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.

Parlando Project Summer 2019 Top Ten part 1

It’s that time again, when we look back on the past months and see what pieces were the most liked and listened to this summer. I do it countdown style, so here we start with the 10th, 9th, and 8th most popular pieces this season.

10. Pods (Neponset) by Carl Sandburg.  Do I say Sandburg is the forgotten Imagist too often? Maybe, but to my mind this is one of the finest short Imagist poems I’ve come across in my wanderings through early Modernist verse. Another thing I keep trying to counteract: the idea that Sandburg is simplistic and that his verse is absent the levels of ambiguity and ineffability that “great poetry” is said to offer. This 7-line poem about a small Illinois village with gardens and the train passengers traveling to see scenic wonders is an example.

My family has to put up with an amount of interruption by the focused and repetitive work of producing these pieces. Listening to the process of composition, when it involves (as it sometimes does with me) a lot of trial and error is  trying—but listening to the final mixing stages is excruciating. I mix at modest volume levels, but I’ve been told that headphones are not to be trusted in that work—so they hear these pieces sometimes being wiggled this way, and wrung out that way, over and over.  Not a good way to appreciate a piece.

So, it was a surprise this summer when my wife came in and told me this one sounded like one of the best ones I’ve done. Maybe it made it to number 10 because it stands to be listened to more than once?

 

 

9. I Saw a Peacock by Anonymous.  Long a leading composer in the folk music field, Anonymous can also craft a pretty good Surrealist poem with a humorous trick: the line breaks lead you to connect the thing previous with the last part of the line—when the “real” and much more mundane connection (as opposed to the wondrously apocalyptic thing you believe you’ve heard) is in the next line, after a breath pause of the line break.

I’ve read that this poem impressed Margaret Atwood in her early childhood with the wonder that poetry could create.

I seem to be working more and more with string and other orchestral compositions this summer. Part of that is that I’ve always been drawn to things that mix the attack-envelope of percussion instruments with the varieties of note length that stringed instruments, particularly bowed string instruments, can create—but it’s also because I was able to afford some additional orchestral instruments to play via my guitar’s MIDI pickup or with my little plastic keyboard this summer.

 

Here Be Monsters

Didn’t work? OK, try Black Mountain school with polka. No? Dubstep Hildegard von Bingen! Hard Bop Thomas Hardy! Still coming? Tell the gunner to give’em both barrels then. No, no! Not those barrels…

 

8. For Once, Then, Something by Robert Frost. Here’s an example of why I’m particularly grateful to the hardy listeners of these pieces. While I’m constrained by difficulties in obtaining permission to present writings still in copyright, I hope that you can see that I vary the type and the outlook of the poetry and other writing that I can and do use. I try too to mix Poetry’s Greatest Hits with deep cuts from esteemed poets, and more than a little of the lesser-known but worth considering.

Of course, for some (Many? Most?) the idea of poetry as an everyday thing that is not some mix of fearsome and intended obscurity, snores-ville decorative excess, and hoity-toity crap for those with nothing better to do has already removed them from reading or listening here.

Well then, as I’ve described this project from the beginning, I combine these words, mostly poetry, with various music. While people might just ignore poetry, they actively hate music that they don’t like. That disgust leads some (Many? Most?) to cling to a genre of music they find most able to please them, and to mark other sonic places as “here be monsters”—hideous creatures that disrespect what is right in music.*

Music doesn’t know what’s right and proper. It just wants to sound itself.

So how many people are out there who want to hear even the beloved, famous, respected American poet Robert Frost chanted to a pulsating Electronic Dance Beat arrangement?

Well, if you are the kind of people who read, listen, follow, and help propagate what the Parlando Project does, there are enough of you to make this the 8th most popular piece this past summer!

 

 

*By the way, if you don’t like some of the audio pieces that are presented here, that’s OK, even expected. Given that I’m pushing my capabilities as a composer and musician, you might even agree with my intent, yet not wish to negotiate my actualities. That’s part of why I like to mention that we vary things: you may like the next one that comes out, or enjoy taking a look at the nearly 400 pieces we have in our archives.

The Parlando Project audio pieces are available on Spotify. With the current Spotify mobile app you can even create playlists of your Parlando favorites—and exclude your “not so much favorites.”

For Once, Then, Something, or Robert Frost kicks it EDM

You know, I really mean it when I say I aim to combine various words (mostly poetry) with various original music. I find I’m a self-iconoclast. If I sense a few too many audio pieces leaning one way, I want to lean another.

Brave listener/reader, bear with me. If you like or even love something I present here, you might well find the next one meh to boring to obnoxious.

