William Blake’s “The Tyger”

It seemed a long time since I last had a new performance to share. I checked, and found it’d only been a week, but since then the moon has had a red eclipse, and in my country there’s been a couple of mass shootings motivated by ignorant ethnic hatreds. Willful ignorance combined with violence is particularly ugly, and presently a state-leader with missiles and bigger guns wants to kill to impress too.

I’ve completed no new pieces. I tried to start two, but so far nothing is developing. So today I thought I’d present this new-to-you performance of William Blake’s “The Tyger,”  mostly because it’s pretty good and I don’t have anything else ready. I made that decision this morning, and then I suddenly realized that “The Tyger,”  a poem first published in 1794 by a mystical Englishman, has turned just about right for this ominous spring and our current year.

Over 40 years ago, I was in bed and my partner asked me how I could account for the presence in the world of evil.*   Strange place and time for that question — for in that moment I was more impressed with beauty and joy. I stumbled for my answer: good was always present in the universe, and always powerful enough to overcome evil — but not always both at the same point. Alas, “not always” is more painful than it sounds to nakedly say.

Visionary poet William Blake asked that question too. Blake was born into a family of religious dissenters and progressed to rebel even further from Christian dogma. He intuited a moral universe where evil was caused by over-justified powers of the creator. Interesting thought that. In “The Tyger”  poet Blake asks a manifestation of terrible predatory power a series of rhetorical questions, meaning to direct our thoughts in the direction of his conclusion.

Now, to get to my performance of Blake’s poem, we need to make a jump cut. Ready?

Year of the Tyger

Year of the Tyger, three times.

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In what’s usually called the Chinese zodiac, years go through a 12 year cycle. I wrote this musical setting for a video of an event in 2010 tied to the Chinese Year of the Tiger. In order to extend the length of performance to the length needed for the video, I refrained Blake’s “Tyger Tyger burning bright” stanza after every verse, a tactic which makes it longer than I’d like it to be today. As it turned out, the video ran longer than planned, and I needed to cross-fade even my lengthened “Tyger”  with another piece then for the final cut of the video. Given how long ago the recording was done, I only have that completed mix from the video’s soundtrack, so “The Tyger”  I present today ends on the start of that cross-fade.

The “Chinese Zodiac” progresses, and as it goes we’ve once again come to the Year of the Tiger in 2022. I think this performance from the previous Year of the Tiger retains its power and so I present it to you now.** There’s an audio player gadget below that will play it for many of you, and where that’s absent, here’s a highlighted link that’s an alternative way to play it.

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*This all seems way too Leonard Cohen doesn’t it? No, it actually happened like that.

**I often find I have one more question as I think I’ve finished a post. This time, I asked myself, what year in the Zodiac cycle was Blake’s 1794? Why, another Year of the Tiger of course.

Edward Thomas’ “Cock-Crow” cleaves the wood of thoughts that grows by night

A lot of these performances begin somewhat randomly. Oh, Edward Thomas isn’t random, I’ve enjoyed exploring this British writer with you since I first ran into his connection with Robert Frost in the years just before WWI. Was I looking for a poem considering a particular subject or event? One could see today’s piece, “Cock-Crow”  as a spring poem. Well, spring is  random, the current one where I live more so than most. but I wasn’t looking for a spring poem so much as I wanted to find someone else to present from the early 20th century.

I picked up a poetry anthology from 1929. It’s titled 20th Century Poetry,  which would be audacious for a book published a little more than a quarter of the way in, but the editors were aware of that and they rightly note that their century milepost had marked a noticeable change in poetic expression.*

It starts with selections from 50 British Isles poets. Names you might expect are there: Yeats, Hardy, Houseman, De La Mare, Masefield, and so on. A couple of distinctive British women poets you may recall from posts here too: Charlotte Mew, Frances Cornford.

It’s to be expected, given that 1929-to-now allows plenty of shelf-life for poet’s readership and notice to expire, and because Britain and the United States do not share a completely unified poetic canon, that there are a good number of “Who?” names there too: Edmund Gosse, William Watson, Henry Newbolt, Clifford Bax, and Edward Shanks.

