Is it time to take a break from our sometimes intense presentations of poetry combined in some way with music? Well, here’s a little ditty about the lighter side of death, or rather the worship of dead rock stars.
Sure, it can be a honorable thing to give respect to those who’ve gone, to carry their artistic flag further when they can’t, but there is another side, the romantic admiration for the risks and the access to excess that often precedes the early death of musicians, writers, and other artists. The first duty of an artist is to survive. Society is not generally on the artist’s side until they become successful commercially, and even when it grants them that success, it can withdraw it and their support quickly too. To add to that burden with one’s own self-medication and distractions seems like a compensation to that state, but it doesn’t always work that way.
Poet, songwriter, alternate voice, and frequent keyboard player here Dave Moore wrote a short poem about how an older person might view with a strange kind of envy the tentative fame and unbounded experiences that others in our musical/generational cohort enjoyed. Sex, drugs and Rock’n’Roll once seemed to be jobs on offer in the want ads in our youth, even if it turned out the positions were already filled and the items already sold. I adapted Dave’s words, added a verse of my own, and wrote music for my performance of “They’re Not the Grateful Dead” some years back and thought you might enjoy it here. Oh, that “Grateful Dead” in the title? Translated folkie Jerry Garcia knew that this was a trad folk song trope where the dead magically and musically express some gratitude.
One thing I like about Dave’s lyric is that, outside of Jimi Hendrix he doesn’t pull in the big names, the Boomer rock’n’roll Shelleys and Byrons, the ones that are still featured faces in the rear-view mirrors looking at the music and times. Starting right off with Nicky Hopkins* is a bold move, but then Dave is a keyboard player.
My performance of this has a few flubs, but it’s hard for me to get more recording in right now, so we’ll make do with this older recording as is. The player gadget is below for many of you, but if you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink will also play my performance of “They’re Not the Grateful Dead.”
*Huh. Who? Those who didn’t ruin their eyesight fantasizing about debauched after-parties but by reading all the liner notes on every LP will know who Nicky Hopkins is.
I think I’ve established that I like examining lesser-known Modernists, or even writers who weren’t always considered part of the Modernist movement. Now today I may cause a few literarily knowledgeable readers to throw up their hands and do a spit take. Why? Yes, today’s piece is a sonnet, but we should note that not all Modernists rejected rhyme, and after all this is also a piece of down-beat gritty urban experience. Just look at the opening two lines:
Tired clerks, pale girls, street cleaners, business men
Boys, priests and harlots, drunkards, students, thieves…
A litany that wouldn’t be out of place in the Unreal City a few years later. It could sound like the opening of a piece by Whitman or even Lou Reed as it starts out. As it continues, it doesn’t stint on the darkness literal and figurative. Those subway riders are riders, without agency. With fixed tracks underground they go their “sunless way” with “reluctant feet” as our Modernist Dante tells us. When I first read this* having seen the author’s name before reading, my thought was “Could the writer of this piece be misattributed?”
Go ahead, go to the bottom of the post and listen to the performance I put together using this early 20th century New York City poem about ordinary and agentless people lost in underground darkness. It’s less than 3 minutes long. Hear it first without knowing who wrote it.
Is this something of a belated Memorial Day post? Today’s author would die serving overseas in the U.S. Army during WWI. But stop reading and skip down to the bold-faced section at the end for a chance to hear the audio piece first.
OK, now let’s take off the Masked Singer costume: the author of the sonnet that I used as the text for today’s audio piece is Joyce Kilmer. I expect two responses to that information: “Huh?” and“What!” The former “Huh?” might be from my younger readers, as this is less likely a poet they’ve run into in our present century. That was not always so. Those my age or older will likely associate Kilmer with a single poem which was once so well-known and liked that it became a point of contention with many educated folks. That poem was “Trees,” the one that begins “I think that I shall never see/A poem as lovely as a tree.” My first High School English teacher Terry Brennan explained that he had had a High School teacher who had recited it while bodily enacting the “lifts her leafy arms to pray” part of Kilmer’s “Trees” poem. I believe he told us this to establish that he was not going to inflict a similar pedology on us (thanks Terry for that, and much more!) A columnist I liked to read in the Des Moines Register as a teenager, Donald Kaul, loved to pillory Kilmer’s “Trees” as a crime against better culture.** They had a point. “Trees” was ripe enough with pleasant sentiments that it likely did its part to help kill off the pathetic fallacy in modern poetry, but let’s start with its first publication: in Poetry magazine in 1913, in an issue of that important publication for new verse that also included certified Modernists Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, and Skipwith Cannell, the later a favorite of the Others circle.
