Spring Grass

Did I just say it’s been awhile since I featured a piece with words by Carl Sandburg? I started this Sandburg piece early this month thinking it would appropriate for the onset of spring and National Poetry Month. It fairly short order, I came up with the general chord progression I wanted to use, one which is somewhat ambiguous as to key-center (D, A,  F# minor, E, with the cadence generally descending from D, but resolving either the A, the E, or the F# minor, and with a single B minor thrown in).

I liked this musically when I laid down the initial acoustic guitar track of the chords; but I intended to add additional parts to fill out the arrangement, and when I started that, I found I had given myself more of a challenge than I had anticipated. A better orchestrator than myself would have had less trouble I suspect, but I finally came up with something I felt I could accept yesterday.

Carl Sandburg Rocks Out

Carl Sandburg rocks out, no fancy arrangement needed.

 

If you search for other Carl Sandburg pieces that have been part of the Parlando project, you can see how fond I am of Sandburg as a writer of short poems. For someone who writes generally in free verse, Sandburg’s work has been set to music more often that one might expect. As I worked on “Spring Grass”  I assumed someone else had taken a crack at it, but I put off looking at that to concentrate on my own musical problems. This morning I did some searching and found that there are at least two other settings besides mine, one done by the young Phillip Glass, a composer I very much admire.

Phillip Glass Spring Grass

This guy probably had less trouble with his orchestration.

 
I find one word Sandburg used here intriguing: “spiffed,” which is obscure enough in his poem that I’m not sure what it means. At first I thought it was a nice onomatopoeic sound for the wind horse in the poem snorting gently near the poet’s face—and perhaps it is—but if I read Sandburg’s sentence right, it’s the spring grass smell riding on the wind that “spiffed” the author. Does he mean “spiffed up,” the only idiom I know that uses that word? I’ve never heard “spiffed” without the “up” myself.

Well, the word-mystery doesn’t stop the poem, there’s enough mystery in Spring itself.  Enjoy the rest of #npm17 and keep telling folks about the Parlando Project and our combining of various music and various words in various ways. To hear my version of “Spring Grass” use the player that appears at the end.

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What Is It the Rain Dissolves

Writers often like to compose their written works in their heads while walking, and poets, all the more so. It seems natural—the walking footsteps and the metrical foot compare apace.
 
I too have done this; and with poetry in particular, composing lines while away from any paper or screen may also help winnow out the more memorable flow from forgettable stumbles. But my old joints now rebel more at morning walks, and my later day is filled with daily work on the Parlando Project and the mundane tasks of living.
 
My solution to this is that great 19th Century invention: the bicycle. In wheeled weightlessness, I am able to roll along through nature and the city morning’s opening scenes: the gloved gardeners, the obedient dog owners, the students at their stops, the hopeful sidewalk joggers, the babies held crooked in the left arm as the right sweeps the straps from the child car seat. I do this in all weather, rain and snow included, not wanting to miss one act of the theater of the seasons.

Novara Safari Smaller

Can you fit #npm17 and #30daysofbiking into one post? Sure.

 
It’s April, the National Poetry Month in this country, and I ride in the experience of that Chinese birdsong that Du Fu and Meng Haoran heard once and I hear now, and I know that the birds need no translation.  One Sunday dawn, as rain threatened, the sun shined through the clouds as if they were translucent filters. The steeples of the churches and peaks of houses, illuminated thus, were indeed rose and violet as Emily Dickinson promised to tell us.

April isn’t just #npm17, it’s also serving up #30daysofbiking, and with the two in the same month I’ve said, “Emily Dickinson should have gotten a bicycle!” She could have maintained her thoughts’ enclosure, pedaled surely between the skeptics and the believers, and served her self-reliance within a somewhat broader world. Alas, she was just a bit too early for the modern bicycle—but it was close. Her mid-life “preceptor” Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a proponent of the bicycle and of women bicycling. Higginson, speaking about one of the early long-distance cyclists said:

“We found that modern mechanical invention, instead of disenchanting the universe, had really afforded the means of exploring its marvels the more surely. Instead of going round the world with a rifle, for the purpose of killing something – or with a bundle of tracts, in order to convert somebody – this bold youth simply went round the globe to see the people who were on it.”

Higginson, although speaking about my chosen ride, the acoustic motorcycle, seemed to be foreshadowing Robert Pirsig there.

19th Century lady and bike

A soul selects her own velocipede

 

Once more, a long preface to a short piece today. When I started the Parlando Project I thought I’d avoid that. Is another reason that April is National Poetry Month from the nursery rhyme “April showers/Bring May flowers?” Today’s piece “What Is It the Rain Dissolves”  was written on a bicycle on a morning ride in a light rain. I passed two kids trying to master skateboards and later a woman coming the other way on her bicycle, arms bare except for some elaborate tattoos.
 
