A dense occurrence of American political events has not quite stopped my reading of poetry and creation of music to combine with it, though there were hours this week when I could not help but wonder and rage at the sachems and attendents readings of the body politic and it’s befuddled head man.
Luckily, on days like these, one can reach into the corpus of poetry, and within little time find something someone wrote years ago that rings with the current day, like an old bell calling us for a current ceremony.
And it’s so that I came upon this poem written around 1650 by Welsh poet, physician, and mystic Henry Vaughn. It was written during the aftermath of the British Civil War (Vaughn’s family was on the Royalist/Anglican side, which had lost). When Vaughn writes of affliction, it’s from an intimate and substantial experience. Biographers tell us he was recently widowed, his family disinherited, his religion suppressed, and that he may have been suffering from some kind of illness as well. And of course, his country was broken, in ways that civil war and its divides make manifest.
This makes “Affliction” an unusual poem, because it revels in this level of distress, makes of it a necessary part of his and his country’s spiritual maturation. Read with some attention to what I believe is Vaughn’s passion, I can compare it to the hymn “As an Eagle Stirreth in Her Nest” based on a text from Deuteronomy chapter 32, “The Song of Moses,” a text and hymn that have inspired many sermons given in Afro-American Christian churches, which also know, oh yes, something of affliction.*
Vaughn doesn’t use the Deuteronomy text, but he gets in his own licks here: “Crosses are but curbs/To check the mule, unruly man” for example. And “Kingdoms too have their physic, and for steel/Exchange their peace and furs.**”
The Latin title of the book where this poem first appeared means “The Fiery Flint,” and the engraving shows the image it’s to portray: fire sparked from a heart of stone. And you in the back row who’ve just read the subtitle: stop snickering and read the later definition in the dictionary: “A short, sudden emotional utterance.”
Henry Vaughn has never been a big deal in English literature. Much of what I read checking on him goes on at length about Vaughn being Oasis to George Herbert’s Beatles. He gained a little given the interest on the Metaphysical poets engendered by the New Criticism guys like T. S. Eliot in the 20th century. One fan, who I wouldn’t have suspected: famed SF writer Phillip K. Dick.
Given the amount of time I wasted this week following our modern afflictions, I rushed this piece a bit, using a simple and repetitive bass and drum part I set up quickly,*** a “let’s give it a go” recording of the vocal, and a “live” one-pass guitar part: “Like strings stretch ev’ry part/Making the whole most musical” said Vaughn.
The text of “Affliction” is here if you’d like to read along, and my performance of it is available with the player below. Will listening to it help one wax metaphysical within our current struggles? Felt good to me to do this one anyway.
*One preacher who famously delivered variations on this text was Aretha Franklin’s father, the Rev. C. L. Franklin, who had a popular recorded version on Chess Records in 1953, which would make him a label-mate of Harmonica Frank from last time. Please don’t be disappointed if I don’t rise to Franklin’s level of transfixing declamation here.
** Physic is used as a medical metaphor in the poem, and of course, Vaughn later practiced as a physician. In the medical theories of the day, a cathartic drug, a physic, was often used to rebalance or reboot the humours of an ill human. Steel here stands for armor and swords, that is: warfare.
Last week was a tough week to bear, from the guns of Louisville through Pittsburgh and the man with the bomb plan and his sheets of flag stamps. Evil should not surprise me, it should not baffle me—and yet it does baffle me. Should I also feel sad along with bafflement? A good question for lengthy political analysis, but that won’t change how I feel beholding this.
I’m not naïve. I’ve lived a long life, and I’ve met a fair cross-section of Americans in it. Ignorance, racism, clan and gender prejudice—humans are prone to this. If I had a great deal of experience outside of the U.S., I would expect to find these things elsewhere too. But now and here, we have a benighted charlatan—in over his head—who trashes around in these things, knowing in some simple, instinctual, skunk’s way that this cloud of stink will confuse us from considering him.
In a few days our imperfect democratic republic will have an election. I do not suppose to know what will happen. I’m a poet and musician, go elsewhere for predictions. Poetry and art allow us to see more vividly across our temporary borders of place and time, but that sort of perspective doesn’t necessarily make us better prognosticators. In poetry and music, like in history, everything is possible, and over the long time, a great deal of the possible will become.
So here I sat, in this mere and disturbing week, having trouble considering the attempted and achieved beauty of my arts—because, in this stink and sadness, what can be meaningfully beautiful?
Carl Sandburg essays a look that Leonard Cohen would cop to sometime later
As I did earlier this fall feeling like this, I turned again to reading Carl Sandburg for my soul’s sake, for the early 20th Century Sandburg had seen every evil I have seen, and yet retained an embrace of humanity. Often here I focus in on the neglected Modernist Sandburg, the forgotten Imagist Sandburg of short poems that sing our overlooked, ordinary, humanity. Sometimes I fear the more expansive, Whitmanesque voice that Sandburg also used has drowned out the individuality of his shorter, less shouty poems.
