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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In a Disused Graveyard

To complete our Halloween series, here’s a poem by Robert Frost suitable for All-Saint’s and All-Soul’s Day: “In a Disused Graveyard.”

When I was a child and my father was alive, there would be times when my six sisters and I would be corralled up inside a Fifties American car for some long two-lane trip to a grandmother’s house or other destination. Yes it was crowded, and the wave-rolling suspensions of those pastel and chrome cars added another element: the possibility that one of us would vomit or simply rebel against the length of an uncountable trip.

To counter that, liquid Dramamine was administered to the younger kids from paper Dixie cups. This was given to suppress nausea, but the side-effect of sleepiness was welcomed too. Half of us might be drowsy to asleep and the other half just bored.

For that older half, my father introduced a car-ride game to help us endure the drive. It was called Zip, and I suspect it might have been something he learned with his family of mostly brothers back in the Model A era. Zip had simple rules. In the game, a handful of objects that could be spotted beside our rural roads could score points. A white horse would score 1 point. An old man with a white beard riding a bicycle would score 100 points. And cemeteries would score 10 points. The scoring child would need to shout “Zip” before any other and explain what scoring object they had spotted. It was an odd scoring system. White horses would be rare, and any spotting was subject to suits regarding — well spotting. Was that horse completely white? Did it count if it had a small blaze on the forehead? These days I am an old man with a white beard who rides his bicycle often, and I am still reminded that I could win most Zip games by spotting myself (if that is possible).  I can’t recall any of us scoring a come-from-behind miracle win from such in those days though,.

This meant cemeteries were the scoring thing. Any church steeple coming into our vision put us on the edge of our sagging seat-covered seats, tongue leaning on the fence of our teeth ready to “zip!” But the subtle player knew more, knew that some older farmhouses might have a private graveyard, or that there might be one where a church no longer was, its congregation consolidated in the ebb and flow of settlement.

Such would be Robert Frost unconsoled graveyard in his poem, with only past parishioners, homesteaders, and villagers buried there. And now we, as we travel our own roads, are picking out our own personal graveyards: grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, friends, spouses. No farmhouse, no church, no village anymore.

Old Tombstone

“Sure of death the marbles rhyme” — also 10 points!

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In such a graveyard the old stones, now much dated, contrast against our presence, alive, visiting such a place. Can this not seem to say there is a line between the living and the dead, a border, an underline — a place here, and a place there? As Frost reminds us, no, that’s a lie we act as if we believe, mostly, even if it can hardly fool a rock.

There are religious believers who pray for the dead on these first two days in November. And we could be praying for ourselves too once we reach an age of really knowing. Slightly premature ghosts, then we pray for those who’ve come to terms. After all, Yogi Berra was said to have said: “If you don’t go to other people’s funerals, they won’t go to yours.”

A simple acoustic guitar accompanied first-take today, as I’m pressed for time. The player gadget will appear for some, but this highlighted hyperlink is an alternative way to play my audio performance of “In a Disused Graveyard.”    Want to follow along with Frost’s original text? Here’s a link to that as well.

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Bond and Free

Looking for texts to feature here this month, I came upon this odd Robert Frost poem “Bond and Free”  and I could easily see how I could perform it Parlando style. Performance unavoidably involves choices, even if it can precede fuller understanding. Let me talk some about those choices I made and what understanding I’ve come to have about this poem. If you want to have the full text available while I discuss it, it can be found here.

What seemed odd about this poem? Well, I associate Frost with specific and palpable imagery. If one has any sense of the rural landscape of the 20th century, as I do, I can often place myself directly on the stage with the speaker in a Frost poem and examine the set decoration. Critical overviews of Frost’s era will sometimes want to clearly distinguish his work from the Modernists, mistaking the devices of rhyme and meter as the essentials of his work. This ignores that he’s so often working in his early short poems with the same direct observation, avoidance of worn-out tropes, and fresh, lyrically present moments as the Imagists.

