’d ask them to apply to Helen Hunt Jackson negotiating with her audience in her time.

Jackson’s “Poppies on the Wheat”  is a Wordsworthian sonnet whose argument in itself is a debate between practical commerce and the sentiments of memory and semi-wild beauty. Musically, it reflects a mood on my part this spring to put more focus on acoustic guitar. You can hear the result with the player below.

 

Helen Hunt Jackson defiant

Hard to tell personality from a picture, but those eyes and the start of a smile make Jackson look like she’s  about to dispute something or share a delicious secret.

 

That’s all but the most liked and listened to piece this spring, and I can tell you it was a run-away winner. Words from a famous poet or unknown one? Well, it’s sort of both. I’ll be back soon with that announcement.

 

*He laughed right after he said it, thinking it a fit pronouncement from the Department of Tautology Department.

Advertisements

Poetry vs. Children in Cages

The Paris Review  recently selected four guest editors, poets who will be asked to help select and present poems during a project in the upcoming year. To introduce their project and these editor/poets, they asked the poets for remarks on “Where is poetry now?” Each of the poets had interesting things to say, but I was struck particularly by part of what Vijay Seshadri said.

Seshadri is a contemporary poet of some accomplishments, awards and note, but I had not noted those things, nor could I recall any of his work before reading his remarks. That alone could be remarkable under the subject of “Where is poetry now?”—but let us ascribe that to my own focus and hit and miss reading habits. Seshadri addressed the question I’ve brought up here a number of times: how can or should poetry address political and social questions?

Vijay Seshadri

Words Vijay Seshadri did not say: “And so students, poetry lets you experience Other Peoples’ Stories intimately…but now the part you came for, my acclaimed one-man performance of the first season of ‘Stranger Things.”

 

Seshadri tells of a recent poetry workshop he taught. He describes his students as “young, sensitive, and deeply empathetic.” Looking to current events in the United States, he asked them “to consider the children in cages,” implying that he would like them to address that with their workshop poems, but he found that they could not do so in the work they presented, at least during the week-long workshop. Another writer could have used this observation as a springboard to that hardy perennial topic: “What’s wrong with the younger generation?” or its broader targeted version: “What’s wrong with our culture or society?” Seshadri didn’t.

What did he say instead about why this might be difficult for artists, and what they might do about that difficulty? This is what I present in today’s audio piece, using words of his that I extracted from his remarks. I use as an epigraph a line from one of Seshadri’s poems, and the title I use here, “Poetry vs. Children in Cages,”  is my own concoction, but I hope I am being fair to his thoughts.

These are important questions. I know many of the readers here are poets or other artists. You may not agree with Seshadri’s thoughts on this, but you are still charged to think about this. Perhaps, like Seshadri’s students, you won’t have an answer in a week’s time, but that’s not a reason to stop thinking and trying to find a way to address our world.

To hear my attempt to convey Vijay Seshadri’s thought, use the player below. Musically this time,  I’m back to using something like a traditional rock band instrumentation: electric guitars, bass, and drums, but I also made an attempt to use a virtual instrument rendition of a sarangi, which is a Indian sub-continent version of a bowed fiddle with resonating sympathetic strings, conceptionally similar to the Norwegian hardanger. Even in it’s VI guise, I found I had to be careful of those resonances.

The Witnesses

A couple of posts ago as I presented a piece using words by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I mentioned that his prestige has fallen greatly.

How far? His Wikipedia article shares some snark:

Longfellow was minor and derivative in every way throughout his career…nothing more than a hack imitator of the English Romantics.”

“Who, except wretched schoolchildren, now reads Longfellow.”

And Lewis Mumford sums up his significance with a dagger by declaring that Longfellow could be completely removed from the history of literature without much effect.

Furthermore, while there’s no modern bon mot to extract from the Wiki, Longfellow’s didacticism, a huge defect if detected in modern poets, is noted. Even during his lifetime, that rankled the Transcendentalists, always looking for the more inexplicable sublime.

Akin to one our Parlando Project principles, Longfellow took the idea of “other people’s stories” to what are now considered ridiculous lengths. Instead of writing of intense internal experiences as Emily Dickinson did, or expanding the fleshy personal into a democratic universal as Whitman did, Longfellow wrote about many cultures and translated poetry from many languages. The term “cultural appropriation” didn’t exist as such then, but Longfellow could easily be charged with it. His best-known epic poem, Hiawatha,  which has left its imprint all over my own region’s place names, is an earnest and non-hateful mishmash of the mid-19th century’s limited knowledge of indigenous Americans mixed with some contemporary to the time German romanticism. Longfellow would be a cultural criminal if he hadn’t already been reduced to a laughingstock.

