Genius by Mark Twain

Last time, American satirist Mark Twain took aim at the pretensions of half-hearted sentimental memorial verse. Today’s barbs for bards are from a younger Twain. The text is taken from what was apparently a journal entry written on shipboard in 1866, before Twain was established in his literary career. Elsewhere on the web “Genius”  is identified as a poem, and perhaps in manuscript that intent is clear—but when I first read it, I suspected it could be notes for something not yet finished, or even cue-phrases for a humorous lecture.

150 years and the mystery of what it is hardly obscure the points Twain makes. The alienated, self-pitying, and intoxicated artist, damaged by a feeble market that is itself a claim to their originality, is a type we can still recognize—even for some of us, in the mirror. In my performance I chose to bring forward what I think is some ambiguity in the piece. Twain never quite shows the work itself is a worthless affectation, while indicting the affectations around the artist specifically and wholeheartedly. Yes, the poet’s rhymes are said to be “sickly” and “incomprehensible,” heavy charges laid on them by those “with sense” who are not hip enough to appreciate the “genius.” Every single poète maudit* since would take those charges as badges of honor. I sense some mixed admiration for this stubborn guy who sensibly should take available steady work as a sawyer, but instead sticks to writing.

Mark Twain 1863

The pen name was still fairly new, and the ‘stache hadn’t yet leapt to his upper lip, but here’s the twenty-something Twain.

 

After all, Twain himself was not far from that state. He was not yet a successful writer. He hung out with a group of self-described Bohemians in San Francisco. He lived in his Twenties a fairly reckless and feckless life, fleeing to the west from Missouri to escape the Civil War and the draft, fleeing Virginia City for San Francisco to escape a duel occasioned by a slanderous article he had published, and this particular journal entry had him on a ship heading to Hawaii, leaving San Francisco. “No direction home, like a complete unknown…”

And all his life, Twain was two, a man who clearly wanted success and recognition, but whose writing and outlook was distrustful of established norms, propriety, and shibboleths.

If “Genius”  is notes for a talk and not an intended page-piece, it points out that Twain’s eventual career included substantial work as a speaker who told humorous stories. We have a name for that sort of work today: stand-up comedian. During his time out west Twain met and befriended Artemus Ward, a man who has since been called the first stand-up comedian. They met in the mining boomtown of Virginia City, and the story goes that after Ward’s performance, Twain took Ward on a drunken tour of the rooftops of the town. Given their state, the risk to American culture of such an intoxicated lark was in retrospect considerable, so perhaps we should thank the town constable who along with a shotgun filled with rock-salt, ended that escapade.

So, Twain lived to write his books and to skewer poetry. The player gadget to hear my performance of Mark Twain’s “Genius”  (whatever it is, or was intended to be) is below. Here’s the full text of “Genius” as is appears elsewhere on the web.

 

 

 

*Was Twain skewering a particular poet, or a type? Edgar Allen Poe, the American poet of his time who lived and sang the “songs of a poet who died in an alley” would be one candidate. And it could be in some part a reflection of persons in the West Coast bohemian scene he was sailing from.

President Declares Poetry an Essential Service

In a sharp turn-about that shocked many in our nation’s capitol, the President today declared that poetry is an essential service that must remain open during the current pandemic emergency.

“People tell me, that may surprise you, but they do, they say, you know Mr. President your speech is very poetic. I’m told I’ve been compared to the great French poet Ubu Roi, and you know that’ll surprise a lot of the so-called elites who look down on the way I talk straight in several directions. And I hear that Andre Breton had some very good things to say about my campaign. That Andre Breton is a smart guy, and I hear he’s a doctor too, so it’s especially good to hear that he supports me these days.

Ubu Roi Performance

The President also demonstrated there are plenty of ventilators, tests kits, and protective masks and gowns available.

Now this is odd, because I’ve been involved in other things, but I think I could have been a poet if I’d wanted to. A great one. Maybe I didn’t because I don’t have a big ego like a lot of those poets do. Someone showed me some poetry today, and it didn’t seem to get to the most important things. It seemed to be mostly about the poet themselves. I don’t know if I could do that. But poetry seems to be like that, so maybe I could. I dunno—poets look to what I do, and do the opposite maybe.

