Revisiting Stones Under the Low Limbed Tree, and what’s fair in song-making and translation

Many of the visits to this blog are not you, the regular readers who are reading this fresh post, but views of some older posts via a search engine. A gaggle from Google have come recently to a post from a year ago which doesn’t feature one of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits,” though it does use, in a way, the words of one of America’s most loved poets, Robert Frost.

Here’s a link to that post.  I looked at this post, and I’m not sure what brought it to increased attention, though after re-reading it today, I complemented my past self — who I alternately think is wiser or more foolish than the current occupant of my consciousness. I thought I did a good job of describing how we as writers may improve our work through revision, even though the example I used in the post was my own revision, for my own parochial reasons, of the words of a recognized great poet.

I do that sort of thing to the Greats from time to time — as recently as the last post here with a simple addition of a line as a refrain from a poem by Robert Browning, or more extensively with my extension and relocating a poem by Du Fu that many liked last winter, or further back with a piece of Rupert Brooke’s that became one of the most listened to pieces in the history of this project. I usually feel ambivalent when I do this. At the least, I try to warn you when I intentionally go beyond the original text. In each case above, the author’s dead, there can be no personal hurt or slight for them to feel, but with this project I do take on some duty to the text the author wrote. Have I cheated at my task? Am I dishonoring their work?

Cottonwood Catkins Spinal Halo 1080

How is this photo connected to today’s post? I don’t exactly know. So what should some translator do when asked to present it in their language?

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I’m wrestling with these matters currently with another translation in process,*  a prose-poem by Arthur Rimbaud, particularly with a common issue I come upon in translation: how much did the author intend to be mysterious, and how much did they (or their ideal, likely contemporary reader/listener) understand to be clear in their original language? With translation, one can’t avoid substituting your own words, and likely things like word-order, idiom, and so forth — that’s inescapable, inherent in the task.

In the case of this poem by Frost, my recasting wasn’t so much for immediacy of meaning, or to make an image clearer to our time and place; but to make the poem more sing-able, to fit and obtain impact in a conventional song performance. Yet, the song that I made of it was not very popular with listeners here. When I looked today, it appears that nobody that has visited the post this month has listened to the performance.

Again, complementing my past self, the one I feel I can more often judge objectively; I think I did a pretty good job of the song I derived from inside Frost’s poem “Ghost House” and retitled “Stones Under a Low-Limbed Tree.”  My vocal (often a weak point) was passable — though I idly wish for “cover versions” by a legitimate vocalist for pieces I write and present here — and the rest of the audio piece works well.

So, here’s that audio piece, being presented again for your listening judgement and plausible pleasure. The player gadget should be below, and this highlighted hyperlink will also play it in a new tab if the player doesn’t appear on your device or reader.

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*Following the practice of Robert Okaji, I’ve taken to casting some of my alterations or freer translations as “After a poem by…” — another way to deal with this, though it doesn’t remove all the questions I ask myself.

Stones Under the Low-Limbed Tree

Today’s piece has an eerie history. It started as a poem by Robert Frost, but I think four years ago I turned it into a song. I had more or less forgotten about it, but this past week I found it in some past work that I had separated out to work on for this project.

Looking at it, I put it near the top of the pile. I thought it representative of the best of early Frost, when he was a supple lyric poet. “This’ll be great. So clean in language. So concise in his laying out of the story.”

The process of producing the performance and recording that you can hear below went well enough. So today I was getting ready to write about my experience of Frost’s poem after going through this project’s process. As usual, I wanted to find a location for the original text for those that want to read along. I found a good link to Frost’s poem. It’s here.

Surprise! Turns out I had modified Frost’s poem much more than realized. I had recalled only that I had repurposed a pair of Frost’s lines to create a chorus/refrain—but when looking at the original poem I hardly recognized the text I had been working on during the recording of the performance this month. It turns out, “Ghost House”  (as he titled this piece) was an early poem of Frost’s, written in 1901 and included in A Boy’s Will,  his first collection of poems published in England in 1913. Unlike most of the poems in that collection, “Ghost House”  had been published, back in 1906 in a magazine. The reason A Boy’s Will  was published in England was the Frost had made little headway as a poet in the United States. At that point he was nearing 40 years old, so it’s possible that if Frost hadn’t traveled to and succeeded in England, this greatly loved American poet would be nearly unknown.

