Christina Rossetti’s May

Here’s a piece using a Christina Rossetti poem “May,”  that’s both simple and spare and mysterious and broad. Early in this project I presented several of Rossetti’s poems, most of which were new to me, because her short, lyrical poems delighted me with their avoidance of the cruft her English Victorian contemporaries often fall into. Nothing’s universally wrong with elaborate poems, but to my tastes, sparer poems can offer us guidance to pay attention, real attention,  to what remains.

Here’s the text of her short poem. The stuff in curly brackets are variations I found in a short search through versions online.

I cannot tell you how it was; {,}
But this I know: it came to pass
Upon a bright and sunny {breezy} day
When May was young: ah, pleasant May!
As yet the poppies were not born
Between the blades of tender corn;
The last egg {eggs} had not hatched as yet,
Nor any bird forgone its mate.

I cannot tell you what it was; {,}
But this I know: it did but pass.
It passed away with sunny May,
Like {With} all sweet things it passed away,
And left me old, and cold, and grey.

These variations are from tiny to small. A semicolon or a comma? Can anyone make any difference from that? “Sunny” or “breezy?” I prefer sunny, breezy is more active, since this is a poem that works its magic by giving us a still moment, and then showing us it’s not. And if sunny, then “sunny” is nicely repeated in the 11th line, when this short poem begins to refrain with itself. “Egg” or “Eggs?” Close call there. Egg lets us see a singular egg (it’s usually easier to invoke a single thing vividly rather than a multitude), but “eggs” make the point that this is an entire reproductive process. “Like” or “With?” I like “like.” “With” followed by that “all” has a sense of this being an immediate entirety. “Like” allows us to hear the poet say some thing, part of an indefinite series of loss or leaving, has gone away. Again, the power of the singular. Do we know what that thing is? The poem decides not to tell us.* How does that choice rank against the power of the singular? If it’s not named it could be anything,  the ultimate multitude of possibilities. Here choices for singular things in this short poem become more important, because it then sets off this missing piece of information about what has gone away in contrast to the specific things named around it.

Wait, that’s not a springtime bird guarding its nest in the lilacs!

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Do you notice one more variation in the poem’s structure? Hint: how many lines? One, two, three, four…Oh, 13 lines. This works like a sonnet, it even has a turn, a volta, after 8 lines, as in one highly common sonnet format; but the final section is 5, not 6 lines.

It’s too certain a variation not to think that Rossetti decided to make a little meta point that other poets or sonnet fanciers alone will catch. “Yeah, something’s gone and left—there’s no damn 14th line!”

I can’t tell you why the variations in the exact text of this poem. I presume that someone, or Rossetti herself, did a light revision before some level of republication. Which is the latest? Which did Rossetti herself prefer? My scholarship is such tonight that I simply don’t know.

But I did worse. Just today, after I had finished recording the performance that you’ll be able to hear below, I noticed I’d made an error, a variation myself. The copy of the text I was working from had dropped the 13th and final line.

I could simply redo the performance, but it’s become difficult to record acoustic instruments over the past year for this project. Though it blunts the meta-point of the 13-line sonnet, I tell myself there’s power in my unintentional change. “Left me old, and cold, and gray,” the 13th line I inadvertently left out, tells us more about that mysterious thing that has “passed away” with May. My slip-up retains some additional mystery.

The player gadget will appear below for some of you to hear my performance of Christina Rossetti’s trimmed-down sonnet, accidentally trimmed again. If you don’t see the player, you can use this highlighted hyperlink, which will open a new tab and play the song.

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*Here’s another short write up about this poem, which summarizes some of the guesses about what has passed away. Some love gone sour is one guess, and what with the spring birth specifics in the first 8 lines, perhaps some opportunity to have a child would be another. My accidental deletion of the last line, with its emotional damage curtly listed, adds an element of “All things must pass” to the loss, the possibility of a more Buddhist outlook to a change that’s part of the illusion of possession.

Rimbaud’s Dawn

The last time I created and performed a fresh translation of a Rimbaud poem here, I broke from my usual practice with translation and produced a rhyming poem. I don’t usually do that. There’s too much else to try to bring over from one language to another to add that extra degree of difficulty. But in the case of Rimbaud’s “Eternity”  I felt the incantatory power of the poem was too essential to discard.

Today’s new translation from Rimbaud’s French relieved me of that decision, as “Dawn”  is from his collection of prose poems Illuminations.  I’m still left with the usual problems of translation though. My primary goal when I translate is to make the poem vivid in the destination language, and that leads me to take care with two tasks: to transfer the sense of the poem’s images to the contemporary reader in the new language; and when a poem makes use of scenes or an overall plot, to do the same with portraying that. The translated poem’s sound word-music will almost certainly be diminished (per Frost’s “poetry is what’s lost in translation” declaration) but I try to respect the poem’s music of thought, that sense of harmonic relationships between things, the melodic undulation of its series of images. These primary tasks become fraught when the images and scenes are difficult, or by intent irrational or obscure; and in those cases determining the author’s intent and how understandable they would likely be to the intended reader they wrote them for adds another level of difficulty.

