Pied Beauty

It’s said about significant musicians that a careful listener can tell who’s playing just from their sound. The word-music of poets could be a similar tell, but in the case of poetry we have other kinds of data: subjects, characteristic outlooks, and the kind of imagery they choose to use—and those things often overwhelm the distinctions in the sound of a poet’s poem.

But even 130 years after his death, British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins sounds like no other. The piece I’m going to present today is one of his best known poems: “Pied Beauty,”  and he intended it as a rhymed metrical poem, but Hopkins’ conception of meter and phrasing is so unlike other English poets that it might sound like a piece of free verse.

If Hopkins doesn’t sound like other poetry in English, he does have some similarities to Old English and ancient Welsh poetry, two languages he had some familiarity with. In place of the traditional musical phrases that his Victorian contemporaries might use, flowing lines in regularly stressed feet, Hopkins substitutes shorter, broken and paused phrases and a great deal of word sound echoing beyond just conventional end-rhyme.

Reading Hopkins in the pre-Modernist era at the end of WWI must have been like hearing Thelonious Monk play piano just after WWII. It doesn’t sound “right,” it breaks, or more correctly ignores, rules of how things are supposed to sound. Yes, the phrasing is instantly felt as rhythmic, but that’s no anchor, because the rhythm is part of what’s “wrong.” But also like Monk, to more than a few listeners, it can be arresting, even on first listen. You don’t have to understand the structure, or know how it works differently—that’s not a simple task by the way—to hear something that grabs your attention. You may dig it; but even though we humans are natural imitating machines, you may still not be able to do it.

And so, like Monk, Hopkins doesn’t have as many imitators as he has admirers of his achievement, even today.

Monk Hopkins Genius of Modern Music

His music still sounds more modern than most—both of ‘em.

 

An additional barrier to Hopkins is that his subject matter, though explicitly Christian religious, is also often harrowing. British poets have long explored unrelieved melancholy, but Hopkins doesn’t want to read Job, or understand Job theologically, he wants (or can’t escape) to be Job.*

Which makes “Pied Beauty”  a good introduction to Hopkins word-music, because while it’s making a subtle theological point, this is not a particularly sad, tragic, or even solemn poem. Did Hopkins interject “Who knows how?” mostly to make his rhyme on the 8th line? I don’t know, but I can’t read that phrase and this poem without a little of the feeling of “Ain’t that funny? Unchanging, pure monotheist deity, and yet maker of a world of mixed and changing things.”

Musically, I’m not Thelonious Monk, nor was meant to be—am an attendant lord, one that will do. Still I musically sought to put a certain angle on my usual chords and cadences. Old-time Chicago jazz guy Eddie Condon said the modernist jazz composers flatted their fifths, while his crew just drank them. If so, I caucus with the modernists. Harmony has laws and customs, but the anarchists have melodies.**  The full text of Hopkins’s poem is here. My musical presentation of it is available with the player gadget below.

 

 

 

*Just because he’s so distinctive in his sound and phrasing, we don’t need to overlook the imagery in Hopkins’ poem. Skies like cows? That’s proto-Surrealist, “old bossy in the skies with diamonds” stuff. I have to confess that my eyes once read “brinded cow” as a more conventional if workmanlike “bridled cow.” Brinded means patched patterns as on cows’ hides, it’s an archaic Middle English word, in keeping with Hopkins’ love for the sound of the poetry of the ancestors of modern English. See also firecoal colored tree nuts and painted fish.

**Well this is true at least for me. When I’m not working in drone or heavily home-chord centered structures, I will construct chords and chord progressions based on others’ ideas, or the mathematical commonplaces, testing the results for interest. But for melody, I usually don’t choose to follow rules or commonplaces, and when I find myself approaching those things, I may start to subvert them immediately. Yes, there are pleasures in knowing exactly what note comes next—must come next—but there’s too little music out there that mines disputing that expectation.

I awoke this morning to read that Ginger Baker died, a prime musical iconoclast if there ever was one. I’d read the earlier notes that he was gravely ill and I think I may have tried to imitate some of his playing (those tom rolls…) with the drum track on this.

A Dream

Here’s a second poem by Afro-American Modernist poet Fenton Johnson. Like the first piece of Johnson’s that I presented earlier this week, there’s a religious element, but it’s handled this time with a remarkable framing device.

As published in 1921, “A Dream”  is the longer of two pieces which are grouped together as “Two Negro Spirituals.”  What strikes me about them is the extraordinary knife-edge irony held in them between spirituality and reality. If the Language Poets descended from the Modernists will not find in “A Dream”  the novel uses of language and syntax they look for, perhaps the Post-Modernists will appreciate Johnson’s conveying a vivid religious vision framed in a way that causes a reassessment of the foreground material.

That’s more critical theory and bin-labeling that I usually engage in, so let’s move away from that to the piece itself.

Elijah and the angel with a firey chariot

Elijah’s angel-fire chariot. Be sure your seatback is in the upright and locked position.

