Sea’s the Possibility: Go Rimbaud, Go Rimbaud!

Happy Birthday poet, performer and rock band leader Patti Smith! We’ll get to her, girls basketball, Arthur Rimbaud, and studying French in Iowa before we’re through today’s post.

There’s a lot of things that go into this Parlando Project existing. One thread of that origin begins: I came to admire poetry as a teenager and a couple of years later I started to write it. I did those things sensuously, without deep understanding of connotation or denotation. I loved poetry and I wrote poetry as music: organized sounds that attracted and pleased me.

Let’s follow that thread, barely woven. I took French in high school in my little Iowa town. The teacher was an interesting man, full of iconoclastic thoughts and some experience in France itself that I don’t recall the particulars of. He seemed rather bold in my little farm town mostly settled by Swedish immigrants some 80 years before, and I suspected then he felt immune to criticism because he was a fairly successful girls basketball coach.*  French was the only foreign language offered in my small high school, but I was both aware of Iowa’s history as a French colony** and with bilingual French and English labels and signs from fishing trips deep into Ontario Canada. I was not even a middling student in the class. I did fine with vocabulary, reasonably well with the language rules and syntax, but I was bad at conversational French, both being slow to pick up the knack for spontaneous expression using the words and grammar, and abysmal in pronunciation. I was entirely incapable of making the mouth sounds required. I suspect this is neurological, I have a general problem with mimesis in music or speaking. People are often shocked at how bad I am at that kind of thing.

I did even more poorly in my freshman French class in my attempt at college. This was so even though by then I had an additional motivation: I had learned that French poetry was an important influence on Modernist English poetry. And then, after the Bob Dylan revolution in popular songwriting, French poetry was often cited as an influence on Dylan, and so then by one remove from Dylan, a reflected influence on others who sought to write unusual lyrics using expanded forms of expression.

Let’s skip forward to the fall of 1975. I’m living in a trailer in the middle of Newburgh New York, a small descending city beset with racism and mid-70s industrial ennui, working in the busy E.R. that served as the last resort of the uninsured sick and wounded of the area. I eagerly snag the first LP by a poet who has formed a rock band, and who has been performing 68.2 miles away down the Hudson river in Manhattan. A bootstrap magazine down there would put a label for her band and the bands that were performing around the same time and place: “Punk.***”  Like most genre labels, that’s too reductionist, but there you are.

The album “Horses”  by the Patti Smith Group presented something important to me, then, and from the uncoiled, frayed thread that unravels from there to now. It’s highly audacious and retains a considerable level of originality even today. I’ll allow that audacious may be the friendly way to say pretentious — the difference may be how much the results work for a listener. I can somewhat understand those that down-rate or even dislike the record, for even though some reject it for ignorant or stupid prejudices, others have valid reasons from their experience and ways of looking and doing. This is the nature of art, and it is almost required of art that breaks new ground. One must go on one’s nerve to be different — and nerve is another way to say that you fully risk pretending to validity and worth.

Horses  is halfway a rock song record, and the other half is something else. Yes, Smith sings on the record, but often words are chanted, spoken, prayed, reduced to sound collages halfway between puns and scat singing. If one was to compare it to the singer-songwriter records of it’s day or to a hip hop record closer to now, it’s closer to the later but still its own thing. In the context of then and now, Horses  is less likely than records of either the 1975 or 2021 poles to represent itself as a first-person narration of the singer. For much of the record’s running time Smith speaks as fuzzily defined protagonists that however lacking in biographic detail don’t seem to be herself. Rappers may like to put on exaggerated and boasting personas, and lately gender fluidity has found its way into hip hop, but Smith is male or of indeterminate gender for almost the entirety of her first record. Sexualized violence and unilateral lust occurs in a state between fantasy and reality. Visionary states of consciousness are entered into extravagantly, yet this never seems much like a psychedelic record of a few years before. Is it more gothic than many of those? Perhaps — but too Horses  seems more consequential, and less a novel pipe dream.

Around this time, following my own thread, I began reading in translation and slowly translating to English a handful of French poems. I still “understood” little of that poetry, and didn’t even like all of it. I gravitated to the Surrealists mostly, but I had paperback volumes of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations  and A Season in Hell,  and I knew that the Surrealists thought him a Surrealist before their time. Yet to this day, I’ve not really come to grips with Rimbaud. Translation is one way to deeply understand, and that’s a route I’ve taken in the past couple of years with him.

