And Thus in Nineveh

Here’s more of our “Before they were Modernists” series, another by Ezra Pound from his 1908 pre-Imagist collection A Lume Spento.  “And Thus in Nineveh”  is a curious short poem, kind of a humble brag where the speaker starts right out saying “I am a poet” but then goes on to assess that craft in a mixed manner.

In the following lines the poem’s speaker, perhaps Pound himself at this point in his young life, takes the personae of a poet in the ancient middle eastern city of Nineveh and makes these claims:

Poetry does not belong to the speaker. I at first took this as a reference to poetry being inspired by the muses, where the poet’s job is as an attentive transmitter of that, but on further reflection I think he’s claiming more that to be a poet is a sort of civic job.

The populace’s attention to poetry is mixed. They will celebrate a poet at their death, they seem to sort of expect poetry to be around, even plentiful, but in the auditorium where poetry is sung, they might just doze off.

Love-among-the-ruins-Sir-Edward-Burne-Jones

“Surely someday the citizens of Nineveh will recognize the sublime beauty of your ironic yet rootsy banjo sonatas.”

 

Other poets are judged to some degree to be better than our speaker. The poet’s humble-brag makes a show of agreeing with that, those better poets are more subtle (perhaps not as vigorous and direct?) and their song has a “wind of flowers” (literally, flowery, all fragrance and filigree?) while our poet’s work is “wave-worn” (sturdy and long-tested).

And in a final claim, the poet says that the reason he’ll be remembered in the end is that his poetry is more full of life and experience than those “better” poets.

In summary, the poem claims that the true poet, or at least Pound’s expectations of himself at this point early in his career, has a calling, a job he’s been asked to do by a culture that may not consistently pay attention to his efforts. If he perseveres, he will only get his due appreciation at death when his efforts will be summed up.

The language is deliberately archaic again (Pound is still under the pull of the Pre-Raphaelites) and it’s distanced in another way by being set in the exotic Middle East, quite possibly in ancient times. This too may be part of the Pre-Raphaelite influence: Middle Eastern scenes and Biblical stories were a common subject for the painters in that movement. Why were the two particular proper names chosen? I’m not sure. Nineveh is legendary as an ancient city, but not the only choice there. I thought of Nineveh as the city that the Biblical prophet Jonah was supposed to go and speak to when he chickens-out and whale-belly-ins. If Pound thought of that too, then it could be more subtext for the idea that that poet personae should persist in heeding his calling. Raama is also a name mentioned in the Bible.

Jonah leaving the whale by jan bruegel

“You using prophets for bait? I’ve been having good luck with leaches, I’ll stick with those.”

 

I myself went through a period in my youth when I elevated the writer’s profession into something between prophet and preacher. That has a clarity, a purity, that is far too simple. However earnest and self-aware Pound was when he wrote this, what attracted me to it now much later in my life was the idea implied in the middle of the poem: that art’s job is asked for by a culture that knows somehow its value while commonly forgetting that.

Maybe there’s a new level in the final couplet of today’s poem? By persisting in working on art we are as deluded as an intoxicated person, we see our work through “beer goggles,” and all possibilities look more beautiful then, than in the cold light of day. We “drink of life as lesser men drink wine.”

Foolish? Well, so be it. This is the fool we choose to be.

 

The musical setting today is a languid mix of guitars, fretless bass, and vibraphone. The player to hear my performance of Pound’s “And Thus in Nineveh”  is below. The full text of the poem can be found here.

 

In the Bleak Midwinter

Tomorrow is Christmas, a holiday that in the English-speaking world owes a lot to the English Victorians in conception, which gives me an excuse to present once again the words of the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, this time in the guise of her popular and explicitly Christian-religious Christmas song “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Burne-Jones' Nativity

“You could have brought a casserole.” Victorian painter Edward Burne-Jones’ nativity.
Is it just me, or is Mary looking a little non-plussed by all the visitors?

 

The song used for Rossetti’s words seems to be attributed to Gustav Holst, a composer who is best known to me for his orchestral suite “The Planets,”  which has been admired or borrowed from by both Frank Zappa and King Crimson. In my rush to complete this today I can’t say that I’ve done as much justice to his tune, though I used a rough approximation of it.

The tune is quite pretty, and it makes it a fine solo for any good singer, which therefore makes it a challenge for me, so I’ve resorted to my usual parlando. On the other hand, a great many versions of this song in hymn books and elsewhere seem to have modified Christina Rossetti’s words, changing terms and phrases, even dropping some stanzas, where I’ve been faithful to them. I don’t have my usual time today to research why this would be. The meter of her original text is slightly irregular, and so it may have been modified for better singability or for audience reasons.

Botticelli's Mystic Nativity

Botticelli’s “Mystic Nativity.” Painted before the career of Raphael
So literally, a first-order “Pre-Raphaelite”

 

Rossetti’s approach makes use of her characteristic modesty in approaching religious subjects, with some lovely lines in the first verse picturing our northern Midwinter, and then going on to describe the stable setting, and the supernatural surrounding sentimental maternity and spiritual imminence.

Musically, I tried to compensate for my speaking the words by unleashing my bass playing. Like some gifts you may get this Christmas, it may not be the right size or color—but it was given in a good spirit at least.

To un-wrap it, use the player below.

 

Somewhere or Other

Today’s audio piece is another by Christina Rossetti, connected through family with the Victorian art and literary movement that called itself the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In their painting and artwork, the Pre-Raphaelites often appeal to me. The paintings sometimes have a stunning, oversaturated palette; and they are fond of symbolic and esoteric subjects which fill the paintings with interesting details.