Today’s piece uses a poem by Robert Frost. Long-time readers will know that I didn’t much care for Frost in my youth. He seemed so conventional, the man to reassure us of timeless verities in verse and sentiment, a left-over Victorian. Even Emily Dickinson who I first absorbed, as she was taught then as a writer of gentle ironies, at least had a bit of the scamp about her. And in my young days Frost had the job of bringing up the rear of the poetry textbooks, the last in the line.*  Everything newer was unexplored, unteachable as to danger or value.

Carta Marina Beyond this point are Monsters

Beyond this point are monsters. This map makes it look like one could cross the North Sea by hopping from back to back. My mid-century text-books stayed onshore.

 

How soon did I hear Frost’s “playing tennis without a net” line, often deployed then against the Beats, those descendants of Whitman and Li Bai who were roaming the streets unschooled and braying? In high school I’d guess. I didn’t know then that Frost hated nearly every living poet, that Frost’s distain was like the rain, it fell on all.

I suppose I could have at least related to Frost’s rural themes in my little farm town, but that passed me by then. I do recall that a high school English teacher who I admired, Terry Brennan,** told us that Frost had not been successful in his short try as a farmer, and I still remember that assessment of Frost’s poetic persona as something of a phony mask. Carl Sandburg, still thought of as the proletarian urbanite, was more a man of the soil, his household goat farm likely more successful and certainly longer-lived.

Of course, few young persons—and not I, then—realize that all masks are phony, but they give you something to show for what you’re saying. To criticize a poet for putting on masks and speaking lines is like criticizing LeBron James for spending too much time dribbling when he could just drop the ball through the hoop from the top of a stepladder. Did I just restate Frost with larger balls and a different net? And you in the back row: that’s basketballs, stop snickering.

Frost’s true nature is as a stoic, a man sure of human failure and the unacknowledged dark humor in denying that. Sure, that outlook can be too reductive. Kindness, love, the act of caring, may be only momentary balms in the great scheme of things, but momentarily we live.

So why do I now present Robert Frost fairly often here? Well, in his early years he was a superb lyric poet. And as I’ve gotten older, I’m more and more drawn to the lyric poem, the short expression that says those who tell you everything in their poem, who are sure their next line will tell you more yet, are testing both my patience and my sense of how much anyone knows. If we live momentarily, then the lyric poet is our documentarian.

Frost’s “For Once, Then, Something”  is a defense of that understanding, a lyric poem about the Book of Nature that is itself about the momentariness of the lyric. I choose this unconventional musical setting to emphasize that other part of Frost, that he’s the hard man, and that if he’s a poet who can be taunted for spending too much time staring down wells, he isn’t going to lie about what little he can see. ***

Today’s piece marks the 350th audio piece that the Parlando Project has presented here, so that makes it particularly apt, not only because we most often focus on the lyric aspect of words, but because this project is about encountering those words and asking what is new or particular in our apprehension.

Disliking or liking a piece’s words, music, or performance are just two sides of the same coin in the wishing well. My dislike of the poet I thought Frost was at first led me to love other poets more, and then, eventually, in another once, I was able to come back to Frost and see him again, differently.

Rural Well!

You’ve given us your attention, so not wishing for you to toss coins…

 

If you like some of what we do, here’s what I ask of you: spread the news about it. Particularly if you use social media (I have too little time after doing this, nor do I have enough of the nature for it). The audience has grown in the nearly three years this has been going on, but the amount of effort to do this asks that this growth continue.

Here’s today’s audio piece, my performance of Robert Frost’s “For Once, Then, Something”  taken as a driving EDM piece. You can dance if you want to, and the player is below. If you’d like to read the text of the poem, now or later, it’s here.

 

 

 

 

*Carl Sandburg, who I’ve always liked, was actually a few years younger than Frost, but the books still seemed to choose Frost to end with. There was a generation of poets after them, born in the early 20th century before the Beats and their contemporaries, who were also still not in the textbooks then.

**I wonder if he’s alive, an old man if so. I owe him a debt. Like an early musical influence, my short-time college friend Don Williams, his name is too common to be easily searched.

***I suspect an intended undercurrent here of the Celtic tradition of wells being the domain of spirits, something that survives in enervated form with traditions like the “wishing well.”

The Parlando Spring 2019 Top Ten Part 1

It’s time for the seasonal tallying of the pieces presented here that received the most listens and likes from you during the past three months.

We presented 36 or 37 pieces in that time, including our increased posting activity during April’s National Poetry Month, but the most notable event for me during this interval was May, which became the most active month ever here for both blog visits and audio piece streams. I’m grateful that you’ve lent this effort some of your attention, and that goes double for any of you that helped spread the word about what we do here informally or through things like Facebook and Twitter.