Oh, some folks are telling me that I need to get back to the declaration. All right. As you know, our country is going through some tough times. Sometimes they are in little rooms, not fine rooms like this one here, or the ones that you could write in at my hotels or resorts by the way. Great rooms. Big ones, you could put a lot of poetry in there. Stuck at home, and I hear that some of them write and read poetry in those rooms. So, it’s an essential service to social distancing. Even in the earliest days of social distancing I’m told poets across the country were happy to comply with the earlier, looser crowd size regulations of 50 people—some of them even asked if the authorities could go further and require 50 people to attend their readings.

The declaration. It says here that:

Read poetry out loud, at full voice, often, until this emergency is over. It’s good for your lung function. Sad poems will tell you your sorrow is not all the sorrow in the world. Love poems will tell you there is an invisible web of desire as important as gravity. Poems of joy will make you leap like Carl Sandburg’s goats in pastures of plenty. Poems will turn your eyes inside out so you can see with another heart, and hear its strange burbling music.’

That’s the stuff here they want me to say, but I suggest you wait until after I’m done talking to start with the poetry. Oh, and this guy tells me it’s National Poetry Month. Yes, I think so. I hereby declare poetry an essential service today, and every April 1st.”

Reached for comment, Andre Breton suggested that he could not comment at this time, being dead and all. But he referred us to this section of his Surrealist Manifesto  as performed in English by the Parlando Project. He further added “Vous pouvez cliquer sur le gadget du lecteur ci-dessous pour l’entendre.”

Emerson’s Requiem

In the last hour of 2019 I was sitting on the couch with my son as we exchanged video clips we thought each other should see. I mentioned that Neil Innes had just died, that he was part of the Monty Python circle, and that before Python he had founded a musical group that helped inspire the Pythons called the Bonzo Dog Do-Dah Band.

“I think I’ve heard of the Bonzo Dog Do-Dah Band.”

“Search for ‘Canyons of Your Mind’”  I suggested. Sure enough, the magic of Internet searching brought up a video. “This is the most Sixties song ever” I promised.

Here’s the clip we watched.

Farcical fascicles found  “In the wardrobe of my soul, in the section labeled shirts.”

 

 

I wasn’t sure if I needed to provide context for it. As the performance shows they’re sending up every bit of performative anguish over absent love as well as the worship of musicians offering it. And the lyrics? They should have mortally wounded a certain kind of Sixties metaphor that was supposed to transcend our mundane world. In the middle of it Neil Innes plays a guitar solo that was likewise a pig cupid’s dart to the heart of every guitar hero moment. Anyone got the tab for that?

Son was not impressed. He had just shown me a Franz Ferdinand video chock-full of early 20th century Dada and Constructivist art moves: Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters, Alexander Rodchenko visual riffs. In contrast, the Bonzo’s Dada lacked the same danceable drive and sleek black stage dress of the smart and sharp 21st century Glaswegian rock band.

Oh well. I hadn’t seen the Franz Ferdinand videos he showed me and I was glad I saw them. They made me think how we are still working out the Modernist revolution as we enter another decade that will be called “The Twenties.”

Early in the last week, I watched an episode of Apple TV+ Dickinson with my wife. In it Emily was crushing on Benjamin Newton over their mutual admiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “Dirge,”  “The one where he’s on a plain with all those ghosts” as TV’s Emily has it.

That made we want to go back and check out Emerson’s “Dirge.”  What might Dickinson have seen in it?

It is 19th century Goth, right full of death and lonely love for the dead. Emerson had suffered at least as much as his early 19th century peers in terms of early deaths in his circle, and his poem is quite similar to a poem Abraham Lincoln wrote around the same time that we’ve featured here. One of Emerson’s charms as an essayist was that his mind might take him anywhere while writing one, and the reader is afterward taken along for the ride. This one-thing-after-another move can also work in poetry, but when Emerson the poet does it, it generally doesn’t work for me. “Dirge”  suffers for that.

