My November Guest

Back in 1916 American Poet Robert Frost published this short poem about what we’d today call Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is that syndrome where the increased darkness and other autumn changes set off depression in some individuals. Like many early Frost poems, it’s a beautiful, graceful poem with effective yet unaffected rhyme and meter — but when I saw it early today in a Twitter post by Cian McCarthy I was struck at the unusual way Frost treated this account of seasonal depression.

“My November Guest”  is set in the time of year we’re experiencing in my part of Minnesota this week. We’ve had two days of dark rain, even thunderstorms, the rain falling unbroken through the bald branches of the trees. It was around 60 degrees F. when I awoke this morning. I rode my bicycle to breakfast at a café wearing shorts as I might in spring, but when I rode past a small pond on my route I noted per the Keats of memory that “The sedge has withered from the lake/And no birds sing.” I returned home and spent an hour or so reading on our porch, but the forecast says it’ll be 26 F by midnight. Snow and ice will be falling north of us over the evening. “Robert Frost” is certainly the correct name for a poet to describe this.

Within the poem’s 20 lines Frost recounts a conversation between the poem’s narrator (we’ll say it’s Frost for simplicities sake as I paraphrase the poem) and his “Sorrow” (the poem’s name for depression.) Most of the conversation are points sorrow (simultaneously personified as external nature) is making to Frost. Sorrow/nature is stating that these dark days could be seen as beautiful. Frost says he is listening to this, feels what his sorrow is telling him has worth. The poem continues: the absent bird song, no colorful leaves on the trees, the cold mist — is it the dullness of grey or the burnish of silver? “You can’t see this as beautiful” nature concludes.

My November Guest

Here is the song I produced from Frost’s poem in songsheet format. I present these in hope that better singers than I might perform them.

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Frost’s last stanza is his part of the conversation. “Yes, I know how to read the book of nature — or at least the calendar. I wasn’t born yesterday.” His day, the poem’s day, like my day today, may have been dark and damp, but it wasn’t yet the winter that is coming over the walls of the calendar’s date-boxes soon. I know I’ll miss sitting on the porch, biking without mitts, streets only wet not packed with snow or ice. The early and long November darkness may overwhelm us, set off mad clocks inside us, but that’s only dark, only hidden. Or so we tell ourselves and light our LUX lamps. Frost says it’d be vanity to tell his sorrow and this nature this, his mere knowledge, for nature knows the is  of this that surpasses knowledge.

Today’s music is a simple arrangement: me singing with acoustic guitar, as I quickly spent the middle of the day setting Frost’s poem to music and then recording it efficiently in my studio space before I need to hide my microphones from HVAC noises there. You can hear it with a player gadget where you can see that, or with this backup highlighted link for those who can’t.

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Synchronicity: Spring 2022 Parlando Top Ten numbers 4-2

Sometime before The Police made it an album title, this project’s alternate voice and keyboard player Dave Moore took to using the term synchronicity to explain some things that going forward cause significant effects where there was no pre-existing reason or even connection. Maybe me seeing Dave read a poem in a church while we were both teenagers would be an example. Or here’s another one: an American poet who had generated no interest in America travels to England and creates not one but two poetry careers. And then that runs together with the next three pieces in our countdown to the most popular piece with listeners over this past spring.

Robert Frost went to England largely unpublished and un-heralded in 1912. He was 37. If you were thinking of starting a fantasy draft league for poets in 1912, Frost could not be your pick. I’m not enough of a scholar to know all the reasons for this move, but it might well have been because some of what Frost was writing chimed with poetry that had been published and reached an audience in the UK, poetry that used a rhymed/metrical lyrical voice to portray unpretentious countryside settings. While living in England Frost met another writer, the 35-year-old Edward Thomas. Thomas, also not your fantasy poet draft pick — he wasn’t even writing poetry. The two took a liking to each other.

Frost rather quickly found an English publisher while in England, and published two book-length collections containing many of the poems he’s still best known for. American Ezra Pound took to praising Frost to Americans, and Frost’s career was launched!

4. The Aim was Song by Robert Frost.  Coming in at number four in our spring countdown this year we find the now successful Frost with a poem published first in America. It’s a natural text for this Project because it uses music as a metaphor in a very musical poem. It’s been popular here over the years since I first presented it, and it was one of the most popular pieces among the 30 I re-released for National Poetry Month this April.

You can hear my performance of “The Aim Was Song”  with a player many will see just below this paragraph, or with this alternative highlighted link, which is here for those that won’t see the player.

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So, what happened to our Edward Thomas? Thomas’ writing was focused on work-for-hire, the scriveners gig-economy of the time set to fill column inches in magazines and newspapers. Thomas’ personal interests were present in some of those works: he was an avid walker, bicyclist, and amateur naturalist. Like Emily Dickinson, no plant is encountered in Thomas’ writing and is not given a specific name or description. And likewise birdsong. Thomas kept journals, and they too have passages filled with the countryside carefully observed.

Frost saw Thomas’ writing, declared to his friend that he already had the stuff of poetry, and analyzed Thomas’ situation as a “suffering from a life in subordination to his inferiors.” Thomas subsequently took up writing poems with the now published and becoming-known Frost’s encouragement. However, time was marching up on the pair with a large surprise — a world war was about to break out.