Lately I fear I may go too far in how I handle this, reducing to something determined that which the author wanted to remain mysterious or only an enticing sound or novel juxtaposition — yet still I risk it. Most other translations of today’s Rimbaud piece are less clear than the one I produced. My hope is that the sense of wonder in the poem is enhanced rather than reduced by portraying more exactly what I sensed Rimbaud was showing us. Here’s a link to the poem in French, and then here is the fresh translation I made and used for today’s performance:

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Issues start with the poems opening sentence: “embrassé” has been translated as “embraced” (retaining some of the sound from French) and as “kissed.” From the whole of the poem, this non-native French speaker thinks there’s more of a context of grabbed or taken in here. Unlike others I then chose to make a compound English expression for Rimbaud’s single word: “caught and kissed.” My hope is that this sets up the story that Rimbaud seems to me to be telling, of the poem’s speaker and the dawn of the title being caught up in something between a passionate tryst and an abduction.*

Truckloads of dawn are being shipped while you sleep!

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The second paragraph shows us an urban early morning as the sun is just rising. Grand public buildings, symbols of power and order, have no crowds or guards. The trees are still shadowing the streets. Warmth is only gradually emerging from the overnight chill.** The last phrase there remains somewhat mysterious to me, so I left it so for the reader. I believe the wings may be the pigeons or other early morning birds in front of the grand buildings, but “pierreries” (gemstones) is harder to grasp. I tried the thought that it might be iridescent feathers on the birds, but little else in this poem looks at such a close level and I suspect more at glints of early morning light breaking in, which helps inform how I handle the next section.

That next paragraph is mysterious too — and left somewhat at that in my translation. But I couldn’t resist making “blêmes éclats” into “gilded splinters.” It was just too good a connection from Rimbaud’s French to Afro-American creole French, known to me from the Voodoo folk-chant once appropriated effectively by Dr. John into a slow-burning musical ritual.

I think the next paragraph is dawn’s light coming in through tree branches, blonde on blonde.

In the next paragraph I once more choose a compound English expression rather than making a singular choice from the French. “Voiles” can be either a veil or a sail,*** an I think the sense of the poem wants it to be both. Dawn (feminine) is lifting veils, and the poem’s speaker (masculine) is setting sail on a voyage. Ecstatically Rimbaud is sailing down the streets in the poem’s mind and camera-eye out to the very borders of the city in a magical instant while dawn is still breaking and unveiling, to reach where in the penultimate paragraph dawn and Rimbaud fall onto a forest floor in what I read as a sexual embrace.****

Some readings of the poem have the final sentence as one of those “It was all a dream” trick endings. Yes, the poem intends to portray a visionary experience, but I think we’re still in the vision at the poem’s end, perhaps with the lovers only about to depart in a mid-day aubade — after all, the speaker has exercised the aubade trope of denouncing the time-announcing rooster. In their union, dawn and Rimbaud have stopped time, if only for an interval.

So, here’s the player gadget and alternative highlighted hyperlink for those who don’t get the player gadget in your reader to hear my performance of my new translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s “Dawn.”

 

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*This poem is a vision, a fantasy. Yes, within the fantasy there’s no explicit consent, and we might read Rimbaud as male and the long-haired and veiled dawn as female (see the footnote on linguistic gender below) but that may be us putting our own casting on the fantasy roles here. But again, it’s a fantasy, and the loving and respectful rules of reality may contain it.

Alternatively, in kinky fantasy footnotes, my best-guess that the child (l’enfant) in that concluding embrace is a persona of the young Rimbaud, and that opens up age of consent issues regarding an encounter between the ancient cosmic event of solar dawn and a teenager. Beyond glib jokes, given Rimbaud’s biography, I wonder if that has been more seriously addressed by modern scholars?

**Personal aside: in my early-morning bike rides this May, I’m growing increasingly tired of the WWII-Fahrenheit temperatures of between 39-45 degrees so far. I want to ride with bare legs and arms and make vitamin D with human skin!

***The former noun is feminine in French and the later is masculine. My teenager strongly dislikes gendered languages with a personal dislike, and I’ve never cared for this common language feature for efficiency’s sake. Still, I searched the section to see if I could determine the gender intended and decided it wasn’t certain.

****Discrete Rimbaud leaves out (did I intend that pun?): forest floor matter in nether crevices, bugs more interested in their own desires, and pointy things extrinsic to the coupling. This is why Rimbaud is a poet!

Mother’s Day

I’ve mentioned before here that Laurie Anderson was one of the inspirations for this project. Even though I don’t closely mimic her Midwestern delivery, that subtle mix of the dry and the droll with muted pleasure in observation. It’s more at the idea that things put into a different context reveal aspects you never noticed before. And yes, she often did this mixed with music she composed.

We rarely go to mothers for new aspects. In the usual course of things, they are our original appreciation of reality — and one that we return to, or long to return to, when the novel has taken a bad turn.

That said — and I’ve said so much in the last few posts that you might welcome a break from my long-windedness — when I considered yesterday evening if I needed to make a post noting Mother’s Day, this song, “O Superman,”  by Laurie Anderson came bounding into my head. I recorded a version of it on a similar whim nearly a decade ago, just because it had remained well-balanced in the weird place between understandable and elusive. *

Because “O Superman”  is a work clearly under copyright, you won’t see an audio player today for that version I did. Though I’ve probably bent the rules a few times here, this project keeps away from using work the authors have some legal ownership of. Remuneration for almost all poets almost all of the time is tiny, and increasingly this is true of more musicians and artists more of the time. The YouTube video below is my compromise with that.

Yes, there’s a typo in the credits at the end. Embarrassing! I blame the late hour when I was cobbling this together.

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My rough understanding is that if my video would ever rise to the viewership level of getting YouTube ads inserted, the owner of the rights could/might get the fraction of a penny that would generate. Anderson herself has this video made of her composition back in the day, and it’s worth observing her presentation of her own art, though I note one recent comment on her video:

I played this song at a party in my house once. Ever since then, no one’s even come near my house again.”