OK, so what. All of these charges are true, but here’s what they leave out. To say Longfellow was “an American poet” is like saying Elvis Presley was a rock’n’roll singer. He proved that could be a thing, that an “American poet,” could connect successfully with a wide audience. He imitated Europeans and English romantics. Yes. Who the hell else was there to imitate? He wasn’t as original as Dickinson or Whitman. Yes, and neither is most any other poet you could name, now or then. And Mumford’s dagger? Alas, that can be said of most writers, because literature is a vast swarm of similar literary genetic ideas, but if there wasn’t a Longfellow, someone else would have to establish the idea of a popular American poet. That alternate-history someone else might have been good or bad, but it likely would have lead to some difference, even if the difference would be some other writer to rebel against.

I too wish Longfellow had tempered his didacticism, even if that is a large part of what made it possible for him to succeed. Most Victorian poets suffered from this as well, and it’s part of what the Modernists sought to break free from. To the degree that we are now Post-Modern, we can reassess this. Can poetry stand for something and still be art? If that is difficult to do, should it still be attempted?

Today’s piece is an example of Longfellow seeking to instruct, and the charge of cultural appropriation could be leveled at it too. In 1842, as opposition to slavery started to gather force in the United States, Longfellow wrote a short collection of poems on the “issue”—yes, human slavery, for and against, it was a debate. Longfellow explicitly released this collection for publication and distribution in support of the anti-slavery cause.

The Zong Atrocity

The obscenity of human jetsam. I learned about the Zong case only this year while traveling in Britain.

 

“The Witnesses”  is from that collection. In it I think Longfellow transcends propaganda for this noble cause and demonstrates his effectiveness as a poet. He audaciously takes the notorious Middle Passage of over-sea slave shipment as his subject here. Though those travails were not his personal experience, the obscene losses at sea in the shipment of chained-up human beings is portrayed. I chose to further highlight Longfellow’s concluding phrase to all this. “We are the witnesses!” he writes, as the still shackled skeletons speak in his poem—but of course, un-romantically, their remains cannot speak. The poet, the reader, the performer, the listener, are the real witnesses here.

A short note. Wouldn’t you know it, after spending a good part of this year exploring the early 20th Century Modernists, I now have been using 18th and 19th Century sources more this summer. One of my favorite blogs, My Year in 1918 recently noted how I was tackling those WWI-era writers with my musical pieces for her readers who might want to sample that.

Well, I’ll return to those literary Modernists soon. After all, a principle here is to try to mix things up, to not be predictable or to always rely on my established favorites. But even today, I think I’ve been tipping my hat to another key early 20th Century American Modernist. As I was writing and performing the music for “The Witnesses,”  with its variations on folk-style melodies that twisted between strains and finished with a louder cadence that didn’t resolve the multiplicity, I asked myself “Where’d that come from?” Early this morning it occurred to me: the composer Charles Ives, who was working at almost the same time as those literary figures. If he had access to an electric guitar he could have been Frank Zappa.

Once more I’ll break with my usual practice and apologize that I don’t feel I’ve fully realized this audio piece, mostly because it really should be performed with a number of featured voices and a chorus. While my computer and inexpensive collection of “virtual instruments” lets me reasonably realize a large number of instruments, it cannot represent vocal works very well. Go ahead and listen anyway, and if you can listen on speakers instead of earphones, crank the volume a bit.

 

Parlando Spring 2018 Top 10-Part Two

Continuing on with our count-down of the most listened to and liked audio pieces from the Parlando Project during the past quarter, we’ve now come to numbers seven through five.

At number seven this time is an example of how the Spotify listeners differ from the blog listeners. This piece received only a handful of listens on the blog this past spring, which isn’t unusual, as “Sky”  was posted there last summer, and blog users tend to listen to the latest posts unless brought here by a search engine. On Spotify though, “Sky”  has seen steady action, and enough plays there to make it one of the most listened to this spring..

I like the idea and outcome of looking at the Midwestern sky that multimedia artist Laurie Anderson explained in an interview that I quoted to make the words for this piece, but I’m not sure what attracted all the action on Spotify for it. Is it the short, somewhat generic, title perhaps? As we’ll see later this month in the countdown, another of the Parlando pieces with a one word title was very popular on Spotify in the past few months.