It may have been my mood, but though I would have loved to find a little-known poem I thought would be interesting to perform there, much of it was quite dreary as I skimmed through it. The copy I was reading was a library scan, and these books sometimes have interesting marginalia. In my boredom, I examined the library stamp:

Fort Huachuca stamp

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I wondered where Fort Huachuca was, and what would be going on there between the World Wars? Turns out it’s near the Mexican border in Arizona. It was a military facility since Western Frontier times, and it was the base for a “Buffalo Soldiers” Afro-American Calvary Regiment. Just before America’s entry into WWI, the base commander was Charles Young, the Black officer that was the subject of this poetic tribute by Countee Cullen that I presented here last year. So, as I wandered off from the poems themselves, an interesting place for this poetry anthology to reside — even more so when I glanced at the Wikipedia list of the notable people who had been there over the years. That list includes Jayne Cortez a Black Arts Movement poet and (out)spoken-word performer who was born while her father was stationed there. She’d have been too young when she left Fort Huachuca to have read this anthology, but the momentary thought that perhaps her parents had read this volume I was scanning was more intriguing than many of the British poems — or at least it seemed to me reading through it in the middle of a 21st century night.

The editor** is faint-praise in his introductory note to Edward Thomas in his anthology, calling him accurately (but misleadingly) a “commencing poet” and saying that Thomas’ poetry “comes from a very shy and personal mood that sometimes seems to lack variety if we bear it company for long at a time.” He oddly concludes Thomas’ “Invention made no parade of vigour, but he borrowed hints from no one.” Gee, Johnny Editor, it’s the middle of my American night and a lot of the early 20th century British poets you’re presenting are boring me to the point I can’t get to sleep with their all-too-unoriginal “vigour” — an odd effect which I attribute to my hopefulness of discovery — but I’ll take Thomas’ originality thank you.

“Cock-Crow”  is a little 8-line poem describing awakening from disturbing or unresolved dream-sleep, or lack of it, to a set of chickens — not hanging out round a New Jersey wheelbarrow, but amusing Thomas with the bird-pair’s face-to-face rural dramatization of a veddy British heraldic motif. Is Thomas simply smiling at that coat-of-arms likeness, or is there a resonance toward Britain’s more overt class structure?

Heralds of Spendor

“Heralds of splendour’ he says of us! That’s about right. Lions’ll  go and eat you, and unicorns don’t even bother existing.”

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The charm of this poem is that Thomas acknowledges the unsettling “wood of thoughts that grows by night”*** yet allows them to be chopped down by bird-song — and transcendental bird song is ever-present in Thomas’ poetry. And what revelation does that song bring? Farm workers putting their boots on and getting to work. So. Much. Depends. Upon. Putting your boots on and getting to work. Want to read the text while listening? Here’s a link.

Musically I started with a simple folk-guitar accompaniment, though I tried to be settled and unsettled with the harmonic cadence in this one. I ended it with a minute-long coda where I used a vocal chorus to spread out across the English countryside like all the birds of spring. Why do I do these audio pieces? Because I want to hear them —  and you can to. You can use the player that appears below, or this highlighted link in the player’s absence.

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*We’re approaching a similar milepost in the 21st century. Can we say that English-language poetry has significantly changed since 2001? You might say “We’ll know later what we can’t see now in the midst of things.” But the editors of this book were in the midst, and yet thought they could see something distinct in their new quarter-century.

**John Drinkwater for the anthology’s British half.

***Whose woods these are, I think he knows. Thomas led a troubled life. Every peaceful British rural scene in a Thomas poem is set next to that dark woods of thought that grows by night.

“Oh Me! Oh Life!” Walt Whitman’s de profundis poem performed

I saw this Whitman poem from the 1867 version of Leaves of Grass  during National Poetry Month but was unable to find the time to compose the music and arrange a performance during that busy month. Still, I was so stunned by its expression that I made a note to myself to get to it after April.

This week I did just that.

The de profundis poem is a fairly common poetic trope, up there with the aubade and the elegy in examples. It takes its name from the opening words of the Latin version of the Hebrew psalm 130, but it’s not a mode we often associate with Whitman. Whitman, with all his talk of containing multitudes and nonchalantly harboring his contradictions has a personal poetic voice associated with an unashamed and near-boasting manner, a self-portrayal as an example of an unafraid and unbounded life-force.

Why would he write such a poem then? Well, he did want to portray everything human, which would include doubt and failure, it could just be that. But let’s consider something else about Whitman. When this poem was written he’d been working for more than a decade on creating a poetry that was unprecedented: not just free in its subject matter, but “free verse” without fixed meter and rhyme. There were next-to-no models for that form then. Yet, if one was to go this week to a good bookstore, move to its poetry section, and then open any volume of contemporary poetry to a random page, the odds are you’ll find an unrhymed poem, rhythmic perhaps, but not likely in strict meter with unvarying beat-count line-lengths. That poem may not sound like Whitman, but the path to make its own sound can be traced to him.