Perhaps that comes of the artistic trick in Anderson’s song as she performs it:  to make mom strange so that we may observe differently. Mother and strange don’t rhyme for many.

My version is an excerpt of the whole song with different instrumentation, and I’ve never been much for “just like the original record” covers anyway. My shorter version focuses more on the mother aspect and where and when we seek that. Call me a Modernist beset by sentiment, but the ending to Anderson’s song nearly always brings tears to my eyes.

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*Want to read more about Anderson’s work? Here are two articles about it: this one about the creation of the original piece, and this recent one by Margaret Atwood about her experience of it.

Inside Whales and Lofts, Part 2

Last time I left you with some impressions I got reading a George Orwell essay, but I also came upon a documentary this week on things this project deals with — things that you, welcome reader or artist, may also want to consider in your art or life. That film was The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith.*

I had some minor grasp of the loft scene in the ‘70s to early ‘80s, and I figured it might be worth a watch. I got more than I expected, though not quite what I expected. This story is centered in the late 1950’s, a time of tremendous artistic momentum that underpinned much that occurred in the more famous ‘60s later. Oddly the man, Gene Smith, featured in the title isn’t a jazz figure at all, but a photographer who lived in part of a run-down and irregularly converted commercial loft in New York City. Smith gets his name in the title, not only because he’s interesting and because his artistic biography is well-covered in the documentary, but because he had a curious desire at this point in his life to document large portions of his everyday reality via still photos, movies, writing, and copious audio recordings.

This trailer for the film leads with the Jazz, underselling the compelling story about photography it contains.

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Lofts are often prized by artists, who like a gas are likely to expand to fill any space — and Smith certainly did that. Whenever I pause to consider my own studio space where many of the recordings for this project were done, I am embarrassed by how messy and cluttered it is. Smith matches me in that clutter from what we see, and the documentary would support a viewer who sees obsessive-compulsive elements in Smith. But unlike myself, or the garden-variety hoarder, Smith was a very accomplished black & white photographer in a number of styles. And then, somewhat like me, the clutter didn’t seem to stop Smith’s productivity — or if it did hamper it, his drive to continue to produce art was strong enough to make that issue moot.

I’m unsure how famous Smith is in art photography circles, but the film departs from its Jazz Loft focus to let us know that he was a very effective war photographer during WWII, one who was seriously wounded in the Pacific theater of that war. He worked for the large format magazines and photo services of the day as a photographer, with enough pull and force of personality to be allowed to create multipage photo essays he selected and laid out for publication himself. By the time of the Jazz Loft he seems to have been doing a lot of street photography, often shooting out of his window at the day to day people who had no sense they were being photographed.**

Even if, like me, you are not au fait with photography and photographers, it’s likely you know at least one or two of Smith’s photos. He’s the guy who shot the famous Harry Truman holding up the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline. And when I saw a print of another photo just pinned up somewhere off to the side in the clutter of his workspace early in the film, I wondered if he’s responsible for another image that I knew: the emotionally resonant “A Walk to the Paradise Garden”  photo. If you watch the film you’ll get more context for that photo.

So, is there Jazz in this film called The Jazz Loft?   Yes. The late ‘50s were a time when a great many magnificent Jazz records were made, and when high-quality live Jazz performance was still commercially viable. The NYC area was a center of both of those things. The Jazz Loft was apparently like some places I know from my youth just slightly later, it was an open scene, and folks just wandered in and out of some of the loft, including a number of musicians who used it as a place to workshop or jam for their own enjoyment. From Smith’s documentation, it was a somewhat integrated scene at the loft, but predominantly white.*** This may be secondary to the man who apparently owned the loft (he’s said to have been Smith’s landlord during the film) Hall Overton. Overton was a figure unknown to me who was active in what in that era was known as “Third Stream.” Third Stream was an effort to combine composed concert music, often with orchestral instruments, with Jazz. Many, but not all, of the proponents of Third Stream were white musicians crossing over from modern “classical music.” I don’t want to over-simplify this, but while some Afro-Americans coming from a jazz background were interested in such a fusion and contributed significantly, Black Jazz musicians were also involved heavily at that moment in trying to keep Jazz culturally and commercially relevant to their Afro-American peers (“Hard Bop” and “Soul Jazz”) and with the more spiritual and political Black Arts movement.

The film eventually gets to concentrate on Overton for a while, and he’s as interesting as Smith, particularly for someone like myself who’s interested in Jazz and composition. If he sounds like something you’d like to nerd over for a while, I can recommend this lengthy and detailed article by Jazz pianist and composer Ethan Iverson on Overton, but if you’re trying to finish a translation and eventual musical piece using words by Rimbaud, I’d suggest you don’t click on that link.

Other folks who drifted through the Jazz Loft have stories that are told in shorter segments, and I personally like the way the editing and flow of the film allowed the stories to emerge organically, like a good Jazz set. The use of the archival materials (largely from Smith’s posthumous archive) is done very well.

Jazz, “Third Stream,” late ’50 NYC bohemia, and black & white photography are all niche interests. You may need to be interested in at least two of those things to have the highly rewarding experience I had with this documentary. If not, you need to be open to adventure in these areas. No car chases, no who’s sleeping with who dish, no unfolding speculative universe, other than the one that the arts often live in inside everyone else’s: whale’s bellies and lofts.

