Emerson’s Fable

Musically we ricochet again (as this project often does) from last-time’s acoustic South Asian ensemble to today’s rough’n’ready one-take rock band. For the words though, maybe not so great a jump, even though Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert Frost are approximately a century apart.

Emerson is the prime American cultural instigator. Like many pioneers it’s easy to see where his maps may have been a bit off, his cultural borrowings misunderstood or missing sufficient attribution, but the route he set the American culture on, however paved, fueled, and electrified, is still one many travel on today. His conceptual school, Transcendentalism, whether acknowledged or not, can be found easily in 21st century America. It is impossible to think and write about ecology, perhaps even to use the word at all, without echoing Emerson. It’s difficult to examine mysticism or Asian religious traditions in America without going places that Emerson went before the Civil War, and if we do either of those things along with some practical sense that we’re using them to rebuild and reform our individualist understanding of the world, we’re doing as Emerson urged. It is both diminishing and praising of Emerson to say that he’s the first self-proclaimed “self-help” American authority.

If Emerson isn’t a great poet, America’s greatest poets often owe much to him. Whitman sought to use his concepts. Emily Dickinson clearly absorbed some of his then new thought. And so too Robert Frost, who is always examining nature and mankind and drawing hard lessons from the pairing of them. When Beat poet Michael McClure’s speaks as a bird or otter, and declaims public maxims,such eccentricities are Emersonian as much as they are from Emerson’s own small-town neighbor Thoreau.

So, today’s piece, which Emerson called simply “Fable,”  may not be a great poem if we have criteria to judge such things, but it has begotten great poems. The sage as small animal theme would please Dickinson. The flattening of greatness across multitudes of small things would be Whitmanesque. The cracker-barrel retort of the squirrel who knows, for all external mightiness and achievement, that his daily talent to be able to crack a nut is exquisitely necessary would fit Frost. The charge of change in attention, that the mountain is also just a squirrel-track, would serve Wallace Stevens well.

Returning to end, why the rock band today? The current Covid-19 situation has removed coincident live music—that joy of sounds and breaths in the same room—not only in public performance but in the kind of informal get-togethers that musicians of all skill levels and genres have enjoyed forever. I now miss even the difficulties and limitations of such things, finding it sad that I have no way of knowing when I’ll experience them again. “Fable”  today is an approximation of a  live band. I started with the drum pattern, added bass, the rhythm guitar, the piano track, a second “lead” guitar part, and declaimed Emerson’s words, doing each in one pass. There’s no composition process as a separate step, no great consideration on instrumentation. Even if it must be done sequentially: end, back to start, and track again, I wanted to approximate what playing live with others feels like.

In Emerson’s “Fable”  the mountain calls the squirrel a prig: a self-righteous, self-superior, self-satisfied prude or killjoy. That’s an odd accusation: a majestic mountain charging a little bottom-of-the-food-chain critter with unjustified audacity. Gee, Mountain, project  much? The squirrel is “self” indisputably—it cannot be otherwise—but that doesn’t mean it must also be any of the other things on the right-hand side of “prig’s” synonyms. Covid-19 is a mountain, large and natural, undeniable. My little squirrel track, my little path to crack the nut today, is not majestic nor considered in geologic time. What care I for the age and resolve of the mountain. The eagle, the owl, the car-tire have already said there’s no time to waste.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Emerson’s “Fable”  is below. If you’d like the text of the poem, here’s a link—and at that page there’s a link to someone else performing “Fable”  with music, music with it’s drone and percussion that sounds a little like last time’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

 

Winter 2020 Parlando Top Ten, numbers 4-2

As we continue our countdown toward the most popular piece of this ending winter, we come to a section coincidentally that’s all poets known by three names. You can’t plan something like that, but your listens and likes counted up that way.

4. “The Stare’s Nest at My Window”  by William Butler Yeats. This poem grew on me after I selected it from a short collection of poems Yeats wrote on the Irish Civil War that followed Irish independence. Just after I read the series for the first time this winter, I mentioned to my wife that Yeats seemed to be too far into his mystical side for me to find something I could attach to in them. “The Stare’s Nest”  seemed only the least bad for my use after that first reading, largely because I could grasp its word-music as promising.

I often work on the music and performance before I work on the research about the text and its background. I did so here, though one may think it perverse to do that—my setting and performance will then come from me working without a context, and without the best information about an author’s intent. Still, the setting I came up with accumulated considerable power for me, and even though it’s me playing all the parts I composed and reading Yeats’ words, my impression of “The Stare’s Nest”  was transformed as I experienced what came from that combination. Though I made these components, the whole presented something I was unaware of.

What did I become aware of in the process of creating the piece? This poem I feel is perched somewhere between a prayer and a magical spell for his country.

 

 

 

3. “The Times are Nightfall”  by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Speaking of word-music that pulls me into places I might not otherwise choose to go, Hopkins is an example. He seems to be a full-on Christian mystic with more than a touch of hair-shirt depressive in his soul that he doesn’t fight so much a seek to feel more fully.

