British poet Edward Thomas, who deserves to be better-known in the U. S., is one of the best nature poets I’m aware of. And today’s ode to the beginnings of spring shows one reason why. Like many a good nature poet, Thomas’ landscape, animals, and plants are infused not only with his region’s specifics, but with his own understanding of the order and significance of life. What takes his poetic observation to a next level? In this poem, it’s, well — bird poop.
You can hear my rock-band setting of Edward Thomas’ “But These Things Also” below, but before I leave off writing about his poem, let me speak a bit about what I note about the poem’s use of rhyme. Like another great nature poet, Emily Dickinson, Thomas here is not over-determined by his need to make perfect rhymes, and the ABCB scheme starts right off with a sight rhyme of “grass” with “was.” Let’s not mark him down a grade, because the poem has a great deal of near rhyme, an effect that I find often more effective than ding-dong perfect rhymes. The pair of adjacent words “earliest” and “violets” are as strong to me as violet’s eventual end-rhyme with “debts.” And “debts” still hears the echo of the preceding “dung” and following “mist.” You may hear other consonance, assonance, and pararhymes in Thomas’ word choices.
It’s these sorts of things that make me resistant to some poetic formalists. While perfect regularity can reinforce a sense of fate (or to be honest about my own response, boredom) — irregular rhyme appearances, and variations to and from perfect rhyme, can evoke surprise and discovery.
OK, enough dancing about architecture. Let’s get onto the audio piece, the performance. Graphical player below for some of you, and if not, this highlighted link that’ll open an audio player. This is one of those pieces where I wish there was a better singer than myself handy, but it was still fun to move from chair to chair to create this one-man-band recording. I recorded this close enough together with our last piece, Anna Akhmatova’s “Like a White Stone,” that I’m thinking if this was a polished prog-rock album that I’d fade the two pieces into a 7-minute medley.
*I decided to insert into Thomas’ ode my own aged vision issues, by making “man” in his text, “old man” in my performance.
Poetry, musical speech, is so associated with symbols that it may be impossible to imagine it without metaphor as a rhetorical device. This both bugs and pleases readers and listeners. Symbols can add richness, a sense of novel connections, or they may vex the reader, taunting them with needs for esoteric knowledge or psychic investigations of the author’s mind.
For me at least, poems can work when they are clear as any condensed speech would be on first reading — and when they are nearly incomprehensible as anything other than collections of energetic words. So, along that continuum, a poem may succeed (or fail) — but it must compel. After all, we have so many other words that waft over us written, spoken, recorded, some enriched with music, video, some from those already near and dear to us. As a young person I was drawn more to the richness of images and cared less for the clarity of expression. Other poets tried to convince me that clarity showed respect for the readers busy lives, that incomprehensibility wasn’t a requirement for good poetry. I eventually listened to them and somewhat changed what I wrote and admired. In my newer but still ambiguous stance toward poetic obscurity, I believed that a poem needs to be no more complex that it has to be, and no fancier in its conceits than it needs to be to draw a reader’s or listener’s attention. I may have a bit more to say on these issues in another post, but let’s move on to a new musical piece today.
I’m largely unfamiliar with the poet whose words I’ll use for today’s audio piece, Anna Akhmatova.* She became known to me several years back when the unique American roots singer-songwriter Iris DeMent recorded an album of heartfelt intuitive settings of Akhmatova’s poems, “The Trackless Woods.” This record was released in 2015, around the time that I was formulating some ideas of how to do what became this Parlando Project. Many of my ideas were already set down, even some of the pieces you’ve heard here had already been recorded, but I felt then that DeMent’s record reinforced my intents to do this Project at a time of decision.
Now this month I saw Akhmatova’s poem “Like a White Stone” featured in poets.org’s Poem A Day — and it did that “compel” thing with me as I read it in the middle of an otherwise occupied day. I eventually set upon creating a musical setting for it, one which you’ll be able to hear below.
This whole project is so mysterious to me…. It’s just this weird thing that happened instantaneously upon the first reading of the very first poem of hers I ever read which was “Like a White Stone”. In that period of time, within an hour or so I’d set three or four of them to music.”
I also found out, after composing and recording my performance of “Like a White Stone,” that Akhmatova was associated with a movement called Acmeism which reacted against the French Symbolists, a group of French poets that attracted me in my youth. The Symbolists were all about the effusive, exotic and elusive image. The Acmeists, in reaction, all about precision and clarity. The Symbolists were admired by Dada, Surrealism, and the hermetic strains of modern poetry in English. Acmeism could easily be related to other modern poets who want clarity and the power of easily discerned emotional messages.
