Fear No More

I’ve already talked here about doing translations from other languages into English and how it can be a strikingly intimate way to get next to another poet’s creative choices. Performance, or even attentive reading, can also bring on this effect.

Let’s take Shakespeare as a mere lyricist today. Of course, he’s a big deal for our English language, a writer from the days when it was beginning to resemble the one we speak today. For many he’s the writer of plays, with characters of which generations of actors measure themselves by the facets they cut from them. For others he’s the writer of sonnets, many of which work by complex arguments and compressed thought, making them memorable from line to line, even if it’s hard to grasp the entirety of even one of them. But occasionally* within the plays he becomes a lyric poet in one or both of the senses of the word: a writer giving us a complex emotional matrix of someone’s experience in a moment of time, and as a writer who expects his words to be sung to music.

Songs meant to be performed inside other, larger works can be problematic. They may refer to particular characters and situations, which when the song is presented separately, become unfootnoted puzzlements. This song doesn’t have much of a problem there. “Fear No More”  is  sung as a funeral song in the play Cymbeline,  but it’s self-evidently that—a situation that is universal, just as the song admits.

So, as I do my task with this project, figuring out what sort of music to write and effect to try to present in performance, I need to read attentively. Though I have done this hundreds of times during the Parlando Project, I often find that no number of silent readings finds what route to take. This may be me, my wandering attention and self-centeredness, but for this one (as with many others I’ve presented here) the subtilties started to emerge as I come to grips with performing it.

On the surface one could say this song is making an argument: they’re dead—but you know life is suffering, so they are no longer suffering. It doesn’t take long to notice that surface is transparent and there are other things to see through this.

First off, many things here are bittersweet. The opening line, for a Minnesotan** “…the heat of the sun” isn’t something we fear or are even displeased by, even during an extraordinary hot spell. “Golden lads and girls” also, not exactly earthly suffering, and we’re given their end with the joke that they’ll come to dust like the occupationally dusty chimney-sweep. Yes, wages, clothing, eating, learning, loving (all referenced here) can have their struggles, their bad as well as good days, but on the whole we don’t wish to dispense with them.

As the lyric proceeds, Shakespeare slides into darker and darker territory though. Those that assume to be our social superiors are going to have opinions on us, and in some cases our rulers will be tyrants. We may be slandered and censured (apparently this could be done before Twitter). And given some storms in the upper Midwest this August, I’m reminded that summer lightning and thunder are not mere theatrical sturm and drang, but can be the light and sound tech-crew of destructive forces.

And the final stanza moves darker yet. Exorcists, vampires, zombies, and vengeful ghosts—but wait: these are all dangers to/from the dead. So, the whole argument of “At least they are now resting” is completely undercut. And it’s here that I started to notice that the singer who’s tasked with merging with the poet’s work is outlining an inconsistent but vivid life that’s not without agency. This vividness argues against its inconsequentiality.

Imortal Poems of the English LanguageMaster Poems of the English Language Cover

Oscar Williams’ poetry anthologies surprised the mid-century publishing world selling quite well. These two thick yet inexpensive books were part the paperback library of my youth. Maybe it was the titles: “Master” and “Immortal” would be catnip words to an inconsequential young writer. Williams was an ad-man besides being a poet and editor, so this may have been no accident.

 

Shakespeare’s songs attract composers, and this one has been made into lovely art song, but I like to roughen them up a bit, and do so here with this acoustic guitar and voice setting. The player gadget to hear my performance is below. But before I go, I want to tip the hat to the Stuff Jeff Reads blog which recently reminded me of this beautiful and enigmatic lyric. And it turns out he and I both read it first thanks to the same anthologist, Oscar Williams, who issued some surprisingly great-selling mid-20th century paperback poetry anthologies.

 

 

*Besides being a dramatist, he’s also an entrepreneurial content provider for a new form that needs to please nobles who might get their heads chopped off—and then too, folks who couldn’t get good seats for the bear baiting and so had to make do with a play. Given that Elizabethan song had many clever lyricists, it’s not sure if Shakespeare wrote all the songs in his plays. We also don’t know the music composers, or their tunes for the most part. This particular lyric seems “Shakespearean” however.

**And likely too for an Englishperson, with a temperate-climate, but one that’s not too-often sunny. Winter’s “rages” aren’t without joy in Shakespeare either, like this song from another play.

Over Hill, Over Dale (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Today is the summer solstice, and what better way to celebrate than a song from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The song “Over Hill, Over Dale”  comes early in the play, as the audience is introduced to the fairies’ world. I’d like to point out, the un-named fairy who sings it might be particularly relatable to creative types. How so?

On our creative days we may like to think ourselves’ that play’s Puck, “that shrewd and knavish sprite” capable of all kinds of life-shaping mischief with our words and creations; the Puck who gets the play’s ending speech where he represents as all effortless, dreaming creators to our audiences.

But Puck doesn’t sing today’s song.

Nope. The singer is just a fairy no-name. And, to be frank, this fairy is kind of a drudge. The song, delightful as it is—and meant to generate with word-pictures a wonderous world of nature’s magic in the audience’s mind—does this by a description of no-name fairy keeping their fay nose to the pixie grindstone. Dutiful, and busy, busy, busy.