This poem with it’s capitalized “Thought” and “Love” is not like that. In some ways it’s like Emily Dickinson in her more philosophical or legalistic abstract mode. To the degree that this poem has a landscape, a stage set, the one on which this poem plays is cosmic.

Frost’s poem begins “Love has earth to which she clings.” Any accustomed Frost reader would expect that garden or farming matters will follow. We first read Love here as implying a plant’s roots, but what follows has a topography viewed from aerial heights. From there the valleys of a hilly country are, as they can practically be in Frost’s time, wall after wall that separates people and their towns from each other. That third word “earth” as the poem progressed could well be capitalized too, for it’ll turn out to be more at the planet Earth, not mere soil. The first stanza ends by introducing Love’s contrasting principle in this poem — Thought, as in Free Thought. Right away we see Thought is flying above it all, in the mode of Icarus or Daedalus.

The poem’s speaker (I’ll call them Frost, for as there’s no sense that Frost is setting up some special other voice from his own) follows Thought as the second stanza views Earth’s earth from above as a landscape with marks of human effort on the ground visible as a printed page. “Nice enough” it seems to have Free Thought thinking, but “Thought has shaken his ankles free.”

It’s now a good time to take note of the poem’s title: “Bond and Free.”   Frost is writing this about 50 years after African-American emancipation. Like Emily Dickinson (who wrote most of her poetry during the Civil War) Frost almost never mentions slavery, the issues of racism, or the widespread theories of racial differences or superiorities in his poetry.*  Leg shackles could be applied to prisoners of course, but like the broken shackles that are hard to view at the feet of the Statue of Liberty, in the American context I think slavery is an intended connotation here. Essays on cultural appropriation could be written from this. Not here, but it’s possible. I could suppose someone could see a BSDM reading. While I know a blog post titled “Robert Frost and Sexual Kink” would be surefire clickbait, I’ll resist. It’s also plausible that he was connecting “bond” in the sense of “marriage bond.” More on this below.

“You read your Emily Dickinson. And I my Robert Frost…” The two great American poets lived in Amherst in different centuries, and this set of statues there commemorates that.

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In the third stanza we outdo Bezos, Musk, and Branson as Frost notes with inexpensive poetic efficiency that Free Thought is not bound-in by earthly hills but is capable of interstellar flight. This stanza’s final lines, an Icarian or Luciferian plummet, find that at the end of the limits of the dreams of a night Thought invariably returns to an “earthly room.” As my footnote below notes, Frost is fairly sure of the fallen nature of humanity.

The final stanza is, to my reading, an ambiguous judgement. If humanity is fallen, Frost too is unable to judge the competition and contrast of Love and Free Thought. Thought’s freedom and range, even if temporary, even if illusionary, has a pull and value. And “some” (Frost externalized this opinion and doesn’t say they are right or wrong) say Love (even if it’s bondage and constrains one) can have a fuller possession by nature of its grounded stasis.

The poem’s final couplet retains this duality, Free Thought has partial experiences of multitudinous beauties in a wonderous universe, but these beauties are “fused” to other stars. To choose other than temporary dreams, just replaces New Hampshire with Sirius.

I said at the start performance means choices. I made an audacious choice. In Frost’s poem he consistently gendered Love as female and Thought as male. Furthermore, I’ve read second-hand references that in an earlier draft he chose to make both Love and Thought female, an unusual choice that he abandoned. I made my choice for my own reasons, to help the performer, myself. I think that choice makes it a stronger piece for myself and for my audience.

The reports of Frost’s abandoned choice would make for a different poem. English writing in Frost’s time usually used male pronouns for universals and abstracts, so that original choice of female pronouns must have been intentional. His choice for skyward Free Thought as male, and earthy and fecund Love as female is archetypal, and I in turn made a conscious decision to reject that. I did this because I feared that too many listeners might grasp this poem as a conflict of male sexual freedom vs. the clingy women. Intentionally or subconsciously, this may have been in Frost’s mind, and even so then this is Frost’s version of the complicated love poem that the female “songbird poets” were developing in his time, even if it’s more abstract in describing the bond and free of desire.**  I just preferred the duality of the poem ungendered, and I think modern audiences are ready to receive that version.