Thomas’ non-militarist outlook, his middle-age, and his family for which he was the sole support non-withstanding, Thomas seemed drawn to military service for his country. Frost moved back to America to further build on his growing reputation there. He put forth a standing offer for Thomas and his family to join him in the United States.

3. Gone Gone Again by Edward Thomas.  Here’s a poem Thomas wrote during this time, and it’s a wistful evocation of war’s absences. In England Thomas is often thought of as a war poet, and there are reasons for that. But one of the uniqueness’s in his poems set during the time of WWI is that they avoid tableaus of the battlefields and the action set thereupon. “Gone Gone Again”  is a poem of what’s not there: people, workers who are now soldiers.

Thomas enlisted, trained as a lieutenant, a most dangerous job in the warfare of the time. After duty in England (he helped make maps, an apt job for a man who so well knew the countryside) he shipped overseas to the battlefront, where he was shortly killed.

Like for some young poets and musicians, death was a good career move for Thomas. Friends posthumously published a collection of the freshly-written poems that Thomas had crafted in only a couple of years writing verse. Attention was paid in the UK to the “war poets” and everything Thomas wrote was read in the context of that cataclysmic event for Great Britain.

One poem Thomas wrote, based on a journal entry from a train ride he took on this very day, June 24th in the summer of 1914, became his best-known and loved poem in his home country: “Adlestrop.”   You can hear my performance of “Adlestrop”  here.

Or you can celebrate “Adlestrop day” with this “lyric video” from earlier this year.

.Most Americans don’t know this poem or Thomas. I didn’t, until 2016 when one summer day of unwonted heat the train I was to make was subject to what became an hours-long delay in arriving at Kingham. The heat was such that trains had been stopped for fear of track failure. I can recall the trees and foliage swaying in the summer breeze at the little station, some small bird activity, a station caretaker who arrived to drip a watering can into some hanging plants on the platform. It was only afterwards that I learned of this poem, set in the very next town on that trainline, the even littler town whose trainstop had been removed some years back. Rod Serling should have come out the station door with a skinny tie and a summer-cut suit to quip on that synchronicity. Did I miss him because I wasn’t looking for him, because I didn’t know any of that until after I had been in Kingham that afternoon? Thomas’ poem was, and to some significant degree still is, loved because a few days after Thomas was stuck in Adlestrop, an Archduke got assassinated and the slow-motion trainwreck of WWI broke out over the ensuing summer. Thomas wrote his most famous poem afterward, referring to his memory and journal entries, and so he likely intended this poem to be read, like “Gone Gone Again,”  as a study in absences, a summer day with a peaceful nothing-urgent before “the guns of August.”

To hear “Gone Gone Again,”  there’s a graphical player for some — and you others? This link.

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2. Cock Crow by Edward Thomas.  So, is Thomas only  a war poet? Could he have been something else? I think it’s highly likely. He was a troubled man, some other calamity less nation-shared than a World War could have taken him early, but the more I read, even his slightest poems, the more I see why Frost was taken with him, and why even Americans who may not share the cathedral-plaque reverence given UK war poets might still discover him. When I read “Cock Crow”  in a 1920’s anthology of Thomas’ contemporaries this past spring I was struck by how much fresher and less puffed up with ineffective references Thomas’ writing was set against the field. And Americans, whose culture received a 19th century dosage of Transcendentalism, love our closely observed nature poetry perhaps more than Brits. Maybe I feel a connection from that afternoon in Kingham, and that prejudices my reading?

Bird song occurs in “Cock Crow’s”   title and text, and in reply I was pleased I was able to end my performance of it with a choral part. You can hear it with the player, or its backup, this link.

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“Cock Crow”  got a lot of listens. I thought it might be the most liked and listened to one, but when I totaled them all up this June, another piece beat it out. I’ll be back soon with the most popular piece this past spring. It’s a surprising one.

Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.) for National Poetry Month

It’s Easter and time to close my short Edward Thomas series for National Poetry Month with a short elegy written by a poet both less and more known than Thomas in the United States.

But before I get to that, let me fill in a few spaces in the Edward Thomas story. I ran into Thomas while researching Robert Frost’s stay in England before WWI. During this time three things happened that are part of our story: Frost published his first poetry collection in London (no one in American publishing was interested in Frost then). Frost was praised by Ezra Pound as an authentic new poetic voice and he finally gains attention in America. A man who made and kept few friends, Frost made one with Edward Thomas. Accounts have it that it was Frost himself who told Thomas that he was a poet who could and should write poetry, starting off the around two-year binge of poetry writing that comprises Thomas’ legacy today.

Thomas’ poetry, metrical and rhymed like Frost’s, has, like the best of early Frost, a sense of the direct object that the Imagists (promoted by Pound) were all about. Read quickly and with casual attention this poetry can seem cold or slight. Who cares about the red wheelbarrow, or that it’s quiet in an English village when the train stops except for a spreading universe of birdsong, or that there’s an abandoned woodpile in a frozen bog? Where’s the breast beating, the high-flown similes, the decoration of gods and abstracts?