2 pictures of Rimbaud and Horses cover Patti Smith by Robert Maplethorpe

From left to right: the most well-known photo of Rimbaud while he was still writing poetry, Patti Smith’s iconic Horses cover photo taken by Robert Mapplethorpe and a photo from the time of the Paris Commune in 1871 that has been identified as likely of Rimbaud.

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Even superficially one can see the linkage between Smith and Rimbaud in the most hermetic piece on Smith’s record, “Land.”  A protagonist character that may persist throughout this more than nine-and-a-half-minute piece, Johnny, seems to be a melding of one of William Burroughs’s Wild Boys**** and Chuck Berry’s persona of Afro-American guitar-playing crossover success, Johnny B. Goode.  In place of Berry’s refrain of “Go go, go Johnny, go go” Smith substitutes “Go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud.” But Smith’s Rimbaud influence seems to be even deeper, merging somewhat too with her partnership with the young Robert Mapplethorpe. If decades of exposure to Rimbaud hasn’t greatly increased my understanding and/or appreciation for Rimbaud, I’ve oddly been able to appreciate Patti Smith from the first words I read of hers on the page, and from the first words on Horses.*****   It was famously said about the first Velvet Underground record that few bought it, but everyone who did started a band. Horses  sold a bit better, despite its originality and outsider stance. A lot of Horses’  listeners started bands too, and more than a few of us found it more than a demonstration of how to express unusual things within the context of an irregular rock band — we remember it helped us survive and find meaning in that survival. Does that sound sappy to say? Sound like late-adolescent hero worship? Examining myself I don’t think it’s as much of that as it sounds like. Maybe I’m wrong? I’m beyond caring this late in my life what that was, or why — I’m more at grateful I survived and can do this Project now.

Those who know Rimbaud’s biography or work from its appearances here or elsewhere will know how unique and audacious he was too. The most famous single fact about him is that he stopped writing poetry as a teenager, so his entire collected works are the works of a minor. Some of it conforms formally and shows a careful versifier, and some of it out-Whitmans Whitman in free expression of physicality and sexuality.

I awoke at 3 AM this morning, deciding I had to do something today for Patti Smith’s 75th birthday. My sleepless mind half-dreamed and solved that it needed to be something by Rimbaud. Despite reduced higher brain functions, I downloaded a collected works and began searching. Life situations will not allow me to complete any piece started as late as today by end of the day. So, this is Part One, all I can complete. Below there’s an audio piece containing my translation of one of Rimbaud’s best short, rhymed lyrics performed with a little Patti Smith Group feel to the music. The piece is Rimbaud’s “Eternity,”  and it’s been one of the most popular ones the Parlando Project has presented. If you’d like to read my translation of the lyric or my original thoughts on the process of creating it, you can find that here. To hear it, you can use the player below, or this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

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*Girls basketball was a big thing in Iowa outside of its largest cities who were uninterested in girls sports at that time. In those days it was played with special rules using 3 on 3 teams separated in each half of the court. This meant that girls that didn’t have shooting talent could play only defense and rebound, and girls whose talent was shooting could be very effective and dominate without having to be quite the all-around athletes that modern women basketball players are asked to be. This allowed good coaching and gritty players from small towns to beat many larger schools in the single-class annual state championship tournament which was broadcast live and covered extensively in the newspapers.

**Like snooty Parisians, even rural un-degreed Iowans of my time would know to discretely sneer “out-lander!” at anyone who pronounced our state capitol with un-French final “s” sounds. Beside that historical French connection, my aunt and associated pair of cousins had been posted with her husband in France with the Army, and those cousins were bilingual as they learned speech. She herself spoke French with a decided American southern accent, a little like American Creole. I loved that aunt so much, this might have also been a factor.

***I keep reminding my contemporary teenager that “punk” at its American inception didn’t mean a single style. It was more at the “irregulars” —those whose lives had not necessarily been as musicians — being pressed into service as the more exclusively musical Sixties predecessors died, became depleted from drugs (cocaine in particular gave too many a “best consumed by” date), or just became regimented in a new record industry that understood how to constrain musical artists into commercial money-makers. Speaking in the context of Rimbaud, I could note that “punk” originated as slang for a less successful/powerful criminals and by extension into less-powerful young men in homosexual relations.

