They Say Life is Precious

Creativity is escape and sticking-with-it, avoidance and attention. Routine can take you to your place reserved for freedom, you may believe you’re going to the same place, and then something else happens.

Every so often I present a set of words I wrote here rather than following my usual practice of using other people’s words and “other people’s stories.” I didn’t plan to do a piece of mine here, though I did plan to revise this poem from 2016 yesterday. Sticking-with-it.

But first, I thought I should take the opportunity to play a little acoustic guitar in a quiet house on a cold grey day. Avoidance.

This is one of the good things about my multisided creative life. If I put off or am outright avoiding one side, for example, writing or rewriting my own poetry, I may flee to my music side, to the shear tactile pleasure of playing an instrument. Or to the poetry written by others and this project. Escape.

So there I was at the guitar. I tuned it to “double drop D,” and because the guitar that was at hand has too narrow a neck width at the nut to suit my less flexible older fingers, I capoed up to the second fret which gave me a little more room. From there, by ear I started to work on some chord forms that sounded interesting together in this alternate tuning. This is one of the virtues of altered tunings on the guitar. I have some understanding of the guitar’s conventional tuning, but an altered tuning requires new exploration.

None of the chords I ended up playing would have been difficult to find or fret in standard tuning, but the altered tuning I was using has three strings tuned to the same note (though one’s an octave lower than the other two) and that not only makes it easy to get a drone going while playing other notes on top, but that trio of strings resonates sympathetically.*

I was quite receptive to the sound that was developing, and next to me as I played was the manuscript of the poem I planned to revise. Could the resonating chords be fit to it? Yes, it looked like they could. Attention.

Performing a written piece can be an aid to revision. As I worked on the music I was cycling through sections of the poem, and some lines began to volunteer themselves for deletion. The poem lost five lines, and it was the better for it. The ending wasn’t strong enough, so I added a couple of sensuous verbs which I think made it better. The line deletions happened almost without attention. I was years separated from when I thought they were a good idea to be included, and the repetition while thinking mostly about the music and its flow simply made them seem unimportant. The revision of the ending was a more literary endeavor, but by that point the music was coming together, and I came up with choices sharply focused on getting that ending “fixed” so I could record a finished version.

That piece I ended up working on, today’s piece “They Say Life is Precious,”  was intended as a page poem, but the process I went through with it on Thursday made me think it works better as a performance piece—but even on the page I think it works better now because of the time I spent performing it as I composed and recorded the music.

They Say Life is Precious
We pay for life by filling it’s container, time, with attention. You can put money in there, but it can’t read what’s on the currency.

 

The acoustic guitar part didn’t turn out to be difficult. I recorded it and my vocal. The chords of the piece are E5, E minor 7, and two voicings of Bsus4.**  To fill out the sound I added Mellotron violins and flute, a simple contra-bass part, and an upper-register fretless electric bass line.

Escape and sticking-with-it, avoidance and attention. By avoiding the revision and choosing to play guitar first, I accomplished the revision—and when I thought I was just going to play guitar, my composition routine refused to relinquish itself and drew my attention.

To hear my piece “They Say Life is Precious”  use the player gadget below.

 

 

 

 

*Many musical cultures have instruments that use drones or sympathetic vibrations. South Asian music is full of them, but so to are Celtic pipes, Norwegian hardanger and any number of African stringed instruments. Even something as common as the piano when played undampened pulls up resonances.

**If there are any guitarists who want to try to play this, it’s a good introduction to altered tunes as the fingerings are easy. First drop your high and low E strings one whole step to D. To match the recording, capo the guitar at the second fret. The following fret-hand fingering positions are used: Chord E5 = 3rd string at 4th fret, 2nd string at 5th fret. Chord Em7 = 4th string at 5th fret, 3rd string at 4th fret and 2nd string at 3rd fret. The higher sounding Bsus4 = 4th string at 11th fret, 3rd string at 11th fret. The lower sounding Bsus4 = 4th string at 4th fret, 3rd string at 4th fret. Technically this Bsus4 also has the C# that makes it a Bsus2 as well.

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Limited

Isn’t it odd that early 20th century Modernists used the locomotive as one of their talismans? After all the railroad train wasn’t particularly new at the time, though like buildings and the airplane it eventually became a fine armature upon which to sculpt the curved Streamline Moderne style—but that was later in the century, and before it arrived the train was already the nightingale of the make-it-new crowd.

Modernist Trains

“…Shining, just like gold. Don’tcha hear me cryin? Ah Wooo-Hooo,,,”

 

It probably comes down to speed and power. Much of America in the pre-1920 years was still held between walking and horse-saunter speed, trains were exceeding the magic mile-a-minute rate, a supersonic difference to then. The sight of a long train rolling through the countryside must have been a majestic contrast of speed, noise, and human-constructed momentum.