Here’s the text of “Dirge”  as Emerson published it. The TV show’s Dickinson latched right onto that arresting image, a rural plain full of ghosts, but Emerson buries the lede, putting another stanza before it. That stanza isn’t entirely bad, indeed its abandoned field with scanty corn could have conceivably informed Dickinson’s “Summer’s empty room” in her later poem we featured this December. I tried performing the poem in its entirety, but it was running nearly 8 minutes (longer than I like to use here) and so I then decided to cut to length by removing those stanzas that were Emersonian digressions. I’m not sure that’s the right way to go, though I think the listener might prefer my more single-threaded version. In some of the excised stanzas, Emerson made the poem’s setting distinctly his Concord hometown; and the mourned, missing folks: his siblings who died young. Specificity also works in poetry, but I’m not sure it strengthens this  poem.

One more thing before I offer you a chance to hear my resulting performance. An 1850s Emily Dickinson would have been reading this kind of gothic romanticism in its moment. The element, performative or not, of contemporary personal emotion in poems was part of the change of 19th century Romanticism. Her models: Emerson, Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and others used that mode. Even Whitman made common use of it. Here’s something I find striking: Dickinson generally didn’t. Her poems make little use of sentimentality. She will use emotional words in her poems rather than images meant to invoke feelings in the 20th century Imagist manner, but those emotional terms often seem examined, observed, set to the side.

I asked my son if what put him off the Bonzos was that they were desecrating his musical religion. *

“No, you could have just picked a better one.”

Acoustic guitar and a mix of synthesizer sounds for today’s musical performance of Emerson’s “Dirge.”  The player gadget to hear it is below.

 

 

 

 

*Pedantically one could draw a fairly direct line from the Bonzos to early Roxy Music to “Anarchy in the UK.”  But no more footnotes today! If I’m going to excise Emerson’s digressions, why should I give myself license?

Sincerely, M. Cohen

As long-time readers here will know, the Parlando Project likes to vary what it does. Loud, immediate and approximate rock’n’roll, string quartets, folkie and electronica tinges combine with words that I look around for—different stories each time, most of them not mine.

Are we now going to vary from Bronze Age Chinese poetry collected to instruct politicians? Or from the W.H. Auden-who-can-bring-the-funk remarks of Jimi Hendrix’s ET visiting the Third Stone from the Sun and marveling at the chickens?

Well, maybe a little.

And so, we’re going to descend into parody today. Mad  magazine imprinted me on parody while young, and Weird Al Yankovic never did a thing to cure me, and here I am an old man who still can’t help making up travesty-lyrics to songs he hears, which distresses my son who likes to sing Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time”  with his sincerely growing voice, while my questionable tenor tries to make that into a dissertation on salad vs. main-course silverware: “Fork with the Longest Tine.”

To the possible detriment of today’s piece, I didn’t choose anything as well known as one of Joel’s hits. In tryouts, just one of the folks I’ve sung today’s piece to even recalls the original song it references: Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.*”  That may say something of the fragmentary fame of Leonard Cohen in the United States. Back in the Sixties, a couple of his songs “Suzanne”  and “Bird on a Wire”  were fairly well known from cover versions, and his 21st Century song “Hallelujah”  has become even more well-known after being sung by John Cale, Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright—but “Famous Blue Raincoat”  despite dozens of covers, just hasn’t penetrated the U.S. mind.**  There may be reasons for that. It doesn’t have a hooky chorus, even Leonard Cohen himself thought the lyrics were confusing, and to the degree it has an accessible plot it’s about a complicated love relationship far from the common I love her/him, or her/him has left me and I’m so sad or angry about that.***  My favorite part of the song was its uncommon ending, where it’s revealed to be a letter of sorts, signed with solemn irony “Sincerely, L. Cohen.”

M Cohen and L Cohen

A famous orange retainer and a famous blue raincoat.

 

And that was the hook for today’s parody. I thought of another Cohen living in New York City, who is a principal in another messy romantic entanglement, whose feelings about it are multivalent, and whose sincerity is a changing thing. You can hear “Sincerely, M. Cohen”  using the player below.

 

 

 

* If you want to hear Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat”  first, you can see a lyrics video here.

** Am I depending on the Parlando reader/listeners outside the US this time, and yet assuming you have any interest in juicy U.S. scandals?

*** Ever wanted a coherent reading of the Cohen song? Here’s one of the best I’ve read.