Back in the middle of the 19th century, in an America which was just getting its poetic feet planted, and still in the process of proving it could write as well as the Europeans in the way the European’s wrote, there wasn’t any call for this. Isn’t it remarkable then, that this carpenter’s son and peripatetic journalist in a place so far off the cultural centers of the western world went and did this!

When Whitman wrote this poem America had just emerged from a great civil war. I’ve said here that WWI, a similar trauma for Britain and Europe, made from its breaking of nations a plausible opening for Modernist poetry. But in post-Civil War America, Whitman’s break didn’t quite take, even though Whitman would include free-verse poems about that war in this edition of Leaves of Grass.

Ah, but there was one Civil War poem in Whitman’s 1867 edition that, for the first time caught the public’s fancy: “My Captain, Oh My Captain,”  an elegy for the assassinated President Lincoln all strictly rhymed up and in regular meter. Oh me! Oh life!

No matter, eventually Whitman got his due. We no longer even need to particularly like his poetry (though I suspect many here do), so significant is his prime-mover role.

 


I’d forgotten that an abridged version of this poem appeared in the movie “Dead Poets Society.” A photo of Whitman is in front of the classroom, but most recall the “My Captain, Oh My Captain” scene over the one above.

 

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The things that stand out for me in “Oh Me! Oh Life!”  are Whitman’s acknowledgement that the failures of those around him, which drive him to despair, are a way in which he is like and “intertwined” to those “cities fill’d with the foolish” and “sordid crowds,” and then the answer he says he receives from out of the depths: the answer that we live to experience that connection, however sorrowful as well as comforting — and that each of us, in our own wisdom, paths, failure, and imperfections contains a self-consciousness, an individual identity, the lifely miracle that we experience life through our own minds creating themselves.

In working on how to perform “Oh Me! Oh Life!”  I considered spoken word (a choice I often make here) — but I soon decided that I needed to sing it in an open and emotive style. Whitman was a fan of opera (a more popular form in his time), and his poem here is something of an aria. This decision seemed right, but it presented a problem: I’m not that good a singer. I pressed ahead anyway, as I think imperfection in the service of required expression was the better choice. My version of “Oh Me! Oh Life!”  isn’t opera — I kept the accompaniment spare for my setting perhaps in the hope that the simplicity of the music will match the limited nature of my voice. I think that did work somewhat. The irregular nature of Whitman’s line-lengths also presented some challenges, and I “solved” them in my performance by elaborating and repeating some of his phrases.

You can hear my Whitman performance two ways. There’s a player gadget below for many, but some can’t see that, and so I also provide this highlighted link to play it.

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See Emily (Dickinson) Play — I recast her poem “May-Flower” for National Poetry Month

Yesterday I said poetry isn’t just beauty and wonder. Well, sometimes it is. Like this recasting of an Emily Dickinson poem into outright 1960’s wonderment.

I carried around a copy of the original text of “May-Flower”  today for Poem in Your Pocket Day, but alas I wasn’t assertive about it. Should I have been?

The staff at the café I biked to were maybe my best chance, but I was still waking up. Then at the bank, my own variation on Miss Stillwagon had needed to take several helpful minutes to go over questions from an African immigrant accented small businessman before I stepped up to her window, and I didn’t know if she wanted to know about Dickinson’s spring flower just then. Instead, we exchanged the brief small talk about how cold this April has been.

Then at the grocery store I always take the human checkout line, thinking that that supports someone’s job in this scanned beep and bloop age. The cashier in the lane I picked must have hit her off-switch for the Lane 8 sign simultaneously as I plopped the first bag of cherries I’ve seen this season on the belt.

“Didn’t you see my light was off?” Which I hadn’t, probably looking down in my cart for the next item to unload. “Well, that’s OK” she said as she efficiently rung up my small batch of items in a dozen seconds. Still, she didn’t seem all that open to Emily Dickinson’s offering of the aspects of a flower. Out in the parking lot, as I packed up the groceries, a pickup truck pulled in and had, I noticed, a “Media is the virus” Alex Jones bumper sticker. I was putting my N95 mask back in the envelope I pocket it in. I didn’t think it worth putting the mask back on to ask him about “May-Flower.”

