Somewhere in the early 16th century, a member of the English royal court Thomas Wyatt wrote a love poem, or rather a poem of lost love. Like Shakespeare’s sonnets, no one knows if it’s autobiographical, but ever since I first read it as a teenager I’ve thought it feels real. Maybe after this many centuries that’s good enough.
If so, then “They Flee From Me” is an example of the presentness poetry gives us. Begin reading (or listening), as I did decades ago, and one moves through the rich conceit of the poem’s first stanza where the poet fancies he’s feeding some animal, likely a deer kept for private sport hunting in some rich nobleman’s deer park. If one knows that situation, then the tender animal lured inside by the kind-seeming human offering it food may put one in a piteous mood. Poor thing. It doesn’t know what the situation is, what the structure is of a nobleman’s deer park. You’re there to show that nature can be purchased and ruled — and you’re there to be killed at will.
Although a later engraving, this is thought to be an accurate portrait of Thomas Wyatt. Wyatt also introduced the sonnet to English language poetry.
Poetry and its metaphors can do that, it can be clever, show us, if we pay attention, something we otherwise might have overlooked. What if we move on to the next stanza? The poem’s speaker seems to make a shrug at the first stanza’s piteous situation. Then three lines in, something else vivid happens. We may never have visited a royal deer park or lived in the particulars of Tudor royal prerogatives, but something occurs that we, now, here, may have exact sense memories of. It’s no longer a deer now, and the hands are no longer someone feeding the doomed deer kept in half-natural captivity. The hands are a woman’s. She’s embracing a lover, loosening her clothes. Anyone who knows desire knows this scene and may feel the ardor, today as in the 16th century. Like the deer being hand-fed, it feels tender, feels mutual — but that first stanza has warned us.
Last time we had Emily Dickinson bid goodbye to some fairy creature or garden animal under the stars with a line that would one day be used by Bob Dylan: “You’ll go your way, and I’ll go mine.” Wyatt’s final stanza — is that a shrug at the parting or a generous admission of non-ownership of the two lovers to each other? We are left with final lines after we know the lovers have parted ways. The poem’s speaker tells us they feel “kindly served,” and what does she deserve — as fond a set of memories perhaps? If so, we can leave this poem casually and think kindly of long-separated loves in our lives with good wishes for theirs.
But the poet went to the trouble of setting up the captive deer in the first stanza. Do they mean to go beyond a pun of deer and hart and dear and heart? Are we still to liken the poet’s situation (or the woman’s) to that hand-fed deer as they wrap things up. “Nice park, nice grub, and they bring it right to you!” that deer might have thought, but we know why the deer are kept. If we leave the fancies of poetry and move onto the lives that give it blood, I’ll end with one supposition that’s been made about “They Flee From Me” — that the poem is autobiographical for Wyatt, and that the woman is Anne Boleyn. Boleyn, one of King Henry VIII’s doomed queens, was executed explicitly for, well, slipped gowns and how like you this. Wyatt was also arrested and imprisoned in this matter, but his connections with the King’s fixer Thomas Cromwell trumped the charges.
Accept that, and the final two lines are then not so much a graceful farewell, but a deeply bitter assessment of deadly political power.
My music today could not be made in Wyatt’s time. I used acoustic guitar while the lute was more Tudor style. Then there’s a conventional cello part, but on top of that is an unusually articulated viola part which I meant to sound more like South-Asian bowed strings. To match that viola, there’s a tambura and harmonium underlayment in the music. To hear my performance of “They Flee From Me” you can use the player below, or if you don’t see that, you can use this highlighted link that will open a player if you don’t see one.
I said, when I was listening to the Tell It Slant Festival’s marathon reading of all of Emily Dickinson’s poems, that I was jotting down lesser-known Dickinson numbers which I might perform in the Parlando Project manner. Well, here’s one of them.
If you’ve followed my various Dickinson performances over the years you may have seen me emphasize Dickinson’s visionary aspects, her outlooks gothic and satiric (often combined), and sometimes her abstract poems of philosophic thought. One thing I noted again during the marathon was that she can be a very acute and intimate poet depicting pain. She’s all that. But sometimes she’s more at playful. Today’s piece, “A Murmur in the Trees,” for example.
It’s glancingly a nature observation poem, but fancies have taken it over by half-way in, as a fairy tale seems to break out. The opening stanza sets things at night, and perhaps we are in the Dickinson garden (where Emily, predicting an REM song to come, sometimes did gardening tasks at night). There’s a noise, the title’s murmur, in the trees.
The second stanza breaks with a line of alluring consonance that remains a mystery to me, the “A long — long Yellow — on the lawn.” Sunset’s last light beams or dawn’s first ones? Filtered moonlight? And then we are told, something like little footsteps are heard.
