In a Station of the Metro

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…”

Young Ezra Pound bundled up

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.

 

 

 

*Has anyone fully blamed Billy Idol for that name? Idol claims he took his first band’s name from a 1950s book, but conceptually I’ve always wondered if Richard Hell and his song “Blank Generation”  was the fountainhead.

**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.

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I Know a Place Where Summer Strives

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).

Emily Dickinson Herbarium page

Emily Dickinson created a 66 page herbarium with pressed flowers,
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.

young Stipe

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.

What Is It the Rain Dissolves

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.

Novara Safari Smaller

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.

19th Century lady and bike

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.

A Spring Morning

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.

Meng Haoran

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.