A July Afternoon by the Pond

I’m much enamored of this clip where Jack Kerouac appears on Steve Allen’s show on network television. This happened in 1959 when there was only triune TV culture in America —and less than that, there were often only two sides to things. Allen is going to open here by taking the side that Kerouac was an authentic writer of merit. The other side? Kerouac was a tiresome imposter best able to fool young people, who of course didn’t know any better.

Nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old. I think of Walt Whitman. I even think of old Walt Whitman the father we never found. I think of Walt.  Whitman.

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At around two and a half minutes into the clip, Allen and Kerouac have this interchange:

Allen starts it by asking “Who else writes poetic type prose, Thomas Wolfe I guess…”

“Walt Whitman” Kerouac quickly responds.

“Uh, huh.” Allen laughs, perhaps thinking Kerouac was making ironic reference to the criticism that free verse was really prose not deserving of being called poetry.

“His Specimen Days…”   Kerouac then repeats this for emphasis. He really wants to get a plug in — not for his book, but for this lesser-known Whitman book.

“Oh, I thought you were putting me on there. All right, we’ll look into that.” Allen says.

This is all prelude, what follows is Kerouac reading to a jazz combo backing with Allen apparently playing live on piano and meshing well. You may or may not like that sort of thing, but if you’ve stuck around here, you probably at least tolerate it. Me? It gets me, every time I view it, when Kerouac comes to the part where he reads “In Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out…” Kerouac, the East Coast guy who traveled back and forth to the West Coast, had some notice, some feelings of that state in-between* that was not either/or. It’s a coincidence, but Iowa is where I would have been in 1959, not necessarily crying — or not, for sure, not. I’d be looking then at those night stars from Iowa ground, the sky that Kerouac says he can see in New Jersey, remembering his Iowa nights.

So, as that filmed interchange left off promising to do in 1959, let’s look into Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days. Today’s piece is Whitman, looking at his ground, his water, his skies, on a hot summer day in a section of his book titled “A July Afternoon by the Pond.”   Here’s a link to the full text on which I based my performance. One can easily see what Kerouac drew from Specimen Days.  Whitman’s consciousness is free-flowing** and seems informal, off the cuff. Yet it takes care to catalog a lot of the moment it’s describing at length. There’s no legendary telegraph paper roll, but Whitman does roll on without pause or paragraph. Spontaneous Bop Prosody before its time? Close enough.

I’ll leave you with one more light by which you can read or listen to this piece. Whitman wrote and collected Specimen Days  while he was dealing with the aftereffects of a stroke. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been working on a theme of infirmities recently. That infirmity is not indicated in “A July Afternoon by the Pond,”  but Whitman, in his convalescence, prescribed for himself a heavy dosage of nature observation. A young person could have seen this pond, but the man who included this piece in his late-career book, was an older man. The eternity the Whitman here sees in the natural world is not the eternity of innumerable afternoons to come as it might be for a young person, but instead the observation of age and infirmity, that of an ongoing nature that will be there after he’s gone, mysterious and as yet unsolved. I love Whitman’s final two words here: “Who knows?” He doesn’t expect you to solve it either, only to share the mystery with him.

You can hear my performance*** of “A July Afternoon by the Pond”  either of two ways. There’s a player gadget embedded below for some of you. But some ways of reading this blog will not show it, and so I also provide this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab window to play it.

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*One summarized view of Kerouac’s vision of Iowa is collected at this blog link.

**More so than my performance includes, for reasons of length and production schedules. I had one musical track down when I recorded my performance of Whitman’s words, and found that I had to rush the text too much to get it all in. Rather than re-record the musical foundation or damage the groove of the words, I ended up editing Whitman’s text on the fly, leaving out some of the digressions.

***As it happens, in the end I didn’t use the musical track that caused me to trim back some of Whitman’s digressions. What you will hear is a two-part improvisation (based on the chord structure of the excluded track) that I recorded to respond to my reading of the words, much as Steve Allen needed to respond to Kerouac in the video clip above. The two instruments are a hollow-body electric guitar and the distinctive voice of my Fender Squier Bass VI, an electric bass that includes two higher pitched strings above the usual four for a bass, giving it access to a baritone guitar range here. Using that facility, there are some high F notes in this piece, played on this bass, that are not available (other than as harmonics) on a conventional bass.