I stress the actuality that I had no recollection of recasting the poem extensively when I say that I prefer “my version” to Frost’s original. The lack of any memory of the work I did means that this judgement is rather impersonal. Frost’s “Ghost House”  isn’t bad, but it’s not as distinguished as other poems in his early work. It seems more 19th century for one thing. It also overdoes it, seeming to confuse more elaboration and details for more impact and substance.

Stones Under the Low-Limbed Tree

Here’s Frost’s poem as revised for singing.

 

When I briefly try to reconstruct what I did to make the text for today’s piece, I see I used his lines for the most part, but I trimmed out much. My lyric is essentially 17 lines. Frost’s is 30. I dropped entire images, some inconcrete and a bit trite (“I dwell with a strangely aching heart”—you’ve shown us that mood Robert, telling us that is less vivid), and some redundant (we’ve got raspberries and grapevines, we don’t need the apple tree* too). Then too, I chopped the entire whippoorwill stanza, which some argue contains the key image in the poem.**

I also may have just been trying to make it more sing-able.

These two things are lessons. First, poetry often gains power by saying something in its most striking, sensual, and strong way—or even when it’s being less direct, by combining a few things (perhaps only two things) in an unexpected but powerful way. Everything beyond that may detract. The second-best or third-best image subtracts by its addition. Frame your best images, don’t embarrassingly hide them in clutter. And secondly, at least with lyric poetry, when it sings it means.  Poetry works through the music of thought. Even something that clarifies the meaning or explains further a point may sometimes be dispensed with in order to make a poem a musical statement that will lodge in the reader/listener’s ear, and via that canal to their brain. In this case I don’t think I sacrificed clarity, but also I don’t think I could sing Frost’s version—and at least in my case, I didn’t remember his.

Did what I do mean I think I’m a better poet than Robert Frost? Nope. I also may not be a better poet than you. But on any one day, on a particular task, with a particular aim, I might be. Frost was a famously grumpy personality, but perhaps his ghost has mellowed with immortality. If so, I hope he might think I served the inspiration of his early poem by trimming it back. Or maybe I didn’t make these changes, since I don’t remember? Perhaps Frost’s ghost came by and made the revision?

To separate this version from the canonical Frost version I call it “Stones Under the Low-Limbed Tree.”   The player gadget for my performance is below. Oh, and do follow at least one of the links in the first footnote below. You’ll visit other ghost farmsteads in search of fruit still yielding outside fallen cellar walls.

 

 

 

*This morning I read this fascinating story that went out on the AP wire. It covers something called the “Lost Apple Project” which is haunting abandoned farmsteads looking for old varieties of apples that sustained—or tried to sustain—homesteaders. Oh man did this resonate when working on this piece!

**I didn’t know, but some readings of “Ghost House”  say the whippoorwill is known as a bird foretelling death or other disasters. News to me. Even if I knew that, foretelling seems to blunt the impact of the poem as I cast it. In my mind the point is that the death/disaster has already occurred. Yes I know, some readings say that the poem’s speaker is either dead or gothically welcoming death for himself. I don’t disagree with that, but it doesn’t change my view. Even if the speaker is still alive but wants death, an omen bird’s warning is gilding the raven.

Ollendorf’s Wife ‘Bout Changes and Things

Despite Orrick Johns’ lack of poetic fame, our curious audience seems to be responding to “Ollendorf’s Wife.”  Are you forgiving my unilateral revision of Johns’ 1917 words?

OK, here’s another rule breaker. The same day that I recorded the acoustic version of“Ollendorf’s Wife”  I also recorded this folk-rock performance with bass, drums, organ, and electric guitars. Is it better or worse than the acoustic version? I can’t say.