What did watching The Jazz Loft  bring me? An appreciation of Overton’s efforts, which were largely unsuccessful even within the limited expectations of his niche. In Smith’s story, I found a mirror of my own somewhat obsessive drive to make the elements of this project, and a warning of the possible side-effects of that.****  Recall as I concluded Part 1 of this, that one of my artistic maxims is: All Artists Fail. George Orwell was despairing in 1940 at the batting average of artists seeking to change things in his society, while I’m somewhat heartened that they keep trying. Same box score, just different outlooks. So, Smith succeeded, for a while, and then descended into a state that was productive but not healthy. Overton for all his not-even-a-footnote status in musical history, made an honorable effort. They chose their own adventure, followed its path, saw and felt and knew what they saw.

New Rimbaud here soon, but for today, I’ll leave you with my performance of a quote from an Afro-American writer telling what he saw, felt, and knew about John Coltrane, a piece using a excerpt from LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s liner notes for John Coltrane’s “Live at Birdland”  LP. Jones speaks to the balance of that struggle, of Coltrane’s admirable struggle, and how it might reward us to pay attention.

And thanks for your attention. The player gadget for the audio piece is below, or this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

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*This assumes you are giving evidence by reading and listening here that you care about some less-mainstream things, and worse yet, a variety of them.  “The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith”  is available most places you can rent or buy movies on computers, smart TVs, or tablets. There’s also a podcast-series which I have yet to sample.

**It’s apparent that many folks either didn’t know or didn’t care that they were being recorded by Smith either. The general reaction of those interviewed was that Smith was fairly overt about his documenting everything he could figure out how to capture, but other stories have him placing microphones all over the place. In terms of his photography within the loft, he had the advantage of “always being there” so that the people drifting in and out didn’t strike a pose for the camera.

***No, I’m not getting all woke on the people portrayed in this film. Just stating what I noticed that ran counter to my initial expectations of what I’d see in the Jazz milieu, even in the late ‘50s when de jure Jim Crow was still a thing. Indeed, the folks in the center of this film were probably significantly more cross-racial than their general society, and for that matter probably more than I am in this other century. Afro-American Jazz giant Thelonious Monk does have a sizable part in a story of one project workshopped at the Jazz Loft depicted in the film.

****I hope not that more dangerous take-away trope: well, I’m not that  obsessed, or chemically dependent, etc. as that person.

Inside Whales and Lofts, Part 1

Let me momentarily make this place act like a regular blog and remark on a few things I’ve run across trying to do — or avoid doing — new work. Warning: these are not necessarily mainstream things of interest to most people, even people who read blogs about various poetry combined with a variety of original music.

While not sleeping one night this week I ran into an essay masquerading as a book review written by George Orwell at the end of the 1930s: Inside the Whale.  As per the dangers of doomscrolling, it was not the right piece to run into while trying to fall back to sleep. It’s long, covers a bunch of ground, and since it is Orwell it contains a lot of pithy observations and things that incite one to consider not merely what Orwell believes, but what you, yourself believe.

It starts off reviewing a book by the American writer Henry Miller that was already several years old. Or rather, it makes motions like it’s going to take on that task. Orwell tells you little specifically about what’s in Miller’s book, and he speaks of it and it’s outlook in alternatively dismissive and “it’s better than some” statements. Orwell concludes that, whatever the book’s failures and omissions, that Miller’s novel has stuck with him, and that its subjective effects on a reader might be worthwhile.

Then a full-fledged essay breaks out: a meditation on the changes he observes in the literary scene from the 20s to the 30s of his 20th century. In doing so, Orwell also is quite subjective, compressing the wide range of these two important decades with broad characterizations, summations that have the virtue of vigor. Orwell’s overall judgement is the 20s were an explosion of free expression and expansion of subject matter, and then the following 30s had taken a wrong turn into political statements and advocacy. Orwell’s historical summary is one that others have made as well, and as with all such “spirit of the age” high-level views, it can be contradicted by considerable examples of those who didn’t follow the big titles over their decades.

In my middle of the night reading, I found this wrong-turn judgment odd. Writers who avoided political stances or opinions? Orwell would never have been on such a list! He’s remembered specifically as a life-long critic writing on political ideas and operations. This verging-on-hypocrisy stance, similar to pundits and any odd people with Internet access criticizing actors, artists, and writers for expressing political opinions,* can be made rational if one extracts from his argument the more distinct point he’s making: that the expressed political stances and opinions opposed are wrong and based on falsity. But within this essay that point seems less clear, it’s more about the demonstrated failure of that art-for-political-change effort in the 30s leading Orwell to suggest that it’s likely/arguably the better of limited choices to simply write about ordinary life in a way that avoids any evidence of political thinking.**

I’m around twice Orwell’s age when he wrote this essay, and to the glowing 21st century screen I was reading him on, I talked back to him that he had just discovered a universal truth I’ve written here several times: All Artists Fail. Betting odds calculated from a past performance tout-sheet are not a singular reason to not attempt something in art — the odds are always against success in art, that’s partly why we revere it.

Two small things in Orwell’s long essay remain for me to note. There’s an anecdote of Miller meeting Orwell as Orwell was about to embark on his sojourn into the Spanish Civil War. Miller, Orwell says, told him he was crazy to put himself in harm’s way, and then gives Orwell a warmer jacket better than the meager suitcoat he was wearing. That act, that tiny scene, is Orwell demonstrating his point that ordinary life closely observed may illuminate more than many grander political statements. And the other, more poetry related, has Orwell go on this short aside about the American poet Walt Whitman:

It is not certain that if Whitman himself were alive at this moment he would write anything in the least degree resembling Leaves of Grass.  For what he is saying, after all, is ‘I accept,’ and there is a radical difference between acceptance now and acceptance then. Whitman was writing in a time of unexampled prosperity, but more than that, he was writing in a country where freedom was something more than a word. The democracy, equality and comradeship that he is always talking about are not remote ideals, but something that existed in front of his eyes. In mid-nineteenth-century America men felt themselves free and equal, were  free and equal, so far as that is possible outside a society of pure communism. There was poverty and there were even class-distinctions, but except for the negros there was no permanently submerged class.”