The third stanza portrays little fairies or gnomes trooping home, the fourth, robins that could be strange birds who wear nightgowns and sleep in “Trundle beds” or Robin Goodfellow with wings. The poet’s speaker, presumably Emily herself, reminds us these are not metaphors in this moment for normal animals, since what she observes “would never be believed.” She finishes by saying that she won’t test the credibility of her observations anyway because she’s in league with those she’s observed, she’s promised “ne’er to tell” what her night garden contained. The final two lines return to mystery — if nightgown-wearing birds or gnomes, or the both of them hanging out together aren’t ambiguous enough — by saying “Go your way — and I’ll go Mine — No fear you’ll miss the road.” What’s the road? Are they birds seasonally approaching their autumn migration time where Dickinson is famously staying put? If we take that aspect, Dickinson appreciates they know a road away where she may not. Or is the road that other mystery, the “long Yellow on the lawn?” Fairies* are said to have paths (not to be obstructed) that are often difficult for regular humans to detect, but sometimes different colored grass or vegetation is said to be a sign of fairy roads. Is that the long yellow in the grass?
Actual photograph of enchanted birds attempting a marathon reading of all 1789 Dickinson poems. Meanwhile, tiny gnomes have paths and “houses unperceived” if you look hard enough in your night garden.
The little song I made from Dickinson’s “A Murmur in the Trees” can be heard with the graphical player below. No sign of the player? No fear you’ll miss the road, there’s this backup highlighted link that will open a player to play it.
*This second reading assumes some understanding of Celtic or British Isles folklore on Dickinson’s part. I’m not sure what is known of that possibility. There were Irish immigrants in Dickinson’s Amherst, eventually some as domestic workers at the Homestead.
Since I’ve spent hours this week soaking up all the Emily Dickinson spirit I can absorb, it’s time to see if I can let some of that experience overflow here today. Maybe someday I’ll count which poets’ words I’ve used the most in the Parlando Project, but since this is an ongoing thing we’d only see the on-going horserace. Still, I suspect Emily Dickinson would be at or near the top — and that’s even though I at first sorta-kinda avoided using Emily Dickinson poems.
It was decades ago when an American Literature professor H. R. Stoneback remarked to me that you could sing most of Emily Dickinson poems to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Others may recall the same being said but “Amazing Grace” or “The Theme to Gilligan’s Island” being called for the tune. The point is that singing Emily Dickinson has been done, and I wanted to seek out new combinations of words and various music.
But Emily waited for me, eventually showed me the variety of her rhythms, and well, once you’ve entered the mind-space of Dickinson you may just want to wander around a bit. So here’s a sample of what we do, seven of the Emily Dickinson poems I’m recalling that I’ve combined with original music today — and as a bonus, three others that are directly Emily Dickinson connected, but more obscure. After all, the Parlando Project does Poetry’s Greatest Hits, but we like the deep cuts too. The bold faced headings below are links to the earlier posts when we presented the piece where you can read more about my encounter with the poems
“We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.” I enjoyed expanding on both the undercurrent of dread and then the Three Stooges level tree-bonk in this one. Earlier this year for National Poetry Month I created a video for this classic performance, and that’s linked in the post you can reach with the bold-faced heading/link. I’ve always thought this one of my most successful pieces.
“May Flower.” I sometimes catch in Dickinson’s Transcendentalism a whiff of 1960’s Psychedelia, so I went with a Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd feel for this setting. Writer Sherman Alexie earlier this year wondered what an Emily Dickinson cover band would be like. I sent him a link to this. His response? “Oh, wow, I was making a little joke about rock star Emily and here you’ve been making it real. That little beauty has a Zeppelin/13th Floor Elevators vibe. Way cool!” The bold heading above will give you another National Poetry Month poetry “lyric video” for this which also tries to tie Emily’s “Sixties” with “The Sixties” of our last century.
“It sifts from leaden sieves.” I love this poem of snow sifting in a field’s stubble, and in the original post I posit it could be Emily looking out her famous bedroom window at the farm field that was once across the road from the Dickinson Homestead.
“Soul Selector Blues” (my adaptation of “A Soul Selects Her Own Society”) I have converted several literary poems into the Afro-American Blues song form. For this one I even tried to degrade the recording’s sound to that of a worn 78 RPM record. My goal here? Once you’ve heard this Dickinson poem as if it was a tune for a classic blues-woman singing her self-determination, you’ll never read it on the page the same way again. “Close the valves of my attention. Like a stone!”
“Answer July.” Instead of borrowing from American Blues, this one has a sitar part. Not authentic South-Asian sitar, or so I’ll plead in terms of cultural appropriation — more like Alex Chilton and the Box Tops “Cry Like a Baby.” In the original post I mention my recent pet theory that Emily Dickinson may have picked up legal concepts and lingo from the lawyers in her family, and in this poem she seems to be humorously applying courtroom situations to the seasons.
And then here are those three connected poets I promised.