So, you are left to hear it.

I sometimes sense when reading a certain kind of Emily Dickinson poem that she’s in a visionary or unusual state of perception. The various theories about her mysterious illness including vision symptoms are one level of explanation, but then I also suspect her cast of intellect and a dose of Transcendentalism could explain some of it. So it is with “May-Flower,”  which is ostensibly a riddle for which the reader is to guess the particular type of flower. That may be her intent, but the scattered aspects of the flower she reveals, and her trademark specific originality of word choices*  are as full of swirling fluorescents as any psychedelic poster or LP cover.

Was it the pinkness of the flower that made me think of Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd?

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In this classic performance from our archives, I decided to further unravel the poem she wrote — and then re-weave the words in a variety of orders and alignments while playing electric guitars, bass, and combo organ in my best rock ballroom approximation of Sixties’ amazement. The 1960s — not Dickinson’s 1860s.

You can hear it three ways. There’s a player gadget below, but some won’t see that and can then use this highlighted link instead. And as we’ve done for almost every post this National Poetry Month, there’s a fresh lyric video above too.

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*I recently read a short piece on Dickinson by Alexandra Socarides. In it she reveals a poetic mentor, Carolyn Williams, had taught her an interesting way to appreciate Dickinson’s originality. She calls the exercise “Dickinson Mad-libs.” Here’s how she describes the exercise best done with lesser-known Dickinson poems: “I choose a line, a stanza, or a whole poem, and I take out some of its words (usually nouns and adjectives, but sometimes verbs as well), and I simply leave blanks where those words were. Then I ask the students to fill in the blanks. I tend to switch up which poems I use, even though I know several that work particularly well. I’ll never forget the time I used “Grief is a ________.”

If you don’t know “May-Flower” and haven’t listened to today’s piece, or if you want to try this exercise with another poet, here’s the Mad-Libs game for the poem’s first stanza:

May-Flower

Pink, small, and [ADJECTIVE].
Aromatic, low,
[ADJECTIVE] in April,
[ADJECTIVE] in May,

Give anyone, even a poet, guesses — a dozen or a hundred — to what Dickinson would use in those three blanks, and what would be their batting average? And here’s the even better trick: because of the sound of those words, I don’t have any sense that their author is over-trying to be “original.” The sound attracts you to them, however rarely you’d expect them.

Emily Dickinson’s “Ample make this Bed”

Today’s piece for National Poetry Month is another Emily Dickinson: her gothic aubade “Ample make this Bed.”   Word-music is subjective, but I find this one of the most poignant and lovely of her poems.

As with many Dickinson poems the meaning tantalizes, at once clear on the surface and tangled beneath. The trope it’s using, the aubade, is highly common in love poems. In the aubade, the lovers are faced with the dawn and do not want to leave their night. The poem’s loveliest line “Let no sunrise’ yellow noise” is as good as a line as ever graced this poetic form. Yet, Dickinson’s stance has a twist in that there’s an implication just below the surface* that the “bed” is instead a buried coffin, which the voice of the poem declares will not be occupied for a lover’s single night, but until the Last Judgement at the end of time (as per some Christian doctrine).  Stop though, and consider — which is the metaphor and which the actual moment being portrayed? Is the bed our life, or our time after life?

Here’s today’s lyric video. I found the picture of the note at the end of the video in a post by Martha Ackmann of New England Public Media.

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I think this is another example of a gestalt drawing as a poem. We’re to behold either and both.

The classic gestalt face/vase drawing asks us to alternate “figure” and “ground.”

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The paired bedding metaphors of the first two lines of the second stanza may be overlooked on one’s first or second, or even further readings, so audacious is that overall bed/coffin in the grave pairing. So, let’s examine them for a moment. How often have we tossed and turned in a restless night? Nothing is right. The mattress is too firm, or swayed and too soft. The gentle corners of the pillow jab us, and it’s neither high or low enough. The mattress/pillow lines remind us that contentment is like unto the grave.

Can we make the bed of our lives ample — or the sum of our lives totaled at final judgement? Are the lovers ever fully ample when judged at end? Oh but it is beautiful and poignant to think they might be, and honorable to try.

As National Poetry Month continues for this week, we have three ways again to enjoy this re-release of one of my favorite audio pieces from the six-year history of the Parlando Project. There’s our graphic player gadget below in many cases, but I’ve provided this highlighted link as an alternative since some ways you can view this blog won’t show the player. And there’s our poetry month bonus: the lyric video above.’