But his metrical conception, his use of repeated sounds, I’ve liked from the first time I read him. He believed his ideas there (borrowed from the more Saxon ancestral branches of English poetry) worked better than the musical structures adopted from the Romance languages or from poetry in Latin.

One can test his theories by seeing how his hymn to dark winter works with music as I do here.

Yeat and Hopkins

Yeats the great Irish poet and nationalist spent a good deal of time in England. Hopkins, the English poet with a distinctly English prosody was a priest unhappily sent to a post in the still colonized Ireland. Despite our world-wide virus crisis, St. Patrick’s Day will be celebrated by an Irish diaspora here in the United States this week.

 

2. from “Dirge”  by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson is better known as an inspirational force via his essays and influence on Transcendentalism than as a poet, but his influence was felt by poets and in poetry. The distinctly American poetry that emerged in the 19th century is almost completely made up of poets touched by him.

When I have dipped into Emerson’s own poetry it’s produced some of the most popular pieces during the run of this project, but I wasn’t looking to find another Emerson poem this winter. “Dirge”  came forward in a round-about way from watching the Apple TV+ Dickinson,  a streaming series presenting a youthful, passionate Emily Dickinson. That series fully intends to use our present culture as a lens and overlay to espie into Dickinson’s times, something that I think worked for its released first season, though it works most completely if one looks also with a more sober eye at this genius. The creators seem to have done their homework. Lot’s of little details and obscure Dickinson trivia are referred to. And speaking of Transcendentalists, they manage to have some wicked fun with those other three-names Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott—who are both skewered with lesser-known biographic facts that aren’t full pictures of those two by far, but make for some good scenes.

In one scene, Dickinson and a young man Dickinson is crushing on bond over their mutual love of Emerson’s “Dirge”  for its gothic lines about a field of ghosts. I had to check out the poem. I worried that is might be a too long and how well the 19th century sentimentalism in the text would work for modern audiences, but trimmed a bit for length, the listeners here sure liked it this winter.

 

 

So, what’ll be the most popular piece here from the past few months? Will the author go by three names? Obscure author or well-known? American? British Isles? Translation from another language? Stay tuned.

Emerson’s Requiem

In the last hour of 2019 I was sitting on the couch with my son as we exchanged video clips we thought each other should see. I mentioned that Neil Innes had just died, that he was part of the Monty Python circle, and that before Python he had founded a musical group that helped inspire the Pythons called the Bonzo Dog Do-Dah Band.

“I think I’ve heard of the Bonzo Dog Do-Dah Band.”

“Search for ‘Canyons of Your Mind’”  I suggested. Sure enough, the magic of Internet searching brought up a video. “This is the most Sixties song ever” I promised.

Here’s the clip we watched.

Farcical fascicles found  “In the wardrobe of my soul, in the section labeled shirts.”

 

 

I wasn’t sure if I needed to provide context for it. As the performance shows they’re sending up every bit of performative anguish over absent love as well as the worship of musicians offering it. And the lyrics? They should have mortally wounded a certain kind of Sixties metaphor that was supposed to transcend our mundane world. In the middle of it Neil Innes plays a guitar solo that was likewise a pig cupid’s dart to the heart of every guitar hero moment. Anyone got the tab for that?

Son was not impressed. He had just shown me a Franz Ferdinand video chock-full of early 20th century Dada and Constructivist art moves: Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters, Alexander Rodchenko visual riffs. In contrast, the Bonzo’s Dada lacked the same danceable drive and sleek black stage dress of the smart and sharp 21st century Glaswegian rock band.

Oh well. I hadn’t seen the Franz Ferdinand videos he showed me and I was glad I saw them. They made me think how we are still working out the Modernist revolution as we enter another decade that will be called “The Twenties.”

Early in the last week, I watched an episode of Apple TV+ Dickinson with my wife. In it Emily was crushing on Benjamin Newton over their mutual admiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “Dirge,”  “The one where he’s on a plain with all those ghosts” as TV’s Emily has it.

That made we want to go back and check out Emerson’s “Dirge.”  What might Dickinson have seen in it?

It is 19th century Goth, right full of death and lonely love for the dead. Emerson had suffered at least as much as his early 19th century peers in terms of early deaths in his circle, and his poem is quite similar to a poem Abraham Lincoln wrote around the same time that we’ve featured here. One of Emerson’s charms as an essayist was that his mind might take him anywhere while writing one, and the reader is afterward taken along for the ride. This one-thing-after-another move can also work in poetry, but when Emerson the poet does it, it generally doesn’t work for me. “Dirge”  suffers for that.