And speaking of Others magazine, Kilmer was in New York as a young poet in the years before WWI, rubbing elbows with those who would be associated with that city’s fearless avant-garde. Orrick Johns mentions him as someone he knew in those days. When Poetry’s editor Harriet Monroe published her anthology The New Poetry in 1917, Kilmer and his poem “Trees” is included alphabetically between poems by Orrick Johns and Others’ founder/editor Alfred Kreymborg. Kreymborg in his interesting memoir Troubadour recounts that Kilmer was one of the few “actual writers” he was acquainted with in his earliest days as a poet. Kilmer read some of Kreymborg’s short free-verse poems and suggested “You ought to divide those lines and make them rhyme—there’s poetry in them” which Kreymborg considered encouragement. Kilmer was working then for Funk and Wagnall’s, the dictionary people, and even gave Kreymborg some assignments for the dictionary which paid the young man $10, his first check for writing anything.
But all that is circumstantial Modernism. Besides “Trees” the Kilmer verse I’ve found online is almost entirely religious in nature, and it doesn’t come close to threatening Gerard Manley Hopkins’ gravity and vitality in that regard. If there are other poems that Kilmer wrote that are like “The Subway” I haven’t seen them.
Why did that “Trees” poem stick? Trees may not be the Internet Cat Pictures of nature poetry, but readers do seem attracted to those stately greenhouse-gas-absorbing plants. And there’s more: unlike Great Britain, Kilmer was just about the only U. S. poet killed in WWI.*** In England a young poet like Rupert Brooke could gain public attention that persisted after the war even if he was only one poet-casualty out of several of his countrymen. In America, the “Trees” man received the whole pension, and a large East Coast military base was named Camp Kilmer and served as the place where many of the Greatest Generation embarked and returned to America for WWII.
Did you jump down to here in order to listen to the song I made out of this early 20th century American poem about the New York City subway? If so, there’s a player gadget for some of you, and for the rest, this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab/window to play the piece. After you listen to the song you can return to the rest of the post to find out what “Modernist” wrote the lyrics.
***The other name that comes to mind was Alan Seeger, the “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” poet who died ahead of the U.S. participation in the war fighting with French forces. His nephew was Pete Seeger, as Pete liked to point out at times.
I promised a return of Dave Moore earlier this month, and here he is, presenting a story that frames itself three ways. In today’s piece Dave reads a short passage from Greil Marcus’ 1975 book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock’n’Roll Music, which in turn includes this story 20th century musician Frank Floyd told about himself. Marcus uses the not-quite-a-footnote career of “Harmonica Frank” to outline a grand story of American music forming itself from disparate sources, and Dave’s selection focuses on something particularly disparate and desperate in Floyd’s story, the diversity of work musical and otherwise that Floyd knitted together into a life. That litany of Floyd’s gigs is the coat of arms on the flag of “The old weird America” that Marcus’ famously invoked.
Beside the trick of playing harmonica like it was some stogie, all the while singing, Floyd would play two at once using both his nostrils and his mouth. Getting attention in those old weird America gigs wasn’t easy.
I’m over half-way in watching Ken Burns’ Country Music 16-hour documentary series. I’ve got a few hours left to go, so please no spoilers, I don’t want to know how it comes out. It has drawn some criticism for being an overview with Burns’ characteristic trope of excerpting some figures to represent the greater points and leaving out or footnoting others. I suppose the later problem is inevitable but will also always be a fertile ground for argument, and the former, the survey course pacing that keeps moving forward with short excerpts of songs and talking heads (and yes, those won’t stay still pictures’), is something I’ve come to accept with anything that tries to tell a more than century-long story.* We currently live in a world where much of the once rare and physically bound-up resources of our history, our cultural histories told by example, are widely available, constrained only by time and our levels of interest. Overviews, just as pieces about obscure figures, can inspire one to use those resources to find out more.
Decades ago, when the Internet was still young and more text-based, I was enormously frustrated by Burns’ similarly-scoped Jazz. Some rare film clip or unheard recording would play for 10 or 15 seconds, and then a talking head would be cut to, telling us how important this one was, how we should pay attention to it, while the filmmaker was doing exactly the opposite.