But I needed him to shout some of his heart into me this week, so here’s Sandburg’s “I Am the People, the Mob.” The player is below to hear it.
I’m going to ask you to not read these notes yet. Listen to today’s audio piece first at least once. It’s short, two minutes long, it won’t take long. The audio player is at the bottom of this post.
OK, now you’re back and you’ve listened to the piece at least once. Do you think the words were written recently? Do think it’s a satire, some kind of sly Machiavellian comment on a particular modern politician? Do you think it’s Donald Trump’s first draft of his recent speech to the Boy Scouts? Or perhaps is a secret litany of personal affirmations? It does at times seem like a twisted take on self-help.
So what is it?
It’s my quick and dirty attempt at a version of a section of the “Surrealist Manifesto” written by André Breton in the early 1920s. The Manifesto is sort of a grab bag, part a sincere plea for a deeper and broader application of imagination in art, part a catalog of examples of how unleashed imagination has already been applied, and part is indeed a parody of a certain genre of self-help, the kind published by occult gurus of the time.
Not the Boy Scout manual
My piece is taken from that parody segment, and I’ve departed from conventional translations in two ways. First, to disguise it, I removed one phrase specifically mentioning Surrealism, and secondly, I’ve chosen my own idiosyncratic translation of the phrase “Peau de l’ours” in it. This is a condensed version an old and French saying, “Don’t sell the bear skin before you have it.” (a French version of “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”) Breton may have been using that cliché to contrast with the religious campaign-promise of heaven, but he also could have been refereeing to a hedge fund of his time which used that exact Peau de l’ours” name. And critically, what the investor group bought (and later sold for tremendous profit) was modern French art. “Hedge fund” gave me both ideas in a way that would be meaningful to a 21st Century English speaker.
André Breton and perhaps the Surrealist Party’s first President, Donald Trump.
So Breton, as he often does in his pronouncements, is mixing the absurd, with recognizable satire, with sincere advice. But briefly, before I go, I ask you to think about a bigger question. What does it say that some modern artistic principles sound like they could be descriptions of Donald Trump’s (or other similar politicians) philosophy? Is it that Trump doesn’t have a philosophy, only that he finds excuses or rationalizations? For past politicians, we would say they lack a sense of irony, but Trump speaks ironically so often that one wonders if there’s a word for unconscious irony. Could it mean that the sincere iconoclastic individualism and commitment to their own personal freedom that 20th Century artists thought they needed as a corrective to disasters like WWI and a restrictive society and its expectations, is now leaching upward to more powerful men in conventional professions?
The motto of the Parlando Project is “The Place Where Music and Words Meet,” but in practice it has been the place where music and poetry meet. However, just as I want variety in the music used (within the limits of the musician’s talents) I don’t plan to always use poetry for the texts here. Today’s post is an example. I’m going to use a short public speech, but as I have done with poetry in other episodes, I’m going to treat the words as if they are specifically meaningful, and I’m going to treat those words as if they want to sing.
We are also continuing the investigation of artists and politics, something I’ve touched on several times already this winter.
A few days ago, a cast of actors received an award, and the actor acting as spokesmen for the cast delivered the acceptance speech. Though not entirely a political speech, it was received as one, and it was almost certainly intended to make a political point.
The actor, David Harbour, was speaking for the cast of a series available on Netflix called “Stranger Things.” That show is a sort of bumblebee. Like the famously un-aerodynamic bee, it shouldn’t fly, but it does.“Stranger Things” is a show that uses tropes of 1980s movies and books to tell a story set in that same decade. It should be a winking meta exercise where you spend more time noting the references than to the story itself, or a dreary “I’ve seen this one before” drama that plays as an unoriginal re-hash of ready-made plot points and incidents. Perhaps for some viewers it is one of those things, but for many viewers it’s an ingenious contradiction of all the ways it could fail, doesn’t, and instead flies.
I read on the Internet this is supposed to work!
As an actor, Harbour was part of that levitation. In his acceptance speech, he makes a choice as doomed to fail as the concept of “Stranger Things.” In his awards-banquet tuxedo, standing in front of an audience of actors, he gives his acceptance speech more-or-less in the person of his character, a gruff, down-on-his-heels Midwestern town sheriff.
What’s the percentages on this working? First off, actors are not their characters, often not even close. Humphrey Bogart wasn’t a grizzled tough guy, he was the son of a cardiac surgeon who grew up upper-middle class. John Wayne was a football player and son of a dirt farmer, not a cowboy or a military man. Actors themselves would know this more than anyone else. Secondly, whatever audience size “Stranger Things” has, that audience isn’t everyone. Will folks who haven’t watched “Stranger Things” get your message if it references tropes from your series?
