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.
Check out the high school graduate in far right middle row. Yup, that’s Langston Hughes.
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.
This project’s subtitle Where Music and Words Meet portrays its interest in the ways words, mostly poetry, might interact with music. How that works varies. I use different kinds of poetry, and different ways to combine those words with the music written for this project.
Song lyric writers, who intend their words to be sung from the git-go usually rhyme their lines, and most song lyrics are at least roughly metrical. That practice has continued even as free-verse without regular rhyme and strict rhythm became a substantial portion of literary poetry written for the page.
None-the-less, I find it’s often easier than you might think to sing free-verse. Here’s the text of today’s piece for our celebration of #NationalPoetryMonth: “Branches,” by one of this project’s favorites, Carl Sandburg:
The long beautiful night of the wind and rain in April,
The long night hanging down from the drooping branches of the top of a birch tree,
Swinging, swaying, to the wind for a partner, to the rain for a partner.
What is the humming, swishing thing they sing in the morning now?
The rain, the wind, the swishing whispers of the long slim curve so little and so dark on the western morning sky … these dancing girls here on an April early morning …
They have had a long cool beautiful night of it with their partners learning this year’s song of April.
One thing I notice right away that lets this take to singing: it’s ecstatic. Some of the sections of what has been our April National Poetry Month staple for the past few years, Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” are hard to cast into singing — even though that poem as a whole is very musical with its repetition and its outright references to musical pieces. Parts of “The Waste Land” use mundane dialog purposefully, and it’s difficult to sing that sort of thing without transforming its nature. “Branches” too uses repetition, along with sound-tricks like words that sound like what they are describing (swishing sounds like the word “swishing” for example). Repetition can stand-in for rhyme to some degree. Free-verse irregularity of lines is less of a problem than it might seem. Music is fully capable of filling in spaces where syllables aren’t, and it can be made comfortable too with melodic lines of various lengths.
Carl Sandburg himself is an interesting combination of words and music. Besides his early and vital contributions to American Modernist poetry, he was also an important collector and popularizer of American folk song both by playing and singing those songs himself, and by the 1927 publication of his significant early anthology of them The American Songbag. I haven’t quite nailed down just how important he was in those matters, but I think it’s possible that without Carl Sandburg there’d be no Woody Guthrie as he was, and going forward from that, no Bob Dylan as he was and is.
When performing them, Sandburg accompanied those folk songs himself with guitar
I’m not alone in liking to set Sandburg to music, though I’m not aware that Sandburg himself ever did, oddly enough. I perform his “Branches” today with just acoustic guitar, nothing fancy, just as Sandburg himself could have. The player gadget to hear me perform it is below, or if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlink will play it too.
How do we determine what a poem is on about? That this should be a question is a reason many flee poetry. Plainspoken poems still exist, and some poets manage to pull off the technique where there’s an easily accessible layer, and then on further consideration, deeper ones beckoning beneath. But the plainspoken poems are not always honored in the school anthologies that introduce growing minds to the art; and too many when introduced to deeper readings fall away from poetry thinking that either they “just don’t get it” or that those pointing out these subtleties are hallucinating angels and cows in cloud forms.
Even a poet like Robert Frost who was able to pull off that trick of relatable surface and deeper, more complicated undercurrents, must suffer from party boors like myself reminding trapped conversation subjects that “The Road Not Taken” is about the over-consideration of choice not the necessity of stalwart individualism. Damn, the listener thinks, looking for an out, “I thought I had a poem, my poem, and now this fellow is saying one or the other of us is an idiot or a fool.”
There’s another route, another signpost that may help, one couched in the informal phrase “Where are you coming from?” Given that literature in our age has been to a large degree taken over by memoir,* we may employ this tactic as readers or listeners. In this frame, poets are about their lives, and in an even more contained sense, about the important facts of their lives: a trauma, a struggle, a novel life story.
So, I promised I’d get to Rainer Maria Rilke. Last month I started to translate his poem “Before Summer Rain” from the original German. I sometimes do my translations before reading existing English ones. I’m not sure if that is a good idea, but I like the surprise of a poem coming into view for the first time as I work out the language. I finished a draft of it, and then found two or three other English translations in short order.