Even back in the 19th century, the father and the mother of modern American poetry each wrote a train poem. Walt Whitman with his somber “Locomotive in Winter”, and Emily Dickinson* at her most playful with “I like to see it lap the Miles.” The strength of the train ideal is such, that without motion or even presence its gravity is silently impressed onto two classics of early 20th century poetry: “In a Station of the Metro” and “Adlestrop.”

Even poets later in the century could have a train poem in them somewhere.

Pioneer Zephyr and Chicago 1933-34 World's Fair

Limited. Shortly before he died, my father told my son and I that he recalled one thing from his childhood visit to the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1933-34, the Zephyr streamlined train. That year we visited it, exhibited in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry and sent him a picture of us by the train.

 

But today I want to celebrate Carl Sandburg during America’s National Poetry Month, and to advocate once again for this forgotten Modernist, the son of an immigrant, born in the Middle West of our continent. The poem I use today isn’t particularly difficult or full of samples and beats from everywhere like “The Waste Land,”  or subtle in its questions like much of Emily Dickinson. Sandburg gets into it, drops its Imagist payload in a sentence, and then makes its point. As Harriet Monroe said in reviewing Sandburg’s Chicago Poems,  in which “Limited”  appears: “His book, whether you like it or not, whether you call it poetry or not, is fundamental in the…majestic sense.”

And a poem like “Limited” is  fundamental. What it says isn’t novel, but what it says is low enough down beneath our florid lives to be overlooked. We often ask great poetry to tell us something we don’t know, to surprise us, but there may be a place for it also to tell us something to which we can say, dismissively, “Well, yes, I know that!” and for the poem to remain, silent at its ending, saying “If you know that, why haven’t you acted like it’s something you know?”

20th Century musicians loved the train too and its rhythms, that rattling phrasing and doppler marcato. For this performance of “Limited”  I tried to touch on that and let some guitar tracks run out. You can hear it with the player gadget below. Not a long text today, but for those who like to see as well as hear the words, click here.

 

 

 

*One of the interesting side-lights I picked up in Genevieve Taggart’s Emily Dickinson biography, one of the first full-length treatments of her life and work, and written early enough that she could talk to people who overlapped Dickinson’s life in Amherst, was that her domineering father, who looks so stern and austere in his photograph was well known in the community for always wanting the fastest team of horses in for his buggy. I see Vin Diesel et al in a prequel Fast and Amherst, but Drift it Slant.  Hollywood, call me, I can put the blog aside….

Pig Cupid

Today we return to the early 20th Century Modernists with a piece using words by Mina Loy. Last post we had a poet taking a political stand: Longfellow aligning himself with the movement to abolish slavery. Decades later, the Modernists joined political movements too.

One might suppose that since Modernism sought to overthrow the old cultural order and revolutionize artistic expression that many Modernists would be attracted to political radicalism—and to a large degree that’s so.

You might also assume that these artistic radicals would be leftists, aligned with the growing Socialist movements in England and the United States, or attracted after 1917 to the as then untested promise of the new Communist government in Russia. Or perhaps they’d make common cause with anarchism. Or maybe they’d create their own playlist mixing all of the above.

And yes, you can find that. Carl Sandburg in the U. S. Midwest, most of the Surrealists, bohemians in New York’s Greenwich Village, Herbert Read and some other British Modernists.

However, one can also find Modernists who aligned with the right wing in this era—and not only garden-variety Tories, or even those who allied themselves with the “respectable” racist strains of U. S. politics. Even in the years before WWI, the social theories that would coalesce into Fascism found adherents in the new literary avant garde. As to Americans, the most famous case is the indispensable Modernist poet, editor and promotor, Ezra Pound, eventually charged with treason at the end of WWII.

Modernists seemed something like stem cells as their artistic revolution kicked off—they could develop into followers of any kind of political radicalism. At a time when political engagement for artists was common, there must have been a feeling in the air that a side must be chosen if one was to be a thorough-going cultural Modernist.

So, much as the French Surrealists once sought to make Communism a dictate for membership in the Surrealist movement, the slightly earlier Italian Futurists eventually made Fascism a core value of their artistic circle.

mina-loy

I love my baby, cause she does good sculptures, yeah!” The young Mina Loy

 

It’s now we get to Mina Loy. No, not the delightful Hollywood actress—that’s Myrna Loy (Myrna Loy was the stage name for the woman born Myrna Williams, and it’s just possible that Loy could have been chosen to refer to Mina).

It’s 1905. Modernism is kicking off first in the visual art world, followed just behind by the poets. Loy, in her 20s, has already done the visual art thing in London and Paris, but her marriage is failing, and she’s just had an infant child die. To change her life, she moves to Italy. She befriends Futurist artist Carlo Carra, and if you follow along on your Futurist score-card she had love-affairs there with two principals of Italian Futurism: F. T. Marinetti and Giovanni Papini.