John Melhuish Strudwick  When Apples Were Golden and Songs Were Sweet

Eb Bb , Ab Eb , then Fm Fsus4 Fm, and Ab Eb Ebsus4 Eb—flat keys are murder
on guitar, just so Frank can play simple black key stuff on keyboards

Many associated with the PRB wrote poetry as well, but when I’ve gone looking for pieces I can present as part of the Parlando Project, the brothers in the brotherhood just didn’t do much for me. Surprisingly, the poet who did was Christina Rossetti.  I don’t recall if she was even included in the “New Criticism” curated English literature anthologies of my school-age youth. She isn’t a poet with a lot of flash and filigree. A poem like today’s has not a single arresting image, and its language is simple too.  Using the criteria of the Modernists who came to dominate the assessment of poetry in the 20th Century, this poem should have nothing to recommend it.

So, what does it have or do, why did I bother to write some music for it and perform it for you?   Well, first it has a refreshing modesty of expression. This is a song of longing from first to last, a universal human experience. And the subject of the longing, is it for an earthly partner, the age-old “when will the right one come along” wish? Or is it for an otherworldly, completing partner, a presence beyond the moon and stars? Despite Rossetti’s homey words, it could be either, and the alteration of “near or far” with “far or near” in the 2nd and 3rd verses encourages us to see it both ways.

If one must choose which supposition, I lean to the spiritual object, and if so, the image, such as it is, if off-screen here: earthly love may stand for the longing for religious meaning and connection. The last couplet, the dying leaves falling on “turf grown green” is strangely incoherent, and it reminds me of some of images or rebirth and salvation in British folklore, leading me that way.

But if could also be a song of simple earthly longing for a suitable partner. Adding music to Rossetti’s “Something or Other”  both adds decoration to the simple words and allows the listener to relax in that ambiguity without a need for an immediate conclusion.

John Melhuish Strudwick - Saint Cecilia

See, E flat is so easy on piano, even saints can play it.
Both of today’s paintings are by  Pre-Raphaelite John Melhuish Strudwick

 

Today’s music for Rossetti’s poem combines acoustic guitar with some cello and strings integrated with a couple of piano parts in the background. It’s another short one, so go ahead and use  the player below to listen to it.

 

 

Love Is Enough

I drove to Des Moines Iowa this past weekend for a wedding of a niece. The reception was in a tap room attached to a small indie brewery. My 12-year-old son asked “Why is it in a brewery?”

I asked my son if he knew what a hipster was. “Yes, it’s someone who always needs to have the latest iPhone the day it is released.” My son likes to remind me that he is not  a millennial, and that he will have no truck with their ways.

I laughed and said that it’s more than that though. I tried my best to explain, doing badly, as I usually do when speaking. What I was aiming to say was that hipsters are interested in things that are different and off-beat, that in doing so they often revive things from the past and redo them in the now different context of the present. This kind of rebellion against the too-ordinary incumbent culture eventually changes the culture, remaking cities and what they offer. “When I was a kid and went to Des Moines, there were no small breweries serving their own beer, or restaurants that serve those Asian noodles like you like. Instead I’d get to go to Bishop’s Cafeteria.”

“What did you like about Bishop’s?” my wife asked.

“I liked that you could choose your own desert. Usually something with whipped cream on top.”

Des Moines Early 60s

News from Nowhere: Des Moines dreams of hipsters to come. Shop at Younkers, eat at Bishop’s.

Now that isn’t a complete explanation of what a hipster is either. Nor does it tell how hipsters are seen and labeled by others, or that to call someone a hipster generally has a negative connotation. If you want a hyper-precise definition with lots of reasons to be wary of being called a hipster you can read one here.

Every cultural change movement like this gets made fun of, and provides lots of rich examples of foolishness. And unlike frankly political change movements which often generate mutual veneration between generations, many cultural rebels see the next generation of young novelty seekers as a bad, devolved outcome; while the young often find and fix their cultural novelty in rejecting the enthusiasms of their immediate predecessors. Can anyone be sure that hipsters are any more or less authentic than punks, hippies, beatniks, or swing era hepcats and so on? I can’t. Is some rampant cultural appropriation going on? Yes, and that has its foolish and even harmful side-effects for all these cultural movements—but are their benefits as well? I believe there are, and anyway, rigidly contained cultural silos seem stifling.

This rejection of immediate predecessors, doesn’t mean an inevitable total rejection of the past. Small breweries were common in America a century ago. Beards, mustaches, fedoras—the clichéd markers of the male hipster, all are revivals of past fashions.

Remember with the Christina Rossetti poem last month. I mentioned her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s boys club “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood?” Formed by art students, they signed their paintings with a “PRB” as secret tag for their movement. They hated the classical art and design standards of their day, and even though they were living in the original Steam Punk era, instead of fetishizing brass, well-oiled gear trains, and leather, they propagated their love for Medieval art and hand-made crafts.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Ford Madox Brown 1867

Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Can he interest you in some beard oil?

Sound familiar? The Pre-Raphaelites seem to me to be late 19th Century versions of early 21st Century hipsters. If they were ironically enjoying Midwest beer in a can, would they have signed their paintings “PBR”?

Today’s audio piece is William Morris’ “Love Is Enough.”  Morris was intimately connected with the Pre-Raphaelites. Like them, he was fascinated with Medieval art and culture, but he was a man with many interests—many more than I can touch on this time—including writing influential fantasy and speculative fiction. In that vein, we’re going to time-travel the Englishman William Morris like we did with Americans Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, so that this 19th century poet can sing a nugget of garage band blues with the LYL Band.

Watts painting of William Morris

William Morris fading into the wallpaper. He did just about everything but start a brew pub.

This one is a good song for a wedding and for lovers. To hear “Love Is Enough”  use the player gadget below.