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*As usual, pun intended.

H. D.’s “The Pool” for National Poetry Month

Ever wanted to visit an old school flame? Maybe not even for romance, just to catch up on what they’re doing, or to let them know what you’ve been up to? Well, in 1911 24-year-old Hilda Doolittle visited London to meet up with Ezra Pound who she knew from the University of Pennsylvania.

Pound was up to something alright. Along with a small group of men including F. S. Flint and T. E. Hulme, he was planning to tear down and repave English language poetry. No more stentorian Victorian third-generation copies of Romantic verse. No. No extra words. No dusty ornaments. Metaphors as decoration? No. Instead: direct treatment of the thing! Incongruous emotional language in tired verse? No. Strict rhythms and forced rhymes? No.

The group were poets, not just theorists, and they were trying to create yes poems to those no ideals.

Hilda showed Ezra some poems and asked what he thought of them. Pound was cat on mouse with that sort of offer, because there was no larger reserve of literary opinions in London at that time than Pounds’.

He liked them. He said Doolittle was already doing what they were formulating. And then with his characteristic audacity, he took his blue pencil to the bottom of Doolittle’s poems and wrote “HD, Imagiste.”

Branding!

Oh, and Pound was the overseas conduit for new poetry to Harriet Monroe’s Chicago-based Poetry magazine. Off he sent some of Doolittle’s poems with her new pen name applied.

Doolittle never liked her family name anyway. She kept the shortened name but dropped the French addition.

“The Pool”  is one of the most anthologized of H. D.’s early short Imagist poems. One can think of it as a just as short, just as spare, contrast to William Carlos Williams’* “The Red Wheelbarrow.”  “The Red Wheelbarrow”  wants us to clearly see something mundane as meaningful, as beautiful. “The Pool”  wants us to impressionistically see something mysterious obscured by water, never framed sharply. WCW seems comforted by and comfortable with the wheelbarrow and chickens. H.D. seems at least a little taken aback by what she sees in the pool, as does what she sees there (it “trembles.”) That it’s the subject of a poem tells us she’s fascinated by it, but we’re not sure she likes what she’s seeing. WCW’s rainwater on the wheelbarrow seems like magnifying-glass raindrops. H.D.’s pool water applies an obscuring filter.


What’s in the pool? Is it some alien-looking sea creature? See below for another possibility. And here’s a third.

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Is this poem a riddle to be solved? If you like, it can be. One reading has it that what she sees is her own reflection, and the strings of the net she dips into the reflection make it “banded.” She can’t catch her reflection or fully understand herself, so the ending without naming the thing in the pool “reflects” that.

We’re still celebrating National Poetry Month, so three ways again to hear my musical setting and performance of H. D.’s “The Pool”  today. There’s a graphical player below for some, and a brand-new lyric video above. Just want the audio, but don’t see a player?  This highlighted link will open a new tab with its own audio player.

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*It just so happens that there was a young medical student at that university too: William Carlos Williams. Yes, they all knew each other in college. And they continued to spar with each other afterward.

Night, and I Traveling for National Poetry Month

A little contrast here in poetic fame from Shakespeare to a poet who’s equally unknown under each of his names: Joseph Campbell/Seosamh MacCathmhaoil. Most of his poetry was published under that first name, not the Gaelic version, and so I’ll use it today, even though I’m always obligated to say “No, not that Power of Myth guy.”  Over the years this project has promoted the idea that Campbell deserves wider recognition. Here’s a brief version of that case.

Belfast born, Campbell was active in the Irish cultural revival at the beginning of the 20th century, and like Yeats, he seems to have crossed paths with the London-based Modernist poets circle of T. E. Hulme, F. S. Flint, and Ezra Pound in the years before WWI. His involvement with the militant wing of Irish revolutionaries also grew during this time.*  After Irish independence he lived in America for more than a decade, while continuing to promote Irish culture; but he seems to have stopped publishing his poetry after the establishment of the Irish Republic. Late in his life he returned to Ireland and died there in 1944 where his ghost continues the task of becoming largely forgotten — at best a footnote, and often not even that.

Well, most poets are forgotten, even in a country like Ireland that does a better job of revering them than most, but here are some things that attracted me to Campbell: he worked effectively in the folk-song part of the Irish cultural revival, collecting, writing, and adapting song lyrics.** And his take on page poetry included both that folk song tradition — and uniquely among his Irish generation — a handful of very early poems in the pioneering English-language Modernist style that would be called Imagism.