In the face of World War I, a war the old gods and abstracts seemed to cause and will onward — to the result of turning “young men to dung” as Thomas said last time — all that seemed beside the point. Thomas knew that, and knew that. He was philosophically a pacifist, an internationalist. None-the-less in 1915, in his late 30s and the sole breadwinner for his family,* he enlisted in the Artists Rifles. He had one other offer: Frost had asked Thomas and Thomas’ family to join him in America.

There’s this other famous point in the Frost-Thomas connection: what may be Frost’s most beloved poem, “The Road Not Taken”  was written about his friend Thomas and their walks about in England. Frost meant to gently chide his friend’s intense observation and concern for choices on smallest evidence, though many who love the poem today take it as the motto for the importance of life choices. Some misremember Frost poem as “The Road Less Travelled By,”  when in the text the poem’s speaker says the two roads were ‘really about the same.”  Thomas’ two roads in the matter of the war were not “really about the same.”

Thomas chose to sign up with the Artists Rifles. You may think, “What an odd name? What’s up with that?” Well, it was what it sounds like. It was founded about 50 years earlier by some painters who wanted to start their own volunteer military unit. It saw action in some of the British colonialist battles before WWI, and in-between it was sort of a shooting club, a weekend-warrior kind of thing. Sound like an old-school-tie/old-boys club? I guess it was. Even during WWI it was invitation-only from existing members. So what happened with it during WWI? It produced junior officers, the kind of lieutenants and scouts that would account for the unit having some of the highest casualty rates in the war. So, there you have it: an exclusive club where the winnowing greeter is waving you in to the trenches and a mechanized manure-spreader of a war.

Busts of Mars and Minerva are featured in the unit’s insignia. “Artists Rifles” sounds kin to Sex Pistols or Guns & Roses, doesn’t it?

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While still in England and in training with his unit, Thomas was able to mix with his circle of friends. He shipped out to France in 1917. He was killed a few weeks later, during what he thought was a lull in the battle. A late shell or sniper got him. He’d written about 100 poems, none of them published at the time of his death. His friends, other poets, wrote elegies. I know of at least three. Here’s a link to a post on another admirable blog, Fourteen Lines, which includes two of those elegies to Thomas.

One of them is by Robert Frost. Re-reading it again I think, Frost must have been so grief stricken that he’d forgotten to be Robert Frost. It’s filled with the kind of fustian crap, romanticism, and poetic diction that Frost the rhyming Modernist was all about throwing off. I tend to forget the poems that don’t give me strong pleasures, so maybe I’m overlooking something, but this elegy may be the worst poem Robert Frost ever wrote. By the time I got to “You went to meet the shell’s embrace of fire” I was through with Frost’s attempt.

Oh, if he could have concentrated on the concrete, the palpable. He may not have known it, but the records of the British military recorded the meagre personal effects found on Thomas’ body: a small notebook/journal, a watch, a compass, a copy of Shakespeare poems…and “Mountain Interval,”  one of Frost’s poetry collections now published in an expanding career in the United States.

So, to end the story of Edward Thomas, who found himself as a poet in middle age writing about how England changed as war arrived, only to die in that war, I chose to perform the second one in Fourteen Lines’ post “Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.)”  by Eleanor Farjeon. Farjeon, like yesterday’s Edna Clarke Hall, was a young woman enamored of Thomas** who like Frost and Hall enjoyed walks with Thomas in the countryside. While few Americans are familiar with any of Thomas’ poems,*** Farjeon wrote the lyrics to the hymn song “Morning Has Broken”  which became famous on the back of a Yusef Cat Stevens 1971 performance, and as I write this it may be being sung in an Easter service in my country. So, many Americans know a Farjeon poem, but since Yusef Cat Stevens was known as a songwriter, most probably think he  wrote the words.

Farjeon’s elegy for Thomas doesn’t’ make the mistakes Frost made. It begins as particular and offhand as Frank O’Hara’s masterpiece elegy “The Day Lady Died.”   I don’t know if it’s intended, but after yesterday’s poem of Thomas’ “Gone, Gone Again”   Farjeon picks up with Thomas’ love for apples, speaking of a package of English apples she’d sent to him at the front and of the budding apple trees in the orchard around her. Like “Morning Has Broken,” “Easter Monday”  starts in Eden, and where can we go from there?

The oblique grief of her last line? What can I say…

I may or may not do a lyric video for this one, but you can hear my performance of Eleanor Farjeon’s “Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.)”  two ways now. There’s a graphical player below for some, and for those without the ability to see that, this highlighted link.

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*It hadn’t occurred to me, but some have pointed out that a steady paycheck, even if soldier’s pay, may have been one of Thomas’ motivations. His freelance writing work was always running to catch up with the bills.

**Thomas’ wife was open to these relationships, and was friends with Hall and Farjeon before and after Edward’s death. As I said last time, Edward Thomas’ emotional and love life would make a fascinating TV series.

***In England, Thomas is better-known. “Adlestrop”  often ranks in best-loved poem surveys there.

Stopping by a Woods with Bad Cellphone Service for National Poetry Month

A couple of posts back I suggested we do more than poetry prompts or poem a day writing challenges for National Poetry Month. Here’s a demonstration of an idea that’s half-way there. While still a poetry writing prompt, it also acknowledges the tradition we’re working in.