A poem by Susan Gilbert Dickinson, the sister-in-law, neighbor, and frequently proposed lover of Emily Dickinson, “Crushed Before the Moth.” I still have much to learn about her, but when I visited the Emily Dickinson Museum a few years back, the part of the tour into the next-door home of Susan and Emily’s brother Austin surprised me with it’s impact. Whatever the details of their relationship, we know Susan was intimate with Emily’s poetry, so it’s interesting to see what her verse is like.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a remarkable man who Dickinson sought out for feedback on her poems, and who was one of the initial posthumous editors of her verse. This project has led me to learn more about Higginson, who’s often played as a version of “the record-label man who refused to sign the Beatles.” I found that he’s much more than that, though I don’t know much about this poem which may have been a youthful composition. The poem is called and is about “June.”
And finally, another too easily dismissed classmate of Dickinson who wanted to and finally managed to publish Emily Dickinson while she was alive, Helen Hunt Jackson. Did you know Jackson was a early campaigner for American Indigenous rights? That’s a long story, but here’s Jackson’s short poem “Poppies on the Wheat.”
Productivity on this Project has been lowered this week for what seems to be a good reason. I’ve been attending online some of the Tell It Slant Emily Dickinson Festival put on by the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst. My focus from their offerings? So far I’ve heard every session of their multi-day, 15-hour, reading of all of Dickinson’s 1789 poems.
These marathon public reading sessions are wonderful, more rewarding than I would have predicted. Their format is to read from the Ralph Franklin edition of Dickinson’s poems, organized in a best estimate of order of composition, with a revolver of readers reading one poem, and then on to the next reader without pause. Online during weekdays, it’s been a Zoom thing, with the reader’s face appearing as they read in turn from their own office or home, and with the poem’s complete text appearing on-screen at the same time. The readers vary in voices and coldly-judged reading skill* — but this is a feature not a bug. You get a sense of humanity breathing the words of Emily Dickinson, and as it’s online, the readers and listeners aren’t even all in America as they celebrate this American poet.**
This process really impresses one with the immensity of Dickinson’s verse. There are often surprises with lesser-known poems catching my interest in-between the “greatest hits.” Dickinson’s various moods and voices come out, reinforced by the various readers approaches. In the side-chat text window, folks (and sometimes myself) react as the progress through the 1789 reaches their favorite poems.
In summary, even though I’ve read — and then spent the time to internalize and perform many Dickinson poems — this marathon reading has overwhelmed me with the facets and power of Dickinson’s work.
I’ve spent most of my Project time here this week.
Thanks to all the readers and the organizers. Want a musical piece? Here’s my expression of another Emily Dickinson poem that asks us to consider the slant. Player gadget below. Can’t see the gadget? This link then.
*I’ve worked for a radio network with experienced and skilled voices that expect/achieve a consistent performance when speaking with microphones, so I appreciate those easy-to-take-for-granted skills. But the variety of the readers in this marathon are a modifier of multitudes. Think of the difference between a professional, polished studio music recording and an informal get-together of an assortment of enthusiast musicians. Each has its flavor. The majority of the volunteer readers are as least as good technically as I would be in their role.
**These readers are volunteers. There are indications that one can just sign up to read, but the general level of reading skill I’ve seen indicates at least some self-selection is going on. Maybe 75% of the readers are women and there was only a smattering of people of color. This isn’t a gotcha note on my part. First of all, an all-woman roster could have expressed Dickinson’s range — after all Dickinson herself did — but modern English-language poetry has such a range BIPOC voices that I’d like to see more shades of faces volunteering and reading. I wouldn’t be surprised if the organizers feel the same way.
They tell us: yesterday was the last hot day of the year, with temps peaking above 90 F. The summer night ended, like a fair or exhibition with fireworks lightning and booming thunder, and the coolness of fall seems to have arrived today. The urban trees here have just a touch of autumn colors on the edges of avant-garde branches. A city’s pretense is that it is artificial, a human-made place, but the trees are here to remind us.
The above cartoon presented without further comment.
I’ve said that when I look at what pieces were the most liked and listened to each quarter that the results often surprise me. The Parlando Project takes words (mostly poetry) and combines them with various original music. For practical reasons,* the poetry we use is largely in the public domain, poets whose reputation has usually settled to a stable level. We’ve done many pieces from such poets that retain readership into our century: Dickinson, Frost, Yeats, Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Eliot, Millay. I also enjoy reviving work by poets that once had considerable readership, but who have fallen out of favor or esteem: Longfellow, Teasdale, Sandburg for example. And there are poets that have higher profiles in the UK than here in the US: Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy. And there’s my translations or adaptations of work outside of English: Du Fu, Li Bai, Rimbaud, Rilke.** That’s a big world of material, and my attempts good, bad, and indifferent are up in the archives for all to hear. But then there are the wildcards, the poets that only indefinitely reached and failed to retain much regard.
Apparently, Robert Gould Fletcher is one of those. He was identified early on as an Imagist, a form of early English language poetic Modernism that I think has values worth revisiting. Curious, I dipped into a couple of his many books from the first half of the 20th century and found a short nature poem that intrigued me. As I worked to set it to music my city had a summer storm whose aftermath was a striking yellow/green/brown sky tint. In the heat of that evening I started to recast Fletcher’s poem, producing a result that’s a “after a poem by” or “inspired by” work — but it wouldn’t exist without Fletcher.