Let’s re-set our scene. Here’s a young woman in a foreign country going through life stress events. The art-world is shifting under everyone’s feet. As a movement that will eventually fancy itself outright as the cultural well-spring of Italian Fascism, the circle she’s fallen in with isn’t just about making it new, it’s militaristic, paternalistic, nationalistic, and it worships violence. That isn’t what jealous opponents say about Futurism, it’s what its own manifestos brag about.

Tullio Crali - Bombardamento-aereo (1932)

Futurist war painting. Compare its outlook to Guernica or Flint’s poem “Zeppelins.
Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto declared “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene”

 

As preparing actors say, all that would be part of the work to figure out what Mina Loy is experiencing. Here’s another bit of business you might grab onto: young, ambitious, male artists. I doubt some not-uncommon tropes have changed in that field.

What happens?

Mina becomes a poet. A fierce poet. Artistically she uses some of the new ideas that the Futurists are thinking about. Her poetry moves between time and tenses, voices and outlooks, in machine gun bursts. Conventional expression and sentiment? Blow them up, run them over with a locomotive. Sixty years later Harlan Ellison would write “Love is just sex misspelled” and be thought provocative. Mina had already been there in the horse-and-buggy era. How can a woman keep her selfhood (or for that matter, how can any human being do so) in the minefield of desire and relationships? What is deep and inherent in motherhood that society will not express openly?

Though she used some of the artistic ideas of Futurism as effectively as any writer, Loy seemed to resist most of its political ideas and she satirized the pretentions of the “Flabergasts” while writing about her Italian time as being in the “Lion’s Jaws.”  Leaving Italy, she next moved to New York, where she joined the Greenwich Village circle.

Today’s piece uses selections I took from a 34-poem sequence called “Songs to Johannes,”  inspired by the relationship with Giovanni Papini (Johannes and Giovanni are variations of the same root name). Loy published these in 1914, near the end of her Italian time. Within the little-magazine world of Modernism she made an immediate impact. Eliot, Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Gertrude Stein said good things about her work. Legendary founder of Poetry magazine Harriet Monroe seems to have been scared by Loy’s frankness. Amy Lowell, poet and influential anthologist, was so put off she is supposed to have said that she would not publish in any magazine that printed Loy.

If the patriarchy may have lost the battle with Mina Loy, for a long time they seem to have won the peace. It was only in the last few years of the 20th Century that Loy’s poems of the first part of that century began to be looked at again. Now, Loy has become a key poetic Modernist for literary scholars tired of the usual sausage-fest, but that opens up the danger that work like “Songs to Johannes”  may be introduced, academically, like this: “Loy in effect diagnoses an end to love poetry in the light of historical circumstance, anticipating that poststructuralist line of inquiry which urges a rereading of ‘lyric’ as a culturally responsive construct. Instead, her poetry constitutes a critique of the very demand that lyric expression be viewed apart from the social world.”

There’s nothing wrong with that view, but I find Loy’s pre-WWI writing here a lot more immediate assuming one has some applicable life experience to bring to it. Her diction sometimes reminds me of Emily Dickinson, and like Dickinson figuring out what is ironic, and what is earnest, and what is both, can sometimes be a challenge. In performance, any of those three choices seem to work for most phrases here. The greatest error would be to make them all of the same tenor. Also, like Dickinson, Loy will move from speaking concise abstraction to vivid metaphor using very few words. Thus, the high minded and the sensual nitty-gritty are juxtaposed.

My appreciation for this sequence grew tremendously as I constructed this performance. There are strong images, richly ambiguous expressions, and yes, lines that one could deconstruct at thesis length. I didn’t even have room to include the phrase from “Songs to Johannes”  that I’ve chosen to title today’s selection, but I can never look at a plump rococo cherub again without recalling it. But the real gift I got, the unique gift of art, is that I could experience some of Loy’s moments in the hot-house nexus of Fascism and Modernism.  “Pig Cupid”  would probably be more authentic if this was performed in a woman’s voice, but alas my voice is what I have available today. To hear my performance, use the player below.

 

Because I Could Not Stop for Death

One of the harder things to do when performing a song or a poem—or in talking about what either means—is to tackle a well-known piece. As far as American poetry goes, Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” qualifies as such a case. It’s one of those “most anthologized” poems. I’m certain I ran into it in high school, and it is like a lot of great and popular poems: it can be about three-quarters understood by a schoolchild being introduced to poetry scholastically.

Is there anything new and fresh that can be brought to it? And what may still be there in that other quarter of the poem beyond what one first understood as a teenager?

