Edward Thomas’ “The Owl” as heard in a yurt

Every so rarely I treat this Project as a “regular blog” and talk about what I’ve done recently. Not my usual mode, but this is one of those.

In case you’ve noticed a gap in posting, this week I’ve been in a yurt situated in a forest a few miles from Lake Superior. No cellphone service, no Internet, just books, bicycles, an acoustic guitar, and my woodland-nymph wife for whom this is just the right sort of place.

A yurt is a circular tent adapted from Central Asiatic designs.*  The tent fabric is stretched over a wooden lattice so that it becomes in effect a small rustic cabin with no corners and soft walls. In the example we rented for our stay it had an elevated wooden floor, a conventional bed, a couple of chairs, and a door and windows that looked out onto the woods it sat in. In the center of its fabric roof, where the smoke from a central fire would exit in the original yurts, the modern version substitutes a clear plexiglass dome, a device I always read as an emblematic Sistine Chapel of The Sixties: like those domes fitted to Ken Kesey’s Furthur bus or Ed Roth’s Beatnik Bandit.

Three Plexiglass Domes

Three Plexiglass domes. Salad bowls of my salad days.

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I brought books, poetry and poetry adjacent: Rush Hour  and Still Living in Town  by Kevin FitzPatrick, Rhythmic Stories & Prehistoric Mythteries  by Dave Moore, Swimming with Shadows and Light Rolling Slowly Backwards New & Selected Poems  by Ethna McKiernan, How to Read a Poem  by Edward Hirsch, and Dickinson’s Nerves, Frost’s Woods  by William Logan.

The three from the poets I know were particularly piquant reads, Kevin having just died, Ethna facing serious illness, and Dave and I both a little worse for wear. This post won’t allow me to speak at length about those five books, which I read completely from cover to cover in the yurt. The Hirsch book turned out a little too basic and introductory for my mood, though it might well serve for someone seeking to get more involved with poetry. The Logan book was outrageous in a way that made me shake my head and yet keep reading.

I never assumed the Parlando Project was going to involve as much short essay writing. The reason that the Parlando audio pieces (which are available as podcasts in the usual places like Apple Podcasts et al) are simply the performances, not discussions and descriptions, is that I wanted to present and to allow listeners to experience poetry in the ear without a lot of framing or explaining, the same way that they largely experience lyrics in a song. But over the years I’ve fallen into writing here more about experiences with the poems, even delving into explications and musings about how the poems are set into poet’s lives.

When I enter into that mode and come upon a question — where many bloggers would simply say “I don’t know” or “One could guess” — I often make an attempt to find out if there’s an answer. These searches can take up more time than composing and recording the music. One of the most consistently popular posts here was my presentation of Yeats’ “To A Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing”  where I felt I had to find out who the friend was that the poem addresses, and what the work was. That wasn’t something easily discovered on the web — and apparently thanks to my post, it now is.

Logan takes this sort of thing to another level and then another, and another and…. I sensed him smiling and shaking his own head to the levels he was driven to go. In his discussion of Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”  Logan makes sure to determine what livery Frost’s farm owned in order to estimate what the speaker in Frost’s poem might be sitting in. In his discussion of Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”  he takes note of a story surrounding it: that a draft of the quickly-written sonnet was in the hands of the other young man that Keats’ had spent an all-nighter reading a rare copy of Chapman’s English translation with, by early the following afternoon. Logan tries to determine if this was possible via normal “penny post” service in London at the time, or would it have to have been a specially hired courier service. For poetry obsessives, Logan’s book will wear you out with “do we know, can we find out” side-trips like that.

Meanwhile, back at the yurt whose woods we are knowing, upon a peak above Lake Superior, we had planned to ride our bikes into town for breakfast, a distance figured at three miles via GPS maps. The same maps accessed at home warned me that it was a nearly 400 foot elevation climb on the way back to our yurt’s address, but I have done double that and more in my dotage. Both of us took our original generation “mountain bikes” which by modern standards are both heavy and altogether too mechanically unsophisticated, but this was good in that the first-part of our journey was a rutted gravel access road from our yurt to the local highway which descended steeply for about a half a mile.