Despite Fletcher’s non-existent current literary standing and my own low profile as a poet, “Yellow Air” was the most listened too and liked during our past warm summer. I wouldn’t have predicted that, which is a pleasure.
You can see Fletcher’s original text and the full text of my subsequent version along with guitar chords which you might use if you want to sing it yourself by clicking on this link to the original post. Or you can hear it straightaway with the player below.
*Submitting writers may know how slow and inconsistently editors will respond. Well, I found the response asking for permission to present poems here was even worse. If an unsought grant was ever to fall from the sky for this Project, I’d ask first for someone to bug and cajole rights holders for the rights to present more recent poems here.
**How much have we done this? Over 600 times! And all of the results are still available here via the archives. If you just want to sample the music more rapidly without my comments on the encounters with the text, the most recent 100 or so are available as podcasts on Apple podcasts or most other places that offer podcasts. Note that the Parlando Project podcasts are just that: the typically less than five-minute audio piece. From time to time I’ve considered a more conventional talking-about-stuff podcast, but I’m unconvinced the interest would replay the work on top of the research, composing, and recording effort that goes into this Project.
There were fewer audio pieces presented this past summer, so I’m going to abbreviate our traditional Top Ten review of the past season to reflect that — but I still kind of like this part of the Project, as I get to see what pieces got the most response. Like the Parlando Project in general, the most popular pieces tend to be quite various, and it’s often the pieces I’d least expect that bubble to the top. As a proper Top Ten, we’ll look at them as a countdown, starting with the 10th most liked and listened to one and ending with the most. The bold headings are links to the original posts in case you’re new here and would like to read what we said then.
Very briefly here are the pieces that make up numbers 10 through 6.
10. Arthur Hoehn by Frank Hudson. In the summer doldrums I felt free to include more of my own words. This is a short elegy for a classical music DJ who worked the overnight hours. I’m quite proud of the final lines of this one.
9. Staying the Night at a Mountain Temple by Li Bai. Another of my loose translations of a Tang Dynasty classical Chinese poem. I based my translation on my understanding of Li Bai’s (his name is also rendered as Li Po) general outlook. An example here of how I work with orchestral instruments.
8. Stratocaster by Frank Hudson. Really, this project is usually concerned with other people’s words, but this sideways ode to an ingenious radio repairman whose swoopy electric guitar design was enshrined in the Museum of Modern Art got a good amount of response.
7. The Dick and the Dame by Dave Moore. Alternate voice and keyboard player here Dave Moore says some of this is adapted from Robert Coover, but this really holds together as a poetic liturgy for pulp noir. Also I got to wail on guitar.
Getting ready to lock up my bike late this summer, and my attention is drawn to a message on top of the post.
Now let’s move on to the top 5 and say just a bit more about each of them.
5. From Cocoon forth a Butterfly by Emily Dickinson. We’ve done lots of Dickinson poems here over the years. Though we did this one in summer, it talks about harvest time. While poetically condensed, Dickinson observes harvest workers and the proverbially productive bee and contrasts them with a no doubt lovely, but also somewhat unoccupied butterfly. Is Dickinson, the poet, the butterfly? I’m not so sure. My understanding is that Dickinson’s domestic duties in her mid-19th century household, while less than those of poorer families, were also not insignificant. Is the butterfly then poetry, or the poem she’s written, or a fancied life of a full-time artist which she wasn’t? Dickinson ends with this point: at the end of it all, however joyful or laborious, is the Sundown, which is Extinguished. Like the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, I’m thinking she sees vanity in the whole scene.
4. To Whom It May Concern (Carry Them Away) by Kevin FitzPatrick. Dave and I both admired Kevin’s poetry and outlook, even if neither of us wrote like him — but then as I said elsewhere here this summer, too few poets write like Kevin. Here’s a short poem written entirely in another’s voice, whose words Kevin the poet recognizes deserve repeating, deserve attention, deserve concern. If I don’t write like Kevin, that essence, that principle, is part of what I do here with the Parlando Project.
3. Palingenesis by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Poets today read Dickinson (should) and Whitman (must), but few literary poets will admit to reading Longfellow now. Dickinson and Whitman are great rebels, geniuses of make it new. Longfellow worked in traditions, replanting them in America. If you want to rebel with your attention and consider Longfellow, I’d suggest the shorter lyrics. Was this lyric referencing Longfellow’s wife who died too young in his arms? I can’t say for sure, but I used it to reference my late wife who also died too young more than 20 years ago.
2. Generations by Frank Hudson. This is a tiny poem in a tidy setting. I’ve been noting recently the lack of perspective in many older persons’ views of the young. Old people are supposed to supply that perspective, to know from intimately observing things over longer time that stuff thought new is just a variation or a carrying forward of the flow of society. Instead, I see all too many who want to proclaim some past got it right and the present is a decadent signal of end times. So, in this short piece I cast myself as the sage of advice to the young, but with a twist.