Here’s the text of “Dirge”  as Emerson published it. The TV show’s Dickinson latched right onto that arresting image, a rural plain full of ghosts, but Emerson buries the lede, putting another stanza before it. That stanza isn’t entirely bad, indeed its abandoned field with scanty corn could have conceivably informed Dickinson’s “Summer’s empty room” in her later poem we featured this December. I tried performing the poem in its entirety, but it was running nearly 8 minutes (longer than I like to use here) and so I then decided to cut to length by removing those stanzas that were Emersonian digressions. I’m not sure that’s the right way to go, though I think the listener might prefer my more single-threaded version. In some of the excised stanzas, Emerson made the poem’s setting distinctly his Concord hometown; and the mourned, missing folks: his siblings who died young. Specificity also works in poetry, but I’m not sure it strengthens this  poem.

One more thing before I offer you a chance to hear my resulting performance. An 1850s Emily Dickinson would have been reading this kind of gothic romanticism in its moment. The element, performative or not, of contemporary personal emotion in poems was part of the change of 19th century Romanticism. Her models: Emerson, Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and others used that mode. Even Whitman made common use of it. Here’s something I find striking: Dickinson generally didn’t. Her poems make little use of sentimentality. She will use emotional words in her poems rather than images meant to invoke feelings in the 20th century Imagist manner, but those emotional terms often seem examined, observed, set to the side.

I asked my son if what put him off the Bonzos was that they were desecrating his musical religion. *

“No, you could have just picked a better one.”

Acoustic guitar and a mix of synthesizer sounds for today’s musical performance of Emerson’s “Dirge.”  The player gadget to hear it is below.

 

 

 

 

*Pedantically one could draw a fairly direct line from the Bonzos to early Roxy Music to “Anarchy in the UK.”  But no more footnotes today! If I’m going to excise Emerson’s digressions, why should I give myself license?

The Parlando Spring 2019 Top Ten Part 2

Before we continue with our count-down of the most liked and listened to audio pieces this past spring, let me remind newcomers what the Parlando Project does. We take words (mostly other people’s, usually poetry) and perform them along with original music in various styles and sounds.

I really try to honor that intent for variety. My musical and singing limitations cannot be overcome just by intention—but the idea is to test limitations to see what will bend or break, not to treat them as barriers to be looked at from a safe distance off.

7. Water. One of our post series this spring I called “The Roots of Emily Dickinson.” I had the obligatory exposure to Dickinson during my education in the mid-20th century. My impression then was that she was treated as an approachable poet of the second rank. I think the shortness of her poems was part of that presumption of approachability, and that contributed to her subsidiary ranking too. And yes, the filter of gender stereotypes and prejudice had to be a factor. Common anthology poems like “Because I could not stop for death”  added a little gothic touch to our genteel high-school textbooks, and in my college life she got a place in American lit, though much less in more general literature or poetry courses.

But when you dive into Dickinson deeply you may find that the modest surface level of a Dickinson poem, which seems a homey back-lot pond, is rather a deep and mysterious well, and that you’ll run out of breath long before you touch the bottom of some of her little poems. If you’re curious like me, you can’t help but wonder: “What did Emily Dickinson think she was doing?”

So, this spring I looked at some of her models, confidants, and influences, and chief among them must be Transcendentalism, the hard to pin down American movement centered in Dickinson’s own region and time whose instigator and leading prophet was Ralph Waldo Emerson. I had fun in my original post on “Emerson’s Water”  by comparing Emerson’s fame and influence to Oprah Winfrey—but really, you’d have to add to Winfrey, Malcom Gladwell and the Dali Lama to get the range of Emerson’s influence.*  I was going to add some Robert Bly in there too, but though Emerson wrote poetry and influenced poets up to and including Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, Emerson’s own poetry was not even wholly esteemed by other Transcendentalists.

Emerson’s poem “Water”  is still worth hearing, as many of you must have found here this spring. Back in The Sixties, when I first encountered the Transcendentalists’ story, I could see connections to the Hippie culture, and now in a generally more practical and materialist time I still see linkages. The Midwest had exceptionally widespread flooding issues this spring, and Emerson could have written “Water”  this year to address that. What’s Emerson got to say about water? The player is below.

 

Charles-Temple-Emily-Dickinson-silhouette

I could use this silhouette as metaphor for trying to understand Dickinson from what surrounded her. For the more mid-20th century among us: look at that chin and hear Charles Gounod’s music.

 

 

 

6. He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven. William Butler Yeats is another familiar word-musician who supplies words to the Parlando Project. Perhaps I came closer to Yeats because I’ve ended up hanging around some Irish-American poets** once I moved to Minnesota, but if one is interested in musical sounding poetry in English, with things to consider beyond the inviting sound, eventually you’ll turn the corner and Yeats will be there.

The poem’s romantic closing lines are among several of Yeats’ that are well remembered by readers—memorability being one of the great tests of poetry. Hear those closing lines, for the first time or again, with the gadget below.

 

William Butler Yeats with cat

It was a classic battle of wills. The cat would not get up until Yeats agreed to get the cat food, and Yeats wouldn’t get the food until the cat got off his lap. Both were found and rescued in an emaciated state.***

 

5. May-Flower. From the roots present in Emerson, to the flower as expressed by Emily Dickinson herself, here’s the fifth most liked and listened to piece this spring.