My “Before Summer Rain” that I could view when this draft was done was a fairly light, fairly clever nature poem about the onset of a thunderstorm. Summer, leaves are all green—then sunlight, perhaps even the chromatic range of the light’s color, takes on a new cast. A bird calls, but we sense it more as a warning omen or a call for others of its species as the storm brews. Inside the house, sunlight no longer illuminates things. Will it storm or will it not quite reach ignition and fade off? A few drops or a deluge? The poem ends.
Right away I doubted my translation in light of the others. I didn’t get the picture entirely wrong, but a couple of significant details diverged, ones that seemed to take the poem elsewhere. Here’s a link to the most common English translation I found. The translation is by Edward Snow, though almost none of the Internet sites that use his work credit him. Snow published his translation in 1991. He’s an award-winning translator who concentrates on Rilke’s poetry—plenty of reasons to respect Snow’s authority on the accuracy of his Rilke. Other than our differing attempts to make compelling English poetry from Rilke’s German, here are the two things that stuck out.
The end of Rilke’s German line “man denkt an einen Hieronymus” (literal: “one thinks of a Hieronymus”) is in Snow’s, and I think every other English translation I found, translated as “St. Jerome.” This indicates strongly that is how the word would be understood in German, and Hieronymus is the Greek version of the name Jerome. This may be problematic for the poem, however. Assuming that the more knowledgeable translators are correct, this leaves many readers in the dark. What the hell does St. Jerome have to do with this reasonably vivid and non-allusive description of an oncoming storm?** In my first complete draft I thought it better to leave it Greek, which would be mysterious in a more mysterious as opposed to a “what the…” way. My second choice, the one I used by the time of my performance, was to use the literal translation of the name from Greek: “sacred name.” This increases an immediate sense of the moment being described by Rilke. The bird’s call is so urgent, so important, that the sacred is invoked.
OK, if I’m going to worry about a single word, what next? The concluding two lines of Rilke’s poem in German are: “das ungewisse Licht von Nachmittagen, / in denen man sich fürchtete als Kind.” (literal: “the uncertain light of afternoons, / in which one was afraid as a child.” Snow renders these as “the chill, uncertain sunlight of those long / childhood hours when you were so afraid.” I had a completely different sense in my draft, that it was still the external object, the changing light of the summer afternoon threatening to storm, that was being depicted. In poetry the observer, the poem’s speaker, and the object may often be merged, but Snow says this is not just an oncoming storm, this is a trigger of something darker than even that. Snow seems to add “chill,” which I can’t find in Rilke’s German, to intensify that sense.
I had read the poems mood as mostly light, mostly clever. Snow had read it, I think, as darker, more chilling. A day or so later I started to think. Did Rilke suffer some kind of childhood abuse?
And so, just in trying to do a translation, trying to figure out what a poem was on about—so that I could bring you an audio performance of a piece that otherwise wouldn’t exist, I found myself thinking I had two roads: throw out my attempt at translation as a misleading embarrassment, or dig more into Rilke’s life.
Turns out I knew even less than I thought. I had this sense of a lean, sickly, aesthete melding art and spirituality, a purist willing to risk lyrical excess. In looking at the highlights of Rilke’s life, it’s stranger than that. I began to think Midwesterner Don Marquis would have made of Rilke something of his poet character Fothergil Finch in his Hermoine and Her Little Group of Serious Thinkers satire. But Rilke’s childhood did have elements that we, and he, might view as abusive.
Rilke age 4 dressed by a mom who missed a dead daughter, and Rilke age 11 sent off to military school to butch-up by his dad. Yes, 19th century children’s clothes are a different sensibility, and some kids respond to a disciplined and regimented life. Rilke didn’t seem to, and his teen years in the school were not good, clashing with the other students who were more into it.
And so I concluded, I needed to revise my translation or abandon it.
Then yesterday I had a chance to record with acoustic guitar, and I grabbed a few things that might work presented that way. I thought, “Before Summer Rain” needs revised words, but maybe I can compose the music while I’m at it, and I could record the revised words later.