By subtitling this post/version “’Bout Changes & Things” I’m making an obscure reference to a quixotic mid-60s LP by Eric Anderson. Anderson was one of a handful of Greenwich Village folkies well positioned in the ‘60s to step into the new post-Bob Dylan breakthrough were the singers were expected to write their own songs with poetic sounding lyrics. ’Bout Changes & Things  had some of Anderson’s best early songs, songs that were already getting covered by some of the same acts that might also use a Dylan song.

However, about the time it came out another sea-change was occurring. Everyone’s folksinger records were starting to use electric instruments and drum-sets. Earnest acoustic guitar LPs with maybe Spike Lee’s dad on standup bass or Bruce Langhorne on “second guitar” were no longer what was expected. Dylan goes electric! The Byrds were having hits with folk songs and glorious electric 12-string guitars, John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky had formed the Lovin’ Spoonful.

The trend was so strong that the production equivalent of revisionist history was resorted to. Tom Wilson overdubbed some session men on top of an already released but unnoticed Simon and Garfunkel song “The Sounds of Silence.”*  Alan Douglas took old tapes of Richie Havens and added new instruments to make “Electric Havens.”**  The former created a hit record and launched a career. The later couldn’t stop the undeniable soul force that was Havens.

Producers and Piano Players

Producers and piano players: Alan Douglass with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus
Tom Wilson producing “Like a Rolling Stone” with Bob Dylan

 

Eric Anderson just went back into the studio and re-recorded his whole album with a band, and it was released as ’Bout Changes ‘n’ Things Take 2.  It did nothing for his career, and maybe even hurt it. It probably seemed not authentic, scene chasing, or some other sin.

Bout Changes and Things x2

Revisions: One set of songs, two albums.

 

So, there you go, one guy in Greenwich Village years ago who seemed at one point the equal of a lot of other up-and-comers but turned out to be a damp squib that didn’t ignite. And another guy. Same story.

To hear my folk-rock performance of “Ollendorf’s Wife,”  use the player below.

 

 

 

 

*Tom Wilson is another one of those “Why don’t more people know about him” characters. Besides midwifing Simon and Garfunkel’s first hit, even a brief look at who he worked with listed in his Wikipedia article should amaze anyone with any interest in mid-century American music. This labor of love web site can tell you more.

**Alan Douglas has an impressively varied producer’s resume similar to Wilson’s, but his ghost could probably stand to be less well-known. His overdubs of Havens work are largely forgotten, but he spent a couple of decades redoing tracks in the Jimi Hendrix archives (including replacing parts on the tapes with newly recorded session men) in an effort that was increasingly seen as fraudulent and cheesy. It’s not that I can’t see their critics’ point regarding Douglas’ Hendrix releases, and the resulting recordings are a mixed bag, but I indulge in the same sins of reusing and re-doing other artists work.

Ollendorf’s Wife

I’m going to do something this time that I’ve done before but is rarely done.

I’m going to revise someone else’s poem without their permission—which I would feel bound to obtain, but the author Orrick Johns is long dead. The last time I did this, it was Rupert Brooke’s work I used, and my excuse was that his fragment that I presented here as On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli”  was likely an early draft left unpolished due to Brooke’s death.

Orrick Johns published “Ollendorf’s Wife”  in his first book-length 1917 collection Asphalt and Other Poems.  There’s little online to help me make sense of Johns’ life, but it’s probable that Asphalt and Other Poems  collected early work Johns had written in his twenties. While most of the poems are short lyrics, Johns works there in several styles. The poems are rhymed, not the free verse of “Blue Undershirts”  that made such an impression on William Carlos Williams. The opening section, “Asphalt” is an odd set of doggerel poems in dialect. I have trouble reading dialect poems, and from my vantage point as a mid-20th century man I can’t make out what ethnicity Johns is representing in these poems. There’s a lot of dropped consonants and dere’s, dem’s and de’s. I assume these poems are intended to be proletarian poetry and demonstrate John’s solidarity.