Let’s return to the question of Dickinson’s intent. There some thought that this was written as merely a riddle-puzzle, that the reader was to guess the genus of the bloom from the clues in the poem. If that so, if that’s all, then it seems to me that Dickinson failed as a riddle-maker, as the clues don’t seem to determine the exact flower (and Dickinson, the avid botanist, would have had the knowledge to have done that). I decided to take her text and drill down to the mystical essentials she wrote of instead.

This is not the first time I’ve written of the psychedelic aspects of Dickinson. I can’t quite do the differential diagnosis on her eye problems (for which we know she needed medical attention) or decide on the theories that she may have had epilepsy or another disorder that could have caused auras and visual disturbances, but Dickinson often seems to be asking us to see differently, more intensely, as I believe she does here.

What kind of singular mind can toss this off as a riddle?

Hear my performance of “May-Flower”  with the player.

 

 

 

*All of these pop-culture comparisons understate the influence Emerson seems to have had in American academic life, also largely centered in New England at the time, but I don’t think they understate that Emerson’s readership in America’s 19th century extended deeply into the general literate class.

**Perhaps the most directly connected to Irish culture of them would be Ethna McKiernan. A footnote is not an adequate way to draw attention to the news that she has a new book, but she does.

***This is a joke, and only this footnote is serious. And don’t link to yesterday’s post for your homework as a cite that Carl Sandburg taught O’Hara, Baraka, and Wilbur about the building trades.

Hitch Your Wagon to a Star

As we continue to celebrate National Poetry Month here, I ask your indulgence—today’s piece isn’t based on a poem. Earlier this week I did use a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem, mentioning then that his poetry often fails. Well, there are compensations—as an essayist, Emerson often expresses himself poetically.

Today’s piece is part of an Emerson essay published in The Atlantic in April 1862 called “American Civilization.”  In it Emerson ranges quite a bit, including some racial and regional stereotyping that may shock some modern readers with its ignorance and prejudice. But rather than concentrate on what Emerson got wrong—after all, I don’t need to go to 150-year-old writing to find that sort of thing, our own age will supply all we’ll ever need—I want to present to you some things that Emerson might have gotten right.

I’ve selected a handful of sections from Emerson’s essay for today, the parts of the essay that strike me as if they were a poem. I call my extracted text “Emerson’s Wagon,”  in that one of the phrases it popularized became a pervasive folk-motto: “Hitch your wagon to a star.”

What do you think that means when you hear it today? Most likely you think it means have high ambitions, aim for success not mediocrity, that if you only make it half-way you’ll still get farther than if you’d set your sites lower.*

If so, you may be surprised to hear how Emerson meant that phrase. Indeed, the whole argument Emerson makes in today’s piece is a subtle and surprisingly contemporary one.

Ralph Waldo Emerson at desk

Emerson wondering if his essay will go viral—wait—can something go viral on the telegraph?

 

“Emerson’s Wagon”  starts by telling a technology story. While he’s speaking about the telegraph, a recent marvel of his time, the metaphor here could just as easily be applied to the Internet on which you are reading this.**  In this metaphor we meet the essay’s first wagon, and it’s, well, stuck and broken down. He points out technology has found a way to get around that.

OK, nice story. Interesting contemporary parallel.

Then mid-19th century Emerson starts considering renewable energy. A couple years back I was talking to someone about that very subject and he mentioned Massachusetts had fewer resources than some other parts of the U.S. for that, which I found ironic, because Emerson’s 19th century Massachusetts was leading the country in exploiting water and tidal energy for industrial power.

Here is Emerson’s second wagon, the first one he hitches to a star. He’s not talking about personal advancement particularly, he’s talking about harnessing nature’s renewable power, and working with it to improve our civilization.

Now his technological story is getting more interesting. How many times have you heard of nature and technology portrayed as opposites? Enough that you may think that technology inevitably destroys nature, or that technology is replacing nature, and so on?

Emerson’s asking you to think of technology (and also nature, as we’ll soon see) differently. Technology comes from close observation of and analysis of the powers of nature. And in concert, the book of nature can tell us something about how to use and deploy technology, and how we should share the bounty of that.

Finally, Emerson goes somewhere you probably won’t expect. His third wagon*** says that moral principles are natural principles (and vice versa). We moderns may have some doubts about this, but it was part of the Transcendentalist ideals that Emerson and his fellows believed. From that equivalence, he says that for American civilization to succeed, for us to fix those broken and stuck in the mud situations like that first wagon, we must align ourselves (if we wish to make change) with the moral principles of a nature that spreads over all and gives benevolently. To do so makes us more powerful agents of change that cannot be defeated in the long run.

An interesting thought for a time of lies and behavior that isn’t pulled forward by the tides of heroic stars, that instead aims at the lower level of personal enrichment defended with the muddy shield of not-quite-legally-indictable.