****I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of those labeled “Beats,” but for some reason I’ve never really wanted to read Burroughs. I have no idea if that’s my loss. All I know about him is what others have said, but Smith has spoken of Burroughs’ influence, so I don’t need to draw the connection myself. “Land”  itself was the hardest song on Horses  for me to appreciate and enjoy. I’d been through some incidents of sexualized violence in my teen years and Smith’s use of that motif, while not exactly “triggering” in the modern parlance, wasn’t easy to appreciate.

*****I do own a copy of the indie single that preceded the LP, but I bought it after the LP came out. I first ran across Patti Smith on the page as a writer, before Horses.  One early example I recall was a prose-poemish piece of hers called “Dylan’s Dog.”  And I knew from notices that she and Lenny Kaye (another person I knew as a “rock critic” before I heard a note of his music) had been mixing electric guitar with poetry. By 1974-75 in Newburgh I was far enough away and far enough poor that I was disconnected from New York City, and so I missed out on the NYC CBGB’s scene.

There is another sunshine Part 2

As I warned everyone yesterday, I seem to like Daze & Weekes Sunshine Blogger questions a little too much. Longest post ever…

1. What inspired you to start blogging?

The Parlando Project started out as a podcast, which I wanted to be just the short audio pieces combining various words (mostly poetry) with as varied music as Dave and I could produce, presenting just the piece itself, without chit chat. The Parlando Project is available on all the leading podcast sources, it still can be consumed that way, even though it’s not a podcast as the form is now expected to be. In contrast, I loved how pop music radio operated in my youth, when bang bang you’d hear 3 minute records by Aretha Franklin, The Zombies, Slim Harpo, The Beatles, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, James Brown and Bob Dylan all jumbled together without any defenses of their value other than the glorious, various, numerous sound that came out of the speaker grill.

But, some folks will want to know something about the pieces, and rather than rambling on mic about them, the “show notes”/ blog entries began to get more elaborate as the project went on. Last summer I started to think of the blog as the main thing instead of the adjunct thing.

2. What is your favourite post on your blog?

My favorite (losing u, and crossing the ocean—which sounds like the germ of a might-be-too-half-clever song)? The blog post is one of my shortest, and the audio piece doesn’t even have my voice, but The Garden of Trust  is the Parlando Project piece that moves me the most. I’d tear up when I was mixing it.

By far the most popular piece has been George Washington’s teenage love poem, “Frances.”  Why? Illuminati web-bots boosting Washington’s hits? Angsty teenagers? Xerxes fans looking for a break from Purim?

3. Who are the top 3 bands/musicians that most inspire and influence you as a musician?

Oh, this is so painful. The list should be more like 300. Even though the blog is about “Where Music and Words Meet,” I must rein back from talking about music on the blog or I’d wear a reader out. Doesn’t everyone understand that the book and movie “High Fidelity”  is a documentary and has no funny parts whatsoever?

Artists—just as important in some regard to me—will be left off! You ask three, so I’ll focus on musicians associated with words that motivated me most generally, and not singer-songwriters.

Frank Zappa. I met him and talked with him for a bit more than an hour in 1970. Reformed me artistically from a romantic to something else in that short of a time. I don’t completely share Zappa’s Dadaist sensibility, which is something like Dave Moore’s, but I need that to buffer my tragicomedy, even when it offends me. Here was a guy who didn’t separate R&B, rock, jazz, and “classical”/serious composed music. There was nobody who did that before him, and there’s nobody that’s done it since, so I try to do it at a lower level.

The Patti Smith Group. I could fill a list somewhere between 50 and 100, of artists who combined music with spoken/chanted word and poetry, therefore influencing the Parlando Project in doing the same; but if I had to pick one, it’d be the PSG. I’d read Patti Smith on the page before the PSG, and so I was already primed, but their first single and LP galvanized me when they came out. Taken together they are predominately spoken/chanted word records with co-equal music that’s not just a background sound bed. Obviously, there’s a sensibility there that comes from Patti Smith, but I’m saying the Patti Smith Group not just Patti Smith. Lenny Kaye from the first poetry readings with just Smith and Kaye on electric guitar had to invent something new with whatever musical chops he had on hand. I still think “What would Lenny Kaye do?” when working with a poet, and the younger Smith’s ecstatic vocal style, along with the other modes she added since then, is something I still aspire to.