As usual we’re going to follow the count-down format, moving from the 10th most popular piece as determined by your listens and likes and moving up to the most popular one.

10. Sweet Thames. It was a close finish with Charlotte Mew’s “The Trees are Down,”   but one part of our ongoing annual April serial performance of “The Waste Land”  made it into the Top Ten. “Sweet Thames,”  the portion that kicks off that poem’s longest section “The Fire Sermon”  was the part that made it, while the rest did not. Perhaps the listens/likes were lower because I warned our audience that “The Waste Land,”  and particularly “The Fire Sermon”  part of it, is not light entertainment, and things only got darker as “The Fire Sermon”  continues after this. “Sweet Thames”  may seem to have jaunty parts, particularly the catchy Mrs. Porter section near the end, but even that has dark undertones as it was sung by the ANZAC troops heading for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in WWI.

I did like the music I composed and played for it though, mixing some buzzy synth lines with American delta-blues style slide guitar. Listen to it here:

 

You could think of Dr. Tearle’s 3 minutes of video here as the trailer if “The Waste Land” was a film. Definitely not a date movie then.

 

 

9. Smoke and Steel. Frequent visitors here know my love for Carl Sandburg, and the Sandburg piece that made our Spring Top 10 was a selection I took from the longer poem that is the title piece from his 1920 collection Smoke and Steel.

I found Sandburg’s extended metaphor of our working lives as smoke incredibly moving, something that a few of you must have agreed with. Musically, the toughest part was the piano part, the song’s musical hook. It’s not a complicated part, but I had to record it in two passes on my tiny plastic keyboard due to my naïve piano skills. Here’s the gadget to hear it.

Carl Sandburg on the work site

Sandburg greets Richard Wilbur, Amiri Baraka, and Frank O’Hara at the start of a 20th century poetry symposium. “All poets must wear a hard hat and steel-toed boots before entering the typewriter area.”

 

8. The Aim Was Song. Robert Frost’s ode to the genesis of poetry gave me an excuse to break out with an unapologetic electric lead-guitar song. The poem’s text talks about wind being shaped by the mouth, which may have clued me into using one of the oldest electric guitar effects devices: the wah-wah. The wah-wah is a foot-treadle pedal which when moved sweeps a frequency-band emphasis. The sweep of frequency seems to be changing the note as it sounds, like a jaw-harp or a horn plunger-mute. The player gadget for “The Aim Was Song”  is below.

Wah Wah Frost

Wah-Wah Robert Frost

 

Next time we’ll continue the count-down with numbers 7 through 5.

The Aim Was Song

Let’s give the lyrical reins over to Robert Frost one more time for another electric guitar driven piece. “The Aim Was Song”  is a poem from Frost’s 1923 Mountain Interval  collection, and not only is it a reasonably straightforward poetic credo from Frost, it speaks a little to Parlando’s goals too.

I put forward a definition of poetry as I was starting the Parlando Project as “Words that want to break into song.” I don’t recall where I read that definition, but when I searched this afternoon, all I can find is myself, so the source of that phrase may remain a mystery.

Careful with that axe Eugene. Robert Frost prepares to kick out the jams.

 

Unlike Sandburg and Yeats, Frost himself had no desire to sing or perform to music that I’m aware of, but his desire to use metrical/rhyming verse goads me to use him often here. And Frost had his own theory about how meter and language worked in poetry. He called it “The sound of sense,” and he once described it in a letter as akin to what comes through if you listen to talk in another room from the other side of a door. I don’t think he’s writing there about meter as commonly scanned in metrical poetry, I think instead he’s talking about human vitality that arrives through the panels of a door, the rise and fall, the breath and repetition. Frost’s theory was that you then laid that over the structure of metrical/syllabic prosody, so that each side pushes and pulls on each other. Too much evenness and it’s a motorik machine. Too little and you have only thoughts scattered on the page where only a silent and uncycling eye can gather them. You find that balance with one’s ear and heart.

Perhaps what Frost is aiming for here is the thing musicians call phrasing, but one thing that’s sure is that Frost believes poetry, even poetry of complex meaning or subtle rhetoric, is received through the ear and not the eye. So, even if Frost was not thinking directly of his poetry in association with music as we present things here, he is thinking of poetry as suffused with orality.

In “The Aim Was Song”  Frost develops one image throughout: how the human being captures breath, moving air in waves, the essence of that natural force of the fierce spring wind, and shapes it into a smaller but more intimate thing. That is the work of musicians and poets. I could almost hear Lord Buckley read this one, as Frost repeats some words in his short poem that seem to pun on musical terms, to “blow,” “how it ought to go,” and “measures.” I didn’t go that route (if I could) but consider that an undercurrent in this.

