Why Now, Vocalissimus

Today’s piece uses a very short poem I wrote in immediate reaction to some sad news I heard this weekend. Despite that news’ immediacy and particular sadness, the poem that resulted became something else, and I’m not sure why, even as I was writing it, revising it, and then figuring out today’s music and performing it. Being present throughout, shouldn’t I know?

Without stepping on anyone’s own living story, and my limited understanding and participation in it, let me just say that not one, but two poets that Dave Moore and I have known for many years have been dealing with potentially mortal illnesses this summer. I started intending to write a personal poem about considering their possible deaths, and some very tangled words started to emerge.

Why those words? I’ve already told you I don’t know for sure. Perhaps the words were tangled because I don’t feel I’ve been a supportive friend in their time of illness for complicated reasons which include my social awkwardness and not really knowing to what degree they would welcome that in their situation. The tangled words were awfully impersonal, even if the person wrestling with them was infused with emotions.

I decided to leave the tangled syntax of what came out, because I came to feel that their odd flow was a potentially striking effect, slowing the reader to consider them more closely. I made attempts to bring the personal in, but none of my considered words seemed to fit when I did. Could the impersonality too be part of the way the poem means? Yes, by this point I truly wondered what my poem — my own poem — meant.

Why Now, Vocalissimus

Why now, when it is already so
when I listen to people sing in the night,
that so many of them are dead?

And some of the words that comfort us,
or cause us to wonder at why we’re not,
were written by those who now never talk.

But if you go to silence for after all,
leaving just words, sundered breath,
will they be but husks, after seed has left?

When I completed the draft I used today, I thought it had become a poem that isn’t about particular people, but about us (you, I, anyone) wondering about what a poet leaves when their poems no longer have a choice but to remain silent on the page. I know that is a problematic mode. T. S. Eliot, who like many effective poets was right and wrong about why his poetry — much less poetry in general — worked, would approve of this poem’s impersonality; but in our century now we often expect poetry to include diaristic detail, and while the muse wouldn’t supply it, I myself expect that the poem should be specific about those that I’m thinking of — and yet to include explicit thoughts of that while they live seemed morbid and presumptuous. Even though I present this piece today, I’m not sure the poem is done with me yet.

Empty Milkweed Husk by Heidi Randen 1024

Poetry. Seeds. Speak it!

.

What’s with the weird Latin word in the title? It’s to lead you away from me and my particular poets in my thoughts, and back to just about the only appearance you’ll find of that word used in an English language poem: Wallace Stevens’ “To the Roaring Wind.”  In that poem “vocalissimus” is that voice of the muse that asks to become the voice of the poet; and by extension asks us to be the voice of the poet beyond their lifetime, which is what this project is about in our normal course of presenting other people’s words.

Let me leave you with one thought: you here who write, read, speak poetry are part of a continuum. Poet’s poems dream of being more than your poem — the ones with personal details, the ones without. Few will achieve that dream, but still they dream it, before and after the dreamer.

Many will see a player gadget below to play my performance of “Why Now, Vocalissimus.”   Some won’t, so I supply this highlighted hyperlink that will also play it.

.

The Listeners

I have one more audio piece for our Halloween celebration, this one using a mysterious poem by Walter de la Mare. The way it goes about being scary is unusual—weird even.

After you read or hear it today, how would you describe what’s frightening about it to someone else who doesn’t know this poem, “The Listeners?”   Would you find that a hard task? Our previous two Halloween pieces have easy anchors to something describably frightening. Even though those two are short poems, you could point out their fright potential just as one could blurb a Stephen King novel or a horror genre film. Bronte’s “Spellbound”  has its character held unable to move as cold night approaches. While it’s not “spelled out” (and there’s a jump scare for you: boo! language play!) it is implied that this immobile state has the character suspended in the air. And Housman’s “Her Strong Enchantments Failing”  has poisons and weapons drawn and multiple deaths assured.

OK, now watch a movie in your mind of de la Mare’s “The Listeners”  with the sound off. A man rides up to a somewhat elaborate house in a woods at night. Close up: you see his hand knocks on the door. And he knocks again. And one more time—oh the heavy suspense—he knocks a third time. No one comes to the door. Back to wide shot: he rides off. Gripping! I was on the edge of my seat! Goosebumps!

Now of course suspense, fright, that sense of out-of-joint weirdness are all subjective feelings inside an audience. Nothing is assured to be delivered by any artist or writer’s work, no more than all readers will find something sexy, delicious, or beautiful. But almost nothing happens here, and that little is not unusual, at least in the days when the horse was unremarkable transportation, back before we Zoomed or IM’ed our associates instead of riding over to them.

But if you listen to “The Listeners”  (hey, is that title a clue?) you may get that ghost story jolt that de la Mare intended. After enjoying this as a poem (full text here) or in my song version, let’s look at some details of how de la Mare casts his spell.

First off, the poem is full of assertions of silence. For something that’s not a there, there—it won’t shut up about it. Helping us endure the author pointing and asking us to notice that, some of the descriptions of silence are quite nice I think, particularly the last one: “The silence surged softly backward.” And oddly, to enforce our sense of the silence, sound effects are used in a couple of places to richen the silence. We can hear the mouth of the horse grazing early in the poem as his rider goes to the door. And as the rider mounts up to leave, we can hear the sound of the leather stirrup strap stretching as his sole meets the stirrup and then the differing sound of the horse’s shoed hooves when they strike a rock in the forest trail away from the house. What we hear enforces the feeling of silence.

Dialog (strictly speaking, monologue) is used sparingly, but it finally tells with the rider’s final utterance. This is no chance encounter, though the rider is called “The Traveller” he’s not a curious passerby or a man looking for a cup of oats for his empty-tank horse. That this is an unexplained appointment is a wonderful choice! Like the silence it can let us fill it with detail.

I just got done exchanging new work this month with a small group of poets that have been doing this for decades. I’m sure many of my responses were suggestions to clear something up or to expand something the poem seems to start but doesn’t finish. And the same was likely said about my work. I thought my advice was valid when I gave it, if only from an example reader, but “The Listeners”  points out there’s no law that a poem needs to answer every expectation—maybe instead there’s a statute that says that at least in a small yet significant way it needs to surprise or even confound expectation.

And yes, that title: “The Listeners”  really helps here. The rider knows they’re there somehow, just not in the state or mood to answer. Like the silence, their nonappearance is silhouetted with outlines of absence.

The Listeners Turn2

She Don’t Care About Time. Walter de la Mare’s writing had an affinity for the weird, so David Crosby’s anachronistic cape seems fitting.

.

I went with one of my favorite rock music sounds today, the 12-string electric guitar, an instrument made indispensable for a short time in my youth by The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. The 12-string electric is an unusual instrument today, as rare to see in a guitar store as a horseman is on the road now. I bought mine a couple of decades ago because I love the sound McGuinn and his engineers developed for it, which I exploit today. The player to hear my presentation of Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners”  is below. if you don’t see the player, this highlighted hyperlink will also play it. Thanks for being one of the Parlando Project’s listeners.

.