What was the most popular piece this summer? Come back tomorrow for the answer.
I’m usually not very articulate about my own work, and part of the benefit of this Project’s aim to largely present other people’s poetry is that I can better express my experiences with others’ work than my own. This may be why I am envious of those who can speak effectively about their own art.
More than a dozen years ago I was reading an interview with a novelist Willy Vlautin who also wrote songs and performed with an Americana/Indie rock band called Richmond Fontaine. In explaining his art this is what Vlautin had to say:
It’s sort of a gamble, one’s life. Where will you fall, what are your weaknesses, will they kill you? If you’re hurting, will people help you or take advantage of you? Will the people you love, love you when you need them to? The mistakes you make, they could ruin you, set you off on a bad run. Hell, I think about all that all the time. Nothing makes me sadder than someone hurting and then being done wrong or worse by someone who’s aware of that.”
As you might imagine, Vlautin was not writing cheerful stuff,* but the observation about the human condition, its fears, and the dangers of how others can react to failings in ways deserved and undeserved seemed honest. Humankind differs somewhat on what constitutes crimes and failings, and the hierarchy (lowerarchy?) of such acts and outcomes, but we seem constitutionally subject to the reaction that the bad or unlucky person deserves their fate — or here’s the odd intensifier — deserves more and more bad outcomes, stacked on in order to prove or instruct them in how bad their choice or fate was.**
It seems to me that Vlautin takes this internally as well, or at least wants us to consider that. That’s something I resonate with myself. The fear, much less the result, of failing someone I care about is nearly disabling for me. I fear this enough that I will the not do things for others, little things, things others find routine, because I fear doing them badly.
Reading Vlautin’s interview answer soon caused me to write this sonnet all those years ago, combining Vlautin’s thoughts with my own on these matters, the result merging sins of omission with sins of commission, confronting the fears of both as honestly as I could.
Just as with the last piece here, I found that sonnet among the thousands of song-sheets I went through late this summer from my studio space. Unlike the last one, I think Dave and I attempted to perform this poem as a song years back to little success. After finding the song-sheet, I did a revision of the words and changed the music a little bit. This afternoon I had just over an hour in my studio space to record it. I focused on simple accompaniment, just acoustic guitar to maximize my chances of getting a completed performance, and that worked well enough that you can hear it below. Because the piece’s outlook is stark, the spare music may help reflect that.
There are direct quotes from Vlautin in my sonnet, also some subtle changes to his phrases, and then too my own interpolations.
A player gadget is below for many of you, but some ways of viewing this blog will suppress that, so I also offer this highlighted link which will open a new tab to play it.
*In another interview he says he had pictures of John Steinbeck and the Jam on his childhood bedroom wall. His brother bought him his first guitar and told Willy to “Write about what hurts and haunts you. That’s pretty much what I’ve done ever since. Along the way, I somehow forgot to write about the girls and the parties.”
**Perhaps a small part of the choice to pull this piece out of the pile today has to do with the bizarre news that a couple of governors have decided that some folks suffering from poverty, fear, and abuse should be secretly trundled off in busses to other states in the course of increasing their suffering or insecurity — and with the further aim of using their arrival to instruct other governors or mayors to do what, I’m not sure. Articles indicate that one beef the two governors have with the other jurisdictions is that they aren’t making others already there from similar situations in these other states more fearful and uncomfortable. Am I to infer the theory here is that making folks more uncomfortable, less secure, and more confused will improve their luck and the wisdom of their choices? Or that the other governors or mayors will by this action understand that the two “put’em in busses and dump them outstate” governors are demonstrating their better administrative acumen?
I’m presenting a song of summer desire today even as that season ebbs away, but first a little catching-up on the status of this Project for those who follow it regularly.
I planned to produce fewer Parlando Project pieces this summer for a number of reasons. It’s become harder to find composing and recording time, or to focus when it can be found. Audiences drop off markedly every summer anyway, and I had some long-put-off tasks that I thought needed to be attended to. Those tasks? Not even half complete, but a couple of things got done.
I felt I needed to replace the nine-year-old computer I use to write what you read here as well as the final audio mixing and polish for things recorded in my studio space.* I wanted to keep to a reasonable cost for this replacement, but I also wanted to spec it so that it could last in the roles I use it for, for the rest of whatever this Project’s lifespan will turn out to be. To accomplish this I stayed with my usual tactic over the past 30 years in selecting parts and assembling the replacement computer myself. I did a Ship of Theseus build using some old parts I had, which reduced the cost.** This new machine is now in service once I installed, configured and re-registered a whole bunch of software that this computer needs to run.
