I’m of an age when thoughts of death could be excused as more a present issue than a youthful goth affectation. Covid-19, that hit dirge of the summer that would play at every party were there every parties, amplifies that. But the gothic was similarly close at hand in the 19th century when untreatable disease and violence were more common. We still associate poetry with funerals—though I worry too that we can compartmentalize it there—but in the 19th century this was even more so. Real and imagined elegies were all the rage for poets at any level of talent and fame. From extensive demographic research I believe it may be true that just as high a percentage of 19th century people died as nowadays;* but it did seem the opportunistic occasion for poetic mourning was more extensive then.
Now Mark Twain, a satirist, loved subverting the expected, and so in the course of his novel Huckleberry Finn’s catalog of expected human behavior and good taste overwhelming a more rational ethic, he stopped to parody such memorial verse with this tale of romantic death that failed to be, well, romantic enough. In the novel this poem is written by Emmeline Grangerford, who is described as a young poet who rapidly cranked out memorial verse faster than any undertaker or supple lyric muse could keep up.
In today’s audio piece I give some of the story of Emmeline’s poetic endeavor from the novel, and then sing as a folk song of the sadful death of Mr. Bots using for lyrics the example poem of Grangerford’s Twain has given us. The full text of the poem is here.
What is said to be Mark Twain’s guitar still exists and has been acquired by a collector. Small size guitars like this were normal for the 19th century guitar market in America. (photo by Bianca Soros)
Today’s music is just acoustic guitar. Although I originally intended a more elaborate arrangement, I think just guitar suits it well. As I came to the decision for practical and aesthetic reasons, I was reminded that Mark Twain himself was a guitarist.** Just before leaving for the West Coast where he would make a name for himself as a writer, he bought himself a used Martin guitar.*** He says he played it for men and women in the newly founded boom towns, and on shipboard as he sailed hither and yon. Twain’s account says he sang along with the guitar, but I haven’t found any accounts of what his repertoire was. It could well have been a songster’s mix of popular tunes of the day and what we now call “folk music” and I could purpose he just might have slipped in a few originals. Since one can’t tell how Twain would have performed “Stephen Dowling Bots” as a mournful song, I claim my attempt as “close enough for folk music.”
You can hear my reading of how Emmeline Grangerford’s poetry is introduced by Twain and the song made from her memorial poem with the player gadget below.
*I can present the statistical charts and tables for this startling claim when it’s ready for peer-review. A counterclaim is based on the data that many people in our 21st century are not, in fact, dead at this time. (emphasis mine)
**One of Twain’s sisters was a music teacher who taught piano and guitar. Both instruments were often thought of as women’s instruments in that era, to be played in middle-class home parlors for do-it-yourself culture and entertainment. The supposition that Twain’s sister taught Twain how to shred on his axe follows that tidbit.
***The famous American guitar making company was founded by a German immigrant Charles Frederick Martin in 1833 (a year that’s still featured on a Martin guitar’s label.) The Twain guitar pictured here is said to be from 1835, which would make it a “birth year guitar” for Mark Twain. Some collectors today seek out vintage guitars that are coincidental with their birth year, but I doubt that was a thing in Twain’s time. Further clouding the picture, the design of this guitar (particularly the headstock) looks more like the guitars Martin made later in the 19th century, and not those made just after the company’s American start.
I can’t say what day this happened, but it was sometime in 1916 in Davenport Iowa. A well-off, Harvard-educated man in his mid-thirties named Witter Bynner was visiting a former Harvard classmate Arthur Davison Ficke in the latter’s elegant home. Besides family wealth, both men shared an interest in the arts, and both were published poets and art critics. A variety of fine-arts could have been discussed by these highly educated men, more so than any yet-to-be-invented concerns that random recently-young men might discuss today. Bynner later recalled the high-spirited discussion got raucous enough that Ficke’s wife asked the men to take it outside.
What the F.T.D! Nijinsky as the spirit of the rose
We know where the conversation started: Bynner had recently seen a new modern ballet, The Spectre de la Rose based on a poem by Théophile Gautier with music orchestrated by Hector Berlioz from a piano piece by Carl Maria von Weber. I don’t know who the dancers were in the performance Bynner had seen, but the titular role of the spirit of the flower was first danced by Nijinsky, and the piece’s choreography ended with the extravagant gesture of Nijinsky leaping out of a stage-set window and disappearing as if he had flown off into the ether of the rose’s wafted scent.