To hear me perform Emerson’s story of three wagons, use the player below, and electricity will transfer it to you in its invisible pockets. To read all of Emerson’s essay, you can find it here.

 

 

 

*It was a phrase my mother would use, and in this sense too. She raised her large and different family whose members did different things, so maybe it has some value used in this way as well.

**The “invisible pockets” he has the telegraph carrying data in so easily become the “packets” that have flown through TCP/IP routers to bring this post or the accompanying audio file to you. Did you know that some of the savviest conceptual thinking about how the Internet works can be expressed via carrier pigeons?

***As he once more returns to the line “hitch your wagon to a star” Emerson eventually reels off a list of constellations named after heroes. You might be thrown by the first one on his list “Charles’ Wain.” I’d never heard of it. Turns out it’s another name for the Big Dipper. Wain is a Middle English word for, yes, wagon and together Charles’ Wain sort of morphs into the name of legendary king Charlemagne.

Emerson’s Water

Here’s another post in one of our National Poetry Month series: The Roots of Emily Dickinson. We’ve already touched on Emily Bronte, who’s fierceness inspired the American Emily; and Helen Hunt Jackson, a childhood classmate who encouraged Dickinson to publish her work.*  Today we look at a poem from the foremost public intellectual of her region and era, Ralph Waldo Emerson. We’ll see how it connects to Dickinson, and you may be surprised at how current Emerson’s thoughts about water are.

It’s difficult to think of a modern analog to Emerson. It’s not an exact fit, but Oprah Winfrey could be put forward—but that understates the level of Emerson’s pioneering in the mid-19th century when America was still seen as a backwater. Like Winfrey, Emerson’s approval or endorsement could do much to help a new writer come to the fore. Emerson’s opinions, not just on the arts, but on public culture in general, about how best to live and shape one’s own life, were widely distributed and read by a broad readership. But even if similar in fame and broad impact, Winfrey has never pretended to be a philosopher herself, while Emerson was viewed as a central figure in a movement called Transcendentalism. What is Transcendentalism is a book-length subject, but there are, within its core, beliefs in the powers of individual insight over religious authority and the desirability of a close reading of the book of nature.

Winfrey-Emerson

If it was the middle of the 19th century, the guy on the right might be your Oprah.

 

When I would read Transcendentalist writings more than a hundred years after they were written, in my 1960s, I would be struck with how often (if one gave some allowances for language changes) they sounded like a hippie critique of 20th century culture,** and in the half-century and more since, if I dip back into them, I find some of their focus surprisingly contemporary.

Was Emily Dickinson a Transcendentalist? I can’t say for sure, but it’s near certain that Transcendentalist ideas, particularly as expressed by Emerson, were familiar to her. His thoughts were in the newspapers and magazines she read in her lifetime. We know she had been given a book of his poems by a friend, and we know she read them, and even copied at least one of them in her own handwriting. It’s possible that she attended one of Emerson’s popular public lectures.

Emerson Poem Sacrifice copied by Dickinson2

Part of Emerson’s poem “Sacrifice” copied in Emily Dickinson’s own hand.

 

Emerson’s poetry rarely works well, and Dickinson is a great poet, yet in poems like today’s Emerson selection “Water”  I can see similarities between them. Emerson punctuated his poem as one purported sentence, but its syntax is impossible to follow, and so “Water”  is as fragmented as one of Dickinson’s heavily dashed poems. Incredible leaps occur from line to line with no attempt to bridge them with explanatory connections in either poet’s work. Emerson begins his poem with a striking phrase, similar to many of Dickinson’s great first lines: “The water understands/Civilization well;” but we soon meet a strange homey image of sticking a toe (or foot) in it, and Dickinson too loved to mix the universal and the mundane. Emerson’s poem develops with water personified as not having or having certain feelings, and then with little preparation we’re warned it can be the destroyer.

I think Emerson is making a very modern point here, one that he expressed also in his essay “Civilization.”   When water is respected and harnessed appropriately for its utility *** we are in harmony with nature’s nature. But, if we ill-use nature, we literally go against the tide, and water will be our destroyer.

If Dickinson was influenced by Emerson’s ideas and outlook, and if she picked up his individualist style that dares to be somewhat obscure to stay true to the individual’s perceptions, why is she so often a great poet while Emerson isn’t?

I think Dickinson makes better word choices both for sound and impact. Having “decketh,” “adoreth,” and “doubleth” as three wet dish-rags in a four-word stretch is enough to make Emerson’s poem soggy. And Dickinson has a talent for intriguing mystery that pulls us along even to places we don’t fully understand. She does that partly with her hymn/ballad rhythms which Emerson doesn’t use. Dickinson is usually more immediate too. A few posts back I stated that a poem is not about ideas, but the experience of ideas. In an Emily Dickinson poem, I’m more often able to feel I’m experiencing those ideas as the are perceived, where I feel Emerson is summarizing his thoughts after the fact.