Another task? For more than a year I’ve wanted to deal with nearly 3000 song sheets that had accumulated in my studio space where I record with others as well as my own acoustic instrument recording. Poet, keyboard player, and alternate voice of this Project Dave Moore has been amazingly creative this century, and when I record with him I most often get sheets of lyrics with some hand-written chord symbols. You’ve heard a smattering of his original compositions here, but over the past two decades we’ve attempted hundreds of pieces of his. I’ve nearly matched Dave, as the more than 600 completed pieces I’ve released here show. With orchestral instrument scores I don’t notate by hand, working instead on the computer — but my guitar-based pieces tend to be not-unlike Dave’s, except that my paper sheets usually have neater printed chord symbols. Still, there’s my marginalia of chord voicings and capo positions etc. Thus, the thousands of sheets of paper. Late this summer I sorted through the whole bunch, determining the half or so that would be good to convert to computer storable files, and then scanning them.
Today’s piece is a result of that second large task, as I was often running into pieces on the paper sheets that I hadn’t thought of in years — and even a few that I don’t recall even attempting to perform. “Summer She Has No Lover” was a sonnet that was written in 2010. I’d written it as a literary page poem but seeing it in the studio space pile of papers made me think that I must have once considered creating music for it — and so that’s what I proceeded to do. The recording was quickly done (studio space time is still limited), but I think the results convey something of the flavor of the piece as our summer ends.
Sonnet means “little song” and so why not sing it? “Bechirp” is my own word.
You can hear my song performance of “Summer She Has No Lover” with the graphic player gadget below, and if you can’t see that, with this backup highlighted link. I can’t say what level of productivity I will be able to wring out of this autumn for the Parlando Project, but my present intent is to increase the number of pieces and posts from what I was able to do this summer, so look for new pieces soon. Another question remains to be answered: will I have time to do more complex compositions? We’ll just have to see.
*The old one was still working fairly well, but some components on computer motherboards can start to fail after a decade or so of service. I’d intended to accomplish its replacement early in the summer, but to show that expected service life is worth considering ahead of failure, I had to replace an aging water heater and washing machine that both stopped working in June and July.
**Given that this Project is assuming a Venn diagram audience that has interests in poetry and often non-commercial musical genres, it’s probably pushing it to think that anyone reading this is interested in computer parts too, and choices here are just as controversial as music and poetry can be among the cognoscenti. I decided it would reduce costs and still be safe for future roles by using an 11th generation Intel I7, and an ASUS Z590-Plus motherboard which uses the inexpensive/widely available DDR-4 memory and PCIe 4 solid-state-storage drives, and for video I bought a Nvidia Quadro card which is not worthwhile for gaming that I don’t do, but which can drive up to 3 QHD screens if I ever upgrade to those in the future. I went for 32 gigs of RAM and a 1 TB PCIe 4 SSD. The one truly “lux” component I bought was a Seasonic power supply, based on good experiences with them over the years. Total: $785.95. I was able to use an existing Antec Silencer case that weighs as much as an e-bike, an existing CD-DVD drive, and a year-old mechanical hard drive used for audio and video project storage which I simply moved over from the incumbent computer. My keyboard, mouse, and screen remain unchanged.
The Temple of Summer is guarded by two pillars:
Memorial Day for those who gave up their lives in war,
And Labor Day for those who gave up their lives in peacetime.
This Monday is American Labor Day.* What constitutes a laborer, a worker? Someone who works for someone else, who doesn’t own their own business? Are poets and musicians workers, or small businesspersons? These things are not simple — after all, that musician-derived term “the gig economy” shows that grants of independence can be superficial. Anyway, let me defer that discussion and say that poet and musician Carl Sandburg was a worker, knew he was a worker, and understood work. It should be no surprise that I’ve chosen to present three poems from his 1916 breakthrough collection, Chicago Poems for Labor Day — or for any working day if you read this later. They’re observed and written in the situation of their time, but let’s not dismiss their concerns and experiences as outdated this Labor Day — at least, not without hearing Sandburg out.
How many times, even today, when someone seeks to portray the working class, is a white male presupposed? Sandburg doesn’t make that mistake as his “Working Girls” will show. My wife, a nurse, came home this week concerned around a strike deadline, and it’s safe to say that women have carried proportionally more of the stress of the past few years in the workplace. She tells me her coworkers are riven by this announced possibility. Some of the most stressed, see this as adding to their stress; others see this as an attempt to remedy some of what’s wrong in their field. Sandburg sees a dialectic in his river of working women, though his poem’s more about the general wearing-down of a life of work.
“Happiness” is probably the best-known of the three Sandburg poems in today’s piece. It’s significant to know that Sandburg is a 1st generation immigrant, and he writes continually of the immigrant experience in his poetry. I don’t think it’s too hard to translate from Sandburg’s immigrants to today. My weekend summer nights here in my neighborhood feature accordion music as this poem mentions, though the singing is in Spanish for my ears. Oh, my wife and teenager sometimes have trouble sleeping, and then there’s this noise. I have trouble sleeping too, but I also hear this Sandburg poem in my head, accompanying from his time the Mexican songs from the yard three houses down the street.
Consider this on a holiday: no one feels leisure like a working person.