Emily, is that you?

To hear the LYL Band perform the song “What Is It the Rain Dissolves”  use the player below.

To A Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing

Given that poetry contributes the great majority of the words to the half of the  Parlando Project “Where Music and Words Meet,” it’s reasonable to suspect, if you are reading this, that you like poetry. That’s too bad. Even during the National Poetry Month and #npm17 that were are talking about this April.

You see, poetry is often a frustrating thing. That high-flown language may be artful, but it’s an earful too. If you were seeking directions to escape some emergency, would you want your rescuer to choose the most precise and beautiful words, words that say more about what a clever speaker your rescuer is than about which way you must turn and where the dangers are?

Do you love the dense allusions and surprising metaphors of poetry? Do you admire the narrative fracturing and careful examination of the shattered facets that expose the common lie of ordered stories? The next time you are searching for how to work some complex gadget or system, do you want your tutorial or manual to scatter its tale in novel ways?

Speaking of too simple statements, here’s one: that there are people who simply like poetry. No, most people who like poetry sometimes, hate poetry sometimes; just as most people who like music, hate music sometimes. The intensity of the like times does not decrease the intensity of the hate times. I think it’s important that poetry tries to capture the allusiveness of things. I continue to admire some poems I don’t really understand—that’s what the music is for, both the poem’s own music and the external music we apply to the words here at the Parlando Project. But there are times when you just want a poet to come out and say what they’re getting at.

The words to today’s episode, by William Butler Yeats, are clear in their meaning. “To A Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing”  is an example of “occasional verse,” a poem written in response to an event. In this case, almost everyone has forgotten the event, but the sentiments of the poem apply broadly anyway. Yeats has such a musical way of expressing himself, he could have flown off on some obscure path and we might have followed him anyway. As it turns out, the things he leaves out here, the particulars of the dispute, probably help the poem survive as a general piece of council.

Still, I’m a curious and literal sort. Who was the “Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing,” and what was the work? It was written about and perhaps to a man named Hugh Lane who wanted to donate his substantial modern art collection to a museum he proposed that Ireland should fund. And the man who would lie unashamed to oppose this? A newspaper publisher who opposed the gallery.

Hugh Lane

Yeats gave him good advice, but he didn’t tell him to not get on that boat.

 

What happened to Hugh Lane, whose work had come to nothing? About a year after Yeats wrote this poem, Lane went down when the Lusitania  was torpedoed during WWI. And his art collection? His will seemed to leave it to the British National Gallery after his proposal to fund the Irish museum failed, but Ireland disputed this will, and later in the 20th Century, after Lane’s and Yeats’ deaths, Lane’s collection was again on display in Dublin Ireland. So eventually, in prosaic history and after the work of some lean solicitors, Lane’s work succeeded.

Dublin City Gallery

The Dublin City Gallery where most of Hugh Lane’s collection ended up

 

Today’s audio piece is brief, so take a listen to the LYL Band performing “To A Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing” by clicking on the player below.

 

Intro to The Waste Land

Readers of these posts may recall a discussion of the theory that Emily Dickinson’s reclusive nature in later adulthood was caused by epilepsy and that her poem “I Felt a Funeral In My Brain”  may have been describing the auras experienced around epileptic seizure events.  I think it’s an interesting idea, a plausible one, but I also warned against reductionist explanations for art.

Even recognizing that danger, I’m about to risk that sort of thing again, for what I think are good reasons.

Is T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” introduced to students later and less often now than it was in my youth? If so, I suspect this is because “The Waste Land”  does not present itself as a friendly introduction to poetry. It seems proudly obscure. There’s no frank self-expression in it where a recognizable author/speaker tells us about their life and outlook. Instead, there’s a flurry of voices and characters that are barely, if even that, introduced.  And there’s no interesting story, no fable or tale with a twist that carries us along. There’s a shortage of obvious similes, no “fog comes on little cat’s feet” to introduce metaphor.

In my youth, all these shortcomings of “The Waste Land”  as a teaching tool were overlooked because it was a landmark in the rise of Modernism, that defining artistic movement of the first half of the 20th Century, and because it was full of the stuff that made up a Liberal Education: foreign phrases, cosmopolitan settings, wide-ranging cultural references to other literary works from across time.

Waste Land title page

I always find that a little Latin and Greek on the title page helps perk up the reader.