To hear my performance of Frost’s “The Aim Was Song,”  use the player below.  U. S. National Poetry Month is coming up in a few days, and I’m hoping to have a good number of encounters between music and words here in April. Please check back or subscribe, and spread the word.

 

 

A Spring Song with Some Winter In It: Frost’s “A Patch of Old Snow”

A bit earlier this month we presented a landmark very short Imagist poem, Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.”  14 words, and a prime example of the Modernist’s reaction to the rhetorical flourishes of a worn-out 19th century. Today I’m going to release a Robert Frost response, a 47-word rejoinder, a spring poem with some winter snow left in it.

Frost was born 145 years ago this week. His relationship with Pound is complex. On one hand Pound could view himself as responsible for launching Frost’s career, writing the first substantial review of Frost and seeing to it that his poems were published in Poetry  magazine. Without Pound’s endorsement, Frost had submitted poems there which had been rejected.

Frost tells the story of their initial meeting, with Frost’s first book A Boy’s Will  so newly published in England that he himself hadn’t gotten a hold of a copy. F. S. Flint (a too-often-forgotten pioneer of British Modernism) had met Frost at a bookstore reading, shortly after Frost had moved to England. Flint noticed Frost’s American shoes and insisted that he must meet his countryman Ezra Pound, now also residing in London. Frost later went to Pound’s apartment, and this is how Frost recounted their meeting:

[Pound] said, ‘Flint tells me you have a book.’ And I said, ‘Well, I ought to have.’ He said, ‘You haven’t seen it?’ And I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘What do you say we go and get a copy?’ He was eager about being the first one to talk. That’s one of the best things you can say about Pound: he wanted to be the first to jump. Didn’t call people up on the telephone to see how they were going to jump. He was all silent with eagerness. We walked over to my publisher; he got the book. Didn’t show it to me—put it in his pocket. We went back to his room. He said, ‘You don’t mind our liking this?’ in his British accent, slightly. And I said, ‘Oh, go ahead and like it.”

Even in prose, there’s some Frost-ian ambiguity it his account. He notes in passing that the American Pound was putting on a British accent. And his sly quote of Pound “You don’t mind our liking it” before Pound has read it—a subtle dig at poetic politics that—and who’s the “our” here. Pound (and Flint too) were promoting a poetic movement, Imagism—poetry that used direct, concise treatment of “a thing” without any extra words whatsoever.

Frost never liked a movement that included more than him.

And to some degree this soon led to a break between the two poets. Pound thought that Frost fell short on the “use no extra word” dictum of Imagism. He apparently offered to help Frost learn to excise those surplus words—and though similar offers from Pound were taken up by literary giants like T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemmingway, Frost refused it.

There was a second catch. In Pound’s review that launched Frost, Pound wanted to make a point of Frost’s rejection by American editors, and he was loudly saying this in an American magazine (one of those that had, in fact, rejected Frost). Many musicians and music fans will quickly recognize Pound’s move here. This is the punk/indie/”street cred” claim. This artist has too much honesty and individualism and lacks the subservient guile to please the suits and the mainstream! The problem here was that Frost was a middle-age man with a family—he wanted to cross-over to those editors. Frost thought Pound was pulling this move to show what a discerning critic he was more than to promote Frost as an outsider artist.

But note too in Frost’s account of his first fateful meeting with Pound, the subtle admission he makes about himself. “Oh, go ahead and like it.” He wanted, needed the help—by any means necessary.

Oddly, if you were to read Pound’s short review today, you might be surprised that it worked to launch Frost at all. There are condescending elements, Frost is almost treated as some idiot-savant country bumpkin. And worse for Pound, he goes on record as the first man to misread Frost as simple and earnest (the same mistake that I made as a teenager, but then I’m not Ezra Pound).

A Patch of Old Snow_1080

A patch of old snow, blossoms on wet dark bough not included

 

Here’s the text of Frost’s poem I use today and here’s Pound’s 14-word Imagist flagship. Look at Frost’s first stanza. Sure, Frost’s is rhymed and metrical, though Pound uses a near rhyme that many miss. If Frost ended there, his poem is purely Imagist. “Old” in front of snow isn’t a wasted word. We need to know it’s spring now, and that the snow is past its sell-by date. And it’s an interesting choice to say “blow-away paper” instead of blown-away—more immediate, and it indicates that its transient nature is inherent, not something acted upon from without.