Another section “The City”  has other poems dealing with social issues of the day, but without the distraction of dialect. It includes one of the book’s longer poems, “Second Avenue,”  infamous in its moment of possible fame for being the poem that beat out Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Renascence”  in The Lyric Year’s  poetry contest.

Almost nothing in Asphalt and Other Poems  grabbed me. Nothing passed the Emily Dickinson test, there was no spectral cold and the top of my head remained attached throughout. While it was trying to depict its modern world, the music was awkward for me, with some forced poetic diction and conventional sentiments that made it more similar to Margaret Widdemer than Millay or Sara Teasdale, contemporaries that were writing prize-winning short rhymed lyrics at the same time as Johns. Like Widdemer, and unlike Millay or Teasdale, the poetry in this book of Orrick John’s is understandably forgotten.

There was one poem in a section titled “Country Rhymes”  that did seem to have a germ of something though.

Ollendorfs Wife 1 Page final

Johns’ poem as it appeared in “Asphalt and Other Poems”

 

Like T. S. Eliot, Johns grew up in St. Louis, but unlike Eliot he stayed in the Midwest for college. The “Country Rhymes”  section reflects that longer experience, and nowhere better than in “Ollendorf’s Wife.”  First off, the poem is generally free verse, with uneven line lengths and sparse rhymes. And it has some vivid images. Ollendorf’s wife significantly has no name of her own in the poem. She works her farm plot assiduously, with no love showing in her face, but also as if it’s her last child. How many children, like her name, go significantly unmentioned? The fields she works, and the farm wife are “drawn together” by a “knowledge…greater” than “each other’s best.”

At its core, this poem works by the things it leaves out, fulfilling Hemmingway’s Modernist theory that you can remove the most important things in a story correctly, and by doing so depict them all the more intensely.

So out of care for “Ollendorf’s Wife,”  I revised it, intensifying that paring away of the unneeded, leaving only the cutout cameo around the farm-wife’s charged day in a life. I added nothing really, but took away words that restated something otherwise established, and rewrote lines aiming to make connections stronger. I made one additional repeat of the “day after day” phrase, because there the repetition is  the image. Though I intended to perform my revision, I generally wasn’t thinking of making the poem more “sing-able” as I changed things, but I suspect that factor worked its way in as well.

Ollendorfs Wife revised

Here’s my revised version of Orrick John’s poem

 

As I said at the beginning, this is not something that is commonly done. There are poems that use the subscript of “after a poem by…” but those poems that are revised and re-voiced are usually much older or in a different language than the new version. Obviously, such an act could fail as well as succeed. You are the judge in this case. The gadget to hear my performance of my revised version of Orrick John’s “Ollendorf’s Wife” is below.

 

On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli

In the past few posts I’ve mentioned how Ezra Pound was more than an exemplary writer, theorist, and promoter for the early 20th Century modernist poetic movement that he called Imagism. He was also an excellent editor.

His most famous blue pencil job remains T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,”  but he also worked with H.D. and Ernest Hemingway, teaching with his editing how to pare away extra words, overused similes, and extraneous authorial sentiment. And once shown, those writers we able to use Pound’s insights to do the create their own pared down, modern styles.

In the last episode, I noted that Pound had been critical of some WWI poems written by Rupert Brooke. Here for example is the first part of Brooke’s most famous war poem “The Soldier:”

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England.  There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body of England’s, breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

Written as England entered into WWI, and as Brooke himself rushed to enlist, this poem was embraced by a patriotic public almost immediately. If one shares it’s sentiments, the actual technique of the poetry probably admits no impediments to a reader, even today—but ask yourself, does it have a sense of actual immediacy? As you read, do you share with a fellow human, feeling, seeing, smelling, this experience? What I get as I read it is a thought, where a soldier thinks that if he dies in battle and his body rots overseas, that his body will homeopathically retain its English birth and experience, and that experience, it is inferred, is worth dying for. Why? Well because the poet says so, and he says it with rather polite poetical words. “Die” and “dust” are perfectly good, simple words, but as a description of death and decomposition, they are surrounded by forevers, flowers, air, rivers, and sun—all presumably sweet and genteel.