Shakespeare has set no-name fairy’s job to be an exposition-character. After today’s scene-setting song, their dramatic task is to introduce Puck, through no-name recognizing the much better-known sprite and speechifying as Puck’s hype-man. After that, no-name leaves the play speaking lines about not wanting to be noticed.

Puck and Fairy by John Gilbert

Consolations? This Victorian artist made our no-name fairy better-looking than Puck (on the left.)

 

OK, so what’s in this for creatives?

We’re not Puck, at least not most of us, mostly all the time, effortlessly casting our thrall. Magic and delight take a lot of grunt work. There’s always one more cowslip that’s missed its pearl-hanging, that’s a few rubies short of the categorical number.

And if we do our work well enough, it often seems like nature—you know, “You’re so creative. I could never come up with all your ideas!” Well, creative people aren’t the ones who come up with ideas (those are imaginative people, only some of which are creative)—creative people are the people who make things.

Musically, I get to work out my naïve piano playing while aiming for a funky feel on this one. I hear there’s a Midsummer party in the wood outside of Athens. What time? Oh, Elizabethan. The player gadget is below. If you want to read along, the song is at the start of Act 2, Scene 1, and you can read it here.

 

To W.C.W. M.D.

It’s now 1916—well not really—but allow me immediate mode for the time being. Some early 20th Century Modernist characters we’ve already met are about to collaborate in New York City with a largely forgotten figure whose words we’ll meet today.

The Provincetown Playhouse, that CBGB’s of Modernist American theater, has moved its organization from the remote Cape Cod artist’s colony to New York’s Greenwich village, and they’re still looking for new types of plays by new playwrights. How about drama using Modernist poetry?

Verse drama, despite continuing productions of Shakespeare, is a thing that often generates rumors of revival while never really reviving. In 1916, the Provincetown group was open to trying this. Which poets can come up with something?

Alfred Kreymborg could. Kreymborg was a leading networker or influencer in the New York area for Modernist poetry. Ezra Pound, and then Amy Lowell, would publish anthology books of Imagist Poets. Harriet Monroe out of Chicago was also gathering new Modernist work for Poetry  magazine. In 1916 Kreymborg would do the same in New York, with a magazine and anthology book series called “Others.”  Kreymborg had also been writing poetry, short poems mostly, all of them free verse. Now a play.

Others group

The “Others” group: L to R in back: Jean Crotti, Marcel Duchamp, Walter Arensberg, Man Ray, R. A. Sanborn, Maxwell Bodenheim. In front: Alison Hartpence, Alfred Kreymborg (bowtie daddie), William Carlos Williams (w/ Internet click-bait cat) and Skip Cannell

 

The play he wrote is an odd thing to describe. Titled “Lima Beans,”  it’s a two-character play about a couple. The husband loves lima beans, the wife decides he might also like string beans and surprises him with the new beans—but no, he loves lima beans. He stalks off, angry. She scrambles and gets some lima beans. He realizes he loves his wife, returns and she’s got lima beans for him. Kiss. Curtain.

I guess this could be a Seinfeld  episode plot decades later, but that’s not how Kreymborg uses it. He writes his play with litanies of repeated words, hocketing between the two voices. After reading the play this month, I’m guessing a performance might sound like a cross between Dr. Suess’ Green Eggs and Ham  and a late 20th Century Minimalist musical work by someone like Phillip Glass or Meredith Monk. Or as Preston Sturges’ Sullivan would have it, Waiting for Godot  plus vegetables—but with a little sex in it. That musical comparison is particularly apt, because even though the play did not use musical accompaniment, Kreymborg saw it as a musical structure.

So here in 1916 we have the Provincetown group, putting on a play that pioneered a performance aesthetic that still seems audacious 50 or 60 years later. Who are you going to get as actors to realize this—words and a presentation of thought conveyed musically, without actual music?

Poets.  In the role of the husband, William Carlos Williams. In the role of the wife, Mina Loy, who had just arrived in New York after getting away from those Italian Futurists. Neither poet had acted before, but Kreymborg rehearsed the two poets until they could present his free-verse vision.

Loy and Williams in Lima Beans

Mina Loy and William Carlos Williams in Lima Beans. The set for the proudly independent Provincetown Playhouse production cost $2.50, and its set designer, William Zorach,  also played the 3rd character whose hands are hanging, Soupy Sales-like, out the window.

 

I toyed with the idea of trying to realize Lima Beans  here, although with music this time. But it really needs two voices, and I wasn’t sure that a short section could do justice to the structure of the piece.

In it’s place, I looked for a short poem of Kreymborg’s to use instead. This proved more difficult than I thought it would be. I read his two poetry collections from this era, but no poem grabbed my attention. As in the play, he’s looking for a new poetic language in these poems, but it’s hard to grab the emotional center of many of them for performance.

In the end I chose today’s piece: “To W.C.W. M.D.”  It’s dedicated to William Carlos Williams. This might be more of Kreymborg’s log-rolling networking skills on display, but its subject also answered a desire I have to do a piece remembering my late wife Renee Robbins in some way today. As best as I can penetrate the emotional core of this poem, it speaks of the need to separate and not separate from those that have died.

Musically, the piece is based on one stacked chord, E minor7/11, but the notes are spread out between the instruments. Besides drums there are two bass guitars, piano, two viola parts, a violin part, and a clarinet in this. To hear it, use the player below.