Sky

I describe the Parlando Project as various words (mostly poetry) combined with various music. The limits on the music portion are largely the limits of my own musical abilities and those of the LYL Band, but I try to stretch those limits as much as I can. The words we’ve used have been poetry more than 90% of the time, but I like to mix up eras and writing approaches there too. Today’s piece uses words that weren’t published as poetry, but they are instead taken from an interview with Laurie Anderson published in The Believer  magazine about 5 years ago. The interviewer (a couple of whose interjections I’ve included) was Amanda Stern.
 
Just before the small section I used from the interview, Anderson was relating that artists do not necessarily need to invent something new themselves, rather they can use art to just call attention to things that already exist. That’s an idea that we honor here with the Parlando Project. Instead of endless creating and featuring new sets of words that Dave or I write, we instead largely seek to pay attention to the work of others. That thought, attention versus creation, led Laurie Anderson to her meditation on the sky that I have now combined with my music for today’s piece, “Sky.”

Laurie Anderson and electric violin

American artist Laurie Anderson:  famous long ago for playing electric violin…

Part of what attracted me to this was her attribution of her sky meditation to growing up in the American Midwest, in a town without big mountains or large bodies of water. In such matters I could easily resonate with her feelings, having been similarly enraptured myself by the sky blue and clouds or the black with serious stars in my youth in Iowa. The book of nature has few words and a lot of blank spaces, but it reads deeply if you look at it.

The book of nature has few words and a lot of blank spaces, but it reads deeply if you look at it.

While I write this, I’m still reading more about the last episode’s author, pioneering English modernist T. E. Hulme, finding out that he felt the need to change his art after spending time on the Canadian Great Plains. Certainly, there was sky where he grew up in England, but the sky of great open places, with its null, yet present reflection on the earth, is the whole garment, after which having seen it, one can be reminded of it, even if all one currently has is a tattered swatch.

Laurie Anderson gives some advice to young artists—might work for old ones too.

 
I cannot describe Laurie Anderson fairly in the space I take for these things here. There are no other better-known artists like her, and so resorting to record store clerk shorthand such as: “She’s like Garrison Keillor combined with Yoko Ono and Andy Kaufman and…” is so strained it doesn’t really get the point across. I can see the lineage from Dada though the developments of 20th Century art in her work, but after all, everyone has influences and comes upon things they resonate with, just as Laurie Anderson’s way of combining spoken word with music is an influence on me.

Anderson’s spoken voice phrasing and speaking style is one of the distinctive things about her audio art. Some describe it as a monotone, but I’d say that’s incorrect. Yes, there’s a compression of affect, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t considerable impression of mood and attitude in it. Perhaps she’d ascribe that to Midwesterness as well. Even her non-pitched performance speaking has in intensely lulling cadence and music to it, not just hypnotic in metaphor, but very much in the mode of the spell-casting of a stage hypnotist.
 
That shouldn’t work—and as much as I love her work, in larger doses I sometimes find it hard to retain even sub-conscious attention throughout the whole work—but with the right amount of attention, it’s extraordinarily powerful stuff.

As she has developed her audio style over the years, she’s added singing and a strong use of electronic voice modifications. As far as I know, she’s one of the pioneers in the use of that electronic voice manipulation. I even considered using some of that in “Sky,”  but opted instead for a more straightforward presentation.

To hear my music accompanying words excerpted from this print interview with Laurie Anderson, use the player below. The whole interview, is also a great read for any artist.

Two Views of a Lunar Eclipse

We seem to be in a month of sky omens in the Midwest, with the Perseids meteor shower and a solar eclipse following one after the other. Perhaps because solar eclipses are rare, poems about them are rare too. I’m going to cheat then, and present two pieces about lunar  eclipses, a slightly more common event that occurs when the Earth comes between the Moon and the Sun, blocking the moon‘s reflected shine.

I’ll lead off with one written sometime in the 19th Century: Thomas Hardy’s sonnet “At the Lunar Eclipse.”   I remember the moon-trip photos, taken near the middle of the 20th Century, looking back at Earth, where for the first time, we could see our planet whole. Hardy reminds us, a hundred years before that, that we could see our whole Earth in a shadow play during the lunar eclipse.