Rupert Brooke died at age 27 of an illness he contracted while on his way to the Gallipoli campaign in his war, but what if he, like Yeats, had continued to live and react to the developments of his young century? And what if Ezra Pound had gotten a hold of him and showed him how to punch up his verse?

NPG P101(a); Rupert Brooke

Rupert Brooke, charter member of “The 27 Club

 

Today’s piece shows what could have happened. One of the last things Brooke wrote was this fragment written on the troop ship in the month he died. Here’s the original:

I strayed about the deck, an hour, to-night

Under a cloudy moonless sky; and peeped

In at the windows, watched my friends at table,

Or playing cards, or standing in the doorway,

Or coming out into the darkness. Still

No one could see me.
I would have thought of them

–Heedless, within a week of battle–in pity,

Pride in their strength and in the weight and firmness

And link’d beauty of bodies, and pity that

This gay machine of splendour ‘ld soon be broken,

Thought little of, pashed, scattered. . . .
Only, always,

I could but see them—against the lamplight–pass

Like coloured shadows, thinner than filmy glass,

Slight bubbles, fainter than the wave’s faint light,

That broke to phosphorous out in the night,

Perishing things and strange ghosts–soon to die

To other ghosts–this one, or that, or I.

What can I, acting as Pound might have, do with this? Well first I can locate the charged images in it, hidden as they are inside Brooke’s extraneous comment. What are they? The soldier pacing at night on his troop ship. He’s staring back inside the ship, looking at his fellow recruits on the way to their first battle. If we have any empathy as readers, we don’t need to be told anything about what he’s feeling if it can be conveyed by what he’s seeing. What are our charged images? The troops are playing cards, games of soldier’s chances. They can’t see the poet, and he can see them only imperfectly, backlit by uneven lighting, “coloured shadows,” which is a great image obscured by all the muck about it. And he sees the faint light of a wave’s phosphorescence as bioluminescent plankton are sweep aside by the wake of the ship. The soldiers, and the poet himself, are already in the course of war, like ghosts, fleetingly seen, or only partially and incorporeally seen.

Have you tried the exercise where you make a poem by taking a marker and blacking out most of page of text, revealing a poem could be in what remains? That’s like what I did with Brooke’s fragment:

On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli

I strayed about the deck, an hour,

Under a cloudy moonless sky.

Peeped in at the windows,

Watched my friends

At table, playing cards,

Standing in the doorway,

Out into the darkness.

No one could see me.

I could but see them

Against the lamplight,

Coloured shadows,

Thinner than glass.

A wave’s faint light,

Broken to phosphorous.

Perishing things and strange ghosts

Steaming to other ghosts,

Only, always.

I removed over a hundred words that didn’t need to be there, which covered up what did need to be there. I don’t need to say that these things relate to each other, putting them in a short poem together makes that clear. I added only one word, choosing to add “steaming” instead of just “to other ghosts” because it’s an action word, and because “steam,” though active and industrious, is another thing that dissipates and disappears.

I have two unfair advantages over Rupert Brooke as I transformed his words. First, he died in service to his country shortly after writing this, so he didn’t have the chance to revise his fragment. Secondly, the place he was going, Gallipoli, and the outcome for so many British and Commonwealth soldiers who were deployed there is now infamous for poor tactics and horrendous casualties. I can simply use “Gallipoli” in the title and magnify the dread of soldiers on their way to battle.

Today’s episode is dedicated to Julie Shapiro, who introduced me to Eric Bogle’s “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.”  This is a song about Australian troops at Gallipoli, and though I can link to one of my favorite singers, June Tabor’s, version of it, there is nothing but my memory to testify to the devastating version Julie used to perform.

My First Guitar

My first guitar, purchased for $40 in 1974, and played on today’s audio piece

 

Long post again, no time to talk much about the music for this performance. Perhaps I don’t need to tell, you just need to hear it. Use the player below then for my performance of a revised fragment by Rupert Brooke.