Unafraid, I waded through the -eth words and performed Emerson’s “Water”  with my own music, and you can hear it with the player below. And here’s the text of Emerson’s poem if you’d like to follow along on the page.

 

 

 

*With the exception of one poem, which was published anonymously while Dickinson was alive, Jackson failed at that. Still, I think it possible that having some knowledge of her friend selecting poems for publication could have been motivation for Dickinson to create her hand-written booklets of poems which were found after her death.

**This is for good and ill. Idealistic critiques of society are important, but adventurers often take wrong turns. And idealists have a hard time figuring out viable new structures.

***Emerson’s Massachusetts led the nation in using water power for small to large industry in the 19th century. So, when the city of Minneapolis was founded largely due to it’s exploitable water power, a good portion of the city fathers had New England backgrounds. Many Minneapolis streets still bear the name of 19th century New England luminaries, including Emerson. Alas there’s no Dickinson Avenue, as Dickinson’s poems were not published until close to the end of the century.

Dream Big

There’s an old joke that goes like this:

Alarmed Customer: What’s a fly doing in my soup?

Waiter: I believe that’s the backstroke sir.

Part of the humor here derives from the order brought to the chaotic event of an insect in the diner’s food. The waiter is able to observe the fly and classify its actions from an altogether different perspective. And the rest of the humor comes from the waiter willfully, or otherwise, misunderstanding the customer’s complaint as a mooted question.

Rhythm, a primary component of music and poetry, shares that ability to reshape chaos. The day after I saw the Emily Dickinson film biography “A Quiet Passion”  I returned to the same theater complex to see Chasing the Trane,” a documentary about musician John Coltrane, a man whose work and life story has carried me across many a low place. You could predict most of the talking heads (what director Warren Beatty once called, perceptively, “witnesses” in his John Reed biopic “Reds”)  that appeared in the Coltrane film. Coltrane’s children talk about their parents. Winton Marsalis and Cornell West are obligatory we suppose. A pair of Coltrane biographers chip in their perspective. The surviving members of Coltrane’s great combos, Reggie Workman and McCoy Tyner, talk briefly. Sonny Rollins, Coltrane’s great contemporary, and Benny Golson, a musician who first knew John Coltrane as a fellow teenager in Philadelphia, are especially insightful.

And then John Densmore, the drummer from the 60’s rock group The Doors speaks. OK, I can hear a few saying “What’s he doing in a John Coltrane biography?”

The answer is: swimming in the rhythm of Elvin Jones (the great drummer of Coltrane’s greatest band). Like the original Homer who wrote our fly in the soup joke, Elvin Jones could converse with whatever new melody, whatever mistaken-for-mere-chaos invention, that John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy could invoke. Densmore watched him do that on the bandstand closely, and then applied what he learned when he later was called to add order to the Dionysian deconstructions of The Doors’ lead singer, Jim Morrison, a man who had the touch of a poet quickly smothered by drink, drugs, and uncharted celebrity.

Densmore’s part in the film is to add to the thought that John Coltrane lived as if  he could converse with the universe and approach its Creator with what he had heard from it. Densmore’s addition: but it’s the drummer that is the witness that this is happening now, in the time we are all beating. Coltrane may swim out in the tide of the cosmos, but Elvin Jones knows what stroke he’s swimming.

John Coltrane and Elvin Jones

Elvin Jones and John Coltrane: a conversation with infinity and time

 

I call today’s audio piece “Dream Big!”  June is the month of graduations and their obligatory talking heads delivering commencement addresses, most of them deputizing themselves as present-day Ralph Waldo Emersons with mature advice for the audience. However, “Dream Big!”  doesn’t present the tale from some sundry gray eminence—instead it has some words from a young man, the British musician Kiran Leonard, who asks us to look at the dream of Herman Sörgel.

Kiran Leonard

Kiran Leonard: quiet is the opposite of thoughtful

Kiran Leonard’s music takes several forms and may still be forming, but his words that I adapted for use with my music in “Dream Big” were taken not from a song, but from a short statement broadcast by the BBC. In it, Leonard uses Sörgel to encourage us to take on creative projects we think are beyond us. Good advice for young people—but I also took it as good advice for this old man as I started the Parlando Project in 2016, and needed to contact some hopeful audacity. And now, this week, as I am readying this post, I need John Coltrane and Herman Sörgel, Emerson and Kiran Leonard levels of such hope as I mourn the needless death of a young man and our pretentions that we can do nothing about it.

To hear more of Kiran Leonard’s music you can see this live set from last year here, or view the promotional videos for songs from recent albums here and here, or read this interview/introduction/review. To hear my performance of “Dream Big!”  use the player below.

 

 

Experience

Here’s another piece by Dave Moore. Dave plays almost all of the keyboards on the LYL Band music you hear here on this blog, and without his contributions I’d get tired of hearing my own voice all the time myself. Today’s audio piece “Experience”  started out intended as a poem, as Dave explains:

“My friend Ethna mentioned the Common Good Books poetry contest, which paid cash, on the theme of experience.