In fact, I’ll put today’s piece up against any of the more famous short Imagist poems widely anthologized, I think it’s a masterpiece of the form.


Here’s the lyric video of the performance.

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I find “Night, and I Traveling”  a hugely affecting example of direct presentation of a thing and a charged moment in time. Like Imagist poetry in general it does expect the reader to pay attention, as the poet did, and to supply from within themselves the emotional charge the presentation represents.

Campbell was a country walker in Ireland, and the door he observes while walking in the night is likely of a small rural dwelling, plausibly little more than a hut. The door is open. Perhaps the peat fire inside has gathered smoke. Perhaps the occupant is expecting someone to return. Let us also remember, this is more-than-a-hundred-year-old rural night. The ambient light he’s sees in the dark has a landscape context of moonlight at best. There’s a gleam of some porcelain dinnerware inside, perhaps the most valued possession in the hut, perhaps a dowry or wedding item. The poet hears the only occupant, a woman, singing, in the ambiguous, but I think rich phrase, “as if to a child.” Note this single simile in the poem. He could have written “to a child.” He did not, leaving the implication that I take: that there is no child — the child is dead or gone. Campbell passes on “into the darkness” and the poem ends.

Seven lines, and this poem slays me. How much is packed in there to an attentive reader: the poverty of the colonized Irish, the depopulation of those who needed to leave to survive, their meager treasure (part of which is song), the closely-held personal losses.

Yes, poetry such as this requires your attention to work. I ask for your attention to this poem and to Joseph Cambell.

There’s three ways to hear my performance of “Night, and I Traveling.”   There’s an audio player below for many of you, and this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab with an alternative audio player is provided if you don’t see that. As part of our National Poetry Month observation, there’s a new lyric video above for those who’d like to see the words while the performance plays.

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*This revolutionary involvement seems to have been the proximate cause of Campbell’s literary career stalling. In the aftermath of Irish Independence, the Irish Civil war broke out between factions of the new Irish state. Campbell ended up on the losing side and was imprisoned for a while. Despite my admiration for Campbell’s poetry, I’m not an expert on his life or the political issues of the Irish Civil war. But these events seemed to traumatize the writer, and it’s not hard to imagine that politics and associations from a sectarian war might have caused him to be written off by some in Ireland.

**Sort of like Eleanor Farjeon from earlier in this April’s National Poetry Month series, Campbell may be “best-known” in the quasi-anonymous role of the lyricist of a song, “My Lagan Love.”   Campbell’s lyrics in this song include a more elaborated variation of a woman’s lonesome singing heard through a doorway with a “bogwood fire” and the singer ending the song “From out the dark of night.”

In a popular post last fall, I also revealed that Campbell likely originated making the subject of the song “Reynardine”   a supernatural creature.

Her Lips are Copper Wire for National Poetry Month

Even with its most popular and well-known poems, poetry works, works its impact, one reader, one listener, at a time.

Doing this project leads me to read a lot of poems. I’ll go through whole collections, entire anthologies, looking for things that I suspect I can create music for. That sense, “This could work with music” is hard to quantify. I’ve noticed repetition and refrain will often cause a second look. Longer poems will need to presently suggest selections as I’m seeking sub-5-minute pieces. Yes, graceful lines that sing on the page for whatever reason will suggest music. An image or an incident vividly depicted that grabs me will ask me to stop and consider it. Oh, I don’t really know, can’t say for sure, how I select things for this. I’m happy with it being a mystery, and I hope you, reader/listener are too.

Sometimes that attraction is strong though. The moment I finished my first reading of Jean Toomer’s “Her Lips are Copper Wire”  I knew I had to write music for it and do my best to realize it in performance. Perhaps I can’t say why that is. Little matter. The pull, the attraction, was undeniable.

This Surrealist love poem, like E. E. Cummings poem from last time, was written before the first Surrealist Manifesto, and is proof Americans could use English in this mode early in the Modernist era. Long time readers here will know I sometimes like to mesh in Blues and Jazz flavors with my music,* but Toomer, an early Afro-American Modernist, seemed to have already suggested that with this poem, so that I didn’t have to underline the point. I suppose it just strongly communicated the wonder of desire to me.

Cane cover

This poem was placed into Toomer’s Modernist masterpiece, the book-length mixed-form “Cane.”