“Muckers” may take a little translation. When I was growing up, closer in time to Sandburg’s than today is, a ditch digger was not a job description so much as a derogatory term. It stood for someone who had no ambition, no skills, no ability to advance. If you lacked those things, you might be cursed to become “a ditch digger.” It was essentially workplace hell — and the inhabitants, damned by their sins of omission. My father once preached a sermon I can recall from my youth in which the dignity of a ditch digger’s work was proclaimed. The detail he spoke of then, the part I can remember, was that some care as well as muscle was required to carve out a stable and straightaway ditch.
Sandburg’s poem takes a red-wheelbarrow to the job site, writing (as he would often do) an Imagist poem concerned not just with concise precision in the observation, but more at why so much depends on what is observed. And he’s got a punch line, one anyone who’s ever suffered through the worthlessness of unemployment will understand.
Together these three poems I perform today celebrate those who give up their lives in peacetime. “You dreamy poet,” some may be saying now, “That’s the way of the world. Don’t you know?” Oh, Sandburg knows. He went to work at 13. I was self-supporting at 18. The difference between us and some other poets is that we’ll write and sing about this. It’s as universal as love and heartbreak, near as universal as death, and it’s the mundane ground upon which poetry and music and all the arts are stroked upon.
Carl Sandburg: proud to be the guitar strangler, rockin’ maker, stacker of tracks of wax, hex-string player, and folk-rock maven of Modernist poetry.
My musical performance is longer today than most Parlando pieces, but then it does present three poems and asks for a quantity discount. After working out and executing the acoustic guitar and “punk orchestral” setting of Emily Dickinson last time I wanted to plug in a Stratocaster and wail a bit, and so what you’ll hear today is a live electric guitar performance recorded then. One production oddity I’ll note: I recorded the two chordal “rhythm guitar” parts after the lead melodic part. The player gadget to hear the performance is below for many of you, and I provide this highlighted link for those viewing this blog in ways that cannot display the graphical audio player.
*My teenager reminds me that “Labor Day” is not the international workers day that is May Day. I remind them that American Labor Day came out of the labor movement too, and no matter how you parse things, having two days to celebrate work and workers is not too much, no more than we should be embarrassed in America to have a Veterans Day and a Memorial Day.
I hear that today is something called National Radio Day. I read that on social media, which I suspect in turn will be a strange artifact to be explained to unformed young people of some yet undisclosed future. After all, as I write tonight I have doubts I’ll be able to convince any current young people of the romance of radio.
I grew up midcentury in what was supposed to be the TV age, but TV was a very constrained and arid thing then. TV was usually one set in the living room with maybe 3 or so channels receivable. It signed off in the evening, came back on with the dawn, and presented one thing at a time under the control of a schedule that could be memorized by its viewers. Radio may have been the old tech, but it was richer, stranger, more able to surprise with chance. Kids had their own radios, cars had radios, and the talking/singing boxes continued all night — and radio was never stranger than at night. Small local stations were required to dim their watts and disappear at sundown, and then certain stations would appear like the night stars, receivable across the countryside with varying reception. In my tiny Iowa town I ran an antenna wire out my window to an apple tree branch outside. The radio’s tubes glowed and Chicago and WLS were certain. KOMA in Oklahoma too. Detroit and Tennessee sometimes.
To be honest, I don’t recall hearing the famous super high-powered mid-century Mexican X stations. Maybe I did for moments — listening to the radio at night meant that stations would sometimes drift in and out, so I might not have heard every call sign. One of those stations, XERB, had a DJ and program director who was too unremarkable as his given name Bob Smith, and so became Wolfman Jack. At XERB he had an on-air compatriot named Fat Daddy Washington.* But today’s piece isn’t about the Wolfman. It’s about Fat Daddy Washington.
You see it’s not just those night-time radio signals that jumped around and changed with the stars. Just as Wolfman Jack had been Bob Smith, and “Daddy Jules,” and “Roger Gordon and the Music of good Taste” as he bounced around formats and jobs; Fat Daddy Washington was not some longtime hepcat, but a kid just a few years out of St. John’s University, a Roman Catholic affiliated college tautologically located in Collegeville Minnesota. “Washington” had worked at the college’s radio station under his real name Arthur Hoehn.
Now let’s zoom in on the “Summer of Love” in 1967. For some reason Hoehn headed back to his old school in north central America from its southwest corner, driving in a sharp new Thunderbird. There’s a story there I’m not privy too. Was he going to impress old schoolmates with his newfound flash — a not uncommon move? That doesn’t sound like the unassuming Arthur I later knew a bit. Was he possibly out of a job at the X? Plausible. When he arrived back in Collegeville, he ran into one of those schoolmates, a guy named Bill Kling who wanted to expand and professionalize the college radio station.** Kling later told the story that Hoehn unilaterally offered to help out. Kling joked years later that he wasn’t even sure he paid him at first. However, Hoehn was also recalled as what became Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media’s “first professional DJ hire.” Since the Collegeville station played classical music with news breaks, I’m not sure that Hoehn’s Fat Daddy Washington mic-time at the heavily R&B oriented X was much featured in their early pitches for funds.