And now? The odds are that if T.S. Eliot was to stand up at a Moth story-telling stage or a slam poetry event and deliver “The Waste Land”  in whole or in part, that boos, snores, or some variety of non-pleasurable puzzlement would result. We are inured to a different kind of poetry, confused enough, bothered enough, by modernity and its incessant messages that Eliot’s fragments shored up against ruins seems to offer us no balm, no pleasure of recognition.

I’ll offer two keys, two aspects of “The Waste Land”  that can allow you entry into it. The first is: it’s intensely musical. The imagery, outside of “The Waste Land’s” overriding dry vs. wet scheme, never strays far from sounds, and all those unintroduced voices are like new strains in a composition. No wonder the Parlando project is drawn to it, because we believe that one can appreciate poetry without understanding its meaning, in the same way that you can appreciate music without being able to somehow explicate it.

The second entry point, the one that risks being reductionist, is that this is a poem written by someone suffering from depression. Whatever voice is speaking in the poem, it is heard and reflected out the mouth of someone who feels it has all gone wrong, someone who cannot fully trust any other feeling other than that—other than the emotion of fear that that is the reality that any other feeling would mask. Although it must sacrifice the music, the incandescent reading of the “The Waste Land”  by Fiona Shaw illuminates this aspect.

Today’s episode is just a part of the first part of “The Waste Land,”  but it’s the part the begins in April, our National Poetry Month. I don’t know if Eliot intended to refer to Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” prologue (our last episode), but it sure seems to rhyme. The opening of Eliot’s series of tales has, like Chaucer’s prologue, rain, flowers, journeys and travelers; and later in the poem Eliot will in bring birdsongs and churches. And Chaucer, who begins singing in Spring merriment, introduces at the end of the prologue the promise of “Strange strands,” and tells us that the pilgrims may be taking the pilgrimage because they have been sick.

Fiona Shaw’s il miglior fabbro performance of the whole “The Waste Land” will take almost a half-hour to view. My audio piece for today will take less than 3 minutes and has music. To compare to the “Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”  check out the previous post here. If you want to hear Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan taking a run at the same part of “The Waste Land”  as I performed—and making his own connection to Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloomed”  in Eliot’s opening lines, you can hear that here. But give mine a try first, using the player gadget that appears at the end of this post. Thanks for the likes and shares over the past few months, and as part of April’s #npm17, feel free to link to this blog or share this post on social media.

Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

One way to get experience is to seek it through the directed travel of a pilgrimage. Many religious traditions include the idea of a such journeys, and one side-effect of a shared destination is the mingling of travelers from diverse setting-off points along the trail.

In the Middle Ages, in England, one pilgrimage had the greatest potential to bring a diverse group together, the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Canterbury where the sainted Thomas Becket had been assassinated. A series of stories ostensibly told by various tellers together for this trip became the great early work of English literature: Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.”

April is National Poetry Month in the US, and though this celebration’s founders give no exact reason for April being chosen, two widely known poems explicitly start in April, and whether it’s cause or effect, I think of these poems when I think of April and National Poetry Month. The oldest of these, is today’s post “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”  which begins:

“Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote”

Now I know I’ve let slip too many typos in these notes before today, but that’s not a particularly bad day at the keyboard—instead, it’s Chaucer’s version of English as spoken in the 15th Century. It’s a challenge to read this in the original pronunciation, though I once was delighted when a skilled classical music DJ mic checked at 5:45 AM one morning with a perfect rendition of this Prologue in Middle English. I’m not going to attempt the same; today’s episode uses a modern English version for clarity, and in consideration of my thicker tongue.

Musically I’m not in the Middle Ages or in Canterbury for this piece either. I’m going to use the 12-string guitar once more. There is no shrine here in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, but for some reason three of best players of this troublesome priest of an instrument came to prominence here: “Spider John” Koerner, Leo Kottke, and Steve Tibbetts. For this episode, the 12 String’s musical tale is told in the character of Steve Tibbetts—or rather a modest imitation on my part using Tibbetts’ distinct stringing of the 12 string, which uses octave strings only on the two lowest courses of the 12 string with unison string pairs on the rest.

Cortez 12 string Tibbetts Stringing Closeup

More thick strings, fewer skinny ones, setting up a 12-string Tibbetts-style

 

To hear the 12 string strung that way, and to hear about the English April in Chaucer’s report, use the player that appears below.

Experience

Here’s another piece by Dave Moore. Dave plays almost all of the keyboards on the LYL Band music you hear here on this blog, and without his contributions I’d get tired of hearing my own voice all the time myself. Today’s audio piece “Experience”  started out intended as a poem, as Dave explains:

“My friend Ethna mentioned the Common Good Books poetry contest, which paid cash, on the theme of experience.

Naturally the next word in my mind was prurience, which in this version I ‘eschew.’ although I changed the printed version to ‘avoid.’  Still, I love the roll of ‘eschew prurience.’