Country Music does exactly the same thing, but in a great many cases the whole thing is available fairly easily now. And in the middle episodes, where the “Country and Western” era played out for 20 years or so, I hear the music of part of my father’s life, one of the gigs he knitted together to make a living. I hear the songs that would play on his transistor radio sitting on the metal dash of his bread van, racks now empty and rattling after tray after tray of loaves had been carried into small-town grocery stores via his drives over two-lane roads. Over that insistent chorus of bare-rack snare-taps, the steel guitars and keening vocals cut through readily where we never talked.
Burns’ doesn’t have to play the whole song for those. I know it and I don’t know it instantly.
Well, there I go, off onto something else, talking over consideration of Dave’s presentation of Harmonica Frank Floyd and the many gigs Floyd did while trying to do his “something different,” songs and earn his daily bread. I think you’ll find Dave does a nice job of presenting Floyd’s story. The player to hear him tell it is below.
*You can’t win department: the criticism that you didn’t include everybody is the opposite side of you didn’t go deep enough on any one thing. As long as you accept that there’s some value in these survey-course/overviews then you are committed to not delving the depths on a particular issue, style, or person. Of course some get left out, just as the canon of poetry leaves some out—but as we do here with some of our pieces over the years, as Marcus’ did by including the obscure figure of Harmonica Frank, as to some degree Burns did by including another harmonica player: DeFord Bailey in his survey, that should just inspire other, corrective and extending work.
In the first two parts I’ve tried as briefly as I can to outline two things surrounding this issue. In part one, I surveyed how poetry moved from an ancient form performed with music to a modern form most typically associated with printed text on a page. In part two I looked at the surprising result of a political decision made in the 1930s that led to a rich cultural mix being encouraged to compose music for non-commercial purposes linked to folk music. 25 years after this decision, a singular singer-songwriter linked that idea with many of the discoveries of Modernist poetry and revolutionized what song lyrics could do.
These two things, the move of poetry away from music and performance in general and the move of song lyrics to utilize all the elements pioneered by the Modernist poets naturally bring this question of “Are these lyrics poetry?” to the fore.
I’m going to try (again as briefly as I can) to deal with the issues brought up by this question. Before I do, I’ll spoil the suspense: I believe song lyrics are poetry, even though I agree to some level with the objections to that idea. On one level, a matter of definition, it ought to be simple to agree: the argument isn’t really that song lyrics aren’t poetry (or that various kinds of performed poetry aren’t poetry) it’s an argument that those things aren’t (or aren’t very often) any good as poetry. As I argued here a couple of years back, “not so great poetry” isn’t worthless, and I doubt the arguments that not so great poetry harms those poems we feel are greater or more accomplished.
What are those objections?
Without music or when printed silently on the page many song lyrics, even effective ones, seem much less effective. It may be 20th century comedian Steve Allen who originated the gag where a pop music lyric is intoned as if it’s a deathless ode. Laughs ensue. Allen liked to remind us that he was a songwriter and the author of serious books, but here, for the bit’s sake he’s showing us his skills as a performer. The unintended air of seriousness is incongruous to the material, he leans hard on the choral repetitions—which are used in poetry, but are used much more often in sung lyrics—and any infelicities in songwriter Gene Vincent’s words that we might ignore in the flow of Vincent’s performance get a raised eyebrow in Allen’s. A performer could do the same to “The Waste Land” or Emily Dickinson and make it ludicrous. And Bullwinkle J. Moose could present the once worthy Longfellow for laughs too.
“Drink in the simple beauty and the profundity of the sentiment…Skitch…”
Context is important in art. “The Waste Land” gained part of its launch velocity because of the trauma of WWI and because the Modernist movement was primed for a weighty masterpiece. But context is even more important in performed work, “Be Bop a-Lula” is designed to be heard sung with music.
Allen was taking a jazz-snob swipe at rock’n’roll. Here he is providing appropriate context for Jack Kerouac. “In Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry.”
That if considered as poetry, using the same criteria a critic would apply to poems, many song lyrics fail to meet those criteria. Well, a great many poems that have never heard a note sounded beside them probably fail those criteria too. There are arguments that complex song lyrics fail because they are performed which I deal with below, but I ask: how sure are you your criteria are universal? When folks argue that Kendrick Lamar or Bob Dylan are bad poetry they are almost never arguing “Well, they just don’t work for me.” Instead they maintain that those who feel they do work have been duped or lack the intelligence and skills to appreciate something they posit as more worthy. How many Modernist, now cannon-resident poems, met the criteria of 19th century poetry? Did the Modernists forget how to be modernists? What part of “Make it new” did we forget?