When I write and play the music or perform the words here I need to make choices. One of the most important of those choices is what is the mood? What is the overall outlook of the poem’s speaker? You can use educated guesses to what the author intended, or you can just make a wild guess, even a perverse one. For example, you take most any song that was written as a party anthem, and then slow it down and sing it with some doubt in one’s voice, you will completely undercut the swagger and good times vibe (as Aztec Camera’s cover of Van Halen’s “Jump”  proved years ago).

With “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”  I decided the mode I would use is sardonic. This is a good ground choice for any Dickinson poem in my mind. This is a poem about death, sure, but it’s a poem mocking death, or rather our appreciation of that subject.

That starts from the start: like death is a social appointment we don’t have time to schedule, but then also, a slow passage of the entire trip of life at a fine and boring pace is appropriate too, as it’s a trip to the graveyard in the metaphor of the 3rd verse.

In the sublime 4th stanza, when the speaker has passed the days of her life (the slow carriage ride of life so stately that the sun transit of a day outraces it) she finds herself unprepared for the cold weather of death, dressed only in useless, ladylike garments that may reference a bridal dress, a burial shroud or a nightgown.

The afterlife presented in the last two stanzas is not any heaven, but an eternity of nothingness. As a final irony, the speaker says the centuries of eternity seem like less of an experience than even a day of a slow life.

Emily Dickinson Gravestone
Emily’s family held more conventional views of heaven reflected on her gravestone

So, on one hand this is a mock solemn poem about death, spoken in a mode not that far from what Maila Nurmi/Vampira might have vamped on TV a century later. But it’s also a carpe diem poem, written this time by a woman, one whose artistic life is not giving her time to stop for death, nor the daily deaths of an unexamined, uncreative life. When Thomas Higginson was editing the first collection of Dickinson poems, he may have appreciated that aspect when he added the title “The Chariot”  to it. “The Chariot” as in “Time’s wingèd chariot” in Marvell’s poem.

At least that’s what I think is there. I could be wrong. You have to make choices.

Dickinson poems, which are largely written with her internalized Protestant hymn tune rhythms, can be set to music easily. And the basic track in my performance would have demonstrated that, as played on just a 12-string guitar, even though I undercut its simple three chord progression with some chord alterations. The piano part brings the strangeness in by playing simple arpeggiated chords, but in an insistent cross-rhythm.

So hop in the carriage, we’ve got the clip-clop of the hooves and the jangle of the harness to accompany us when you use the player below to listen to my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.”


Sonnet 18

We’ve made it to more than 90 posts into the Parlando Project without doing any Shakespeare, which I believe may be some kind of record. It’s not an intentional slight, it’s just that we’ve been busy with other words.

I grew up in a little Iowa town named Stratford, the same name as Shakespeare’s birthplace, and this coincidence instituted by land speculators a hundred years or so before, impressed on me the importance of poetry. This was not the only misapprehension of my youth, but it was long lasting one, as here I am countless decades later, delighting in words being costumed in music.

Avon RiverBoone River

Two summer’s days: one of these is the Avon river through the forest of Arden in England,
and the other is the Boone river near Stratford Iowa in the U.S.

 

Today’s episode uses the words from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.”  Like many Shakespeare pieces, there are lots of performances of it around, which is one the of the values of Shakespeare—you can contrast your performance against others. Many performers of Sonnet 18  like emphasize the wit in it; and wit there is, with it twisting around the idea of comparing one’s beloved with the beauties of nature, which is developed further as the idea that the inconstancies of nature necessarily include aging and death.

Others like to embody the sensual in the poem, the lush language. The third line ends with “the darling buds of May,” a phrase, good enough to be swiped for the name of a fine Welsh 90’s indie-rock band. I don’t think you can escape from that musical language. The entire second quatrain uses near and exact rhymes for each line, a sound that rubs and slides against the ear.

I made two choices in emphasis that differ from others. First, I wanted to bring out the brag in this. The speaker in this poem, who the author is at the least pretending to be, is claiming that he can make his beloved immortal by the power of his verse. No small claim—but in Shakespeare’s case, it’s not bragging if you can do it. And to add to the swagger, I stressed the beat a bit more than I might usually. I made the speaker a little less coy, a little less playful, and little more assured that he’s more than the “upstart crow” that he was seen as by some early in his career when he was writing his sonnets.

Musically I declined to use my main instrument, the guitar, this time. Once I had the drums and bass down, I thought they were enough to support the words on their own, so I added only some scattered piano chords to help outline the harmony.

To hear my performance of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18, Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”  use the audio player that appears below. Today’s piece is quite short, less than two minutes long, so it’s a good way to sample what the Parlando Project is doing. If you like it, we have more than 90 other audio pieces available here using various words combined with various music.