I set out to state that every moment is an experience, and most of them are accidents, which constitutes the glory of the show.  But – But seriously…
When I brought this lyric to a LYL session, I draped it around a tune, trying to see how the words spilled over the dam.  Thus edified, I tinkered with it some before submitting to Common Good.

Of course, I lifted ‘life is but a joke’ from Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower,’  but it worked so well in the stanza (is it a chorus?) of philosophy. I chose to leave the ‘do’ and ‘done’ lines as ironic music which states the case.

So, am I experienced?  Conclusively, I can say yes or no.”

LYL Are You Experience Faces

“For those of another generation, he’s all but to make fun of,
but they do not understand the experience…”  Eric Burdon

Experience is an interesting topic for this book store’s contest. William Blake titled one of his collections of short lyrics “Songs of Experience,”  after which I cannot think of the word without thinking of Blake—but Blake also put much store in the auguries of innocence. Ralph Waldo Emerson toured the country as a speaker, but his contemporary Emily Dickinson famously constricted her travels as she grew up. Emerson’s mind worked best traveling widely, as in his essays. Dickinson mind produced compressed words pinned in a matrix of her famous dashes, and it’s Dickinson’s poetry that we are more likely to turn to today.  “Like a dream, experience is being where you are” Dave says.

Vinyl lovers, don’t be mislead by the cover shown above, The LYL Band’s version of Dave’s “Experience”  doesn’t feature Stratocasters on fire, which is not say that we won’t do that later. Use the player below to listen to “Experience,”  or some innocent instrument might get hurt.

The Lake Street Testament

The most popular TV show of my youth was a strange yet derivative series called “The Beverly Hillbillies.”  The basic device of this comedy was as old as Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals, and as common as 19th and 20th Century perennials like hillbilly plays, Ma and Pa Kettle films and even minstrel shows.

Beverly Hillbillies Confederates

Both of these statements are true:
A. The Beverly Hillbillies support your 2nd Amendment rights
B. They are portrayed as fools who constantly misunderstand the modern urban world

 

They all work the same way, and the joke never seems to grow old: rural folks are stupid, prone to exaggerating for comic effect all errors in human logic. They are above all inexperienced, leading to all kinds of misunderstandings; and they are peculiar in their language: misuse of words or odd pronunciations are rife. Abstractly, this is the ore of comedy gold, but culturally these traits are being applied to an “other,” a group that can safely be made fools of to demonstrate the audience’s superior understanding.

One trap of that kind of comedy: the dumber the writer thinks the audience is, the dumber the writer believes he must make the characters, until they lack all worth, delight and surprise. While one could worry about such authors violating political correctness, the worse danger to the authors’ career is for the audience to figure out that they are being played for rubes through a play about fools.

I was young when “The Beverly Hillbillies”  was going strong, and living in a very small town in a rural state, but I found this show funny. I never occurred to me that my own inexperience might be blinding me to the idea that I could be part of this bumpkin class, at least in some people’s eyes. My little town was progressive, proud of its school, and besides I didn’t think like those silly folks, I knew full well that richer folks’ houses could have a swimming pool in the back yard and that they were called just that, not See-Meant Ponds.

But my youth and my small town were  a course of inexperience. I was forever mispronouncing words and authors’ names because I had never heard them spoken—I had only seen them written on the page. I was, and yet wasn’t, those stock comic characters.
 
Is there any value in small towns? I believe there is. I’ll give you one example before I move on: in small towns there is no surplus of conscripts, everyone needs to do their part. Slacking doesn’t mean someone else does it, it means it doesn’t get done, and there’s no escaping that knowledge. I’m afraid that in my old age and life in a big city, I’ve become just such a slacker.

And there’s one other value to such a youth: going from a smaller, less varied place to a larger and more diverse one gives an eye a very sharp lens to look at things. I’m not sure movement the other way works as well. If one looks in the big end of the telescope, everything you point the small end at looks tiny and indistinct. It’s no accident that a very large group of writers follows that biographic path from town to city.
 
All this leads to today’s piece, “The Lake Street Testament,”  which is an urban story through and through.
 
The path of a long build up like this to a short ending is another comic staple: the Shaggy Dog Story. Earlier here you’ve seen me write about the essentially comic dimensions of the human condition, particularly when talking about Leonard Cohen, Mose Allison, and Phil Dacey. This piece takes that thought into this religious season and puts it on Lake Street, which is a main commercial east/west street through the center of Minneapolis, as urban a road as exists anywhere.

Lake Street

Lake Street in Minneapolis Minnesota. No palm trees, no movie stars.

 

The audio player below will let you hear the story of “The Lake Street Testament.”