The more I look at poetry, the more I’m surprised that a great many ways of “making poetry” seem to work. I’m pleased by that discovery, while I suspect the criteria people coming across the same discovery would be somewhere between puzzled and disappointed.
When folks answer this question by pointing out ways that song lyrics (generalized in some way) are different from poetry (generalized as well), I often wonder just how narrow their generalized view of poetry is. Poetry expresses itself in so many different ways even without leaving the page. The differences between how Du Fu’s “Spring View” and Eliot’s “The Waste Land” allow us to feel somewhat similar responses to similar situations are immense, larger than the differences between “The Waste Land” and Dylan’s “Desolation Row.”
Complex poetry cannot be appreciated in performance, much less with the distraction of music. I’ve dealt with this briefly elsewhere in this series, but we also need to ask: is complex, analytic, response always called for? In every other art-form I can think of, we allow for various levels of involvement with the art. Because complex poetry can reward deep examination, must it always be approached in all times and places by all people in that way? Audiences differ in their need to understand immediately. “Be Bop a-Lula” is designed to be absorbed with immediacy as expression and as a series of pleasing sounds. Donald Glover’s “This Is America” isn’t, and indeed it’s designed to make you question your pleasure in a text that works like “Be Bob a-Lula.” What the Bob Dylan revolution proved (regardless of how you rate Dylan) is that audiences will accept complex and unconventional expression in song lyrics. Not every hit song has complex lyrics, but complex lyrics can be a hit song.
If lyrics were good in the way complex poetry is good, that’s immaterial or it may even detract from the music which is the main thing an audience wants from a song. Yes, audiences come to songs for various reasons. Have you never loved a song for evolving reasons? With page-poetry I have certainly been attracted to a poem because of the way it sounded, and that pleasure indicated I might want to stick with it a bit (or re-experience that sound-pleasure) to see what else it might be expressing.
Sure, the ancients performed poetry with music, but that was a primitive solution. Literacy and mass-distributed printed matter is a better medium for poetry. I’m not sure about this. I agree that printed poetry allows for a different experience of the text. Alternate reader here Dave Moore has reminded me that it’s helpful if I provide access to the text of what is performed here. Good point! But the Parlando Project is in part a big experiment to see what works if various kinds of poetry are performed along with various music in various ways. I expect to fail, and I expect to succeed.
Speaking of success and failure, if you’re still here, I appreciate the time and attention you have given to read this. I’m both apologetic for its length and its brevity. Here’s a short audio piece, my translation (with a slight 21st century American adaptation I couldn’t resist) of that four-stanza poem that Du Fu wrote about the trauma of a broken country in springtime, the “Spring View” I mentioned above. Here’s a more literal translation of the text. The player for my performance is below.
I’m going to move on up the countdown of the most liked and listened to pieces during the past summer, but first a short summary about what the Parlando Project does, and an even more compressed explanation of why we do it.
The Parlando Project combines various words, mostly written by others, most often poetry, with original music. I am Frank Hudson. I write, arrange, play, and record most the music here. I don’t do that because I’m a great composer, or even an average musician. I do this because it’s the most cost-effective and time-efficient way to create this much music this quickly.
Other musicians contribute parts, and another voice, Dave Moore, relieves you from hearing my voice every time. Ideally there’d be more pieces with more musicians, and more variety of voice; but such an ideal world would require a great deal of organization, maybe even funding and the organization it takes to seek that. The pieces could be better realized, but when I look at the history of such more professional and polished presentations, it seems likely that there would be many fewer pieces. Take a random walk through the archives on the right here: the Parlando Project is now marching toward 300 pieces combining those various words with music. I’m unaware of any not for profit group who’s made available anything like this many poetry plus original music encounters.
Why do I do this? Because I’m still excited by those encounters. Most often these words have been designated to pages, and in some cases, little-read pages. They are the condensed observations of many human beings, potentially vivified by silent music there in the inky words. How can I wake them up and dress them in those other musical sounds that don’t speak in words? You’re listening here, you know that can be intriguing, and so I will not say more now on this.
Why do I do this? Because I’m still excited by those encounters. Most often these words have been designated to pages, and in some cases, little-read pages. They are the condensed observations of many human beings, potentially vivified by silent music there in the inky words.