In turning this speech into today’s post, “Artists Hunting Monsters,” I changed a few things. First off, the video I first saw after the event did not include his prelude to the words I ended up using. In the part I didn’t have while composing, Harbour talks eloquently about his view of an artist’s role today. In editing the words I did have, sifting them down, and dressing them with music, I choose to universalize his rhetoric to the degree I could, so that even those who haven’t seen “Stranger Things” would have access the message; and in so doing, I changed things to address the role of artists in general, not only the actors that were his present audience.
I’m once more going to violate a principle I thought I would hold to here, and “explain” the text. Harbour, and my selection and recasting of his text, says that an artists’ job, an artist’s calling, is to offer succor to the disenfranchised: to show with our artifice, truth; with our play fighting, successful struggle; with our imagined detectives, the underlying monster. It’s a call to arms for artists to pick up blunted stage-swords and to deploy magnifying metaphors against oppressive decisions, systems and persons.
How did I speak with the music? Well, I won’t be so bold as to dance about that architecture. The main melodic line is a guitar played with an Ebow, a device that drives an individual guitar string into a cycle of feedback where it sustains with increasing volume until the device is moved away from the string. As the name implies it, it can mimic the sound of a bowed instrument, but that increasing volume feedback loop takes some finesse to manage. The secondary electric guitar line that emerges about halfway into the piece is a guitar feeding back with an amplifier, an even more chaotic effect. I was playing that part live in the main tracking session with bass, drums, and keyboards and was trying to get to the feedback “spot” with the guitar, but mics and other stuff were in the way, and it wasn’t until the track was nearly over that I finally got it to howl properly. And so, I was “hunting monsters” during the main tracking session for recording this piece.
This guitar D string is about to find out how bumblebees fly
There are still questions left to examine on the role of the arts, and more Parlando Project expressions of music meeting up with words to be posted here in the upcoming months. If you would like to be notified about these new pieces when they are posted, you can click the little orange “RSS – Posts” icon down on the right side of this post. To hear the LYL Band perform “Artists Hunting Monsters”, use the player you should see just below.
Today’s post returns to the issue we touched on last month with “Acting.” What is an artist’s proper role regarding politics and social issues? And why do artists who engage in politics draw especial condemnation for doing so?
This may be the wrong question. Does anyone ask, what’s the proper role of a lawyer, real estate tycoon, school teacher, doctor or fry cook in politics? None that I’ve heard of lately. My working answer to this possibly disingenuous question is going to be long, so if you can, bear with me.
Probably the only other profession that has its participation in politics questioned in any way would be clergy, and I think there are a pair of oddly similar issues with artists and clergy speaking on politics.
Artists, at least good ones, by their nature tend to be “progressives.” Please, if you can, skip by any associated political stances you attach to that label, it’s honestly the best word I could come up with. By “progressives,” I mean that artists naturally seek change, novelty, and the advancement of new ideas even if they are built on older ones. Scientists and technologists have a similar bent, but artists like to think of themselves as ahead of even the sciences in this regard. Religious leaders, teachers, preachers, tend to be “conservative.” Please apply the same caution to that word as I asked for “progressives.” By conservative, I mean that they see the values in cultural traditions as possibly being given by supernatural forces that are of a higher order than mere human thought, or at the very least, that traditions are time-tested in such a way that they need to be honored, and to extent that seems reasonable to them, for those traditions to remain unchanged.
Are there “conservative” artists. Yes, they are. It’s quite possible to be artistically progressive (important for good artistic work) and politically conservative. Shakespeare presents himself as conservative politically, but was a culture changing artist. And it’s easy for me to think of some 20th century artists who are not “conservative” but “reactionary,” Ezra Pound for one. Caution again, just a label, let me explain: I use reactionary as a label here to denote people who believe that some important elements have failed to have been conserved, and that change is necessary to return to that state or set of values that no longer effectively exist.
Are there religious “progressives.” Yes indeed. Remember that religious people overwhelmingly believe that certain values are given by superhuman forces, ones that exceed what humans themselves might honor. There has always been a large part of religious thought that says that mankind is “fallen” and so therefore is in constant need for change toward the good, a good that might never be properly illuminated by fallen human thought.