From that point on into town I could have passed for a motorcyclist, coasting at 30 mph on the steep downward slope of the blacktop highway. At a stop sign I looked over to my wife and said, “You know, we’re going to have to climb this on the way back.”

After breakfast, she went off to take pictures, and I started the ride back by myself. **

Three years ago this autumn, I climbed 800 feet in 25 miles on Minnesota’s Iron Range. Not only am I older but doing 450 feet of climb in 3.3 miles is different. Different, as in harder. Different in as pedaling up a wall verses pedaling up a ramp. The temp that day was in the 50s and I wore a light vest and a non-zip long-sleave shirt, both of which were good during the speed of the descent into town. But when I finally arrived back at the yurt, I was quite tired and soaked in sweat — an autumn mixture of hot and chilled as soon as you stop.

Bayfield Climb

Graph of the climb back to the yurt from town. My research said 400 feet net climb, but it didn’t include the steep gravel access road at the end which added another 50 feet. Well-conditioned bikers will scoff at this climb, but where’s your understanding of Robert Frosts wagons?

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That night as we went to sleep in the yurt, the leaves falling on the taunt roof gave us a sound like we were inside a scattered drum-roll. Off in the distance then we heard piercing owl cries*** that this musical-obsessive would liken to Eric Clapton signaling the wind-up of Ginger Baker’s drum feature “Toad”  — but then this person, whose Project has made him equally poetry-obsessed, also thought of Edward Thomas, and his poem “The Owl.”

Thomas besides being an avid walker (he was the actual walking companion Frost was chiding in “The Road Not Taken”)  was also a bicyclist, and “The Owl”  appears to be telling of a bicycle tour ride as it begins “Downhill I came…” and the full text goes on to describe that cold “yet heat within me” feeling that vigorous exercise produces in changing temperatures like my October ride. Thomas’ poem and his welcome rest at nightly lodgings on his tour turns in the middle on the sound of an owl’s cry.

Thomas’ thoughts are turned in that cry not to the band Cream and rock power trios of The Sixties, but those who didn’t have shelter in the night. And I had been reading the new poems section of Ethna McKiernan’s New & Selected  which is dedicated by her to “the hundreds of homeless clients I’ve worked with through the years.”

I performed Thomas’ “The Owl”  a few years back, but it’s one of my performances that I don’t think got all it could out of the piece, so here’s a fresh performance of my setting of that poem, recorded back home, but in yurt-style with acoustic guitar. For some, you can use a player gadget below to hear it. Others won’t see that, so this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

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*This Wikipedia listing about yurts says that a Mongolian Buddhist variation is called “uyangiin ger” which means “home of the lyrics.” I didn’t know that.

**She too had to struggle with the climb. While she stopped often to take pictures, breaking up the exertion somewhat, she found it difficult to overcome gravity to get her old bike going from when she stopped on steeper sections. Pictures of what? This and that in the local scene, though the highlights were a catalog of closeup pictures of various fungi in their autumn-leaf colors and fairy architecture.

***I’m not sure what species of owl. It might have been a barred owl or a horned owl. The calls were not the characteristic “who cooks for you” barred owl melody, but it had a similar pitch and timbre.

David Shove Remembrance Event

“Papa John” Kolstad worked to arrange at least one more Midstream poetry reading event tonight, as a remembrance and continuance of the series run for the past six years by David Shove who died at the turn of this year.

I know this blog has  a good number of Twin Cities Minnesota readers, but even locally the Midstream series was a less-known-than-it-should-be thing. Best as I can tell, three things made it special: David Shove himself, who had a beautiful offhand way* of presenting a wide-ranging group of poets and writers; the space itself, a large second floor room full of clutter that says unpretentious and informal;**  and the upper-Midwest kind of poets, who have a tendency to community feeling, a sense that they, their poetry, and their readers/listeners are all in this together.

David Shove Rememberence Midstream Reading 1-21-19

Community Feeling. Some of the folks gathered to remember David Shove tonight in Minneapolis

 

Therefore, even though the event occurred with the palpable absence of David Shove, it still felt part of the series—and not just because absence is a kind of presence. As it sometimes does, the reading opened with some music—tonight, Kolstad on guitar and Richard Terrill on saxes performing some jazz as folks wandered into the room from the trench warfare of our most recent eight-inch snowfall. Then sixteen people with various connections to David and the Midstream series spoke of him, often concluding with a short poem.