“Someone looking closely into my eyes would see it” Anna Akhmatova
Knowing that, how does “Like a White Stone” stack up on the continuum from clear and direct to wild and elusive? Here’s a link to the poem’s text. I’m working from this translation (by Babette Deutsch and Avaham Yarmolinsky) and I know, as one who’s translated poems myself, that there are risks that I may be grabbing onto details that are the translator’s solution not the author’s own design in the original language. My judgement overall is that this poem is in the middle somewhere, even if closer to the clear and direct pole. The opening image, the one that first grabs the reader, is both clear and elusive for me, a combination that often works to compel. A “white stone**” deep in a well, yet it’s also “hard and clear.” It somehow doesn’t put us off that this is contradictory. How much might we be able to see anything clearly, even a light-colored stone, deep in a well? Yet the poem says we know it’s there, we know its hardness sensuously — it’s not only some indistinct imagination. Is it likely we know the stone, its color, its feel in the hand, because we’ve tossed it there? And the poem then launches into an extended consideration of memory, its dichotomy, how it’s both present and by definition, absent. It’s easy to explicate this poem as something addressed to a false, absent, exiled, or discarded lover, yet it refuses to choose details or say that directly. In the poem’s conclusion, the white stone deep in the well is an image like unto a human turned into a rock or statue, unable to move from or toward exile, as permanent as ended — a memory.
Would this poem be more powerful if it just straightforwardly told us the details? Would it be more artful if it was more elaborate and fanciful in its images? Well, some poem otherwise might be — but this poem compelled both Iris DeMent and me, and maybe it’ll compel you to listen too.
My performance isn’t like DeMent’s at all. I hadn’t even recalled that this poem was one that she had performed when I worked on it this month. Although DeMent uses the same translation as I used, she phrases it differently, and while I’m no stranger to some American roots style musical flavors my choice today was more toward electronic synth sounds. Hers has a Protestant hymn flavor, mine aims at the surging dance of the floating memory mind. You can hear my performance of Anna Akhmatova’s “Like a White Stone” with the player gadget below, or if you don’t see that player, with this alternative highlighted link.
*My ignorance isn’t Akhmatova’s fault. Although her work was suppressed by the Soviet Union’s cultural czars, and some of her associates killed, exiled, or imprisoned, she’s now generally recognized as an important 20th century Russian language poet.
**The white stone image, the specificity of which depends on translators’ choice, might possibly connect with another translator’s choice, in the Bible’s Revelations verse about a white stone. But remember, these are two translators, one going from Russian and the other from Greek to our English, each deciding exact words that we put in with our own connotations. Did this white stone have some connotation of translucency, perhaps even a diamond? Intuitively to me it’s a lover’s token, but I could be wrong.
Something in me says there should be more new pieces here since the last post, as I have several partially completed things, but the distress of folks around me pulls me several ways away from that. The distress hints that this music and poetry stuff should yield to more pressing problems, and then the unpredictability of the distress primes a sense of anxious alertness mixed with weariness. Though I’m at home, I feel like I’m in a medical waiting room, perhaps outside an Emergency Department, waiting for what it is that will be, in some not predictable soon, be said. As waiting people do, I read and do random things, anything having nothing to do with the matters at hand. Nothing too absorbing, for I don’t know when I will need to put it down.
But I’ll also say this, poetry has managed to stick itself into this state nonetheless. Poems can be as small as house mice, there’s always some place they can sift or scrunch their way in. And so it was early this morning when I saw this poem by Frank O’Hara “Now that I am in Madrid and I can think.” I found it could be fit to an already composed musical piece I had done late last month, and so I put them together this afternoon. If you’d like to read the text of this poem, here’s a link to that.
This is a love poem, and more specifically a poem about separation from the beloved, and O’Hara’s language is as beautifully askew and full of charming scatteration as any of his more well-known poems. If I had time and an inclined mood, I could write at length about his musical language here and his turns of phrase: “The slender heart you are sharing my share of, “See (sea) a vast bridge stretching,” and “The lungs I have felt sonorously, subside, slowly.” There’s this intimacy interrupted, the separation of bodies and their encased lives. The title says the speaker in the poem can now think. Well, they have constructed a fine thing, something that takes some smarts, some wit, but what they have constructed is a set of feelings outweighing any thoughtful aesthetic pleasures of travel.
The exciting places in Madrid Frank O’Hara is ignoring to think of his beloved. Oh— this is Madrid, Iowa! Iowans can tell out-of-staters by how they can’t get the French pronunciation of Des Moines right, and then they’ll see if they’ll correctly say this town’s name as “Mad-Rid.”
Perhaps this is why this poem snuck in between the trivia and my nervous time-passers. Here the illustrious culture of Spain is obscured by the distress and longing of separation. The poem finishes with one of O’Hara’s fine last lines. Do I want the empty world, the world without art? Yes, sometimes, but only by the choices of joined desire.
From the times I’ve listened to recordings of Frank O’Hara reading, I suspect he’d be more off-hand and playful in reading his poem than I was, but my reading reflects my current mood. The music for today’s performance is dense and urgent, I will not dance much about its architecture right now, but you can hear it with the player gadget below — or if that’s not visible as you read this, with this alternative highlighted link.
I just spent a half-hour watching this video recommended to me by a stranger elsewhere online. I knew. and still know nothing, about the man who talks here, despite a documentary being made about him a few years back.