Naturally the next word in my mind was prurience, which in this version I ‘eschew.’ although I changed the printed version to ‘avoid.’  Still, I love the roll of ‘eschew prurience.’

I set out to state that every moment is an experience, and most of them are accidents, which constitutes the glory of the show.  But – But seriously…
When I brought this lyric to a LYL session, I draped it around a tune, trying to see how the words spilled over the dam.  Thus edified, I tinkered with it some before submitting to Common Good.

Of course, I lifted ‘life is but a joke’ from Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower,’  but it worked so well in the stanza (is it a chorus?) of philosophy. I chose to leave the ‘do’ and ‘done’ lines as ironic music which states the case.

So, am I experienced?  Conclusively, I can say yes or no.”

LYL Are You Experience Faces

“For those of another generation, he’s all but to make fun of,
but they do not understand the experience…”  Eric Burdon

Experience is an interesting topic for this book store’s contest. William Blake titled one of his collections of short lyrics “Songs of Experience,”  after which I cannot think of the word without thinking of Blake—but Blake also put much store in the auguries of innocence. Ralph Waldo Emerson toured the country as a speaker, but his contemporary Emily Dickinson famously constricted her travels as she grew up. Emerson’s mind worked best traveling widely, as in his essays. Dickinson mind produced compressed words pinned in a matrix of her famous dashes, and it’s Dickinson’s poetry that we are more likely to turn to today.  “Like a dream, experience is being where you are” Dave says.

Vinyl lovers, don’t be mislead by the cover shown above, The LYL Band’s version of Dave’s “Experience”  doesn’t feature Stratocasters on fire, which is not say that we won’t do that later. Use the player below to listen to “Experience,”  or some innocent instrument might get hurt.

I Heard of Emerson and Wagons

“Hitch your wagon to a star”. We all know what it means, and we’re wrong.

Well, maybe we’re not exactly wrong: it’s human to draw a variety of meanings from what other humans communicate. The Emily Dickinson poem in the last post is perfect example. I don’t know exactly what Dickinson was trying to say in I Felt a Funeral in My Brain, but the strength of the language and music of her saying of it compels anyway. Poems, particularly short poems, often benefit from this kind of ambiguity. They become, in effect, several poems, poems that are experienced differently—even by the same reader—at each reading. In the end those varied readings become a kind of unstable hologram, a poem that the reader can see around corners in. I think that’s one of the benefits of these Parlando project recordings. You can listen to the words without making singular understanding the all-important goal as you enjoy the musical setting, and you can repeat the process of hearing them. A poem is not an important email from your boss that you must understand correctly immediately.

An essay on the other hand does prioritize clarity. “Hitch your wagon to a star” is from one of Emerson’s essays, and Emerson is a very clear essayist. You can read the published version of the essay, Civilization, where the famous quote appears here.

For the moment, I’m going to pass on Emerson’s racialist and sometimes racist views which saturate much of the first half of that essay. If you are an Indigenous American or a Central African, you may be so revolted by this section that anything Emerson says later may be lost on you. TLDNR: despite some nods to North African, Arabian, Buddhist, and Icelandic (Iceland! Was Emerson predicting Sigur Rós, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Björk?) cultures; civilization is kind of white, temperate zone, coastal U.S./European thing. Gee Ralph, checked your white privilege much lately?

In the second half of the essay, Emerson develops another point. He starts by saying “Civilization depends on morality.” What expectations does that sentence give you? Anytime you read that sentence in the last 50 years, you know what comes next:  a catalog of received, traditional, probably religious, precepts that the author will no-doubt find are being violated frequently by a fallen mankind who is ignoring this at their peril. You expect him to say “Stop screwing around with traditional morality, or civilization is doomed.” Is this what you get?

Nope. He’s soon launching into a rhapsody about the telegraph, and since he doesn’t mention that great mid-19th century technology by name, you could almost dump it word for word into the last part of the 20th century as praise for the Internet. As he talks about the telegraph’s “invisible pockets” you almost think he must be about to invent TCP/IP protocols more than a hundred years early! Instead of the Moral Majority, you get Emerson the Steam Punk.

And then he moves on to describe a then common Massachusetts technology, a mill that was powered by ocean tides, and at his observation of this, he says:

“Now that is the wisdom of a man, in every instance of his labor, to hitch his wagon to a star, and see his chore done by the gods themselves. That is the way we are strong, by borrowing the might of the elements.”

From there Emerson develops the thought that a natural morality of utility, justice, civil order and freedom is—like the geo-thermal power of tides—an undeniable force for progressive change and improvement.

This section of Emerson’s essay is still a complex and novel approach. Emerson’s fellow Transcendentalist Theodore Parker condensed this thought in a way that Martin Luther King often cited:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Is this not proof of the maxim? Emerson in the middle of the 19th century, suffering from the ignorance and misapprehensions of racialism and racism, yet works for abolition of slavery and his philosophy helps inspire others a hundred years later to bring about long-delayed progress?