I was one of those, perhaps the one who knew David less than any of the others. I only knew him from the reading series, but that was still a something. Yes it was.  I did an off-the-cuff reading of the Wallace Stevens’ poem “To the Roaring Wind”  that I had posted in a musical performance here last month when I first heard of Shore’s death.

Here’s a player gadget to allow you to easily hear that performance of “To the Roaring Wind”  from January.

 

 

 

*Shove as a presenter had a slow, dry way of speaking that the first time you saw him you might not think much of it. Then the next time you’d notice the method of it, and the third time, the art of it.

**The decor of the room I think is the unstoppable flotsam of past enterprises run out  of the room and Kolstad’s own intended collage sense. Part Marcel Duchamp and part Daniel Kramer’s “Bringing It All Back Home”  record cover.

Poetry

Today’s audio piece marks the 200th published by the Parlando Project! Since presenting our first piece, Carl Sandburg’s “Stars Songs Faces”  back in 2016, we’ve combined words (mostly poetry) with original music as varied as we can make it. Those who’ve followed along know that the words we use are generally written by others, because that lets me encounter them, as I hope you do too, freshly, to discover anew what charms they have.

Not only does the music vary, but how we present the words varies too. Sometimes we sing the words, sometimes we just speak them, sometimes we chant or intone them.

Marianne Moore with pony

“Like a horse that feels a flea” Marianne Moore around the time she wrote “Poetry”

 

Through this past couple of years, Dave Moore has been the alternate reader here, and I expect that you enjoy the break from my voice once in awhile (as I do). For today’s 200th piece, and for April’s National Poetry Month, I’m pleased to present Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”  read, not by me, but by the “Lake Street Writer’s Group,” a small group of usually poets who’ve met since the 1970s, which took it’s name from the inner-city commercial street near where they lived. The first voice you’ll hear is poet, musician, and comics artist Dave Moore again, the second is poet and writer Ethna McKiernan and the third is poet Kevin FitzPatrick, who has the honor of having the latest book published by a member of the group, Still Living in Town”.

Minneapols Moline Tractor

MM of another color. Minneapolis-Moline once built tractors in a Lake Street factory. Marianne Moore was once asked by a car company to suggest the name for a new model. One of her suggestions: Utopian Turtletop

 

It was my idea to ask them to read Marianne Moore’s poem, since Moore herself breaks her poem up into various voices, not only from abrupt changes in diction but with the use of quotes. My thought was the changing voices would emphasize the poem’s stance of speaking for poetry’s audience.

I broke this on the group of poets cold, and they are reading the poem off a page I gave them, which divided “Poetry”  up in small beats and phrases of the poem. Remarkably—well, maybe not all that remarkably, Dave, Ethna, and Kevin are all excellent readers of their own poetry—what you hear is one take, just as they read it, just as they handed it off verbally from one to the other around a room. They had no musical backing to hold their cadence, only Marianne Moore’s words. I wrote, played, and recorded the music later: drums, bass, guitar, and piano.

What I hear coming out of this is the same thing I aim for often here. Just as you are encountering the poem’s words freshly, as they hit your ears, the performers are doing the same. Sure, we may have heard or read the poem before, but it’s another’s voice, happening now, that is conveying it to you. We use music with the words here, and with the other Parlando Project pieces, for several reasons: it reminds us that poetry is musical speech, that poetry works in its sounds, its rhetorical flow, and the harmony of imagery like music; and because it offers the option to relax the cause of the words meaning.

There’s not one missed word in the trio’s cold reading, which is more unusual than an accident.  When I’m improvising melodic lines freely, I accept that I’ll need to deal with “wrong” notes, musically creating (to vary from Moore’s famous line) “imaginary gardens with real clams in them.”  To hear the group read “Poetry,”  use the player gadget below.

 

Grant Hart, and where’s the new stuff?