The tune came fast. The chord progression has similarities to a strain used in Ray Davies Kinks’ song “Rainy Day in June” (another song about sudden summer rain), but given that I had access to a quiet room where I could record acoustically, I decided I’d go all the way and use an even quieter nylon-string guitar available there.
Nylon-string guitar might bring various things to mind: “classical guitar,” Willie Nelson, Latin American music. I’ll often associate it with two things: learning to play guitar on a J C Penny’s nylon string guitar in my youth, and the early albums of Leonard Cohen where Cohen would play his “one lick” effectively on nylon string guitar. Testing the melody against the existing words, I recorded a couple of takes, while trying to reacquaint myself with the different sound of nylon strings.
There, with live mics and the recorder running, I realized I had already written the translation that could bring out the personal darkness, the undercurrents of childhood abuse, with my version of Rilke’s words. It was simply a matter of performance.
You can hear the performance below with the player gadget.
*I don’t object to this except to the degree that as a contrarian by sensibility, I don’t want any mode or approach to become so predominant without at least asking what else could be done. This is part of the reason that this project has been focused on “Other People’s Stories” and isn’t as much about a personal journey (though those elements can’t be avoided).
**Wikipedia’s entry for St. Jerome, who I only knew as the man credited for translating the Bible into Latin (then the common language of educated Europeans) includes an anecdote about the guilt-ridden Jerry after a night of too much party trying to atone by visiting Rome’s dark catacombs to commune with the decaying bodies of apostles and martyrs. Major goth points, and possibly even a reason why he might be mentioned in Rilke’s poem. But how well is this known? I also find it odd that the German to English literal has it “a St. Jerome” if we remove the Greek. Was St. Jerome enough of a big deal meme-wise that you could refer to him as a type, like calling someone “a Judas?”
I love me some early short-form Carl Sandburg. Oh, I can enjoy him in his lengthy Whitmanesque catalog mode and I surely appreciate his too little recognized work in forging what we more recently call Americana, but in much of his early work he’s writing in a mode that people often forget. It’s similar to some of the other early Modernists before the High Modernist style absorbed that revolution and used it to make a complex and literary bureaucracy of allusions and images that were more showy and complex on the surface.
If you have a moment, look at “Monotone,” a nine-line poem, linked here. How easy it would be to overlook this poem. There’s no exotic words or settings, and the images seem to risk falling into the banal. What’s there? A rainfall, a sunrise and a sunset. If most of us were to put those as the major images in a poem, our poems would likely fail to seem unique in any worthwhile way, or we’d stress and strain to make them unique. I myself might reach for the surreal or the odd detail because I would think I was otherwise making a poem with no worthwhile freshness. And perhaps Sandburg fails in that way for some readers here. What is he risking that failure to convey?
In these nine lines he wants to write a love poem of the least common kind. Poems of desire, poems of the kind of overthrow of the senses and proportion that new love brings, poems of enchantment with possibility—those are legion. And they’re worthwhile. Love and desire, like other visionary states, illuminate things we are otherwise unable to believe. Some of those things are true and some are false, some are the painful disguised as beautiful. They proclaim for us to give ourselves and give up ourselves.
Sandburg’s “Monotone” isn’t that. It’s a lyric poem of a long-time relationship. Even its title dares to be unexciting. Monotone word-wise is near enough to monotony, and musically who would be attracted to a piece that claims that as its title?
The poem’s opening image makes an argument for musical monotone. A rainstorm has no melodic invention, but if listened to without seeking that quality and being disappointed that it lacks this, it has dynamics of volume and rhythm. Listen to what’s there, not to what’s missing the first stanza asks of us, and we’ll find the “multitudinous rain.” This is not a showy stanza, but since multitudinous is by far the least common word in the poem, that one ornament stands out all the more. Even if one remembers only those two words “multitudinous rain,” one can carry it with ourselves and experience rain in new ways while thinking on that phrase on some grey and otherwise unappealing day.