 

Is this texturally a “Negro spiritual?” Not really, though Johnson significantly chooses to call it that. The vision he presents, after a brief “Oh, my honey” aside, would not seem out of place in William Blake or any of a number of 18th to 20th Century Christian revivalists. The “spirituals” of the title were largely folk hymns, and the language here is more literary. Johnson wants us to know it’s an Afro-American who’s speaking, yes; but also, a man who could read and know these non-folklore sources. Yet, the recounting of the titular dream is not a scholastic catalog of mystical religious elements, it’s a deeply felt vision of a glorious reward. One does not need to be a Christian to feel the ecstasy of this vision, any more than one needs to fully understand all of Blake’s idiosyncratic religious precepts to sense their “thereness.”

William Blake The Angel

Like Fenton Johnson, William Blake frames an angelic vision

 

Johnson concludes the poem with a single line of a contrasting vision that recasts all that has come before it. Listen to the piece with the player below to hear it as it occurs.

Musically, this piece caused me all kinds of trouble, and, to be frank, I don’t think I got all the way to what I wanted to achieve. The difficulties of being my own composer, arranger, reader, ensemble of musicians and recording engineer should cause this kind of trouble more often than it does. However, I did so want to continue to present the things that this too-little-known poet Fenton Johnson did, that I have “called time” on this piece, and present it here now for you to listen to. Use the player below to hear it.

 

 

God Is In the All Time

I’m continually a few days behind in the past month or so, what with Winter holidays and other appointments and responsibilities. Some of the audio pieces have been recorded especially expeditiously, and another part of this project has been neglected: the searches I take to find words (mostly poetry) I combine with original music.

Because publishers do not respond when I ask for permission to use works that may be in copyright, I am constrained to use written work outside of copyright, typically works published before 1923. Although I respond to, and use, poetry written in various eras, my desire to mix in more contemporary voices leads the Parlando Project to use a lot of poetry from the first two decades of the 20th Century. This is not altogether a bad thing. I happen to like a lot of what these pioneering Modernists did, and in some cases, what we find in the mouth of the “Post-Modern” poetry mainstream delta is worthy of reconsideration in the light of the Modernists. Have stagnant currents deposited silt and detritus at our end of Modernism, its own Mannerism that says that poetry must be written in a special poetic language and syntax, because that is the language that serious poems use? If popular poems are to be about recounting internal personal experience and serious poems are to be about hermetic personal language, what is missed?

Maybe we answer these questions by doing, as we answer other questions (even ones we never ask) by living. In my case, the doing may be by continuing this Parlando Project.

So earlier this month, returning to the research that goes on behind the scenes of this blog, I read two old anthologies of poems now in the public domain, looking for some new material. In one I was attracted to yet another piece by Carl Sandburg, a poet I believe should be reassessed in our time, but hardly an unknown, particularly to readers/listeners here. In the second one I came upon the work of Fenton Johnson for the first time. I’m willing to bet most of you haven’t heard of him.

Johnson, like Sandburg, like William Carlos Williams, wrote Modernist verse while remaining in America. Like William Butler Yeats, his career was long enough that he wrote poems that sounded like the 19th Century before transitioning to a 20th Century voice. Here’s a difference: Fenton Johnson was Afro-American.

OK, let me drop a term here: Identity Politics. I was recently reading a thoughtful blog post on Carl Sandburg compared to Post-Modernist poetry, when the author remarked that Sandburg was able to write in a time preceding Identity Politics. I don’t know enough about Left Write & Centaur’s full thought on Identity Politics, but the implication was that Identity Politics, characterized as the idea that we are silos of individual experience based on membership in social and ethnic groups, who then by implication need to be treated and considered primarily by that identity, is a bad thing.

I agree, that’s a bad thing for the most part. I also believe it’s often a real thing.

The first half: the separation, at least to some degree, of individual experience, is so self-evident I don’t feel I need to argue it. Poetry and literature is to a large part a demonstration of the things that we find unique in individual voices—yes, along with things we can find in common in our lived lives—but if our take on experience wasn’t varied, literature would soon become dull and repetitive (at least to me). Even for those things that we find in common as we read or listen, how would we know without literature or other arts letting us share this?

If we feel that separation is a bad thing, then art is where we go to heal that. The arts are simply a name we give to that sharing of experience.

The second part, that this separation can be handled and considered with bins of people labeled with ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender, age, class, and so forth, this is where it gets real. We cannot wish away with imagination the ways the world labels and files its temporary inhabitants.

Should I care that Fenton Johnson is an Afro-American poet? Should I mention it? Does mentioning it imply some kind of special pleading? As I present a smattering of his development as a poet, will his work become “Well, it’s a Black thing”—a separation surrendered to?

Fenton Johnson

The younger Fenton Johnson. I’m unable to find any later portraits of him.

However we dream our ideal world to come, I know that Fenton Johnson had to deal in the real world of 1918 Chicago, just as he would in 1968 or 2018 Chicago, with his ethnic skin color label on a daily basis. That label doesn’t peel off. No doubt, many he encountered imaginatively filled out that label with a long list of contents, but instead, let’s look from inside Fenton Johnson out at the world.

Will it be the same and different as Frost, Tzara, Sandburg, Rossetti, Tagore, Yeats, and Dickinson? Yes.

Early Fenton Johnson poems often start from a religious theme. This one, “God Is In the All Time”  portrays things from a universalist perspective. To hear my performance, use the player below.

In the Bleak Midwinter

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

Burne-Jones' Nativity

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

 

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

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

Botticelli's Mystic Nativity

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

 

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

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

To un-wrap it, use the player below.