So that’s why I say we misunderstand “Hitch your wagon to a star.” Emerson would approve the gist of our misunderstanding: that it’s good to set goals high—but that’s not what he meant. What he meant on striking the coinage was more like “align yourself with the natural moral laws of the universe and your struggle for change gains great power.”

Radio Flyer Wagon

Today’s audio piece, I Heard of Emerson and Wagons recounts my mother telling me to “Hitch your wagon to a star” when I was a child. She, like most of us, meant it in the “dream big” way, and in that busy-parent way “yes, that’s nice. Dream big, but I’m busy right now.”  In this piece, the young me is puzzled by just which big dream is the right one—just the thing that Emerson thought he was, in fact, offering guidance on.

To hear the LYL Band perform I Heard of Emerson and Wagons, just click on the gadget that will appear below.

 

To A Locomotive In Winter

A few years back there was a little Internet brouhaha about a woman who looked like she was talking on a cell phone as she was filmed walking down a street in 1928. “Proof of time travel?” asked the rhetorical askers “In 1928 there’d be no cell phones for 50 years, so she has to be from the future.”

time-traveler-cell-phone
About time we get cracking on Bluetooth don’t you think?

We’ve been talking here recently about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman, three 19th century Americans. As far as we know, none of them used cell phones, and their considerable accomplishments may have been easier insomuch as they didn’t have to worry about PokéStop locations. But maybe they were time-travelers none-the-less?

One of the remarkable things about Emily Dickinson was that she seemed to be writing 20th Century poetry in the middle of the 19th Century. Oh sure, skeptics will say, she was a genius, and through her genius became influential to later writers. Typical debunkers!

Walt Whitman too, often seems a prophet and precursor of a new age, but maybe he wasn’t a prophet? Maybe he was just reporting from the future, and he knew all his bets were sure things. How else can you explain Whitman’s podcast on gender equality streamed here?

Today’s piece, Whitman’s To a Locomotive In Winter, was written sometime between 1874 and 1876, but it reads like a “Futurist” poem written 40 years later. The early 20th Century Futurists embraced technology and sought to bring it into the arts. Poems, paintings, sculpture and musical works celebrating bicycles, airplanes, motor cars and trains were their stock in trade. Was Whitman a time traveler from 1914 who had read the Futurist Manifesto?

futurism_meccanica_pannaggi_speeding_train

Thee for my recitative!

Another American who paid attention to the Futurists (besides time-traveler Walt Whitman) was George Antheil, a composer, who by the 1920’s was trying to engineer machines to make music. He had this idea that he could realize a musical composition by syncing more than one player piano together so that an even greater mechanized noise could be exactly made. By the 1940s, perhaps after hearing Whitman’s podcast on women’s strength, he was in Hollywood and hooked up with actress Hedy Lamarr—no, that kind of hook up. You see Hedy had this idea for a radio-guided torpedo. One problem: if you used radio to guide it, you could use radio to jam it. What if the control signals could use random radio frequencies Lamarr wondered? How would the controller and torpedo stay in sync? Antheil had the solution, the same thing you used to control player pianos: a roll of punched tape. The tape would tell the radios to switch frequencies in perfect time with each other. You couldn’t jam that jam because the radio frequency could hop at some sick number of beats per minute.

George Antheil with machines

Maybe I should have just developed MIDI instead?

 

Antheil and Lamarr tried to interest the US War Department on this. Those square faces listened to this idea of randomization and said “No dice!”

hedy lamarr

Not interested in my remote-controlled, frequency hoping torpedo? Can I tell you I invented Fizzies too?

 

Antheil and Lamarr patented their idea, but after rejection no one cared. Then decades later folks are trying to setup CDMA, the core technology for cell phone transmission. The engineers dig up that patent in a pre-existing-art search—or were Lamarr and Antheil time travelers who had been reading the cell phone engineers’ PowerPoint decks? Maybe that woman in the 1928 street scene is the elderly Hedy talking on a cell phone with Walt Whitman?

So back to Whitman then, and To A Locomotive in Winter, and to time travel. In this piece, Whitman time travels forward to 1956, to Chess studios in Chicago. Earl Phillips kicks off the loping beat. Hubert Sumlin, Willie Dixon and Hosea Lee Kennard fall in. The band is playing a drone their bandleader had heard Charlie Patton play back around World War I, but the bandleader is letting this strange traveler, this gray bearded old white man who says he’s from the over-soul, from the Emersonian universal mind. The bandleader has had to deal with racism for almost half the 20th Century, has had to figure that out as a practical matter, he’s seen enough to not ever be surprised. Walt Whitman steps to the mic…

Walt-Whitman-001

No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine

 

You’ll need to click on the gadget below to hear the LYL Band portray that that event.