Why did it hold my attention, even though it’s partly about that documentary and a career I don’t know? Well, he’s an engaging talker, and the interviewer here too is excellent, but that wouldn’t be determinative. One of this project’s mottos is “Other People’s Stories,” but obviously in a world of current billions and more than a millennium of poetry to consider, I’m going to ignore or pass by most people’s stories. Maybe it’s his age and his obvious engagement with art, while being old enough to be my father? I’m old. I’m still engaged in this Project. Old people still facing that situation may be the link that connected me.
As someone who currently rarely performs live in a room of listeners, the subject of “stage fright” isn’t a pressing issue for me. The early parts of this interview do speak to that issue, reminding us that it is not a unique, shameful, issue — but one that is rather common among performers. No, it’s not so much stage fright that I myself am most interested in. Rather, I’ve been increasingly promotional with the more than 650 audio pieces and accompanying posts that have accumulated here over the past six years. I frankly feel a mix of unseemly self-interest and objective self-delusion as I do that. These acts of promotion are still novel enough for me that I can, for now, press on past those feelings. And since it’s been harder to create more pieces, or as complete a realization in them of what this Project tries to do, this task — which embarrasses me — allows me to think I’d doing something in place of that.
What I find is the deeper message then of this man’s account is that there is an element in art — subject, yes, to the clouding of our egos and neurotic urges — that is beyond ourselves. More than 20 minutes in, in what becomes the conclusion of the interview’s story arc — the thing everything before has been building to — Seymour Bernstein articulates that place.*
Can we visit that place consciously, acknowledge that we want to abide there at least a little while?
For an audio piece, here’s one of the early pieces of this project I’m most proud of, another older man of music speaking about that art. Weston Noble, spoke this about music at his retirement, and I wove his words into some original music. You can hear it with the player gadget below, or with this highlighted link.
*So, should I give it to you in pull quote form, a TL:DNR assistance to the harried reader who doesn’t have time for the half-hour interview? I debated this, but decided that no, it would lack impact without the build of the story telling itself by the method of it’s telling. I decided, you might be too likely to shrug, and the precept would roll off your consciousness. And earlier in the interview Bernstein makes another recommendation that may be valuable to writers and composers: that a balance of re-creation and creation is helpful.
Yesterday was some kind of day to celebrate Wales, and I asked the teenager in the house what they did to celebrate since they have an interest in languages and had recently been studying Welsh language online.
“You mean for St. David’s Day?” They replied. I was surprised they knew — but then they’re often surprising. “What are you supposed to do?”
“I dunno. Maybe make a point to use W as a vowel?”
What did I do? I worked, using some increasingly rare time recently, on a new piece here that you may see later this month with words by Welsh poet Edward Thomas. But that’s not today. Today is my catching up with a piece that has been in the works for a couple of weeks at least, remaining unfinished as other concerns remand me to only hot takes and short contributions on Twitter.
Those I follow in the British Isles are sharing pictures of buds and first wildflowers. Not here.
Is Sara Teasdale’s “Winter Stars” late then? In my upper Midwest, absolutely not. Monday it snowed, my bicycle which I’ve ridden all winter, is behind a shed door whose jam is frozen completely shut by an icy enchantment after melt/refreeze — and 15 degrees F. this morning certainly won’t let it go. Yet, there’s one other time displacement to account for in this poem, for this is another of Teasdale’s poems about WWI. Particularly in Great Britain, when “War Poets” are mentioned, male citizen-soldiers are typically meant, and few now recall that American poet Teasdale wrote poems about the war. One of those poems is likely her best-known poem (or at least poem title, since Ray Bradbury borrowed it) “There Will Come Soft Rains.” So lovely and complete is that dystopian vision within itself that I suspect it never occurs to readers today that she was writing it in the context of WWI.
“Winter Stars” has the same strengths of not seeming to be stuck in time or current events. Indeed, folks have written about the poem and thought the blood flowing and wars mentioned within its lines are metaphoric tropes. Alas, as I considered this poem during this past February, the anniversary of the still ongoing invasion of Ukraine provided a corresponding all-too-actual simile. Here’s a link to the full text of Teasdale’s poem.
Teasdale’s night stars are then, like the sure-to-come soft rains of her other poem, a meditation on what endures when suffering, violence, and human vanity can change everything else. I was particularly taken with the next to last quatrain in Teasdale’s poem, remembering as I read it her guarded and constrained by illness childhood looking out a bedroom window at the immortal stars and the mighty Orion, the hunter, who could change and master things.
In the poem, it turns out that Orion doesn’t change things, rather that desire to change things is the constant. Teasdale would leave her sick-room childhood in St. Louis, find some brief success in New York. That older Teasdale is the writer of this lyric. Armies can march, hunting changeable borders to be drawn in blood. Teasdale seems to somehow fatalistically know that Orion and winter never leave, they only blink, they’re always there, the hunter and the prey.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Sara Teasdale’s “Winter Stars” is below for many of you. No player to be found? This highlighted link will open a new tab window with a player so you can hear it too.