Arthur Davison Ficke and Witter Bynner. Bynner’s portrait is by Kahlil Gibran.
The two men retired to a cross-town hotel room with a bottle of whisky. Bynner had had an idea while watching that ballet. The romantic artistic styles of his birth century were now being challenged by new 20th Century modes. The kind of poetry that the pair wrote: carefully crafted metrical, rhymed verse was being challenged by new verse. It too had extravagant expression, but not only did the new free verse not care about symmetrical forms, it didn’t seem to care about extracting from its expression sense or meaning—things didn’t mean, they were, in these new poems. And some of the new poets were so deadly serious about how important this was! They wrote manifestos about how poetry should work without the old frameworks, yet they didn’t seem to care about how meaning worked!
The levels of the whiskey in the bottle lowered quietly as the levels of whisky in the two loud poets increased. Here was the plan: Oh, this was so good! They would write a bunch of these new poems, just whip them out while they were good and drunk and no longer bound by anything other than sounding like these new Imagist, Vorticist, Futurist poets. Great fun! So much so that nine more sessions and nine more bottles followed in close succession.
Intoxication didn’t stop these two educated, upper-class men from some structure and planning. They’d publish the poems under assumed identities. Bynner, a gay man, was to be Emanuel Morgan, a painter/poet who had dallied in Europe and dug the French poetic influences. Ficke, the straight, goyim man with day job as a lawyer, was to be an exotic eastern-European Jewish poetess Anne Knish. Later that year they roped in another well-off child of local Midwestern privilege, Marjorie Allen Seiffert, whose contributions would be signed as Elijah Hay*, who would be (like Ficke) a cisgender lawyer/poet. Ficke was drafted to write the new movement’s manifesto**, and Bynner supplied the name, taken from the ballet: “Spectrism.” Prophetically anticipating the birth a dozen years later of Andy Warhol there, these Spectra poets were said to be living in the Pittsburg area. Well, maybe it wasn’t Warhol. Maybe Pittsburg was chosen because it was half-way between the East Coast-based Bynner and the Midwestern Ficke, or perhaps they shrewdly judged it as sufficiently nowhere to evade detection.
They submitted Spectrist poems to magazines and some were published. They submitted a manuscript of the drunken hotel room poems to their own publisher and had a good laugh when it was accepted (they did tell the publisher about the hoax after the acceptance however). Perhaps the strangest publication was a “theme issue” of Alfred Kreymborg’sOthers magazine. Others: A Magazine of the New Verse was the publication of the Modernist Avant Garde in America, promoting William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg, Marianne Moore, Fenton Johnson, Mina Loy, Man Ray, H. D. and Wallace Stevens. If it was “free” or “new” or “modern,” Others was associated with it. It seemed particularly open to redefining sexual and gender roles. Recent “theme issues” before the Others’ Spectra issue for January 1917 had focused on Spanish-American poets and “A Woman’s Number” (which included work by Seiffert).
Mysteries of the Spectrism. The 1916 published collection and the 1917 special issue of Others.
What would happen if the Spectra hoax occurred this year? I’m certain there’d be considerable criticism of the perpetrators. Other than the inherent dishonesty the goes into a hoax (though “honesty” is always ambiguous in art) the audacious usurping of the Anne Knish persona by a WASP scion of wealth would draw additional condemnation for sure. Rich white men tweaking the always struggling to stay in business little magazine Others seems particularly cruel on the face of it.
You’d also expect pieces to be written about how the hoax “proves” that Modernist poetry is, consciously or unconsciously, a hoax itself; that Spectrist poetry had shown that if the right signals are made, any word-jumble will pass as art. And yes, that happened after Bynner revealed the hoax in 1918, just as it would likely happen now.
Interestingly, at least in my limited research into this, the 1918 response did not seem to include much if any anger toward the perpetrators though. Class, ethnic and gender privilege might have shielded them. Perhaps even those who might have standing to complain were cowed by the perpetrators prestige and power, or maybe they hadn’t developed an analysis of “cultural appropriation” yet. AFAIK, Ficke, Bynner, and Seiffert never suffered “you’ll never work in this town again” repercussions.