Frost’s second stanza? Pound’s editor’s pencil might have suggested he’s restating the image from the first stanza, but Frost might have countered by noting that he’s making clear this isn’t just any crumpled scrap paper the snow is being made equivalent to, but a newspaper or other publication, with “small print.”

Here’s the Imagist difference. In conventional poetry, the images, the similes and metaphors, are only decorative—look, clever I can compare this to this. In Imagist poetry this comparison shouldn’t be just decorative—it’s the meaning of the poem.  This last edition of winter is “yesterday’s papers.” And bilaterally, wrong-headed reviews in Poetry?  They will pass like the lonely grimy snow-bergs.

The last line, “If I ever read it,” is Frost’s touch. Pure Imagism doesn’t like to draw conclusions, even enigmatic ones. Does it mean one thing? I think it predominantly says, it’s the past, I’ve endured, it’ll soon be gone completely. The poem first appeared in Frost’s third book, the first to be published in America not in England. Frost was on his way. But there’s an undercurrent—with Frost there always is.  Is that small print an edition of The Book of Nature? After all, we also know this: winter will return, and should we not read what it has written to us?

Frost will do that too in many of his greatest poems.

This morning I ask myself, what a strange way to spend a weekend full of news and melting snow, reading the small print about two poetic innovators at cross-purposes to each other.

Musically, I wanted to let loose a bit for this one. I’ve been playing acoustic guitar for many recent pieces, so I wanted an unleashed electric guitar. The wild spring bird-whistles near the end are feedback between the guitar’s pickups and the amplifier.

 

The Most Popular Parlando Audio Piece This Past Winter 2018-19

Let’s just name the winner right off, and kill the suspense: Wallace Stevens’ “To the Roaring Wind.”

There was a time in my teens and twenties when Wallace Stevens grabbed ahold of me. I think back at that young man and try to wonder why. Well there was the accident of a very affordable collection of his best work that I mentioned when I first posted “To the Roaring Wind”  back in early January. I think that I also liked the way his poems looked. Free verse looked right on the page to me as well to my ear—I was not writing metrical, rhymed poetry when I started—but the poems also looked ordered, focused, a tightly built thing. E. E. Cummings or Marianne Moore with their ragged lines and strange fragmentation looked like that they were confused about how to put things into words, where Stevens looked sure. Other favorites that came to me later in life, like Frost and Dickinson, seemed to my younger self all too pat and superficial then, and there was Stevens, his poems with majestic numerabled sections that seemed to be laying out a lawyerish or legislative structure filled in with an exact poet’s eye.

wallace-stevens

Poet Wallace Stevens. Gromit not pictured.

 

That I didn’t understand all that he was getting at in his poems wasn’t a problem. No, that was a benefit. For my paperback edition $1.45 I got work that one could re-read without knowing already how it would come out! I recall writing poems that I didn’t know how they would come out either, something I will still do. There was one longer one from that era, the first one of mine ever to be published.  It had Stevens’ influence all over it,  copying his Blackbirds-numbered sections.

Frost, who I thought was entirely too conventional then, claimed that he never liked Stevens’ work “Because it purports to make me think.”  Isn’t that line so Frost-ian? First you might high-five Frost and shout “burn!” And then, if you pause and think about it, in decrying Stevens Frost makes a good argument for why you might want to read him—indeed, why I wanted to read him.

Oddly, this poet who was attractive to this teenager, published his first collection Harmonium when he was 44 years old. Lewis Untermeyer, one of the canon-gatekeepers of Stevens’ time, reviewed it then:

“…lacking the spell of any emotion, Harmonium  loses both itself and its audience. It has much for the eye, something for the ear, but nothing for that central hunger which is at the heart of all the senses.”

Untermeyer and Frost may have been right to some degree. I fell away from Stevens as I aged, not from any conscious choice, but because I had other poetic worlds to explore, ones that often had emotional and visionary aspects that weren’t overt in Stevens work.

Here is where the Parlando Project, which performs the poems with music, comes in. There is no inherent emotional content in any series of notes stronger than what the musician manifests when they perform it.

As I noted that Harmonium,  as a work published in 1923. was now in the public domain as of the first of January 2019, I looked for a piece from it that wasn’t one of its “greatest hits,” a deep cut to represent the collection itself rather than an often anthologized and well-known poem. My attention fell on the last piece in the book, this one. As I did this, a connection emerged with a local poet and poetry-reading organizer, David Shove who I learned had died at the turn of the year. “To the Roaring Wind”  is a call to two things: to the muse, that time-honored concept that what supplies us as artists isn’t from our individual merits, but from things outside us that we must serve, and then, to speaking poetry aloud.