A slight apology for the slight drop off in posts so far this month. While I could say I’ve been struggling a bit with some frailties,  there’s also been an element of needing to prod myself to get going again after reaching and exceeding the original goals of the Parlando Project. Don’t forget, we’ve been going on for over year now, and there’s over a hundred audio pieces available here of different kinds of words (mostly poetry) mixed with music that varies as much as my talents allow. If you’re checking in, and wondering where’s the new audio piece, remember there’s probably another piece you haven’t heard yet waiting to delight or confound you in the archives listed on the right.

This week, I had the good fortune to see Kevin FitzPatrick and some other younger poets read at the funkiest reading space in town as part of the Midstream Reading series.  Kevin is starting his short reading tour to promote his excellent new book “Still Living in Town,”  which is not yet available through Internet book merchants. He’ll next be reading on September 21st at the Har Mar center Barnes and Noble in St. Paul Minnesota at 7 PM and then on November 14th, also at 7 PM at Magers and Quinn in Uptown in Minneapolis.

Husker Du fell back into the last century, but Grant Hart kept writing great songs.

 

I’ve been noting also this week the death of Grant Hart, songwriter, singer, musician, artist and founding member of Husker Du, one of the greatest of the “get in the van” indie bands of the 1980s. Despite moving in some circles that overlapped, I never knew him, but we apparently shared one personality trait: we never figured out, or cared to figure out, how to promote the art we make to bring it to attention of others. Others who did know him, and who have a higher professional profile than he or I have,  have written eloquently about him this week, but one thing I didn’t see noted in any pieces I read—his short name, said aloud, two syllables long, is a complete prayer: “Grant H(e)art.”

An Old Man’s Winter Night

This is the most difficult set of words to read coherently that I’ve presented so far in the Parlando Project. Robert Frost’s “An Old Man’s Winter Night” looks on the page like any other chunk of blank verse (“blank verse:” unrhymed iambic pentameter). Shakespeare wrote whole sections of plays with this rhythm, and the walking one/two with a backbeat of an iamb has a forward propulsion that leads the reader to flow through the words.

The problem is, that even the most iron-lunged and fleet-tongued rapper has to pause for breath sometime. In general, it helps to pause for meaning, where the break for breath adds meaning. However, in the Parlando project I’m seeking to merge the words with music, and the musical cycles also suggest pauses.

Robert Frost larger

I saida hip hop,
The hippie to the hippie
The hip hip a hop, and you don’t stop

“An Old Man’s Winter Night” was tough because I decided on a cycle of chords for the music, rather than basing the harmony around a drone, or simply “through composing” the music to follow the words without a repeating structure. I made that choice unconsciously, but I think I was responding to Frost. The poem seems to repeat itself, and my sense of the syntax was that the sentences seemed to start and begin again, like unto the central incident in the poem of an old person in a room not remembering why he had gone to that room. So the problem was: where to break the cycle of the circular speaking, keeping to cycling verses of chords, while helping the listener understand the meaning.

I got it almost right I think. I was further inspired as I worked by being in the midst of a Midwest below-zero cold snap while recording this.

I normally do not base my readings on others, though it might have helped me to listen to other solutions to my reading problem. Only after committing to the version you’ll now hear, did I listen to Robert Frost’s own reading of his poem and another good reading which does an excellent job of bringing out the meaning. Of those two, Frost aims to bring out the music in his rhythms, but it’s not a perfect reading. Authors have an advantage, in that they likely know the poem’s meaning—but they are also disadvantaged by that—since they know, they cannot always choose what the listener will need to have emphasized. By combining “An Old Man’s Winter Night” with music, I have another advantage over Frost’s own reading: I don’t have to follow the word’s rhythms closely to bring out the music.

“An Old Man’s Winter Night” embodies aged rural loneliness, something that even today’s modern communications can do little to ameliorate. For those of my generation who only remember Robert Frost as an old man, I’d like to point out that Frost first published this when he was 44. Frost beautifully describes being alone, separated, cut off; evoking all the surrounding emotions of that situation—yet he doesn’t once mention loneliness or any of those allied emotions by name. A great trick to pull off, don’t you think?

To hear my reading combined with music, use the gadget that appears below.