Those fooled by the hoax generally followed a line that the Spectrist poems, regardless of the author’s intent, had some vitality as Modernist expression anyway.*** As the 20th century progressed, automatic writing, cut-up, exquisite corpse, chance and computer-generated composition, found poetry, psychedelic poetry composed while intoxicated, and more would be tested as tactics. Spectra might have started in Davenport Iowa not at the Cabaret Voltaire in Switzerland, but does Dada require intent to be Dada? Can one draw a line from the Ficke’s Spectrist manifesto to the First Surrealist Manifesto?
For myself, more than the philosophical and aesthetic questions, I wonder at the personal impact, and not just on the hoaxed. Modernism had not yet triumphed in its campaign to take over poetry in the 1916-1918 era, but all three of the Spectra hoaxers began to agree with the hoaxed that when they freed themselves from their birth personas and the formal rules of poetry and meaning, that something else emerged that their poetry hadn’t seen before they put on the mask. All three later wrote some free verse as their careers continued and Modernism won the post-WWI war for literary respectability.
On the other side, I’d suppose that the Spectra hoax may have helped give impetus to New Criticism and it’s move to establish objective criteria for what makes a poem good, even if it’s Modernist in language, structure and word-music.
What of the poems themselves? I read the original Spectra book and found it disappointingly forgettable. There are some good lines, but fewer than pure what-the-hell wild improvisation should have engendered. You can laugh at the unhidden humor present in some of the poems, and I can recognize and smile at some of the references to common early Modernist tropes that they are parodying. I was drawn more to Ficke/Knish than Bynner/Morgan, and couldn’t help but think that Ficke, part-way down that bottle of whisky, might have found his invented exotic anima therapeutic.
Therefore, I’ve chosen to perform one of Ficke’s Spectra poems today, “Opus 131.” I think Ficke—a son who grew up in a house wealth-filled with his father’s world-spanning art collection and who had followed his father into the practice of law—may have needed something more, may have wanted something that Millay or Kreymborg or Mina Loy had, even in their not-having. He may have wanted to leap out of that hotel room window, like Nijinsky in that ballet, and never come down.
Here’s my performance of Ficke/Knish’s Spectra poem:
*Although it’s usually not filed under “hoax” there’s a fairly long tradition of women writing under masculine pen names, from the three Bell/Bronte sisters onward. Davenport itself was home to Octave Thanet, a successful popular writer born Alice French.
**Sample lines from the manifesto: “The theme of a poem is to be regarded as a prism, upon which the colorless white light of infinite existence falls and is broken up into glowing, beautiful, and intelligible hues… Just as the colors of the rainbow recombine into a white light,— just as the reflex of the eye’s picture vividly haunts sleep,— just as the ghosts which surround reality are the vital part of that existence,—so may the Spectric vision, if successful, synthesize, prolong, and at the same time multiply the emotional images of the reader.” I can only think of the cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.
***However, the funniest critical quote from before the hoax was revealed was William Carlos Williams remark that he preferred the Elijah Hay’s Spectrist poems to Anne Knish’s because the “Woman as usual gets all the theory and—as usual—takes it seriously whereas the male knows it’s only a joke.” Mirror upon mirror in that quote.
As long-time readers here will know, the Parlando Project likes to vary what it does. Loud, immediate and approximate rock’n’roll, string quartets, folkie and electronica tinges combine with words that I look around for—different stories each time, most of them not mine.
Are we now going to vary from Bronze Age Chinese poetry collected to instruct politicians? Or from the W.H. Auden-who-can-bring-the-funk remarks of Jimi Hendrix’s ET visiting the Third Stone from the Sun and marveling at the chickens?
Well, maybe a little.
And so, we’re going to descend into parody today. Mad magazine imprinted me on parody while young, and Weird Al Yankovic never did a thing to cure me, and here I am an old man who still can’t help making up travesty-lyrics to songs he hears, which distresses my son who likes to sing Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” with his sincerely growing voice, while my questionable tenor tries to make that into a dissertation on salad vs. main-course silverware: “Fork with the Longest Tine.”