Is the second stanza banal? If you think so I can’t give you an argument that’ll refute you. Yes, the sun on the hills is beautiful, and sunset over seas too. Thank you very much Carl Obvious Sandburg, but why have you wasted our time with those three lines about what everyone has already noticed. What value might they have? Well, for one they are common. Carl Sandburg is fully baptized in the belief of a common humanity, so the fact that he states what we all know isn’t quite the sin that another artist might abhor. What Sandburg does with these commonplaces is to let us know there’s something we still don’t know about them, even when we think they’re too prosaic to have anything yet to perceive. In those few words in the second three-line stanza there is the notion that the sunset (precious, golden fire) is captured by the cold sea. So easy to overlook if we read it like a prose paragraph, assuming only quick utility. If one had to translate this from a foreign language, if this was written in Chinese ideograms, perhaps we’d slow down and see this. The beautiful in the guise of the desired, is captured, is quenched, rises and sets.
Now the third, three-line stanza concludes this book of changes, bringing synthesis to the previous two. Beholding one’s long-time partner, one sees the multitudinous monotone rain and the moments of passion or anger, unease or loss, joined. With the “Monotone” title at the head and the ending line I read that sunny mountain scene and picture postcard sea-sunset of the second stanza as being measured against a rarer and more precious multitudinous rain of long-love.
With this simple concise expression of a complex feeling, the poem requests you to see that. In 1916 when this was published in Sandburg’s Chicago Poems its very simplicity was still audacious, and that itself made the case for this poem. In a generation or so it would seem to not be trying hard enough to capture our attention. While poetry was free to leave strict meter and reliable rhyme schemes behind, it had returned to an aesthetic of surface complexity equaling merit.
Espoused. Carl and Lillian Sandburg around the time “Monotone” was published. Photograph by Lillian’s brother, the photographer Edward Steichen. Earlier, inn 1908 Sandburg wrote “I would rather be a poem like you than write poems,” but we got the multitudinous rain of his poetry anyway.
A few words on the musical setting before I remind you that you can click on the player gadget to hear my performance of Sandburg’s “Monotone.” As I composed this I was concentrating more on timbre and less on melody. The dominant keyboard sound in the piece is a complex combination of a grand piano with every bit of string resonance brought forward, an electric piano, and a keyboard piano bass (that last a sound mostly known from Ray Manzarek’s playing with the Doors). It’s kind of the idea of the “Hard Day’s Night” chord being used throughout the piece. this is another composition where it would probably be better if I wasn’t the vocalist who sings it, but that’s who I have available. Listen to it with the gadget below.
As we were going to school this morning, my son and I were listening to reports from the South by Southwest event in Austin this week. The guy on the radio was explaining that while SXSW has broadened over the years, it’s still the place to go for Alternative Music.
“I wonder where you go if you’re looking for an alternative to Alternative Music?” I asked out-loud. Not the most original thought, but I’ve never liked labels even though we all use them.
My son—who’s reminded me for several years now that he is not a Millennial—replied “Well, I only listen to lowercase!”
Proud of that boy.
Well of course, Alternative Music or Indie music, or whatever you call it isn’t really a Millennial thing. It’s more of an outgrowth of Generation X* in the last century. And that in itself was just the next name stuck on whatever Dave and I were doing 40 years ago when someone thought Punk was the label. And then, scratch-off the sticky paper from a Punk from those days and most likely you’d find someone who was once a young Hippie. And Hippies were just kids that Beats thought hadn’t wised up yet.
I don’t know all that much of what Ezra Pound thought of the Beats, but I recall in the 1950s Allen Ginsberg wrote Pound in St. Elizabeth’s hospital where he was serving his commitment as crazy, the alternative to his prison cage for WWII treason.** Ginsberg later met him in 1967 and Pound sorta-kinda apologized for the—you know, anti-Semitism and stuff.
But back in 1913, before either world war, Pound was trying to figure out modern poetry in English. If it would be, what it should be. He had some materials to reuse: medieval vernacular poetry, classical Chinese and Japanese poetry, some of the modern French poets, and he wasn’t the only smith at the poetry-forge either, Brits T. E. Hulme and F. S. Flint were working at this too.
Late 19th Century English poetry tended to be enwrought in the cloths of heaven, lofty abstract metaphors and repetitions of what were considered the usual Romantic poetic sentiments. Those poems sounded poetic, sure, but were they? But if so much of that was thrown out, what would be left, what could replace that?