Write a parody of a poem you like, you dislike, or you just have heard too too-often that you want to mess with it.*

One of the first teenage poems I wrote decades ago was a parody of Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn”  titled “Ode to a 1953 Automobile Ad.”   I loved Keats’ poem, and while I wanted the smile that my title could engender, my parody was more at pointing out that Keats’ painful air of not-quite-realized truth portraying beauty wasn’t just a 19th century thing. Like most all of Sappho, that one may be lost to the ages, but here’s one recent enough to have been performed in the early years of this project: “Stopping by a Woods with Bad Cellphone Service.”

Did I like, hate, or just want to mess with Frost’s Stopping by a Woods on a Snowy Evening?”   Maybe a little of each. Long time readers here will remember that I disliked Frost in my youth. I thought then he was spouting platitudes, but I was wrong on that. When I presented Frost’s “Snowy Evening”  here years back I said that the most important thing in the poem has been little realized. The poem’s speaker isn’t being tempted by wasting time admiring natural beauty. He’s not seeking Transcendentalist truth by closely reading the book of nature — though Frost does read the book of nature, his readings are unusually dark. Those are common understandings of Frost’s poem, which do sort of find the poem’s ending as a platitude: “You know what you need to do, get to work.” So is it darker? Is he basically being tempted to crawl into the woods and end it all? Not quite that either. The most important fact in the story of this poem is that the speaker is lost  on a rural road in the early 20th century on the “darkest evening of the year,” which would be utter darkness in the days before electric light. There’s no beautiful Currier & Ives woods. It’s so deserted and without information you can hear snowflakes rubbing on each other. The famous opening is (with added italics) “Whose woods these are I think  I know.” Not really knowing = lost. When he decides to press on, it’s the act of acting without there being any knowledge that he’s going the right way. The poem sounds beautiful, and that ennobles that act, even if it says the speaker may have been foolish and is risking acting without knowledge at the end.

Frost Drake

April is National Poetry Month, and spring is here. Two gentlemen are unbuttoning their coats.

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My parody is more lighthearted, and is set in the 21st century, but like a lot of jokes the situation isn’t pleasant. By writing a parody you are acknowledging the poem and your knowledge of it — so even if your parody is meant as a corrective to make the reader never read the original poem the same way again, you are engaging in the type of activity I’m urging more of this Poetry Month: that we should encourage more expression not just by adding to the sum total of poetic examples of it, but by acknowledging it in others.

Three ways to hear The LYL Band rip into this snowy poem: this is the link to a lyric video, or (for some of you) a player gadget below to hear just the audio, and finally there’s this fallback link that will play it also.

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*There’s a long tradition of this in poetry and songs. It’s not just Weird Al. In my youth they were called “answer records” — and later on in hip hop, a “dis track” might twist someone else’s rhymes or musical samples in service of dialectic. We’ve presented some poetic “answer records” here. Like this famous set of poems here and here. Or this quippish answer I appended to another short poem.

I also sometimes make moves that feel a little like parody in some of my looser or “after” translations of older poems. Here’s one example. And another. And one more. These aren’t meant to be “funny ha-hah,” but there’s a pleasure in finding history’s cultural “rhymes.”

The Aim Was Song for National Poetry Month

It’s National Poetry Month, and we’re celebrating here by re-releasing some of my favorite pieces from early in this project’s six-year history. Today’s poem’s poet is American Robert Frost speaking about spring, spring winds, and the poets’ transcendental task of continuing and shaping nature.

I’ve often reminded readers here that I didn’t care for Robert Frost when I was a young person. He was still a living poet while I was a teenager, and I associated him (wrongly) with dreary homilies and his placement in the school anthologies as the most recent poet included. More than once I complained to teachers and any fellow students who seemed at all interested in poetry that there had to be something, someone, newer and more relevant than Frost that could be studied.

What I didn’t know then was that Frost could be a nimble lyric poet delivering subtle messages, and that he was, in the generational nomenclature that would come 20 years later than my youthful 1960’s complaints, “a slacker.”

Frost spent the first 40 years of his life basically failing and flailing as a poet and human being. American interest in his poetry was nil. Only after wandering to England did he find a publisher for his first collection and a key promoter in fellow American in pre-WWI England, Ezra Pound. Pound was nearly a dozen years younger than Frost.

Frost didn’t write poetry as memoir, as many modern poets do, but all that experience made it into his poetry. Frost wrote often of failure and limitations* — but today’s poem “The Aim Was Song”  isn’t one of those poems. First published 101 years ago, this is Frost exulting in the triumphs of poets and poetry after he had finally broken through into acclaim in his home country. And it’s a good one for the Parlando Project to perform during National Poetry Month because Frost’s imagery here celebrates the oral, vocal, and musical heart of poetry. Also it’s an excuse for the composer to tell the guitar player: “Why don’t you turn up and play some.”**

Laptops were larger and more wooden in Robert Frost’s day. 

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As with our other re-releases this April, you can hear my performance of this poem with the player gadget below (where seen), or this highlighted link, as well as with today’s low-budget lyric video that is trying to catch the attention of additional listeners to the Parlando Project.