Taken in — as we might well in our age — as statement to be evaluated from a woke (or waking) political outlook, this has so many howlers and hold-my-artisanal-higher-hops-content beverage potential Tweet-takes! Start with the “Leaves of Grass  are always greener on the other side” view of America in general. Thanks, I guess, for the “negros” exception that is altogether too large and horrible for a sub-clause. No mention of the state-side colonialism regarding indigenous peoples. And, wait a minute, women! Orwell’s “America men” freedom isn’t just accidental language-convention-gendering in historical context. I could go on, with anti-immigrant prejudices galore, and….

But. What Orwell is demonstrating here, intentionally or not, is that Whitman painted a plausible reality, containing vivid details of ordinary, mundane reality, of an America that supplanted those things, where open desire, freedom, and comradeship existed in plus and overplus. Did Whitman fool the wily Orwell into thinking that was actually, abundantly so in the years before and during an American bloodbath, or is Orwell suggesting, however inadvertently, what art can try to do, and while failing and retrying, help to accomplish?

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I sometimes misread the “darling buds of May” as the “daring buds of May.”  These seem so strange, so alien, as they emerge.

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This is enough for a Part 1, but rest, and only later think about this: can your art spur on change — or rather, not just urge it on with the spur and the whip, but with the portrayal of where we must go in a hurry?

As to music, here’s another audio piece you may have missed, using a 1920 poem by German Anarchist writer Erich Mühsam that I translated into English. This post from last July tells what I learned about Mühsam’s life and that of his mentor who first published the poem, Gustav Landauer. In the post, there’s a Whitman connection. Player gadget below for some of you, or if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlinkwill play the audio piece.

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*The hypocrisy of that is: the pundits most often have no more skin in the game in these matters than some artists; and that the ordinary Internet people, who often wish to self-proclaim their ordinariness, may have by definition no more expertise than another person whose job it is to observe and extract transmittable reality.

**Small, dear, peripheral, and personal aside here. Anaïs Nin was the writer specifically noted as existing inside the titular whale, Jonah-like, in the essay — and so, in Orwell’s judgement, then beneficially cut-off and protected from politically-charged writing. My late wife was once writing an article for a national “woman’s publication” on the cultural phenomenon of journaling, circa 1979. In a phone call discussing her sources for the article, her editor suggested she could setup an interview with Anaïs Nin. When the call ended, she and I had the writers vs. editors conspiratorial laugh over that unintentionally Ouija-level suggestion, as Nin was then two-years dead.

Revisiting Stones Under the Low Limbed Tree, and what’s fair in song-making and translation

Many of the visits to this blog are not you, the regular readers who are reading this fresh post, but views of some older posts via a search engine. A gaggle from Google have come recently to a post from a year ago which doesn’t feature one of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits,” though it does use, in a way, the words of one of America’s most loved poets, Robert Frost.

Here’s a link to that post.  I looked at this post, and I’m not sure what brought it to increased attention, though after re-reading it today, I complemented my past self — who I alternately think is wiser or more foolish than the current occupant of my consciousness. I thought I did a good job of describing how we as writers may improve our work through revision, even though the example I used in the post was my own revision, for my own parochial reasons, of the words of a recognized great poet.

I do that sort of thing to the Greats from time to time — as recently as the last post here with a simple addition of a line as a refrain from a poem by Robert Browning, or more extensively with my extension and relocating a poem by Du Fu that many liked last winter, or further back with a piece of Rupert Brooke’s that became one of the most listened to pieces in the history of this project. I usually feel ambivalent when I do this. At the least, I try to warn you when I intentionally go beyond the original text. In each case above, the author’s dead, there can be no personal hurt or slight for them to feel, but with this project I do take on some duty to the text the author wrote. Have I cheated at my task? Am I dishonoring their work?

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How is this photo connected to today’s post? I don’t exactly know. So what should some translator do when asked to present it in their language?

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I’m wrestling with these matters currently with another translation in process,*  a prose-poem by Arthur Rimbaud, particularly with a common issue I come upon in translation: how much did the author intend to be mysterious, and how much did they (or their ideal, likely contemporary reader/listener) understand to be clear in their original language? With translation, one can’t avoid substituting your own words, and likely things like word-order, idiom, and so forth — that’s inescapable, inherent in the task.

In the case of this poem by Frost, my recasting wasn’t so much for immediacy of meaning, or to make an image clearer to our time and place; but to make the poem more sing-able, to fit and obtain impact in a conventional song performance. Yet, the song that I made of it was not very popular with listeners here. When I looked today, it appears that nobody that has visited the post this month has listened to the performance.

Again, complementing my past self, the one I feel I can more often judge objectively; I think I did a pretty good job of the song I derived from inside Frost’s poem “Ghost House” and retitled “Stones Under a Low-Limbed Tree.”  My vocal (often a weak point) was passable — though I idly wish for “cover versions” by a legitimate vocalist for pieces I write and present here — and the rest of the audio piece works well.