Returning to the poems published in the 1926 issue of Fire!! magazine which proclaimed it was “Devoted to Younger Negro Artists,” we get this simple seeming, yet mysterious poem by one of Fire’s most famous contributors and organizers: the then 25-year-old Langston Hughes.
“Railroad Avenue” looks like a simple free-verse street-scene vignette. Here’s a link to the text of the poem if you’d like to follow along. Yet the more I looked to understand it, the deeper the mystery of it became.
Here are a few things that seem quite clear: it’s evening. There’s a street, likely named by the poem’s title. A few things are seen or heard: lights in two businesses, a boxcar, a record player, a player piano, a boy and a girl, laughter. Largely unremarkable things, so there’s some specific character given to them.
The record player is a Victrola, a short-lived brand from the early 20th century — for example, the ones with the big conical horn as in the original RCA Victor logo. The businesses are a pool hall and a restaurant serving fish. The boy is at leisure, comfortable. The girl has a dark face that is powdered.* In what may be internal monologue the poem’s narrator gives us the winning number in the day’s policy game.**
So, are we clearly visualizing the place being described? At first I thought I could. I figured without evidence that this was a crowded urban nightlife street, the two other people only examples of many, the sounds and things part of what could have been a larger catalog. Is that reading possible? Two things mentioned that are likely heard not seen: the player piano (reasonably loud) and the Victrola, which would not be. Victrolas were not electric record players. The records turned via clockwork, the sound was produced acoustically from the grooves in the records. So, it’s not blaring out a window over robust street sounds. If the statement on the winning daily number 942 is audible rather than the interior thoughts of our narrator, it too would likely be at a conversational level (given no indication that the speaker/thinker won).
And then there’s that boxcar. Mentioned twice, Hughes really wants us to see that there’s this boxcar there, yet says nothing about it other than also saying twice that it’s forgotten. What’s that mean? A boxcar is a freight train car. This is not an urban light rail or passenger train line being invoked. Who forgets a boxcar? Is it just one piece of rolling stock left off somewhere as a spare or scrap? While the poem doesn’t say this, I began seeing it as part of a train on a grade-level street crossing, with the boxcar’s location blocking the road, a location so that it has to be mentioned, can’t be ignored. Did Hughes see this clearly in his mind and forgot to make it plain in his poem, or am I imagining things?
This vision invoked in me of a small town to small city location where the freight train line runs on grade-level, not on bridges over the roads or in tunnels under them, let me begin to see this as a much sleepier street. This isn’t the busy streetlight and neon Harlem of Hughes’ Harlem Renaissance. The dusk is “dark,” the street quiet enough to hear things distinctly as the evening begins. As the poem reaches a crescendo portion, it’s laughter we hear. It’s “sudden,” indicating that it startles the relative quiet and is not muffled by it. Hughes metaphorically amplifies that laughter with repetition — stating that this laughter with its transport from the ordinary and unenergetic street is able to shake the shop lights and move billiard balls.
This is a poem published by a 25-year-old, but I get a sense this may well be a memory of an even more youthful time with daylight ending, with sounds and a scattered glow from remembered lit windows. Dusk is a marking time for many young people, between the era when it says “time to go home” spanning to the age of “time to first go out and explore your nighttime world of romance and adult recreation.” I wondered, would the poem have more context if I knew where the poem’s titular Railroad Avenue is? America has lots of Railroad Avenues and streets, so the name alone tells us little, other than this isn’t a boxcar dropped off miles from a rail line.
A Google Streetview showing the intersection of a main Joplin MO street now renamed for Langston Hughes with Railroad Ave. Google’s camera vehicles didn’t drive & record down the gravel path that is Railroad Avenue right beside the train tracks.
I spent half a day trying to figure out where such a street might be in the places the young Hughes was known to have lived. I’ll summarize the candidates as briefly as I can. He was born in Joplin Missouri, and there’s a very good Railroad Avenue there, with everything you might want for this less-populated scene — though the Afro-American population at the time Hughes’ family lived there was low. But Hughes and his parents left Joplin when Hughes was around 1-2 years old, and there’s nothing I could find saying anyone went back. And was Joplin even big enough and ethnic enough for a numbers game? Hughes spent his grade-school years in Lawrence Kansas being raised by his grandmother. Yes, there were some Black neighborhoods,*** but no likely Railroad Avenue. He spent time at Howard University in Washington D. C. There’s a Railroad Avenue in that city, but it’s far from Howard, and seems to be (and likely was) a non-descript industrial area. Afro-American Howard students might spend evenings on U street circa 1920, but like Harlem in that era, it’d be lit and busy, and no likely boxcars there. Hughes attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and once more I thought I might have a chance. Not as urban circa 1920 — but then no Railroad Avenue, not even a railroad line for more than 15 miles that I could find. And even if he’s a famous figure from the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes’ Harlem is as unlikely for a sleepy dark dusk with a grade-level railroad line as Washington D. C.
Is Railroad Avenue just something Hughes made up? Is it someone else’s story, something he absorbed from a friend, or his mother or grandmother? Did he go back and visit his birthplace Joplin before 1926 and observe a relaxed scene somewhere on that gravel-surface Railroad Avenue? I’ll probably never know.