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*By the time his poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay”  was made into a motif in The Outsiders  movie in the 1980s, “slackers” could sense that kinship that I missed.

**OK, it’s the same guy, so the guitar player has considerable influence over the composer.

Coyotes

Today let’s examine the place of hands and humor in poetry and music. Let’s start with hands, before we turn to the subject of humor and a poem about farming.*

You just heard alternate Parlando Project voice Dave Moore last time here, but besides letting you get a break from my vocals, Dave has played keyboards with me since the late 1970s as the core of The LYL Band. That’s a long piece of work, particularly in that I’ve needed him more than he’s needed me with this. Here are the basics of that: I’m a poor rhythm guitarist. I like to add color and decoration whether the song is fast and loud or quiet and moody. Groove, beat, a solid march of chords to carry you along? Not in my wheelhouse. The LYL Band has had other guitarists over the years to handle some of that, but most of the time it’s been down to Dave for the chords and groove. Back in the earliest days of recording us, when four tracks were a fresh luxury, I’d put Dave’s keys on the same track as a drum machine, sure that he’d be solid as the machine.

Now we’ve both got some mileage on our hands, and Dave has encountered some issues with both of his arms and hands. He tells me that the fingers just won’t do what he asks them to do some of the time. He’s become more like me now as a musician: able to do some things, some days, within limits. My own hands have had problems too, which currently are no worse, and many days a little better. Oddly, writing and composing can let my hands weaken. To wrangle a guitar as I often like to takes not just flexibility but also finger strength which is best approached by regular use with a gentle uptake, not a two-hour live session where I need them to work right off after weeks of musing on poetry and tapping out a sonnet. I’ve been trying to carve out more time to “just play” in order to keep my digits loose and strong.

So, when Dave and I got together this month to honor our friends who’ve recently died, I assessed that my hands were ready to rumble by current standards; but Dave, while game, wasn’t sure. During the session, he did all right, even if he wasn’t nearly as strong as he was in our little band for years.

Now on to humor. Kevin FitzPatrick was a poet we got together to honor. We both knew him for decades, and Kevin even played a little blues harmonica with us a few times in the early days. One thing that Kevin’s poetry often used was his dry sense of humor. If his poems “had other people in them” the interaction between those characters was often humorous. Humor is like that, isn’t it? With poetry one can easily fill a chapbook with solitary musings, singing philosophies, and hermit’s prayers, but humor generally requires other people, our rubs, our missed and kissed connections.

Kevin’s final collection Still Living in Town  has several characters, but the central ones were his own persona, a city-living office employee and his life partner, Tina, a woman who had decided she wanted the rural life — and not a Walden cabin in the woods, but a farm growing a variety of produce and sheep.**  Kevin was in his 60s, but he was a big fit guy (he boxed and taught martial arts in his youth) and however urban his life had been, his character pitched in with the farm labor.

Kevin’s farm poems are and aren’t like Robert Frost’s to compare them to a famous example. That Kevin could approach a blank verse feel in some poems would connect them — but Frost, urban-born and professionally an itinerant teacher, liked to cast his persona in his farming poems as knowledgeable and in place with farming, while Kevin portrayed himself with beginner’s mind on the farm. Given that fewer living readers have any connection with farm work, Still Living in Town  invites us into that milieu wonderfully.

The poem of Kevin’s I used for today’s piece is looser metrically, but while it’s set in like weather to this current March (wheeling rain and snow and thaw) it most wants us to hear a little story about the two characters, the labor of farming, and yes, the humor in hands and their stubbornness.

Jazzmasters!

Jazzmasters! From the upper left: Jimi Hendrix without a Strat; Pete Townsend about to decrease the supply of used guitars; some guy named Jimmy James (wonder what became of him?); Frank Zappa, who didn’t say “The Jazzmaster isn’t dead, it just smells funny;” my Jazzmaster painted the homeopathic color Sonic Blue; Tom Verlaine, vanguard of the alternative nation which latched onto the bargain unwanted Jazzmaster in the 1970s.

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A few notes on the music. I sometimes create the drum tracks for my compositions before the live session begins. And since I’m usually needed in the guitarist role, I sometimes lay down the bass parts with those tracks ahead of time too. That’s how this piece was. On the day of the session, I sang and played the wailing lead guitar*** and recorded the reading of Kevin’s words live with Dave playing a baaing/buzzing synth part live. Dave’s part, subject to his current hands, didn’t fulfill all the groove chop I thought the piece needed. So I added a second guitar part doing my best at rhythm guitar on my Telecaster, but a lot of the final groove you hear is an electric piano part that I laid down trying to imitate my friend and partner Dave’s playing as I recall it from the past.

By now I hope you’re ready to hear the musical story of Kevin FitzPatrick’s farm poem “Coyotes.”   The player gadget is below for many of you. Don’t see that? This highlighted link is provided as an alternative so you can hear it that way too.

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*I have to repeat this one, which I read in a comment thread this month regarding the upcoming Hollywood Oscar awards event: “The only Oscars I care about are Peterson and Wilde.” In the context of Dave Moore, even the young Dave wasn’t likely to stand toe to toe (finger to finger?) with Oscar Peterson on piano. On the other hand, I’ll hop on top of Oscar Wilde’s tea table in my slush-muddy Minnesota shoes and declare Dave’s poetic wit with Wilde’s.