Now let’s resume our countdown as we get to some of the pieces you liked and listened to the most these past three months.
4. The Destruction of Sennacherib. For around 100 years students in the English-speaking world usually got a strong dose of the British Romantic poets as part of literature classes: Keats, Coleridge, Shelley, Blake and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Here’s the weird thing about that: not a one of these men seem to be good classroom examples for young scholars. Messy, often foreshortened lives; lots of sex, drugs, and what was rock’n’roll before there were Afro-Americans with electric guitars and re-voiced saxophones.
Take this little piece, sure it’s a Bible story, but a field strewn with corpses isn’t exactly happy Schoolhouse Rock fun-time, regardless of the unstoppable flow of Byron’s verse even without adding the instrumental music.
3. Fire and Sleet and Candlelight.Elinor Wylie was heavily influenced by those British Romantics and lived through events that echoed the scandals of Shelly and Byron in her own foreshortened life. Did this help her compose this tale of a life as a series of troubled trials and tests? One could easily suppose this to be so. Still, this piece’s title and something of the life as a trial by fire narrative strongly references an old and pious English Christian folk-hymn, the “Lyke Wake Dirge.” Combining frightening with beautiful is not an easy thing to do, so it takes more than merely having the life-experience to create something like this.
This audio piece is an example of why I realize these pieces so often by playing all the parts myself. Actually collecting the equivalent of a chamber orchestra and a place to record them would take more than a full summer’s work alone.
2. Morituri Salutamus. There turned out to be a lot of daylight between the other pieces and the top two this past quarter. And this one is the greatest surprise, as its words are taken from a longer homecoming-speech-as-poem by that now most un-fashionable poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Still, I could relate to this section, which is the opposite of those romantic “live fast, die young, publish posthumously” proposals of the troubled romantics. “Morituri Salutamus” is the cry of an aged artist refusing to quit, hampered by unavoidable age instead of youthful self-sought excess.
I have no idea of the age-demographics of listeners here, so I don’t know if that was the hook for “Morituri Salutamus” this summer. Regardless of the pull of taking in experiences as wildly and widely as possible as a way to more intense artistic expression, I’ll admonish younger readers here that the primary duties of an artist are to survive and to actually do the work that survival allows. Like homecoming and graduation speeches in general, this matter is likely eye-rollingly obvious and simplistic to the bravest young listeners. That’s OK, I’ll be back tomorrow with the piece that was even more popular and modern than Longfellow.
A couple of posts back I mentioned that we’d meet Yeats “rook-delighting heaven” again as we visit some more expressions of the month of February. Well, here’s one, Boris Pasternak’s “February.”
Coincidently, it appears that Pasternak wrote his “February” within a few months one way or another of Yeats’ “A Cold Heaven.” And both poets put ravens in these poems, though Yeats’ crows show up early, and Pasternak’s drop in near the end. Though Yeats wrote his “A Cold Heaven” in more temperate Ireland, it resonated with a Northern Midwesterner like me with its burning ice and unwarming sun. Pasternak, presumably familiar with a colder climate more like my own, sets the thermostat on his February to an early spring melt; but this is a muddy, sodden spring. His black spring holds cold rains, mud, and slush—more like a real early spring than a happy-butterflies-and-wildflowers May spring.
I’m not fluent in Russian, but the challenge of translating this lyrical poem from Russian to English has attracted many. As I recall, when I tried to put together the text for this performance, I used several of those as gloss, tempered with Internet translator apps fed the Russian. I know nothing of Russian diction, so I aimed for an informal American diction, and unlike some translators, I didn’t try to keep the original poem’s rhyme scheme in English—after all, I knew I’d be supplying music for this.
I believe the music I choose here, bluesy rock’n’roll, while American, is fitting. I hear Pasternak here singing the Russian Blues: blues like unto our great American music of endurance, and rock’n’roll that cares only to seek the state he speaks of in the last two lines:
The more haphazard, the more true, the poetry that sobs its heart out.
So I’ll be putting this post up, and then I’ll go out in our haphazard too-early spring February myself. I too will head out past the noise of city church bells, past the cars, biking to the edge of my city where I’m going to buy George Saunders sad new novel.
Today’s episode is dedicated Renee Robbins, who once was lost on the edge of Moscow herself, the last passenger remaining at the end of a bus route. She found her way back long enough for us to know her.
To hear the LYL Band perform Boris Pasternak’s “February” use the player that appears below.