But what’s up with that boxcar? Why is it so important, and so specifically forgotten? As a short, Modernist free verse poem, we can think: “So much depends/upon/the boxcar/serenaded by a/Victrola/beside a purple/powdered girl.” One theory: the boxcar is a plausible hobo-ride escape out of the town, but our narrator either doesn’t want to leave, or doesn’t know if the train-car is soon going his way. Within a year Hughes published another poem “Homesick Blues” written more in Southern Black dialect about someone looking to hobo back south.**** Another theory? If, as I imagined without direct evidence, the train has stopped and the boxcar is blocking the road, it’s a symbol of systematic blockage of the people in the scene. Whoever owns/controls the boxcar doesn’t even need to care about this (it’s “forgotten”) — and meanwhile the laughter of the folks in the scene mitigates their lives as they deal with this unfair, indifferent, hindrance.
I’ll conclude by admitting I composed the music and performed Langston Hughes’ “Railroad Avenue” without knowing exactly what the poem was about. I did have my supposed internal vision while doing so: it’s a small non-urban place, like some in Hughes’ youth. A boy or young man is watching the grownups, thinking without even thinking much, about where he might go, what he might do as he grows up. He knows somehow this, and he, will go away — but this evening he’s there. That personal, practical, vision of mine is, as Hughes has it, “Neither truth nor lie.”
*This line is the only one that specifically calls out the racial caste situation in the poem. Powders to lighten the skin tone of darker skinned Afro-Americans were a common cosmetic in Hughes’ time.
**Number or Policy lottery games were present in cities by the time of this poem. The illegal gambling game was usually a daily low-cost bet, winners determined by some coincidental trio of numbers that could be found published daily in newspapers. While associated with Afro-Americans, it was played by other ethnicities too. I don’t know much about its plausible presence in smaller cities and towns before 1926, though Wikipedia says such games go back to Civil War times.
***During the mid-19th century violence of the “Bloody Kansas” struggle to decide if Kansas would be admitted to the union as a slave or free state the pro-slavery forces sacked and destroyed Lawrence more than once. John Brown became a leader of guerilla anti-slavery forces in Kansas, and Hughes’ grandmother, who largely raised him, had a first husband who was killed with Brown at Harper’s Ferry.
****Example that Hughes was comfortable writing either as a collective noun or in the voices of personas.
Here’s another lyric of Waring Cuney’s used on Josh White’s 1941 record Southern Exposure. Before I get on with presenting the song, let me briefly review who White and Cuney are.
Josh White was a Black American singer and guitarist who usually performed in the Afro-American Blues style. The Blues was a popular musical genre among Black Americans during the first half or so of the 20th century. During that century, some of the musical ideas and a great deal of the outlook and performance style of Blues were gradually absorbed into general American musical culture. As another Blues lyricist, Willie Dixon put it: “The Blues had a baby, and they called it Rock’n’Roll.” And so, when I was a young man, there were numerous young acts seeking to call attention to the centrality of Blues music to Rock music. However, most of these then young musical artists, like the majority of their audiences, were white. Unluckily, Josh White’s relationship to the Blues and it’s audiences was essentially premature — he was a man before his time.
Though White was a fine guitarist, singer, and performer who could have scuffled on the segregated Black performance circuit, for a complex set of reasons he became associated with the American political left and its largely white “Folk Music” performers. There’s a fascinating story on how that came to be that I can’t fit into a short blog post, but the shortest summary I can make of this is that equal rights for Afro-Americans was taken up as a left-wing cause, even more specifically as an American Communist cause, after the Lincoln-Grant Republican party became estranged from energetic advocacy for those rights. In the 1930s-50s era White performed for mixed, largely white audiences associated with the Left, while his contemporary Black Blues artists performed to overwhelmingly Black audiences. Want to know more? Here’s a link to an excellent blog post by Elijah Wald that explains how this premature Blues cross-over complicated White’s career. TL:DNR? Because he crossed-over before the Sixties, he was somehow considered inauthentic.
A later re-issue of the White-Cuney Southern Exposure record
Waring Cuney, as this month’s readers of this blog know, was associated with other young artists of the “Harlem Renaissance” even though his name became lesser-known than his colleagues. Always musically interested, he lent his poetic skills to White’s 1941 Southern Exposure album. Today’s selection, where I perform one of his lyrics from that with my own music, deals with a specific area of equal-rights advocacy for Afro-Americans: military service. In 1941, the American military was segregated, and like America in general in this era, the dictum “separate but equal” was largely an absurd charade, easily tied to pervasive white supremacy and ideas of Black inferiority. Ugly stuff — but in the era just before America entered into WWII, also stupid and counterproductive.
I’m going to oversimplify and compress again, but during the Civil War and in WWI segregated American Black soldier companies had proven their abilities as fighting units, but in the between-the-wars era the US Military had reduced itself to something reflective of the plantation South or the servant-class North. Roles for Afro-American military personnel were limited. Cuney’s “Uncle Sam Says” is a prophetic smart missile aimed at that situation. How so?