**Other reoccurring characters weave in and out in the farm poems too — and while four-legged, the couple’s farm dog, the incongruous poodle named Katie, makes a cameo appearance in this one and others.

***The lead guitar part is played on a Jazzmaster, a famous failure in Fender’s otherwise wildly successful line of mid-century electric guitars. A couple of decades into its Edsel-hood of “what were they thinking” failure, unwanted used Jazzmasters became an affordable choice pragmatically chosen by some punk and alternative musicians. Even so, few think of a Jazzmaster for this kind of wailing lead guitar with a bit of funk flavor. As long as one is able to address the Jazzmaster’s bridge design issues, it can  do that sort of thing.

Winter 2020-21 Parlando Top Ten (abbreviated edition)

Given the everything I’d rate between losses, troubles, and mere distractions I’ve gone through since late last autumn, I’m not in a mood this week to do the traditional Parlando Top Ten list for the past season. These are the same issues in repertory that have reduced the number of new pieces I was able to present here during that time. You, the audience for this Project, have stayed with this: readership to this blog is growing, overall listenership to the audio pieces is slightly up. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. There’s more than three of you — I mean to thank all of you three times.

I know some of you do like these quarterly Top Tens, and I enjoy them myself — if only just to see what pieces from the variety presented here got the most response. That said, let’s rush through the numbers 10 up to 6 for the record:

10. Song to the Dark Virgin by Langston Hughes

9. Winter Solstice Consolations by Frank Hudson

8. I died for Beauty —  but was scarce by Emily Dickinson

7. Oh, Maria by Ethna McKiernan

6. Letting Go the Wolves by Ethna McKiernan

You can see in those five pieces two from my memorial observance for the Irish-American poet McKiernan who I had the privilege to know and examine poetry with, and one from my February Black History Month celebration of Langston Hughes’ first poetry collection The Weary Blues.  There in the middle, there’s one by long-time Parlando Project favorite Emily Dickinson. And my own piece in that group talks about the loss of Ethna and also my March memorial subject who Dave Moore and I also knew and worked with: Kevin FitzPatrick. If you missed any of these, each of that above list is a link to my original blog posting and the audio performance of it, just as the following ones bolded titles are.

We join the countdown to the most listened to and liked piece then at number 5.

Tommy Thaw card 800

Spring, a rebuttal.

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5. Velvet Shoes by Elinor Wylie. A lovely, graceful winter poem by a too-often-overlooked poet from “The Last Twenties” in our previous century. I like the music and performance I created for this one just as much as I did when I created it back around the beginning of 2022.

One would think I’d be through with snow experiences this far into spring, but my morning bike ride today was in big wet flakes and a cold enough north wind. Wylie’s velvet snow is more the dry January sort, but then appreciating snow for its beauty qualities may be best done in past-tense. If so, you may enjoy listening to this one in what I hope is a pleasant spring.

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4. Lenox Avenue: Midnight by Langston Hughes. “The rhythm of life is a Jazz rhythm” says the first line of Hughes’ poem. I did my best to honor that injunction from one of the first Afro-American poets to unabashedly celebrate that musical form. Although I’m a vary unskilled keyboard player I was able to compose a satisfying two-handed part using MIDI as a scoring tool. I wanted a saxophone solo too, which you can hear a bit of in this performance, but I just couldn’t score or execute enough articulation to “make it.” The piece’s final horn section flourish is one of my rare surrenders to using a sampled musical phrase.

Of course, motif sampling is now an oft honored tactic in the ongoing Afro-American musical tradition, so perhaps I shouldn’t view it as a failure on my part. On the audacity front: I decided to extend Hughes’ lyric which ended with “And the Gods are laughing at us” with a newly written affirmation from after the poem’s time of 1926, one that says that the young art of Jazz and of young writer Langston Hughes’ has answered those gods.

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3. Sonny Rollins, The Bridge 1959. Staying with Jazz for this one, though with my own words straight through. There are beliefs — some sincere, some insincere — that Afro-American history is but a sorrowful tale, a grievance and a pandering response. If you can heartily do so, I ask you to improvise your own expletive response to the call of that fearful theory, one with as much eloquence and melodic force as you can deliver. Now our response may not be Sonny Rollins level improvisation. That’s not a reason not to — after all, Sonny Rollins wasn’t sure his improvisations were Sonny Rollins’ level improvisations. That’s the story in this piece.

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2. After Apple Picking by Robert Frost. I made my pitch that Robert Frost was verging on being a bluesman elsewhere this winter, but that piece didn’t make the Top Ten as this one did. His Black American contemporary Langston Hughes called his first book and a featured poem in it The Weary Blues,  but this poem of Frost’s could have that name too. Both Hughes’ Weary Blues and Frost’s end in sleep.

I seem to lack the concentration, or the assured concentration of blocks of time, to do arrangements as full as the one I created for Frost’s poem right now. But you can still enjoy this one.