In such a mood, in such preparation, Ezra Pound stepped out of a subway station in Paris. Something in the urban crowd he saw there struck him and he wrote a modest 30-line poem that is unknown to you and me. Pound did not like his 30-line poem. It may have sounded poetic, it may have looked poetic, but it seemed false. He wrung out the false and the result was two lines, the famous Imagist poem “In a Station of the Metro” that begins “The apparition of these faces…”
Ah dude, nice marmot! The young Ezra Pound
I’ve used an excerpt of an account that Pound published three years later about his experience and aims in creating “In a Station of the Metro” to begin today’s audio piece. I sometimes think of Pound as gruff, inward looking, full of unusual words and quotes from various languages I do not speak, a portrayal of a learned hermit that both of us want to leave alone. But if I’m to take him at his word as he tells this story, he is the transit-riding 20-something Pound, struck by ordinary daily beauty and not wanting to betray it with ordinary poetry.
What do the 14 words of “In a Station of the Metro” tell us? It’s spring—for tree blossoms, like Meng Haoran’s famous short Chinese poem, are the central image. Perhaps there’s been a rain-shower while Pound was in the subway. He climbs up the stairs and unexpectedly the faces in the street are not cast down out of the no-longer rain. Perhaps the sun is peeking through. They are beautiful without saying, as blossom flowers are. As blossom flowers are, some would have been knocked down by rain, some nourished, and none will be even spring-forever.
To hear my performance of Pound’s account of how he came to write it, followed by the poem itself, use the player below.
**Pound had remained in Italy where he had settled before WWII. Enamored of various esoteric theories he thought congruent with Italian Fascism, he recorded radio broadcasts which were characterized as propaganda for the enemy during the war. Captured after the fall of Mussolini, he was at first imprisoned as a traitor in an outdoor cage.
It would seem odd to us now, but when Emily Dickinson died, her most noted accomplishment was not her poems, but her plants. She was a serious gardener, known to her family, neighbors, and town for cultivating her plants even at night (which was also her customary writing time).
and often included flowers with her letters and privately distributed poems
There’s a lot of comparisons to be made there, that her poems are like flowers, pretty at first sight, but with their own alien structures, but I’ll leave that for now so that I can move on to today’s piece “I Know a Place Where Summer Strives.”
This is a poem that fits well with the Parlando Project’s tactics of combining poems with music, because it’s a poem that uses puzzles to tell its story. When you combine a puzzling lyric with music you can let those words ride along without requiring them to be immediately meaningful, as otherwise poems that go out of their way to be puzzling can frustrate readers not in the mood for non-straightforward speech.
I enjoyed “I Know a Place Where Summer Strives” before I had solved its puzzles. As usual, Dickinson doesn’t belabor her subject, just three stanzas and 12 lines, a nice dosage for puzzlement. The poem’s internal music flows nicely, and Dickinson’s use of unusual word choices in the final stanza adds decoration to the mysteries. After reading it a few times, writing the music for it, performing it with the LYL Band, and then mixing the recording available below, I have finally gotten around to trying to solve the riddles.
The first verse/riddle is a particularly cold spring, with “practiced frost” taking casualties among early blooming flowers. The second verse/riddle is a description of a building storm, which turns out not to be destructive, it brings “soft (ref)rains.” The third verse/riddle is more obscure yet, but the rain falls onto the hardened, adamant, ground. The last two lines of this verse are lovely to read and hear, but I couldn’t make any sense from them. At first thought I, like blogger Susan Kornfeld, wondered if this was a late-fall time image, and the quartz was ice forming on amber leaves—but then I noticed that the third verse clearly appears to be carrying forward the sentence and thought from the second verse, so it can’t be winter’s arrival: south wind, rain—that doesn’t sound like winter arriving.
Blogger Linda Sue Grimes suggests a solution, that the amber is mud on the shoe. This makes sense, and it could logically follow the rain on adamant hard ground, which could even be light yellowish, amber-colored, clay and not good dark garden soil, but I still am puzzled by the quartz. The line here is especially lovely: “That stiffens quietly to quartz” resonating with the “qu” “zee” and at “t” sounds, but I don’t think Dickinson cheated just to get the sound. Quartz can be brown like mud, though that’s not how I think of it, but its name and the modifier “stiffens” indicates this is something crystalline—not gooey, caked mud.