To the possible detriment of today’s piece, I didn’t choose anything as well known as one of Joel’s hits. In tryouts, just one of the folks I’ve sung today’s piece to even recalls the original song it references: Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.*” That may say something of the fragmentary fame of Leonard Cohen in the United States. Back in the Sixties, a couple of his songs “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire” were fairly well known from cover versions, and his 21st Century song “Hallelujah” has become even more well-known after being sung by John Cale, Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright—but “Famous Blue Raincoat” despite dozens of covers, just hasn’t penetrated the U.S. mind.** There may be reasons for that. It doesn’t have a hooky chorus, even Leonard Cohen himself thought the lyrics were confusing, and to the degree it has an accessible plot it’s about a complicated love relationship far from the common I love her/him, or her/him has left me and I’m so sad or angry about that.*** My favorite part of the song was its uncommon ending, where it’s revealed to be a letter of sorts, signed with solemn irony “Sincerely, L. Cohen.”
A famous orange retainer and a famous blue raincoat.
And that was the hook for today’s parody. I thought of another Cohen living in New York City, who is a principal in another messy romantic entanglement, whose feelings about it are multivalent, and whose sincerity is a changing thing. You can hear “Sincerely, M. Cohen” using the player below.
For some time, I’ve disliked the way the idea of “generations” has been treated by the culture at large. Not the nugget of thought that’s in it, that cohorts of people in a particular time and place will share certain experiences, some of which will shape their outlook—but the nutty, pseudo-scientific way it’s been used. The balderdash that’s been added to “generations” includes the nonsense that there are some sharp and agreed on borders to them and that everyone inside of these sharp lines in time not only shares the same experience, but reacts to these things in the same way.
The crap labels we use like “Generation X” (Billy Idol and Richard Hell may have a lot to answer for, but let’s not hang this on them) or “Millennials,” (who could just as well be perennial grinders of grain for all the meaning I assign to that word) have become like unto the Sixties’ penchant for astrological signs. “Oh, you’re so Millennial” or “Members of Gen X think this way” have become the Moonchildren and Fire Signs of our age.
And of course, the borders of these deterministic generation containers are natural and inviolate—no, don’t look at them, as they will seem arbitrary and varied if you look too close. Are generations 12, 20, 30 years long? Don’t ask, as we don’t agree. And is someone born in 1946 exposed to the same set of experiences as someone born in 1963? Don’t look too close.
I bring this up, because this week I wrote a parody. And as humorists have been known to do, I went and used some generational stereotypes. I was pressed for time, those sorts of things are ready-mades, one or two people found it funny, if I use it humorously I’m making fun of it—Oh, I’m giving up. I’m ashamed.
Look, one of the good things about considering the experiences conveyed by writers whose words I use here, is that most have been dead for generations, no matter how long we define that term. Seems like they are each their own people, not clichés like “Victorians” or “the Lost Generation.”
New start. I had a serious thought as I started this. Earlier this month I revisited the well-known yet too-little-reconsidered Robert Frost poem“Stopping by a Woods on a Snowy Evening.” As I thought about the experience Robert Frost was describing (if an actual country winter buggy ride, some think it occurred in 1909), I considered how different the night and the rural roadscape would have been then, compared to how we have informally remembered Frost’s poem. I thought the opening stanza of that poem, starting with Frost’s line that’s fallen into too-famous-to-think-about status: “Whose woods these are, I think I know,” could be describing a person who was lost in a darkening, rural pre-electric light, night—instead of a poet some of us remember as irresponsibly stopping to look at a well-lit Christmas-card pretty sight of a woods in snowfall.
I was thinking then: “Now I’d have not just the possibility of bright headlights, but a cellphone in my pocket that should tell me just where I am, no matter what poetic truth I’d be trying to express.”
And then I thought again about that phone. There are still areas, even in North America, without cellphone service. GPS signals don’t penetrate everywhere. Those maps in our apps are not without errors.
Drake’s from Canada, but Minnesota and New England need cell coverage and warm coats too.
So, today’s piece, which I call “Stopping by a Woods with Bad Cellphone Service” is actually a serious piece of winter travel safety advice, not a scurrilous piece of generational stereotyping, which I would never stoop to doing here.