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1. Stones by Ethna McKiernan. One answer to lack of compositional time is to write solo instrument pieces, which for me usually means acoustic guitar. Of the several pieces I did to introduce more of you to McKiernan’s range of poetry, this was the one that by far got the most listens this winter — in fact, more listens than any piece has received for more than a year during its first season after posting.

Before I leave you to listen to it, I want to say that beyond soothing my grief at Ethna’s death, that performing those pieces which used her words this winter made her seem closer than our too casual life connection sometimes had us. Wherever we voyage, the same waves lap the same sounds on the walls of our boats.

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Fall 2021 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 10-8

It’s that time again when I present our quarterly countdown of the pieces most liked and listened to here at the Parlando Project during the past season. We’ll proceed from the 10th most popular and move up to number 1 in the next few posts. The bold-faced heading for each piece are links back to the original post that introduced the pieces here, in case you didn’t see them earlier this autumn.

10. Cobwebs, Steel, and Moonshine by Carl Sandburg.  Longtime readers here will know of my admiration for American poet Carl Sandburg, and so it may be no surprise that this is actually the second time I used parts of a single Carl Sandburg poem for a Parlando Project audio piece. The Sandburg poem is “Smoke and Steel,”  a poetic celebration of labor and laborers from a collection of the same name published in 1920. I used that whole poem’s title for the piece I created out of the beginning of it for May Day in 2019, but for this past American Labor Day I used the conclusion of “Smoke and Steel”  and gave the result this title. I dedicated it to another American poet, Kevin FitzPatrick, who was suffering from a serious and unexpected illness that killed him later this fall. This is the first of three poems in this fall’s Top Ten dedicated to poets Dave and I knew and exchanged work with who were suffering mortal illnesses.

I’m thankful that long-time reader of the blog rmichaelroman submitted a good guess as to what the steel might be in Sandburg’s short ode to workers and work: rebar.

Player gadget below for some of you, or this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

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9. Bond and Free by Robert Frost.  It’s been a while since I mentioned it, but Robert Frost bugged me when I was young. He was still alive, and omnipresent in anthologies one might find in school, which caused me to treat him like other 20th century poets and critics treated Longfellow: as a square preaching platitudes who stood in the way of younger and fresher voices who’d question all that with a more unruly poetry. I was misreading Frost of course, but through that error I did find others I thought in opposition to him that I found rewarding back then. Eventually I came around to love the word-music in his shorter lyric poems, and from that attraction found a starker and more divided meaning was there.

“Bond and Free”  is Frost in his more metaphysical and frankly philosophic mode, which isn’t my favorite Frost, setting out here a cosmic stage where Love and Free Thought conflict. He sounds more like Shelley or Keats in “Bond and Free”  than the more modern diction he was able to make sing in other poems, but sing the words do.

Player gadget below for some of you, or this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

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Frost-Moore-Sandburg

Three young poets at work. One played in the LYL Band.

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8. They’re All Dead Now by Dave Moore. One of the most popular of my Halloween series this year, even though it’s a longer ballad form story that put my singing strength to the test. Longtime listeners here will know Dave as the most common alternate voice here at the Parlando Project as well as the keyboard player you’ve heard in the LYL Band.

He’s also a fine writer of poetry and songs. For reasons too complicated to deal with now, I fairly often sing Dave’s songs here rather than having him sing them himself. There’s a factor when someone sings another writers’ song. While they may bring a different kind of talent and musical craft, they may also somewhat misunderstand the song — or misunderstand (maybe more at “re-understand”) it in a valuable mutational way. Though I’m not a great singer, I do try to bring something to Dave’s songs when I present them here.

Every song stands to gain much more than one more life when sung by someone else. From time to time I’ve encouraged others to sing some of the Parlando Project songs. Anyone have their own cover of one of our Parlando Project pieces you’d like me to hear?

Yup, player gadget below for some of you, or this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

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Fragmentary Blues

Life events are conspiring again to keep me out of my studio space to record new pieces — but it just so happens that I have this rocking Blues recorded back in 2007 with the LYL Band that’ll contrast with our pensive Frost meditation on work from last time. Today’s audio piece was made from Frost’s short poem titled “Fragmentary Blue,”  now recast as “Fragmentary Blues.”

Unlike Carl Sandburg or Langston Hughes, I have no idea if the 1914 vintage Robert Frost had any experience or appreciation of this Afro-American musical form. A quick search found nothing, even though Frost’s lifetime overrode The Jazz Age, The Swing Era, and even early rock’n’roll.

But as poet Langston Hughes soon discovered, the lyrical expression of the Blues was a vital format worth picking up. A first draft of this post included a long aside about the importance of this Afro-American Modernist form, but on second thought I’m going to take less of our time today so that we can focus on how Frost’s poem can be expressed through that form.

JFK and Frost

JFK: When you wrote “Come on mama, to the edge of town/I know where there’s a bird nest, built down on the ground” were you talking about what I think you were talking about? (wink wink).
Frost: No, you’ve got me confused with another bucolic poet, that’s Charlie Patton — but I believe that’s a philosophic statement about how erotic desire is both natural and elusive. Patton was tuned in open Spanish for that one.”