The player to hear my performance will appear below for many of you. However, some ways of reading this blog won’t show it, and so here’s a highlighted hyperlink to play it. You will notice that besides the pronouns there are a few other textural differences, some accidental, some chosen to make the language more colloquial***  and easier for a modern listener to grasp on hearing. I don’t know if these changes are for the better, but they were this performer’s choice.  As promised earlier in this month of noisier musics, acoustic 12-string guitar and piano featured this time, but just enough sarod and tambura in the background to add a non-New England air.

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*Frost did write one searing poem on racial hatred and violence: “The Vanishing Red,”  which I presented here. A brief search today didn’t return much. I would expect that he held stereotypical views and used ugly racial epithets casually. Like Dickinson, Frost’s silence on this central American issue should be more often considered as a loud silence. In her defense, Dickinson’s stance on human freedom, often expressed in her poetry, can easily be viewed as inspirational by all. Frost is surer of a fallen humanity, but that too can be appreciated by those weighed down by life or oppression.

**That reading would say that Frost was more guarded and indirect in dealing with desire than Millay, Teasdale, and the “songbird poets.”  Thus, the uncharacteristic abstraction of this poem

***One of Frost’s Modernist strengths was to largely remove from his metered and rhyming verse the sense of stilted and too formal poetic diction. My judgement was that this skill deserted Frost several times in this poem. Perhaps abandoning his usual distinct and grounded settings for this more abstract poem also blunted his naturalness of speech.

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.

Mowing, and the Meaning of Work

This Monday is American Labor Day, so here’s a poem about work from Robert Frost: “Mowing.”   Like a lot of Frost’s early poetry it’s an example of words that want to sing, and so I’ll sing them today. Also like a lot of Frost’s best poetry it seems simpler than it means. It doesn’t scare the reader or listener away with its surface, but if you really stop to ask why it says exactly what it says, a more complex and subtle work emerges. Here’s a link to the full text of the poem if you want to follow along.

The Scythers by NC Wyeth

That about scythe’s it up. NC Wyeth’s “The Scythers”

 

On first reading this poem is a description of mundane work, mowing a field with the time-honored hand tool: the scythe. How old is that tool? It goes back to the pre-historic days of agriculture, to the making of the first blades for that, and then for the battles over that. It was still in use in Frost’s youth, in the late 19th century. And in the house I grew up in, in the mid-20th century in Iowa, in the crook of a tree in the big back yard there was a scythe caught there, high above my head, stored, captured, put away until it seemed as natural as any other part of the tree.

So, the poet or his speaker counterpart is mowing with a scythe. And since that poet is Frost, we get sound imagery regarding that work. The Imagists contemporary with Frost didn’t require their images be visual, but as a practice they strongly preferred them to be. Frost, on the other hand was the audio guy, not the word painter. The scythe as it swings and cuts, punningly sighs, but Frost has it as a whisper. About this, the poet is curious: if it’s whispering, what’s the scythe (and by extension, the work the man and tool are doing) saying?


The maker of this video on Frost’s poem demonstrates the sound

 

Frost’s poet says he doesn’t know. Interestingly he speculates it might be talking about the heat of the workday, and the phrase he uses “The heat of the sun” may well be reminding him of a poem from Shakespeare we recently featured here: “Fear No More.”   Shakespeare’s poem and the connection with the scythe has with the “grim reaper” brings in an overtone of death.

And then he speculates it may be about why  it’s whispering, why it’s not speaking something out-loud and plain.

Next the poem moves on to the realness of work inherited from its physicality. It’s not a dream or imagination without consequence. And it’s not some fairy story. Gussying it up with such trappings or comparing it to mental work with no embodiment would be enervating it. The poet instead calls this work “earnest love.*” This isn’t some secret crush, even with the whispers and all, this is actually sweaty stuff.

Frost then drops one of his better-known mottos: “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” That line is end-stopped with a period, and set off that way it’s a statement that real work on real things is superior to mere fancy. But this is Labor Day, so I performed it as if there’s a colon after “The fact is” and that its meaning carries on through the period and into the last line. The sweet dream then is the scythe whispering and the concluding matter of the hay.