Whole Earth Catalog

For the first time we could see the big blue marble
…also, composting toilets!

 
Optimists at the end of the 1960s thought these whole Earth pictures would help us understand our solitary yet majestic unity and common cause. Hardy, though he had only the Earth’s shadow during an eclipse to work with, is not so sure.

The LYL Band’s performance of this Hardy poem is a live recording from a few years back and it strains to reach “bootleg tape” recording quality, but still I hope it retains some vitality.  And since this Hardy poem is referenced in the next piece, I’m going to give this rougher recording an airing.
 
Though neither I or the Parlando Project had anything to do with it, if you’d like to hear a restrained and lovely simple solo voice and piano sung setting of the same Hardy poem, you can view it here. To hear the LYL Band performing our louder version of Hardy’s “At the Lunar Eclipse” use the player just below this.

My own lunar eclipse piece is set in our century, and in my Midwestern place. I start off by musing on the same planetary shadow play that Hardy wrote of, but wondering if we were our planet, might we make sport of our standing between the sun and moon, as we did as children when the film strip broke in class, or the slide tray of vacation photos needed to be changed, by making hand shadow puppets in the light. Then, as the blood moon eclipse neared totality, and the dark was dark, save for the streetlight at the end of the block and a houselight here and there left on, every hand up and down the street raised itself to the heavens, holding their lit smartphones, as they took pictures of the moon blocked by ourselves on our planet.

2015 Blood Moon Eclipse

A blood moon eclipse. “Can immense mortality but throw so small a shade?”

Unlike our last pairing, the perennial face off between Marlowe’s Shepherd and Raleigh’s Nymph’s reply, my poem “Lunar Eclipse – The Earth in Transit between the Moon and Sun”  isn’t really an “answer song” or a diss on Hardy. In a lot of ways I wanted more to simply update the scenery of Hardy’s poem. Oh, and that title is awkward, but enough listeners didn’t know the mechanics of a lunar eclipse, that we are in the middle on the earth blocking the Moon from the Sun.

What did I mean by the last line? Well, as I sometimes do, I wanted to mean several things. I wanted to say we thought we could capture this cosmic event that had stopped our routine in with the birthday pictures on our smartphone camera roll. I wanted to say, as Hardy did, that we are seeing the whole of our planet, the lives of all our neighborhoods, yet it is only one disk in the wide sky. I wanted to say that our present, particular lives: all our details, our family, our neighborhoods, our homes—though they are the way we experience living—are but one transit of life. Maybe I wanted to say something else that even I wasn’t sure how to say? If so, I wouldn’t know. Sometimes that happens in poems.

Again, we have the LYL Band performing this piece, but it has better recording quality. To hear it, use this player just below.

I Did Not Go and See the Perseids

Here’s a something of a bonus episode based on a sonnet I wrote a few years back. I’m tired tonight, and not feeling particularly useful, and I recalled that this is the time of year when one of the better regular meteor showers happens.

perseids meteor shower

Meteors are supposed to herald change, but the sky cannot change us

 

I recorded this piece tonight, to try to assuage that useless feeling. I started with the bass part, as the sound of the bass always seems to comfort me. I fit the drums to that bass part, did the vocal, and added a couple of guitar parts. It’s a short piece, and it was soon done.

Meteors are fabled to be meaningful from those times before our modern highly illuminated age erased them from the view of our cities, such as the city where I am stuck tonight. In the poem, I had played with the idea that making the trip to the countryside to see the Perseid meteor shower could indeed change someone’s life.

I did some extreme enjambment, breaking words in half, in a few lines in the poem to try to show how the sharp streaking line of a meteor trail might change us in an instant, because of course we are not changed in an instant, ever, though love and good fortune make us think at times that we have changed.

If change was instant, it would not be hard as it is, nor as easy to avoid.

I wish you all a good night tonight, with or without visible stars or knowable fates.  And I thank you again for reading and listening over this chattering yet silent Internet.

To hear the performance of “I Did Not Go and See the Perseids,”  use the player gadget below.