So, here’s that audio piece, being presented again for your listening judgement and plausible pleasure. The player gadget should be below, and this highlighted hyperlink will also play it in a new tab if the player doesn’t appear on your device or reader.

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*Following the practice of Robert Okaji, I’ve taken to casting some of my alterations or freer translations as “After a poem by…” — another way to deal with this, though it doesn’t remove all the questions I ask myself.

In England Now (Home Thoughts, from Abroad)

One of the odd things that can happen to a poem is for a single line to become remembered while the poem itself may fade out of fashion. Today’s poem, which is likely to be our final poem for this April’s American National Poetry Month was published in the middle of the 19th century by an Englishman who was away from his home country in Italy. So yes, this one goes out to my faithful British listeners — but, at least in my country, about all that remains of it is the poem’s opening two lines: “Oh to be in England/Now that April’s there.*”

I didn’t know what poem it came from before this month. I didn’t even know it was from a poem, or that Robert Browning wrote it. A poem like his wife’s Sonnet 43 “How Do I Love Thee? Let me count the ways.”  may be similarly antique in age and language, but I recall, however hazily, something of the whole of that poem, it’s sense, and meaning.

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Robert Browning, making the chin-beard somehow work for him.

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Since it’s likely that many of you don’t know this poem more than I did, here’s a link to the full text as Browning wrote it.

So, what is this poem saying, what is it on about? It’s a poem very much of longing for one’s home. A romantic catalog of nature details from the English countryside is mentioned: birds, trees, flowers. I’m ignorant enough about such things that I can’t tell you the song or plumage of any of the birds (I even mispronounced the name of one of them in my performance), I know little of the exact trees, and only a bit more of the blossoms and flowers listed, but I think the poem survives this ignorance. The catalog is enough to demonstrate that there’s a specific spring, specific to place (and by now, perhaps to time), that Browning is missing.

There are three telling lines in the midst of this nature catalog. Early in the poem Browning says that if someone simply wakes in an English April morning, they are unaware. This is of course not universally true, some will awake to marvel at a Spring morning wherever their bed is, but Browning’s point is that some will not, and by implication that he himself often didn’t. Another telling line: in remembering the birdsong of the thrush** he says that the bird sings each song twice, seemingly to prove that the bird had fully absorbed and internalized the rapture of Spring, so that it can recall it at will. That opens the question of if Browning feels in his poem if he has been able to do the same, to recall what he is now separated from. Perhaps it’s more so than remembrance. It’s often said that nostalgia and memory increase the sense that what is gone was better and more intense than it was.

Which brings us to the third telling line, which is almost a throwaway in Browning’s version of his poem, but the one I’ve chosen to make a refrain that I think changes and reframes the poem: “In England now.”

Browning’s use of the line may have been largely a rhyming choice in the series of “bough,” “now,” “follows,” and “swallows” — but rhyme, like chance effects beloved by some Modernists, may cause the mind to go elsewhere or to bring out things it would not consciously choose. By making “In England now” a refrain, it sits beside and comments on nearly every part of Browning’s original poem. My intent is that this refrain will bring out different responses to different listeners, perhaps even different responses to a single listener as it reappears. To test that out, you can hear my performance with a player gadget if you see it below, or with this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab and play it.

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*Given its English subject matter it may be somewhat more remembered by our British readers. Back in 1995 it placed in the middle of the pack of the best loved poems in a British survey. And in an even more Parlando moment, the poem’s title and its enduring worth were both sung in 1973 by an English singer-songwriter Clifford T. Ward, who had a minor hit in the British Isles with it.

**In other April poetry, we’ve just finished our serialized performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  which features a thrush singing in its concluding section performed and presented here earlier this month. Eliot’s thrush singing in the pine trees he wrote in his notes to “The Waste Land,” was from his personal memories of camping in Canada as a youth.

Jazz Fantasia, a pioneering work of Jazz Poetry

This Friday is International Jazz Day, and for a project that subtitles itself “Where Music and Words Meet,” it’s a little odd that I talk less about the musical half of what we do. My project assumes that poetry, even on the page, can be defined as words that want to sing. What manner of tune fulfills that desire? It varies.

Early in this project it became apparent that I was going to feature a lot of early 20th century verse as it was the newest poetry that was clearly available for reuse. This was the time when literary Modernism came to English language poetry, greatly expanding the tactics that could be applied to poetry, and it came in too with an idea that much of what had become expected of poetry was tired and worn out, inauthentic and false.

Almost simultaneously, a very similar movement was happening in music. Though largely segregated from European Modernist composers in person, Afro-Americans were developing at the turn of the century a twisted helix of musics that came to be called Blues and Jazz. Differentiating between those two things is a complex matter. Blues is a nearly inescapable element of Jazz, and Blues is more substantially a vocal music, and so Blues needed a poetry from the start. That means that Blues song lyrics are the Modernist revolution as originally expressed by American Black people, though because of their context and place in American culture this was not understood as such. Like Modernist poetry, Jazz and Blues too demonstrated freedom to use new tactics, and they too wanted to replace tired and false musical tropes.

Poets, even those who intend for their work to be published and read on the page, can’t help but be informed by the music they know and admire. Earlier this month I’ve speculated on Emily Dickinson’s use of 19th century hymn-song meter and a possible connection for her deviation from strict poetic forms informed by her own improvisations on piano. By 1920 we had a Modernist Jazz music coming to America’s attention, and literary Modernist verse, though not without its naysayers, had reached an American audience too. It’s like flame and gasoline, isn’t it? When are they going to meet?