What is the scythe whispering?

Because after all, there’s an unanswered question from the poems opening. What is the scythe whispering? It’s something intimate it wants to say, that good work  says, but doesn’t say. It says it is—paid or unpaid, self-employed or employed, the labor of a poet or of a farmer, done grudgingly or with joy, appreciated or overlooked—it says it is done with love. Not the magic love, not the imagined love. The earnest love.

Happy Labor Day to the readers and listeners here. Wishing you good work and earnest love.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Robert Frost’s “Mowing”  is below.

 

 

 

 

*This section of the poem, lines 10 through 12 in this unusual sonnet, is the most mysterious. I had to perform it before I could figure it out. There may be an overtone here (something that English folksong often made a practice of) of farm work being used as a metaphor for sexual lovemaking. There are snakes, flowers, and then named flowers that are “orchises” which are a genus of flowering plants and also etymologically testicles. Frost made a choice for what flowers he names, and his poet/scyther could have scared off a field mouse or chipmunk not a snake.

On the other hand, he may be just saying that like all artists his work will fail, some flowers get scythed. And the snake could be a Garden of Eden thing.

Or the flowers and snakes may be the beauty and the evil of what we do, that the Grim Reaper scythe will cut off.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Here’s one of Robert Frost’s well-loved poems that has managed to penetrate into popular consciousness in a way that few modern poems have. “Nothing Gold Can Stay”  is therefore found anew inside of S. E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders  and the resulting movie and Stevie Wonder song, or via the 21st century song by First Aid Kit.

Often when I present Robert Frost poems here, I ask your indulgence to point out that what is often drawn from them doesn’t represent what Frost seems to be trying to impart. The Road Not Taken”  isn’t about the critical importance of taking the “road less traveled,” but about the irrelevance of choice and dangers of “analysis paralysis.” Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening  isn’t about tarrying by a beautiful winter scene instead of getting on with life’s duty, but about someone lost in rural darkness. Even this month’s Acquainted with the Night” —while, yes, frankly dealing with despair—is about living with depression rather than dying from it.

But “Nothing Gold Can Stay”  does seem to be saying what most everyone draws from it—and so, unlike these other Frost poems, it’s loved for exactly what it is saying: that certain kinds of beauty and states of grace are transitory; and then by implicated extension, that to hold them inside a memory or a memorable poem is our consolation. So, what’s left for me to say then?

Well, maybe there’s this element: that a catch phrase drawn from it, “Stay Gold,” is not in Frost’s poem, and his poem indicates that will not happen even if wished; but I’m willing—as was Carl Sandburg in our last post “Monotone” —to cut humanity a little slack here. Sandburg in his middle stanza of “Monotone”  tells the same story as Frost’s more famous poem, though more of us remember Frost’s expression of the idea, which may be testament of the power of Frost’s rhyme in memorability. Sandburg’s point however, the one I subscribe to, is that there’s something to be admired that is left after the loss of moments of perfection or passion in both memory and the continuing changed moments.

One other thing I’ll admit I hadn’t noticed until preparing this piece this month: “Nothing Gold Can Stay”  is a spring poem about tree blossoms as much as it’s an autumn poem about falling leaves: “Early leaf’s a flower.” The tree blossoms on my bike rides this spring are, it seems to me, more numerous, fragrant, and beautiful. Is this a side-effect of the closed in spring of our current epidemic? I think too, not only of Sandburg’s “Monotone,”  but of Meng Haoran’sSpring Morning,”  and my own Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street.”

Early one morning this month, I rode my bike down 40th street to the now closed schoolhouse, the route I rode a few years back with my child in “Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street.” I remembered one fine tree full of blossoms there a block before a bicycle bridge that crosses the then busy freeway, and the flowers’ smell that day that told me the tree was louder to my nose than the traffic under the bridge. This morning, this month, I was surprised to see not one, but a whole row of trees, all in bloom.