Well, no matter blog readers, here’s “Sky” brought to your attention by the listeners on Spotify.

 

 

One of the Parlando Project principles is “Other People’s Stories.” There are a good number of Internet locations where people post their own poems, and blogging in particular is often autobiographical. I could do the same, but I have a contrarian streak, and I find responding to other people’s words and figuring out how to perform them interesting.

I don’t dislike autobiographical blogs, I subscribe and happily read a handful of them myself. If prodded, I can go on way too long about myself, just as I have a tendency to do on any subject, and having had my first poem published almost 50 years ago, I’m certainly not against revealing my own poetry. “Other people’s stories” is a choice I find helpful, that’s all.

I will use my own poetry/lyrics in the audio pieces here from time to time, though I like it when they are my words about other people, such as the number six most popular piece last spring, “Anglers.”  This is the story of my father and his youngest brother’s sport fishing, something they spent many pleasant days doing before my father became too old and frail for his beloved outdoors. Those days seemed timeless even as they were occurring decades ago, and those lakes have become mysteriously reflective in memory now. So, in writing of them I added notes about passing between dimensions.

I’m proud of how this came out, and glad so many have taken the time to listen.

 

 

These Top Ten lists often include well-known poems by well-remembered poets, but that contrarian streak in me likes to look at those less remembered and see what might be of interest there. Richard Aldington is one such case, a writer who was active in the pre-WW1 London circle that created Modernist poetry in English. Coming in at number five on this spring’s list is this charming poem of his “The Poplar.”

David Todd asks Athen GA artists to sketch eclipse

62 years before REM was formed in that town, astronomer David Todd asks artists in Athens Georgia to sketch the June 8th 1918 total solar eclipse. Note the ads pitching goods to WWI soldiers. “Delmer’s Lunch – Run by Americans”

 

Since it is easiest for me to use poems here that are in the public domain, the newest ones are often from that Modernist revolution that occurred in the first two decades or so of the 20th Century. There are weeks when I think I must be living 100 years ago more than in 2018, as I look for and read poetry from that era. Do I find this a refuge from 2018? No. The horrors of WWI (which impacted Aldington, who served, significantly), the realities of racial, class and gender attitudes then, mean this was no golden age. But what does surprise me reliving the genesis of English Modernist verse as I read their work now, is how they employed broadly accessible images in their Imagist poetry.

The post-1920 High Modernism that was largely used to represent the Modernist movement when I first encountered it is full of obscure references, exotic words and locations, events so far into the imagination and the special dialects the poet chose to reflect those inward locations, that a reader is confronted by a world they can’t comprehend the landscape of, much less the meaning of what occurs there. There can be beauty and insight in this, but it’s a world that assumes one will come prepared, well-equipped with poetry expedition gear and maps.

But before all this, as Modernism was forming itself, the poems are still in a world much like the one inhabited by the general reader, like this graceful and musical one. Give a listen to Richard Aldington’s “The Poplar”  below.

 

 

 

Other peoples stories. How can I connect sky-watcher and eclipse sketch promoter David Todd to poetry? Todd was a pioneer of “eclipse chasing” as well as a theorist of life on Mars. His wife, who documented his trips to view eclipses was Mabel Loomis Todd. Back in the 1880s Mabel had a scandalous long-running affair with Emily Dickinson’s brother, who lived next door to Emily. After Emily’s death, Mabel Loomis Todd was the person who saw to the publication of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. And when we return soon to continue our count-down, we’ll have a poem from Emily Dickinson.

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.

Introducing National Poetry Month to Music

Here’s what we do here, usually a couple times a week: we combine original music written for the occasion with some words, which are usually poetry someone else has written.

Of course, poetry. The compression of poetry lets us fit the words into shorter pieces and leave room for some notes. And, of course music, because every poem has a music within it, even when hidden, that wants to come out.

There are lots of ways to do this, and we do many of them. The reader will speak the words, sing the words, chant the words. The music can be simple spontaneous band recordings or more elaborate compositions recorded a track at a time until the larger sound-field is filled in.

There’s something about that push and pull of combining words that want to sing with music that wants to say something. Even when I’m doing it casually and off the cuff as a musician or a reader, I can feel the two parts wanting to connect, asking to connect, demanding that the other half listen!