I can’t say what the first Jazz Poem was, or who wrote it. If it was composed by an Afro-American it may have been unnoticed, unpublished, and unrecorded (save by the oral tradition and the folk process which didn’t keep their names). Some of the traditional folk-blues lyrics seem to date from the turn of the century, but they were not printed as poetry then — and even as vocal recordings, the oft-cited first blues record, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,”  dates from 1920.*  The recording history of Jazz predates that a bit, with the all-white but still claiming “Original” Dixieland Jass Band’s broadly comic “Livery Stable Blues”  coming out in 1917, and that’s sometimes cited as the earliest Jazz record. Two poems already featured here: Ray Dandridge’s “Zalka Peetruza”  and Fenton Johnson’s The Banjo Player”  were available in 1922 for James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry.**   The former’s “tom tom” beat and the later’s Modernist free verse could make them Jazz Poetry. Some articles cite Langston Hughes’ “The Weary Blues”  of 1925 as the first Jazz Poem, and it is unquestionably a Jazz Poem, but even Langston Hughes had some issues to overcome with it. Back in our February focus on Locke’s The New Negro  anthology of 1925, recall that the elders mentoring and gatekeeping The Harlem Renaissance weren’t yet welcoming Jazz into high culture and were unsure of its effect on their project to elevate America’s appreciation of their race.



No, not that Prince’s band. A 1915 example of proto-Jazz and Blues being integrated into society dance music.

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Which brings us to the underrated Modernist figure of Carl Sandburg,***  the white Midwesterner who had won the Pulitzer prize for his free-verse poetry in 1919 while being based in Chicago. In 1920 he publishes a follow-up collection, Smoke and Steel containing today’s poem called “Jazz Fantasia.”   This too is clearly Jazz Poetry. It appears to be portraying an instrumental performance, and while unlike Hughes’ poem it quotes no Blues lyrics, it’s clearly a Jazz performance with its imitation of horn sounds, the husha, husha, hush of brush work on the high hat, and their sandpaper swish on the snare, the tin can of cowbell, and the knocking pan-metal ring of stick hitting rim.

If not Blues form as such, two details from Sandburg’s 1920 words (here’s a link to the full text of the poem) stand out to me. Half-way in, there’s a car, a cop, and… “bang-bang!” Striking to hear a still modern pain in a 100-year-old poem isn’t it! And the poem’s conclusion makes a case for the breadth of Jazz expression infrequently made in the fad for Jazz during the Jazz Age: that it wasn’t only frantic music with comic musical effects suitable for careless youth further forgetting their cares, but that it could also portray some green night lanterns and the boats ceaselessly beating against the current.

It was imperative to me that today’s musical performance for International Jazz Day must use some approximation of Jazz. I play no brass instruments and I find them hard to approximate with virtual instruments articulated by keyboards, so you’ll hear an anachronistic, more modern, Jazz trio: drums as featured in Sandburg’s poem, guitar, and bass. The player gadget for this may appear below — and if it doesn’t, this highlighted hyperlink will also play my performance of Sandburg’s “Jazz Fantasia.”


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*In 1903, Afro-American composer W. C. Handy encountered a Blues playing guitarist in Tutwiler Mississippi, noted he was singing a Blues song with recognizable Blues lyrics. He thought the music was “The weirdest thing he’d ever heard” but by smoothing it off and adopting it to the composed brass band and society dance music he was familiar with, he made use of those Blues elements.

**Other examples of Jazz Poetry influenced writers I’ve managed to sneak in here are Kenneth Patchen who read to Jazz music, Le Roi Jones/Amiri Baraka, a poet who also wrote widely about Jazz, and even words by Laurie Anderson who was influenced by fellow Chicagoan Ken Nordine who had released several LP records he called “Word Jazz.” The music on Laurie Anderson’s recordings doesn’t read as Jazz to most, but focus instead on her voice and you’ll hear that same ‘50s cool jazz phrasing.

***I often make the case here that Sandburg’s poetry contains some admirable examples of the compressed and spare Imagist aesthetic, but besides poetry he’s intimate with the rise of photography as an art via his wife’s brother Edward Steichen, he was reportedly the first daily newspaper cinema critic in Chicago, and he was an important popularizer of American folk music.

And speaking of Langston Hughes achievement, Hughes’ early poetry often sounds unmistakably to me like he had “heard” Sandburg and taken some of his riffs into his own heart to be further extended by Hughes’ personal familiarity with the Afro-American experience.

April Rain Song

As we continue our celebration of National Poetry Month, I remind us all that not everything in poetry needs to be heavy business. For example, here’s a poem by American writer Langston Hughes, a man known largely for his poetry that deals frankly with the Afro-American experience, and this poem of his was published in a magazine founded by W. E. B. Du Bois during the famed Harlem Renaissance.

But wait, not only is this a poem about springtime, it’s a children’s poem written for Du Bois’ children’s magazine The Brownies’ Book.  I first learned about this pioneering publication for Afro-American children at the My Life 100 Years Ago  blog, which among other things often covers what was happening with magazines of that era.

Hughes himself wrote today’s poem when he was a teenager, and The Brownies’ Book  was the first publication to publish his poetry. “April Rain Song”  is a charming poem, and in rhythm and poetic tactics it reminds me of Carl Sandburg, a fellow Midwesterner whose writing influenced the young Hughes. Here’s a link to the text of Hughes’ poem if you want to follow along.

The Brownies Book

Check out the high school graduate in far right middle row. Yup, that’s Langston Hughes.