Plum tree blossoms on 40th Street

Blossoms revisited. The other side of the street from the rusty camper was a tattered car with blankets blocking all it’s window glass, evidence that some of the cardboard sign beggars at the nearby freeway entrance may have slept there the previous night.

 

A few words on the music before I ask you to listen to my performance of Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”  The music I created for this is based on my appreciation of South Asian music, a style that I refer to sometimes here. This is a complex musical tradition of which I have little knowledge of other than as a listener, yet like some others I’ve been drawn to its tactics from the first time I heard it.* Oddly, the top line musical instrument I used for this is a uniquely American one: the mountain dulcimer, a small, fretted, plucked string instrument.** And the percussion instruments here do not include the tabla drum sets used in South Asian music because I don’t have access to them, but are instead approximated with a mix of “Latin Percussion” drums and rhythm instruments, like congas, bongos, and small rattles, bells, and such. I do have good tampura and harmonium virtual instruments that I can play with my MIDI guitar and little plastic keyboard, so I did use those traditional South Asian sounds.

I like how this turned out. Why this music for Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay?”  There’s no harmonic progression to it. I don’t notate this sort of composition with chord symbols the way I might a rock music piece. If I did it would be sort of Dsus4, D, D5, Dsus2—so really it’s just about the drone center of D and how one steps out and back to the D note in a rhythmic/melodic dance. Nothing gold can stay, but the D drone reminds us musically that change is return, that return is change.

Here’s the player gadget to hear the performance.

 

 

 

*Like many Americans it was Ravi Shankar LPs on the World Pacific label, reinforced by his appearance in rock concert films like Monterey Pop and Woodstock, and other audacious appreciators who (like me) started to drop in things they drew from these performances into their own work.

In the early 70s in New York I worked in an E. R. with an Indian surgeon who would sing melodies acapella while suturing away. Those melodies would keep us going during long nights.

In the Twin Cities area we are lucky to have some South Asian tradition performers, and westerners like Dean Magraw, Marcus Wise, Steve Tibbetts, and Greg Herriges who incorporate this tradition into their playing.

**The mountain dulcimer has a mysterious past. It’s like and then not like a lot of other instruments from around the world. It seems to have been played by rural Appalachian mountain country settlers, often from Celtic backgrounds where harp instruments and drone wind instruments were common, but it’s not a harp. What it is though is an instrument that was relatively easy to make at home without complex tools or fixtures. In quiet times in those night-time hospital E.R.s I would sometimes quickly construct a rough fretless one out of a cast-plaster box and rubber bands.

Acquainted with the Night

A few posts ago I said I was holding back some material, going instead with other pieces that weren’t quite as dark. One of the pieces I was holding back was this one: Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night.”

This is often thought of as Frost’s most harrowing poem, even though it achieves that effect descriptively, largely without explicit emotional terms. Some of its tropes have become standard “Noir” features since the poem was written making the nighttime despair, loneliness, and alienation especially easy for modern readers to “read.” Here’s a link to the full text if you’d like to read along.

Frosts Acquainted wit the Black Parade

Representative of Frost’s emocore period? Or if you’d like to see a video making the poem more Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, try this link.

 

So, we have the poem’s speaker (let’s call him Frost for the rest of this) walking alone at night in a city in that time which is past late but too dark to be early. It’s raining. He meets only one other person, a watchman, and avoids him. He hears but two things: his own steps, and at the poem’s high point, someone else’s voice. The poem ends with him noting a “luminary clock,” and a remark casual or crucial he says it indicates “the time was neither wrong nor right.”

The incident of the cry in the third stanza is the key moment in the poem, the most telling. It’s so quiet in the rain (so not a full-on stormy gale or thunderstorm) and the cry is so far away that Frost stops walking because the sound of his footsteps is the loudest thing in the night city. He wants to make out that cry, which I think is “interrupted” by his own solitary footsteps. And what does he discern in that cry? That it’s not calling him back or bidding him leave either. Whoever he’s walking to get away from, it’s not their voice, but he wants to know if it is.