Here are today’s words, but you want to listen to the music don’t you?
But when you think of scurrilous, I hope you think of the LYL Band. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a piece that wasn’t created by that scrupulous and well-behaved group of musicians that is myself—recording it instrument by instrument, a track at a time. The LYL Band is an organization in the same way that a hockey fight or litter of kittens is organized, which is to say, barely, though we attack things with abandon playfully or otherwise. To hear us, use the player below.
Eric Burdon and the Animals had a considerable run of hit singles in the 1960s. To the degree that we remember that output today, it’s to recall songs that Burdon’s voice made famous, though they were written by outside writers: “House of the Rising Sun,” “We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” All great songs, all great performances, but what’s forgotten are the songs Burdon himself wrote.
That’s not an accident. Eric Burdon as a writer was often topical, writing about social and cultural events while they were current, before the ink had dried on things; and he was heart-on-his sleeve sincere, without protective layers of irony that made Jagger/Richards or Ray Davies harder to pin down. These things sometimes make his writing seem dated or naïve, but I think folks don’t value his commitment to immediacy enough. And then there’s Burdon’s steady stance against racism, something he never gets enough credit for.
No joke. Eric Burdon and the New Animals
Fifty years ago Burdon and the Animals visited San Francisco and he commented favorably on the warm climate and the altruism; and while charmed by the chemically-enhanced visionary culture they found there, Burdon noted issues with police/public interaction and recommended that the American Dream should include Indians too. That bit of reportage was a top-ten hit record in the US and the UK.
To me, a lot of the charm of that record is its spoken word opening, a deadpan “Dragnet” parodying recital of the worth of experiencing San Francisco. Spoken word—sounds like a Parlando Project idea!
So this is my rough parody* of warm summer “San Francisco Nights” written in and for the cold winter city of Minneapolis. It’s 9 degrees F. as I write this, and the temp is dropping overnight. Snuggle someone if you’ve got the chance.
As Blue Oyster Cult once reminded us: “This Ain’t the Summer of Love”. To hear my Minnesota take on snow emergencies, tow trucks, and chilblains click on the play gadget below.
* Yes, I know Drew Carey did another San Francisco Nights parody, using Cleveland in his version. He got Joe Walsh to play guitar on his, so obviously better than my one-take approximation—but he skipped the opening narration, and that’s the best part!
Returning to the other side of that post WWII Tex Ritter record I discussed yesterday, let’s look at The Deck of Cards. I think I probably first heard this as the Wink Martindale version from 1959 which was the third or fourth time a version of The Deck of Cards had charted on some hit parade somewhere, and as the Wikipedia link shows, it would return again and again, which should not surprise us, since the story dates back to the 18th century.
I rather liked the piece when I heard it as a child. First off it was spoken not sung, so it stood out from all the singers on the radio, and the piece’s narrative twist, that the threatened poor and irreverent man would show himself to be learned and pious, is the kind of twist that can keep a piece of folk material current for centuries. As I said in the last post, no one in the mid-20th century folk revival would have ever considered The Deck of Cards an authentic folk song—but like our supposed irreverent soldier—it is, and not what folks presumed it to be.
Did this record specifically influence the Parlando project to mix music and spoken/chanted words? Not at any conscious level. The popular spoken word record with music just was around in my childhood. Yet, as one starts to do concentrated work in some area you may begin to notice all kinds of things that must have taught you some possibilities.
The plot of The Deck of Cards follows the rhythm of a joke: tension, danger, expectation; then unexpected twist, release of tension, pleasure. So, it’s not surprising then that some of the renditions of this old tale passing through the folk process twist it again to parody, and so here’s mine. It’s based loosely on that rough Robyn Hitchcock version, even uses a couple of his lines, but is mostly mine. If you don’t know the 1948 Tex Ritter version, you can hear it first by clicking here. You should listen to Tex, you can’t have irreverence without reverence. Or you can hear T Texas Tyler’s version which predates Tex Ritter’s by a few months here.
Oddly enough, I performed a straight rendition of the 1948 text the same day that the LYL Band recorded this parody, but you won’t hear that here when you click on the gadget that should appear below.