John Coltrane. In regard to musical chops on any instrument, I’m not John Coltrane’s left pinky. I even have trouble faking saxophone lines. I like his later free jazz recordings in small doses, and appreciate the concept, but I can’t listen to it for hours, but when I’m most troubled or down on myself, listening to prime era John Coltrane just sets me vibrating with him on a molecular level. If I had to suggest a syllabus for a course on being an artist (any field) I’d suggest a John Coltrane biography or two. To me they’re like reading the life and sermons of the Buddha must be to Buddhists. It’s this, and his uncanny ability to speak wordlessly on his instrument, that makes me include him as a music/words influence.

Apologetically, I’ve just realized that none of these are musicians who are invariably easy to listen to; that they all have more detractors and “does nothing for me” listeners than fans. Two out of the three even offend on purpose when they wish too. That’s not representative of the whole of my musical influences, or how I want art to always work—but these are three who moved me to do work. If you want to stream a musician you haven’t heard of until you read it on a blog, then I suggest Bill Frisell, Steve Tibbetts, or Dean Magraw, all of whom have a breadth and beauty to their work I try to emulate, both as a guitarist and in my use of percussion.

Mason Zappa Cale Patti Smith Television bill
That last show in particular sure looks worth $9.50

 

4. If you could have a drink with any poet (alive or dead), who would it be?

Once more my love of variety makes for a hard choice. Often if asked, it would be the poet I’m trying to interpret with performance and music on that day! That said, I’ll say Emily Dickinson. I’d so want to tell her “You’re going to win! You and the immoral Mr. Whitman are going to be the founders of American poetry. Every single day, people are going to read and be pleasantly puzzled by your little verses, and esteemed writers will look at what you did and wonder how you could invent such a new way to speak poetically.” I’d want her to answer all the Sunshine Blogger questions and more, and finally, though we’d be challenging bladder capacity by then, I’d want her to dish.

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Alas, Emily Dickinson has no blog and can’t  be nominated

 

5. If you could go back in time, when and where would you travel?

Easy first part. I’d target the first two decades of the 20th Century. I’ve always been drawn there for some reason, even though it’s not a period that gets much attention generally. That feeling has only intensified from my need to draw largely on works in the Public Domain (pre-1923) for the Parlando Project. Modernism in a lot of delicious flavors was breaking out all over, and in every art. Politically, a challenging time of vast inequality, but also a time of great hope that change was at hand. So, like time-travelers everywhere I’m going to expect to be reasonably well-off—but where to land?

If New York City, a chance to observe the melting pot at its most brimming. Visit the 1913 Armory Show to watch the onlookers’ new eyes seeing for the first time the paintings by the new eyes? Hobnob with the political, social and artistic radicals, some of them recently emigrated from my own family’s base in south-eastern Iowa like my “cousin” Susan Glaspell. Maybe fake a letter of introduction from my grandparents and ask Susan to show me around the Provincetown Playhouse and Greenwich Village? Meet Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Or Chicago? Meet Carl Sandburg and his young family. Swing by the offices of Poetry magazine and suggest to Harriet Monroe that she should read my blog (grin) for tips on hot new writers. Ride with Fenton Johnson in his electric motor car, and refrain from telling him he isn’t going to win and that there’s nothing I can tell him with my extra century of knowledge that can change the racial ignorance and prejudice of America between his time and now.

Or Paris. Meet Apollinaire, Reverdy, Picasso, Satie, and—oops! my French speaking skills are non-existent. OK, next.

London. That’s it! Frost! Pound! Yeats! HD! Florence Farr! George Bernard Shaw! Crash the Poets Club to meet T. E. Hulme and hope I don’t get on his bad side. Sit close to F. S. Flint as a cover and act like I know him. Ask Flint about Herbert Read. Learn to play the Yeats’ psaltery and find out exactly what the Yeats-desired music “chanted, not sung” style sounded like. Slip Rupert Brooke a can of Deep Woods Off and suggest he look up Pound. Visit with Rabindranath Tagore in Hampstead. And the clincher for London? Buy a Raleigh bicycle with a Sturmey Archer 3 spd hub and a kerosene headlamp and ride around town. Why is that the clincher? I’m an introvert. Sadly, I might never make those social connections, even after traveling through time, but the bike ride would be worth it.

1910_Raleigh
Yeats, Pound, HD, Frost, & Flint…tally ho and toodle pip!

Next up, my Sunshine Blogger questions and nominations.