In performance I decided, intuitively, to repeat the first verse; and in so doing, I bring back the cyclical end of summer to close things.
Michael Stipe when he was Gardening at Night.
Coincidentally, both he and the Parlando Project are in some part inspired by Patti Smith
When I read that Dickinson’s gardening extended even to nighttime work, I recalled the song from R.E.M.’s first EP, “Gardening at Night.” Michael Stipe’s early lyrics, are far more abstract than riddles, reading to me like abbreviated captions to blurry photos. A set of lines like:
We ankled up the garbage sound,
but they were busy in the rows.
We fell up not to see the sun,
gardening at night just didn’t grow.
Are as obscure as any poem, but I could, and still can, enjoy R.E.M. songs like that one. Stipe sincerely sang his own meanings, and he had a great band around him that supplied the music that lets the meaning ride.
To hear the LYL Band performance of “I Know a Place Where Summer Strives” you can use the player that appears below. Musically, you might find it to be vaguely R.E.M.-like too.
Writers often like to compose their written works in their heads while walking, and poets, all the more so. It seems natural—the walking footsteps and the metrical foot compare apace.
I too have done this; and with poetry in particular, composing lines while away from any paper or screen may also help winnow out the more memorable flow from forgettable stumbles. But my old joints now rebel more at morning walks, and my later day is filled with daily work on the Parlando Project and the mundane tasks of living.
My solution to this is that great 19th Century invention: the bicycle. In wheeled weightlessness, I am able to roll along through nature and the city morning’s opening scenes: the gloved gardeners, the obedient dog owners, the students at their stops, the hopeful sidewalk joggers, the babies held crooked in the left arm as the right sweeps the straps from the child car seat. I do this in all weather, rain and snow included, not wanting to miss one act of the theater of the seasons.
Can you fit #npm17 and #30daysofbiking into one post? Sure.
It’s April, the National Poetry Month in this country, and I ride in the experience of that Chinese birdsong that Du Fu and Meng Haoran heard once and I hear now, and I know that the birds need no translation. One Sunday dawn, as rain threatened, the sun shined through the clouds as if they were translucent filters. The steeples of the churches and peaks of houses, illuminated thus, were indeed rose and violet as Emily Dickinson promised to tell us.
April isn’t just #npm17, it’s also serving up #30daysofbiking, and with the two in the same month I’ve said, “Emily Dickinson should have gotten a bicycle!” She could have maintained her thoughts’ enclosure, pedaled surely between the skeptics and the believers, and served her self-reliance within a somewhat broader world. Alas, she was just a bit too early for the modern bicycle—but it was close. Her mid-life “preceptor” Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a proponent of the bicycle and of women bicycling. Higginson, speaking about one of the early long-distance cyclists said:
“We found that modern mechanical invention, instead of disenchanting the universe, had really afforded the means of exploring its marvels the more surely. Instead of going round the world with a rifle, for the purpose of killing something – or with a bundle of tracts, in order to convert somebody – this bold youth simply went round the globe to see the people who were on it.”
Higginson, although speaking about my chosen ride, the acoustic motorcycle, seemed to be foreshadowing Robert Pirsig there.
A soul selects her own velocipede
Once more, a long preface to a short piece today. When I started the Parlando Project I thought I’d avoid that. Is another reason that April is National Poetry Month from the nursery rhyme “April showers/Bring May flowers?” Today’s piece “What Is It the Rain Dissolves” was written on a bicycle on a morning ride in a light rain. I passed two kids trying to master skateboards and later a woman coming the other way on her bicycle, arms bare except for some elaborate tattoos.
Emily, is that you?
To hear the LYL Band perform the song “What Is It the Rain Dissolves” use the player below.