So for both our “conservative” label (clergy) and “progressive” label (artists) we’re talking associated tendencies, not absolute dictates. Humans are complicated after all; but I think that’s one thing that strangely joins concerns about artists and clergy in the political arena. Opponents to conservative clergy and progressive artists see these groups as respectively prejudiced, temperamentally oriented toward resistance to necessary change or moving toward too broad and untested change. In this outlook, their self-selected temperaments that lead to their professions blind them, and so they aren’t viewing things fairly or deeply enough because of who they are. One proof we can see in this is that it’s rare for conservatives to criticize conservative artists in politics, or for progressives to criticize religious leaders who champion progressive causes. The belief here would be that those who go against natural tendencies in their professions must be significantly immune to that issue of characteristic prejudice.
You might next think or ask: well doesn’t a fry cook or a real-estate tycoon have their own prejudices based on their livelihoods? What’s different about artists or clergy?
My answer to that moves to another thing those two professions have in common: they are both pretty much in the same business. When a religious leader gives a spell-binding sermon, or a writer moves us to tears, when a religious visionary tells us what the angels said to them, or the musician brings sounds together in a way that moves us, when the crowd rises as one, with one hosanna on their lips, does it matter here who is at the front of the house?
What is important to our question comes after these remarkably similar experiences. Are we in that crowd, and yet not moved to rise in praise like the others? Is there often a let-down, however vague and hard to explain afterward? A way in which we feel unworthy, a way in which we feel we thought we were changed and yet we are not changed? Do we ever feel tricked: fearing, or perhaps even knowing, that the artist or preacher has engineered this with the techniques of their craft, techniques that might work regardless of the content they convey?
Now what if the person at the front of the room is not an artist or a preacher, but a political figure? Don’t all the same things apply?
So all this is a prelude to a very short, yet puzzling piece, with words by William Butler Yeats: “On Being Asked for a War Poem.”
Why puzzling? Yeats is good example of an artist engaged both in spiritual concerns and politics. In the struggle for Irish independence, Yeats was a leader in the idea that Irish cultural independence as a pre-requisite for political independence. If skeptical of armed rebellion, Yeats consistently pushed for what eventually became the independent Republic of Ireland and he become a Senator after Irish independence. One of Yeats inspirations, Percy Bysshe Shelley had famously said “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Yeats in effect revised Shelley’s passage by striking “Unacknowledged!”
Couldn’t make it in the NBA, but an artist engaged in politics
What would you expect from such a man in regards the use of his art for political purposes? You’d guess he’d be all in. Well, he was asked, just like the title says. Edith Wharton asked for a poem from Yeats for book meant to raise funds for Belgian war victims during WWI, and this was his response, which indeed was printed and therefore served its charitable purpose. Here is the entire poem:
“I think it better that in times like these A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth We have no gift to set a statesman right; He has had enough of meddling who can please A young girl in the indolence of her youth, Or an old man upon a winter’s night.”
So why is Yeats seeming to refuse to put his artist’s shoulder to the wheel and write a “war poem,” as so many others did? Well first, Ireland’s position in WWI was complicated, as it was not yet independent. Ireland’s colonial ruler, England, was engaged. The ancient principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” might make an Irish nationalist (at the least) abstain from taking sides.
He goes beyond that however, on the face of it saying that a poet—“a poet,” unqualified, not “this poet,” or “given that I’m a colonial subject against my will, don’t ask me for poetry about your war.” Poets, he says, have “no gift to set the statesman right.”
I don’t know what was inside Yeats’ mind, nor am any kind of expert on his work, but in thinking about these things, about how the artist, the clergy, and at times that statesmen, are all in the same line of work; an alternative reading has come to me.
That pronoun “He” that starts the fifth line, why did Yeats not make the antecedent clear? Most readers believe that the “He,” the one who’s suited to pleasing an indolent young girl or an “old man upon a winter’s night”—that last, a character who could be that frightened and lonely farmer in Frost’s poem we recently featured here—is the poet, or a poet performing his rightful role. If so, it’s a surprisingly modest, even dismissive, statement of a poet’s worth. However, the last noun before that pronoun “He” isn’t the poet, it’s the “statesmen.” English syntax rules indicate that “statesmen” could likely be the “He.” If I write “Frank went to a Minnesota Timberwolves basketball game, saw Karl Anthony Towns, and he scored 42 points.” We know that I couldn’t score 42 points, even in an empty gym, not because of my athletic ineptitude, but because we usually think the pronoun refers to the last applicable noun before it.
Not the author of this post, but he can play some ball
So did Yeats slyly mean to say that a statesman, like the poet, like the artist in general, is engaged in the same game, fooling the youth and the feeble old?
I have more to say about artists with political opinions in the upcoming week, but to hear the LYL Band and William Butler Yeats “On Being Asked for a War Poem” use the player below.
Today’s post, as I’m reminded specifically today about the clergy and political action by his life, is dedicated to Lester Moore, the father of Dave Moore. You’ve heard Dave reading and playing keyboards here (including the various keyboards in today’s piece).