If you look at the over 190 audio pieces we’ve already published here you’ll see that we don’t usually feature our own words, though Dave and I have written poetry for decades. Even when we do use something we’ve written, it’s usually about someone else.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with poetry about your own experience, but I’ve often felt that something extra is felt when the poetry tries to cross that gap from one person’s head to another person’s lips—that kiss you feel with the momentary connection that begs you to find its meaning. And music too, created silently inside the shadowed choir-loft of a musician’s head, becomes itself only when touching a little membrane of sensitive skin inside another’s ear before it can become part of the dancing bones.

krimmel-quilting-frolic-1813

The Internet’s shown up with poetry again, and there’s them musicians with’em this time!

 

Using other people’s stories, other people’s words—this lets us experience the poems with you. Encountering poetry with music lets us meet them with only the expectation that something will happen.

I’m planning to present more audio pieces here during April’s National Poetry Month (#npm2018) than ever before, so check back often. And don’t forget there are lots of poems with differing music, from the most familiar to the unknown, already here in our archives to check out.

Old Michaelmas Day

As long-time readers will know, I only write a small portion of the words used in the audio pieces here. That’s not because I couldn’t—Dave and I have written poetry for about as long as we’ve written music—but because the Parlando Project is, in part, an exercise in how I react to and present “Other People’s Stories.” Trying to get inside the experience of other writers, trying to find a way to inhabit their words, this is one of the objects of what I do.

I’m not against self-expression exactly. If I was, I’d have fewer other writer’s selves to express after all, but the nature of what one artist draws out of someone else’s expression is interesting to me.

I wrote the words to today’s piece, “Old Michaelmas Day,”  thanks to a blog post on another blog I follow. Earlier this month, I was struggling with a more complex musical part for Hardy’s “The Self-Unseen”  when I took a break and read a new post over at the Daze and Weekes  blog. It’s there that I read of a marvelous British Isles folk tradition having to do with Saint Michael’s Day (Michaelmas). Michael is one of the Archangels, the warrior among them who cast a rebellious Satan out of heaven. Since he’s an immortal angel, he has no birth or martyrdom day to celebrate, so his day on the old church calendar is supposed to be the very day he cast Satan down.

Bonifacio St Michael Vanquishing the Devil

Let up Mike, I’ve had enough! Just don’t let me land on any prickly bushes OK?

 

But here’s where the myth gets interesting for me. In the Northern Hemisphere his day (September 30th on the Julien calendar, and either October 10 or 11th, depending on who’s counting, on the modern calendar) comes in the harvest season. In the British Isles variation on this, falling Satan lands on a prickly blackberry bush, and so mad at the prickles, or whole casting-down thing, he spits and or pees on the blackberries. And so, after Michaelmas, blackberries are no longer fit to be eaten, on the grounds of folklore, and all this expectoration and micturition.

It just so happens that my friend, and the better poet, Kevin Fitzpatrick has a great poem about blackberry harvesting, and in that poem Kevin refers back to a poem by Seamus Heaneym, also about blackberry picking. So, from another blogger’s post, about another country’s folk-legend with the Devil’s happenstance landing, and my memory of a friend’s poem, adding perhaps even a bit of Thomas Hardy or Seamus Heaney stuck in my ear, this piece was born.

In such a way, “Other People’s Stories” gets honored, even in the breach.

The Thomas Hardy piece got done, though I decided to go with a simpler folkie musical accompaniment there. For “Old Michaelmas Day”  the music is more complicated, as it uses my more modern orchestral/electronic instrument ideas. The music consists of a conventional drum set and a series of staccato violin notes, bookended with some low, sustained piano notes in the left channel with higher register Rhodes electric piano on the right. And then, sweeping through it all, a close cluster of orchestra sounds, treated with constant and fast audio manipulation so that it sounds almost like a strange organ stop. As with many of my modern orchestra/electronic pieces it sounds like it uses “loops,” but also like many of my pieces, it doesn’t. Loops are easy to create and compose with using computers: import or create a few bars of a motif, and just tell the software to repeat as necessary. But in “Old Michaelmas Day” all the notes are played, with differences in timing, and with the notes themselves changing (albeit, there are only a small number of pitches used in the keyboard and violin parts).

This piece is another short one, so even if you don’t usually listen to music in this mode, give it a try, as even if you don’t like it, it won’t bother you very long. The player gadget appears at the end of this post. If you do like it, please help spread the word about the things we’re doing here, particularly on your blog, or on Facebook or other social media.