It’s a four-verse song, but let’s get on to how Cuney is able to foresee or encourage three things that became current events in the months around when White recorded his singing version of Cuney’s words.
Verse one: Black folks can’t fly combat airplanes. That takes a skilled knight of the air in the mind of the prejudiced. In the same 1941, an Air Corps unit was formed that became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Yes, it was a segregated all-Black unit, but by 1943 they started proving their mettle.
Verse two: this one is almost eerie. American involvement in WWII combat began with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Aboard the battleship West Virginia there was a messman’s mate named Doris Miller who just before the enemy warplanes arrived was serving breakfast — as Cuney’s lyric says “Keep your apron son.” Miller was a big guy, fullback on his Texas high school team. He was deputized to help carry wounded out of fire and to aid stations on the ship while it was under attack, which he did, including being called on to carry the dying commander of the battleship to treatment. In the midst of this someone directed him to an unmanned machine gun. Miller had no machine gun training — remember, subservient roles in this Jim Crow military — but he’d hunted squirrels, and taking charge of the gun it’s said that he downed between 2 and 6 of the attacking aircraft.
Verse three: while the US hadn’t entered WWII when Cuney wrote his lyrics or when White sang them, the lyric’s prophetic claim that “when the trouble starts, we’ll all be in that same big fight” isn’t as specific as the opening two verses’ charges. Still, it’s a good point. Also note: when blindered folks maintain that the struggle for Afro-American civic equality is all about “privileges,” that it has also historically been a struggle for access to civic responsibilities too.
The last verse issues the call to action and wraps up this effective “message song.” I performed it —that’s a regular part of my encounters with the words this project explores — but if you’d like to hear Josh White’s original version here’s the link to his. The player gadget for my version is below, and if you don’t see that, here’s a link to my version. I have one more example yet from the young Black poets who published Fire!! planned if situations allow me this month, so follow this blog or check back for that.
I said I’d return to our encounter with the 1926 Harlem Renaissance issue of Fire!! magazine — and here we are with another poem that was printed there. If you’ll remember from earlier this Black History Month, Fire!! was largely organized, written, and edited by young people under the age of 25, and as such it wanted to represent a generational change from the curators of anthologies like James Weldon Johnson’s 1922 The Book of American Negro Poetry or Alain Locke’s The New Negro of 1925. There’s more emphasis on free verse in the poetry section for example, and throughout the issue there’s less attention to propriety. Though only a year separates Fire!! from The New Negro,long-time readers here may recall that Locke’s book included an essay on Black music casting a suspicious eye on what the essayist cast as frivolous Jazz music — and Blues, as a vocal music depicting a lot of disreputable situations, wasn’t considered an art at all.
The cohort of Fire!! didn’t share that outlook. If anything, they wanted to make sure they touched on unconventional thoughts and affinities. And here’s something we now think we know about the young writers in Fire!! — a substantial portion were gay or bisexual. Afro-Americans in the 1920s were coming out as full-fledged contributors to all the public arts — would that other status, fully-illegal and disrespected, muddy the waters of “racial uplift?”
Today’s piece uses a poem by a lesser-known contributor in this issue of Fire!!, Waring Cuney. Like Helene Johnson, who you may have been introduced to earlier this February, Cuney deserves to be better-known. While not directly part of the Harlem scene, Cuney was friends with Langston Hughes, one of the chief instigators of Fire!!, and like Hughes he was a young man who was comfortable with the language and outlook of the Blues.
I can’t seem to find a picture of the young William Waring Cuney, but here he is later in life modeling modern vinyl hipsterism.
Today’s set of words, Cuney’s poem “The Death Bed” doesn’t use Blues forms directly, but I’ve already been working with some other Cuney poems that do for possible performance, so I decided that I could include some of that today. “The Death Bed” is a poem about a dying man who doesn’t seem very interested in his family’s consolations of religion. While getting religion as death approaches is a common trope, our dying man quickly tells his relatives there’s no need for prayer. The relatives leave for another room, and instead of the purposeful theology of public prayer, our protagonist listens to the enigmatic wind. For one moment he tries to join the windsong with his own song, but finds he can find no words. If windsong is nature (likely) or the paraclete (possible), our dying man cannot form his response.
The poem ends with the dying man concerned with what the relatives in the other room are praying. Are they seeking to intercede for the non-believer? Or might they think he needs to be cleansed of some evil — maybe they are even praying to be protected from the sins this sinner personifies?
Cuney’s poem as it appeared in Fire!!
In my performance I sought to open-up intimations of another possibility via music. The Godhead or the universe may not require intercession or last-minute prayers. I made a rare choice to use a conventional musical sample* for this performance. The slide guitar you hear in the main body of “The Death Bed” is taken from a 1927 recording “Jesus Make Up my Dying Bed” by gospel/blues guitarist and singer Blind Willie Johnson. While many guitarists think Johnson’s sound and distinctive slide-vibrato is unmatchable, one could suppose I could have tried to approximate it. However, I was taken with the romantic notion of combining this 1926 poem with a slice of music recorded around the same time. I then included a short coda with a sung variation of this song.** The rest of the music was made with percussion and the sound of bowed cymbals. You can play this performance of Waring Cuney’s “The Death Bed” with a graphical player below. No player to see? This highlighted link is a backup method to play it.