Imagine a world where what you thought was poetry was entirely different. A world where short poems could be as celebrated as longer literary works. A world where the most admired poems could be clear as can be about what is happening in the poem (the poem’s plot) with no elaborate obfuscation in the language; and yet the meaning, the thought and feelings the author means to convey, may remain allusive enough that the poem’s meaning seems to change over time as your experience grows. Imagine a world where poems can seem to have no metaphors at all, poems that don’t so much interpret the book of nature, but seem to be a page from that book itself.
That’s what Chinese poetry seems like to me.
It’s a refreshing change from the Western canon. I can see why a grumpy modernist like Ezra Pound, who wanted to sweep away the rot of his culture, would find it influential. Or why the forefathers of the “beat generation” in the western United States looked further west than California for a way to apprehend reality on the page.
I’m no scholar of Chinese poetry. These are the feelings of someone who likes what he reads and finds lessons in translating it.
For today’s post, I’m going to go over how I work on these translations with the aim of stripping away the mystery. I’ll use a short poem by Tang Dynasty poet Meng Haoran “A Spring Morning.” It seems to be a good first task for Chinese translation, and the original poem is apparently known almost to the level of a nursery rhyme in Chinese.
Texas guitarist Billy Gibbons…whoops, no, this is Meng Haoran
I do not read Chinese, however, it’s now possible to find glosses of many poems literally translated from the original ideograms. Here’s what “A Spring Morning” looks like when each of its lines five characters is translated into an English word :
Spring sleep not wake dawn
Everywhere hear cry bird
Night come wind rain sound
Flower fall know how many
The first problem is there is no punctuation, nor anything like English syntax. Still that’s an interesting way to approach a poem, where in English we are often trying to find the word to fit our flow of thoughts and music, but in working from this gloss we have the words, or at least “a word,” but need to find the flow instead.
I decided to render the first line as: “I slept late this spring morning, awaking just after dawn.” keeping the season (spring) and the more specific time of past the daybreak moment. I added late, which is not in the glosses’ words, because I thought the poem needed some reason why past the dawn was significant when I connect it with the third line.
The second line required less thought: “From everywhere I hear birds calling out.” The main choice here was the word I’d use for the sound of the birds. “Cry” used in the gloss has connotations of sorrow in English (not always, for example “war cry”) and I didn’t want to tip my hand toward sorrow in this line. And in Spring I know these bird calls, they are in fact just that: birds calling out for potential mates, birds setting up their territories, birds that want to say something to other birds.
The third line I write as: “Last night I tossed and turned in the sound of the wind and the rain.” This gives a reason for why the poet slept late, adds a note of drama and, in a particularly personal choice I made, alludes to a traditional English song refrain “Oh no, the wind and the rain.”
Now the final line: “Who knows how many petals have fallen?” Here seeing other people’s English translations helped, as it otherwise might not be clear that this is a question. In a vacuum one might render this as “I know how many flowers fell.” And that ending has validity, essentially saying “(in such a storm as last night) I know for sure how much my lovely spring blooms are going to be damaged.” Others who know more about Chinese idiom have chosen to make this a question, so I’ll trust that, and this makes the concluding thought more like “(I’m worried about the damage of Spring storms. but it was night and I was asleep) and no one can change the way Spring does this, blooming and storming, so it’s a mystery to you and me.”
Overall, notice how this modest four-line poem, suitable for children, encapsulates a sophisticated thought, one that young children wouldn’t need to understand yet. It shows us Spring, as a sleeper sleeps past the now earlier dawn, through a rain storm that grows and destroys (compare our nursery rhyme “April showers bring may flowers” meaning “you might get wet, but it’s good for flowers” vs. this Chinese storm), alludes subtlety to the love and war of birds, and concludes with a wise line that says our ability to comprehend this cycle of growth and destruction, change and renewal, is limited. To a child, that last line may mean no more than the thrust vectors that allow that “a cow jumped over the moon;” but to an older adult, it reminds us more, that we will never know.
For the music to accompany “A Spring View”, I used some drums playing an odd rhythmic figure, fretless electric bass, electric guitar, and two soft synthesizer voices: a washed out horn and another which is supposed to suggest a Chinese flute, which unlike Bob Dylan I did not take from a dancing child. Today’s audio piece is very short, and to play it use the gadget below.