This incident is highlighted too because the poem opens with the idea of constant walking: Frost says he walked past the city limits and back. I’m hitting a muted low string on the guitar in my accompaniment to try to suggest that footsteps effect, that Frost is in motion even if he doesn’t know where he’s going.*

The last external thing Frost notices in the poem is the incident of the clock. Interestingly he uses an odd adjective for the lighted clock: “luminary” rather than “lighted” or “luminous.” I assume Frost would like us to think of the clock as an auspicious authority, a luminary, not just lit. I should also note that some see the clock as the moon in this poem. I don’t. I think if he’d wanted to depict the moon he’d say so. The lit clock face is  moon-like, so I can understand that alternate reading, and what with its “unearthly height” Frost likely intends that overtone at least.

The poem is often read as a depiction of depression, and there I’ll agree as well. Depression is experienced by different people in different ways, but the situation here is familiar to me. Depression can confuse your judgement and ability to weigh things. Frost can walk all night because he is in some dispute with someone else (that voice he interrupts his steps to hear) but he’ll never figure it out even if he walks the entire dark city. He may step between self-pity and wanting to be seen as right, and self-abnegation and judging himself irrevocably wrong, but that only gets him out and back again. The luminary clock hands down it’s judgement: Frost, you’ll not figure it out tonight, which means you could return again to this night walk some other night—but it means also that one will be able to return, or turn elsewhere. Over time one may come to understand better that old acquaintance, the night. Roughly 30 years after writing this poem, Frost as a then old man said this to an interviewer “In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.”

In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.”

Some see today’s poem’s luminary clock moment as an existential consideration of suicide. The clock (or moon if that’s your reading) somehow prompts or symbolizes the decision that this night is not the time for that decision. There’s another way to read “neither wrong nor right,” that the clock** indicates only a moment as time, and Frost’s realization about life is that it goes on, that it moves like this poem’s night walk, that that is its meaning: it’s movement.

Let me just say a bit about the poem’s beautiful structure. It’s a sonnet, and it’s a format I’ve used a bit myself lately: four tercets and a concluding couplet rather than the Shakespearean three quatrains and a couplet. But Frost has used Dante’s terza rima scheme of interlocking rhyme in the stanzas, and this knotted interlocking reinforces the endless walking and knotted thinking. And as one more music-of-thought feature, the poem ends with the first line—it walks out and back again just as the poem’s Frost does.

The player gadget to hear my performance of “Acquainted with the Night”  is below. I wouldn’t decorate such a lonely poem with anything more than a single electric guitar this time.

 

 

 

 

*This is also the eventual decision in his famous poem “Stopping by Woods  on a Snowy Evening”  where I believe it’s key to that poem to recognize that he’s not considering tarrying there for some pleasant winter sight-seeing, but that he’s likely lost in a entirely dark rural road and he only thinks/hopes he knows whose woods he’s spotted as a waypoint in the darkest night.

**Yet another plausible meaning for “neither wrong nor right” would be that the traditional clock face might say half past four in the most deserted time of the night, just as it will say the same half past four when 5 PM quitting time approaches in the daytime afternoon. The clock’s face is ignorant or unreliable in that regard. It may be saying it’s time to end this night walk as the night is ending and life and people will return soon at dawn, in the same way it would be saying that it’s time to leave the work of trying to figure out the knot of the dispute before the poem starts, to clock out of the work of the night-office where that question was being worked on.

Frost’s poem doesn’t identify the city the walk is taking place in. For those that hold to the clock theory, London’s Big Ben has been suggested as the clock tower. John Timberman Newcomb in How Did Poetry Survive?  suggests the clock tower of the Metropolitan Life Building, which as the tallest structure in New York City when completed in the early 20th century was a lighted timepiece of unearthly height. Many smaller cities of this time would have had prominent courthouses or main transportation terminals with lighted clock towers too.

For the moon theorists, the time is usually assumed to not be the time of day but a more general “time,” though it’s fairly easy to tell the time at night with a full moon (it’s overhead at midnight, like the sun is at daytime noon). However, “high moon” midnight would not likely be as deserted as the night walk time described in the poem.

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.