*Portions of modern popular and art music intentionally use collaged and looped sections of existing recordings. I tend to avoid that for whatever reason, generally choosing to play or electronically “score” my instruments.
**The performers in that short coda are Fred and Annie McDowell. Fred McDowell is another master of the bottleneck slide guitar.
It’s one of those things that is hard to do well but is none-the-less important to do anyway. Why is it hard? Why is its realization often imperfect? What might one do or aim for when attempting to read one’s own poetry for the public? Well, before I write down some responses to those challenges, let me say that these are not the opinions of an expert or the summary judgements of some important critic, but only observations of someone who attends readings and occasionally reads my own verse aloud before a live audience.
Why is it hard? Perhaps I’d rather say it this way: there’s no good reason it should be easy. The writing of poetry, emphasis on the second word in that sentence, is not a public act. For many of us it takes extraordinary private concentration to create our poetry — and too, we often put in it things we would otherwise never share face-to-face. As a result, a great deal of poetry, particularly our present age’s poetry, derives its power from whispers to ourselves in the dark. Why should the same person who does that writing be any good at reading it aloud?
I attend at least one poetry reading every month and I’ve seen over a hundred poets read. Let me be honest about myself: I’m not a very good listener. I have a racing mind, and any spark that a reader’s words set off, has a tendency to cause my mind to follow it off into my own bonfires. And if the reader’s own tinder is damp, I as a poet myself will spend internal time noting how poorly the campfire chances are progressing. How much better (or worse?) is the average poetry reading audience member in listening? I can’t say, but I fear I’m a bit worse than the average audience member, but that doesn’t mean I don’t notice some ways poets reading may fail more than others.
I’ll summarize one class of failure with a general statement of an issue: not convincing me that the words the reader is sharing are important to be shared. Yes, yes, I know this is hard. Most poets don’t have the audience or objective awards and rewards to be reinforced that their stuff is any good. And those that do (or those that inflate what small elements of that they’ve received) can forget that there may be audience members who still need to be convinced. If you make that case in your manner of presentation and in any introductory speaking you do before and between poems, you’ve improved the chance of the audience paying attention.
Oddly, general posture and “stage presence” doesn’t seem to have as much effect as I might guess it would. Readers who make extensive eye contact vs. those whose heads are downcast to the page on the podium — is the former better than the latter? Probably, but I’ve seen success and failure with both. I’ve seen a few poetry readers with more extensive motion moving around the stage or reading area. This has been rare, and I’ve seen it work (for me as audience member). If I’m not otherwise compelled, it might seem off-putting or artificial. Literary poetry readings do not seem the same as general public speaking or stage performance in expectations or needs in this regard.
Taking steps to earn the audience’s attention can pay off.
Pacing, setting audience expectations, and “set-list structure” does seem important. Don’t read too fast or too slow. Help the audience understand what you’re going to do (even mundane things like “I’m going to read six poems today” or “This is the last poem I’m going to read tonight”). Musicians most often work out the order of pieces they will present with some thought. It may help the performer (and therefore the audience) if you start with a “greatest pop hit” that you know how to consistently perform without making any extraordinary demands on either audience or reader. Place your most emotionally or intellectually demanding piece at the end, or next-to-last.*
Because we have to get over two obstacles when reading our own poetry, I’ve suggested to poets that they consider splitting their task into two parts. First, practice by reading other poets’ work aloud, even with no audience. Pick poets whose work is meaningful or influential to your own writing style, and figure out how to make them sound their best and most compelling in your voice.** Then, move on to your own poetry, and read it in the same voice and manner, as if it was as important and “certified” as your poetic models. The self-doubt, the “who am I to…?” factor can possibly be tricked with this path. However, what should you do if, when you get to the second task, you choke at how it sounds? It’s possible that your models, your influences, may need to be expanded. I myself started loving romantic era 19th century poetry for example, but later wanted to develop a more conversational style in my own writing. I could try reading Keats or Blake as if they were talking to me, or I could try reading aloud some Frank O’Hara instead.
How do you know how you sound when reading other poets or your own work. You need to record yourself. Your basic smartphone or laptop will do well enough. In the Parlando Project I make efforts to make my recorded voice sound better on recordings, but that’s not important in this effort. Will you feel self-conscious listening to your own voice? Almost certainly. Get over that it won’t sound right — it will sound more like what the audience hears. Do you feel your reading voice has a weird or unappealing timbre? That’s likely of less importance, so get over it.
It’s a good idea to practice your “set” before a public reading. Highly experienced readers can skip this step,*** but inexperienced readers should not.