Blues lyrics often used a stanza format of three lines: one a statement, the second a restatement that may be the same, nearly the same, or subtly varied while still gathering intensity via repetition; and then a third line which can go in any direction the writer/poet/singer wants to take it, though it usually rhymes with the ending of the first two lines. It’s a variation of that ancient and simple poetic scheme the rhyming couplet, but with that repetition allowing for something extra in the balance. And there’s often an element of call and response in the lines: that choral rock, and roll back that Sophocles, Skip James, and Pops Staples could share.

So, let’s go back to our 1914 Robert Frost poem “Fragmentary Blue.”

Why make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,
When heaven presents in sheets the solid hue?

Since earth is earth, perhaps, not heaven (as yet) —
Though some savants make earth include the sky;
And blue so far above us comes so high,
It only gives our wish for blue a whet.

Not in Blues stanza form. Instead, ABBA, and I don’t mean the Swedish pop group.*  But Frost has made the center two lines in each stanza a sort of parenthetical, so that lines one and four are natural couplets and the middle two lines are already couplets that can stand by themselves. This means it was easy to turn “Fragmentary Blue”  into “Fragmentary Blues.”

Why make so much of those fragmentary blues?
Why make so much of those fragmentary blues —
When heaven presents us sheets of a solid hue.

Here and there a bird, or a butterfly.
Here and there’s a bird, or a butterfly,
Or a flower, or a wearing stone, or an open eye.

There’s some savants say the earth includes the sky.
Some say, some say, that the earth includes the sky —
And the blues so far above us, it comes on so high.

Since earth is earth, it isn’t heaven yet.
Earth is earth. It ain’t heaven yet.
It only gives a wish for blues a whet.

So there you go, via show not tell, we rock up Robert Frost in the Blues form. If you read the two sets of words closely, you’ll see something has changed. Frost’s “blue” on first reading seems a stand-in for beauty, while the Blues treats its namesake emotional dissatisfaction as something less than beauty. But, consider again. Frost’s poem says we miss the immensity of natural beauty in our all too earthward human act of trying to possess its emulations. That difference, that dissatisfaction — that’s the Blues. My adaptation only brings out that subtext more overtly. You can hear the LYL Band express Frost most blues-wailingly with the player gadget below, or with this highlighted hyperlink that will play the performance. Most of the better guitar notes here were played by Andy Schultz who played with the LYL Band for a few times, and Dave Moore will once more hear himself back when he could pound and roll on the (plastic) ivories.

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*Is it too late in their career to suggest that they produce a trans-Atlantic Carl Sandburg tribute record? I’m available, and you need my audience of dozens to hundreds of listeners.

After Apple Picking

Around America people are getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, a sort of remembered harvest festival, now a family get-together mostly celebrated by eating as most Americans are separated from farm work by some distance and decades. However, back in 1914, American poet Robert Frost was close enough to that work to write a masterful and closely observed poem about harvest time that I’m going to present for today: “After Apple Picking.”  While I hope you’ll listen to my audio performance with my original music below, here’s a link to the poem in case you’d like to follow along with the text.

This poem is full of sensuous detail. Encountering it — even if you don’t do farm work — you should feel the completion and weariness of the poem’s speaker who is falling asleep at the end of his harvest season. The poem’s farmer has been working in an orchard, and that place is full of the scent of apples. In a fall orchard such as this, much of this scent may be from fallen apples which, even as they start to rot, give off a sweet musk. And it’s frost time, not just the poet’s name on the poem, but the livestock water-trough has a frozen sheet on top, so the picker has been racing against a loss of the crop. In a piece of rural surrealism, the farmer has, that morning, picked up a plate of this surface ice —which would be thin, wavy, and fragile — and looks through it as if they are magic spectacles at the morning frost on the grass. This lasts but a moment, the magic glass will disintegrate in his hands, but that’s of no matter, there’s work to complete.

While falling asleep his body is still weary, his feet are sore from standing on the round ladder rungs, but as dreams approach his mind once more magnifies and intensifies reality like the view through the wavy ice sheet, and he’s haunted by apples, by his job of picking and inspecting, his rush against the end of season frost.

As the poem moves to its conclusion the farmer seems to imply that his work to gather the crop before it’s lost is like unto the work of salvation. We might remember and notice that the poem started with a ladder pointing “toward heaven.” And those apples that touch the earth are held by it and not offered heavenly worth.

Frost ends his poem whimsically, not with an angel or a prayer, but with a small rodent, the woodchuck, which hibernates (“his long sleep”) in the winter. As the farmer falls off to sleep, he wonders how long a rest he has earned.

How big a slice of apple pie do you want? Stand back, I’ll cut you a piece.

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When Frost wrote this poem about a third of Americans were farmers and farm workers. Now, most of us have other labors. Our harvests may not be food, we may not be tied to the cycle of seasons as exactly. My wife will be getting time off from working in a medical clinic, where she works to gather as many as she can, and Thursday she’ll be making a meal for us and her mother with dementia. I’m working past midnight to bring you a presentation of this poem. Our labors are many, they may make us weary, but perhaps, yet, we can be thankful for them.

My audio performance of Robert Frost’s harvest poem “After Apple Picking”  can be heard with the player gadget below, or with this highlighted hyperlink. My music today is percussion, piano, cello, two violins, horn, and harp.

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