Earlier in this century, MPR/APM employees tried to ID all the people in this early staff picture posted at our headquarters. The only ones I knew from my time were Michael Barone (2nd from left), Arthur Hoehn (3rd from l) and Gary Eichten (5th from l)
By the time I worked alongside Hoehn his regular gig under his given name was working the overnight shift as the host of a classical music program “Music through the Night.”*** If nighttime is the right time to maximize that romance, I’ll still tell you that when I’d actually run into Hoehn it wasn’t romantic. Radio in the flesh rarely is, and nighttime shifts are no place to dress for success or to put on a show of supercilious professionalism. Hoehn would likely be wearing comfy wild-print Zubaz lounging pants and a nondescript open collar shirt. We’d likely nod at each other knowing we each had a job to do.
When broadcasting live (as Hoehn did) the radio host is near alone even in larger stations and networks, and they can expect that most of their listeners are also sameways singular. There might be someone in the next room asleep or another driver in some light-pool car transiting the passing lane, but the listeners are each alone with the host and his record’s vinyl voices, like-black pianos, and sleep-breathing strings. They may be listening to you to try to fall asleep, they may be listening to you because they just don’t want to go to sleep right now, they could be in love full of bright energy, or just out of love and wanting company, they may be working a night shift like you, they could even be — as I watched my father-in-law one night — in a hospital bed awaiting death with the radio murmuring the needle-dancing angels of this side of life.****
Though some old folks reading this will remember this with me on Radio Day — young people, you likely didn’t/don’t live this. Yet I’m writing this more for you. I’ll allow that this is likely as imaginary as any fantasy world for you. But this went on once upon a time. The feeling of the romance of radio, intensified by nighttime, was as real as any current or future fantasy is, and so this has the value of any fantasy tale, as an exercise for imagination, and as a demonstration that shared fantasies can dissolve into air like dew after dawn.
When my coworker Arthur Hoehn died in 2011, I thought: there are a number of songs about DJs, but the music these song-celebrated DJs play is inevitably jazz, r&b, or rock. What about the man alone playing orchestral instrument music, likely in recall/remembrance of those classical “dead guys” compositions, while most of the world sleeps for a few hours in the little analog of death. Is that goth or what?
A performance of the song “Arthur Hoehn” I wrote is below, recorded soon after Arthur’s death. You can play it with the graphical player if you see that, or with this alternative highlighted link.
*Wolfman Jack the nighttime DJ was featured as a romantic mentor to the kids in the movie American Graffiti, and parlayed that role into a larger TV and radio broadcasting career in the 1970s. It’s a point too large to deal with in a footnote, but some white DJs in this time-frame took on portions of Afro-American argot and signifying. Given that American popular music in general has done likewise before and after Wolfman Jack and Fat Daddy Washington, I’ll leave this as a footnote.
Here’s a link to blog post about XERB, with a contemporary flyer saying of Hoehn show “’Fat Daddy; Washington, one of the heaviest swingers in the world, presents 9 tons of soul and is a real “mama’s’ man.”
**Several other Collegeville student-station alums were part of the early MPR/APM core. Longtime news program host Gary Eichten was another. Pipe organ enthusiast Michael Barone too. And another who cut his teeth hosting classical music only to break from that into a unique combination of oral story-telling mixed with musical variety: Garrison Keillor.
Coincidentally, I’ve just realized that I believe my High School English teacher Terry Brennan who introduced me to Keats, Frost, Donne et al in my tiny Iowa town was just out of St. John’s too. If so, it’s highly likely that he was an overlapping classmate of some of those folks. Odd to put that together decades later!
***Eventually this program with Hoehn hosting was syndicated live around the country via satellite (yes, they used satellites, not the still nascent Internet, to do that then). One of the national listeners who sent a fan letter: Joan Baez. Baez also worked in the Sixties with Peter Schickele, who I met in my first month at the network headquarters.
****Other famous overnight DJs? Alison Steele “The Nightbird” was the overnight FM rock DJ in the late 60s-early 70s on NYC’s WNEW-FM and had no-less than Jimi Hendrix as her recorded praise-singer. A British guy in the American southwest conned his way onto the air as an experienced DJ (he wasn’t) during the early days of the British invasion in the early 60s. He broadcast on “KOMA in Oklahoma” one of those “clear channel” stations that I could reliably get in Iowa at night, though he had the early morning shift there. His air name was John Peel, and he went back to the UK and worked for pirate Radio London with the “London After Midnight” show which in 1967 became “The Perfumed Garden” launching many an underground rock group in England with his eclectic playlists before a subsequent long and influential broadcasting career. I’ve never even heard air-checks, but musician/writer Tony Glover had an overnight “underground” rock show on KDWB in Minneapolis during the Sixties that some recall with fondness.