In summary then, most readers of their own poetry are not great readers, even those who’ve widely published or won awards — so congratulations, it’s OK to be an imperfect reader, most of us are! Yet it’s still worthwhile becoming a better public reader.
A week ago I decided to read a love poem at a rare open mic session for a longstanding local reading series. I picked a slightly revised version of a poem I presented here a few years ago “The Phones in Our Hands (are so Magical).” The organizers’ instructions said that we should read only a single poem of our own and keep it under four minutes. I prepared for the reading by informally recording myself reading my poem about three times, to get a quick sense of if I had it down as to its presentation. On the night of the reading, I was able to present it at about 75% of what my third and best practice reading was. Where was the fall off? I read it just a bit too fast (nervousness) and I probably was less than optimum in handling some of the phrasing. I’ll give myself a middle grade in my overall presentation. I did try to set the expectations in introducing the poem, but in the end, the overall effect was less effective than it could have been for two reasons. I didn’t properly setup or convey the tonal shift in the poem, so the surprise when the poem shifts from the mysterious/playful to the experience of the separation of death from one’s partner confounded the audience. The difference between pleasurable surprise and confusion is subtle to describe, yet critical in effect. The other issue was “set-list” related. Most of the readers disregarded the one poem request and read 2-3, and as a Valentine’s Day themed reading, many of the poems were light-hearted and playful. My single poem was a “downer” and a “thinker” poem. I had considered doing two poems (still well within the four minutes) and would have led off with the Valentine’s poem I presented here last time, which is a more informal and joyous poem, even if it addresses the same issues of old love and eventual widowhood. In retrospect, that would have improved my “set” considerably. The bottom line I’ll convey from my most recent public reading: accepting imperfection is an important skill, ever more so if you are trying to do things well, and I enjoyed taking my swing at sharing my poem.
Today’s audio piece is the third take of my practice run-through of “The Phones in our Hands (are so Magical)” with an impromptu two-handed improv over a synth pad, one track a soft grand piano and the other a more plaintive high-in-its-range violin. Apropos to the above discussion of recording your own voice, the poem coincidently mentions how odd our recorded voice seems to most of us. You can hear it with the player below or this alternative highlighted link.
*If next-to-last, your last poem can then be another “greatest pop hit,” a poem of clarity that seeks to leave the audience energized and feeling they’ve comprehended what you’ve presented, rather than drained or perplexed.
**Does this sound like the Parlando Project, where 90% of the time we present performances of other poet’s words? I guess it does, but the main reason that I do the Project is that spending extended time with those words and integrating them with music tricks me into listening to them in a deeper way. It gets me past those issues I have being distracted while listening to another reader. In melding their poem with my breath and music, I’m forced to inhabit it.
***A great many (not all) musicians go through an intense practice regimen while developing their skills on their instrument, but a more relaxed and informal one later. Someone who’s gigging and playing regularly (using their bank of skills deposited from their own-room practice) is often able to maintain or even sharpen those skills without the need for as much solo practice. Similarly, if you are regularly reading, there’s much less need to practice your set.
I’m going to take a short break from our February celebration of 1926’s Fire!! Devoted to Younger Negro Artists* to celebrate old people — really old people. The audio piece today is also not as solemn as some of the issues we’ve dealt with in other posts: it’s about love, desire, lust — and those feelings are represented as Shakespeare or many of the Afro-American Blues artists of our last decade to be called “The Twenties” might present it, as “country matters.”
There’s a long poetic lyrical tradition of mixing rural metaphors with desire. We’ve done more than one piece here over the years in the bucolic poetic tradition of lusty shepherds and comely rural maids, but it has occurred to me in my present old age that they are almost always young and single. I, on the other hand, am an old, long-married man. Not to put a damper on the prurience factor, but when I say old, I mean old enough to think about not being around to promise love forever. I’ll repeat what I’ve said here before: that at my age when offered a lifetime guarantee on a product, I’ll ask now if there’s a better deal. Yet, oddly enough, that for me makes the desire to connect with my beloved no less ardent. Carpe Diem is no longer just a trope to be trotted out.
Does today’s rambunctious piece do a good job of communicating that? I’m not sure. I presented an earlier draft of this a decade ago to a writer’s group I was participating in — and they, in the springtime of their mid-60s, thought it was a persona poem about someone wooing a rural widow, while I thought the inescapable ribald joke in the piece was that the singer wanted to, ahem, get down with it, before they died making their wife a widow. That group was often right about such lack of clarity, but I sometimes wonder if they were too young — and now that half that group has died, that they might have a different understanding of this lusty Blues poem. And it occurs to me that’s an additional joke! The audience for poetry may be small, but am I expecting the audience for this one to be made up of dead people?
Here’s my Blues-poem lyric. We’ll be back with other peoples’ words soon.
I don’t know, but I wish all of the readers and listeners here, of whatever age, a happy Valentine’s Day. We may not understand love — after all, we barely understand lust — but let us fumble toward that understanding with chocolates and flowers in a cold February. You can hear me perform this Blues-poem with bottleneck-slide guitar using the graphical player gadget below, or with this alternative highlighted link.