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It’s been April rainy the past two days in my city, so working on making “April Rain Song”  a Parlando Project piece had overcast and setting. Hughes here shows me a mode I sometimes aim for: it’s a nature poem, but specifically set in a city, not in some rural nature. The rain meets sidewalks and street-gutters, not some Eden.

Rain, specifically spring rain, has a strong memory element for me. Perhaps you share this? Outside in rain I’ll often recall other wet spring days, watching from the current distance my child-self walking beside miniature gutter rivers, observing for no particular reason their sweep around last years’ leaves and last winter’s final dusky ice clumps. Or perhaps you recall a particular roof on which fell our general rain? Was Langston Hughes too young yet to have that experience of memory when he wrote this poem? I cannot say, but I have that now, and so I add a bit of wistfulness to his words today.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Hughes’ “April Rain Song”  is below for many of you, but if you don’t have it, this highlighted hyperlink will also play the song I made of it.

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Oscars, then Oscar, during National Poetry Month

I hope to still have at least one more piece ready here this month, but I’ll admit that I waylaid some time yesterday watching the Academy Award “Oscars” while restringing and doing some deferred maintenance on a couple of guitars.

Awards shows — which are of course promotional events regardless of their area of the arts and the event’s prestige or pedigree — seem to be going through a rough patch of late. The Nobel literature prize even got removed for a year, so I’d judge that less prestigious awards stand in greater peril. The question of their value, or even if they have become counterproductive, has become commonplace. The use of these events for airing political and social issue positions is one sore point for some.

Let me not waste too much of your time, but to summarize my belief on that last issue: the whole purpose of art is to share human experiences in a way that nothing else does. How things are run, how we experience that, it just can’t be separated from art, and once that is allowed, the questions about what should change and what should be maintained can’t be fenced off as off-limits. This risks of course that wrong and half-wrong and outright misrepresentation is going to be propagated in shiny works of art. An even more subtle risk is that what will be presented must be simplified in some way, even within arts’ ability to present strange non-binary states. Resulting work can be painful or dreary even for points of view we already agree with — and outright hurtful or disgusting for things we find false. The criticisms are true, but this can’t be avoided if we are to have figurative/narrative art at all.

Film is extravagantly more expensive to produce than poetry, and by reputation successful people in the movies most visible roles are well-paid for their contribution to that capital-intensive industry. Garden-variety actors, directors, and writers outside of commercial film, who may not share this wealth, rarely get to speak about their beliefs on international live TV shows. Does this make it bad when the wealthier artists speak, or should we have no actors, writers, directors speak at all?

As a change, I enjoyed the trimmed back show, with many fewer in the main room and with little attempt to make it a spectacular variety show. Different compared to the traditional Oscars, but also not revolutionary. It made the show very like most smaller awards shows, the kind us regular poets or writers might attend. I felt there was a substantial emphasis placed on current social discussions, particularly diversity, representation, racism, violence. I’m no expert, but I suspect that may well be, to use the old Hollywood term, “box office poison.” So, if the ratings turn out to be bad, I will not be shocked. Given that I agree with many of the viewpoints expressed or embodied, should I consider that then brave?

Here at my keyboard today, I started to write a further reflection on those elements. Then I decided to drop it. Then I decided to include it again. Then dropped it. I doubt there is any demand for my extended thoughts on these matters.

But it is still #NationalPoetryMonth. Two of the award recipients made poetry a substantial portion of their acceptance speeches. Did anyone else note that?

Chloe Zhao began her speech for Best Director by saying that her father would banter with her when she was a child by reciting parts of the Three Character Classic*  back and forth to each other from memory. She then recited that poetic work’s opening two lines in Chinese and then in English translation. Let me print those two lines here, and also the two that follow, which add additional illumination I think:

“People at birth
Are entirely good
Their natures are similar
But their habits make the difference”

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The White Hen or was Dick and Jane ghostwritten by W C Williams

William Carlos Williams concision and white chickens meet Confucian respect for elders. Maybe I need to reassess Dick and Jane?

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The second bit of poetry was both even more subtle and yet striking too in its poetic compression. Although Best Actress winner Frances McDormand opened with a tiny, informal comic aside, I think she intended her entire acceptance speech to be this:

“I have no words, my voice is in my sword!’

The sword is our work.

And I like work.”

I was stunned. First of all, the concision overwhelmed me, but I believe I caught some intense meaning in these 19 syllables making 19 words. The opening line is MacDuff’s from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. That character utters it as he seeks to revenge the killing of his family. In McDormand’s context, I think the Blakean sword here is not a harvester of souls, but the un-resting illumination of our best work.

Your sword is your work. There is joy in that.

No new audio piece today, but since another Oscar appears in it, and it tells of the plague of humanity being seen as nails, and guns the only tool, I’ll give you former movie critic** Carl Sandburg’s “Long Guns”  with a guest appearance by the spirit of Howlin’ Wolf as MacDuff. Player gadget below for some of you, and this highlighted hyperlink will play it if you don’t see that.

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*Despite developing an attraction for classical Chinese poetry, I didn’t know that work. Zhao’s experience wasn’t unique. I read that it’s long been used as an introductory text for young children. I can only flash back to the Fun with Dick and Jane  readers of my grade school years, which I’m not sure bring as much instructional density.

**No fib. For 8 years he was the film critic for the Chicago Daily News. He wrote hundreds of reviews, interviewed Hollywood figures, and seemed to have a pretty good grasp of a developing art. Someone has collected his film reviews, and here’s Roger Ebert’s review, and another account, and a short discussion on Sandburg and his view of films.