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It’s National Poetry Month, the reason I’m going through early Parlando Project pieces to present a more rapid posting schedule here this April. NPM tries to increase interest in poetry, but it’s hard to get a read on how significantly it achieves that. Arrayed against it is every poem someone didn’t “get” for whatever reason. Every poem that says only “Care about what I’m saying, even though you won’t understand,” poems without the bridge to “Here’s how you connect to this.” Every poem that bores us keeps us from poetry, and we are so easily bored. How many poems does it take to put up a wall against poetry, and will putting a poster on that wall dissolve the wall?

Is this the fault of the poets, their poetry? Is that the fault of us, the readers/listeners? Are there social structures that surpass us in enforcing this distance from the art?  That’s a mystery. I don’t know the answer. But I know that once in awhile I come upon a poem like “Her Lips are Copper Wire,”  and like another Surrealist love poet Paul Éluard I’m left compelled “to speak without having anything to say” — anything to say other than the words of this poem. That limerent pleasure is likely why you’re here, reading this, and listening to the performance of Toomer’s poem. Thanks to that mystery and you.

No lyric video today, but you can hear my performance of Jean Toomer’s poem with a player gadget below. Don’t see that? Well, this highlighted link will also do the job.

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*I’ll bring that musical influence to any text, breaking out Delta slide for T. S. Eliot, turning German Dada verse and Robert Frost into blues stanzas — and anachronistically seeing Emily Dickinson as a scratchy blues 78 record, or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at a beatnik Jazz café.

Crepuscule (I Will Wade Out) for National Poetry Month

Today’s re-released Parlando piece from our early years is “Crepuscule”  by American poet E. E. Cummings. This is certainly a passionate, ecstatic poem, isn’t it! Looking back at what I wrote about it in 2018, I was then taking the main meaning of the poem to be a portrayal of falling into a Surrealistic dream state. In the same post I confessed I hadn’t remembered that Björk had performed a version of this poem that seemed filled with erotic desire.

Rereading and reconsidering, I’m more unsure which is metaphor and which is meaning — and I think that’s often a good thing in poetry. We’re in one of those gestalt drawings created with a spell of words. We could be in the transport of desire, and it is like unleashing a spectacular dream: flowers are not just colorful, but burning with color. We will be still in bed, yet leaping with sleep-closed eyes. And so on.*  It’s difficult to not feel the erotic pull of the text. For a dream, the mystery is very much of the flesh. Mouths, thighs, bodily curves, fingers, lips…is it dream as sex or sex as dream?

An argument for the dream is the framing device of the poem reinforced by the title (crepuscule is an archaic word for twilight). Night and the dreamer have swallowed the sun, and the final line has one biting on the voltaic silver of the moon. But then Rimbaud took the arrival of dawn and sexualized it, so why couldn’t Cummings do the same for nightfall?

Here’s the new lyric video.

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Three ways to hear my performance of E. E. Cummings “Crepuscle:”  there’s a player gadget below for many, and there’s a backup highlighted link for the others. Want some dream images flowing behind the words of a lyric video? That video is above.

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*The most mysterious line has lovely word-music: “with chasteness of sea-girls.” I’m assuming a reference to nereids, sea nymphs, but I’m unsure if the poet’s speaker is becoming one, or trysting with one, in the rush of their dream. If water spirits, perhaps gender fluidity is a subliminal?

Gone, Gone Again for National Poetry Month

We continue today our National Poetry Month series where we re-release some of our favorite performances from the early days of this Project in the hopes that more ears will be able to hear them. Today’s piece steps forward a couple of years from yesterday’s, where in “Adlestrop”  British poet Edward Thomas had written with beautiful attention about the sweet nothingness of a day of peace while the precipitating event of World War I was only hours away.

Today’s poem, “Gone, Gone Again”  (also known as “The Blenheim Oranges,”)  was written about the same English landscape, only after the war had broken out. If “Adlestrop”  is a poem about present nothingness, then “Gone, Gone Again”  is a poem about absences. It starts with the calendar march of time until autumn, but now the boat landings* are unusually quiet and empty. Next Thomas notes the apple harvest** was not looked after. The apples have grubs, no orchardmen are looking after them, and instead of autumn harvest, they are simply falling to the earth to rot.

There’s a stanza that follows that starts by enigmatically referring to “When the lost one was here —” It seems impossible to determine who that is. It could be anyone missing their soldier overseas in the war, but one of Thomas’ biographers thinks it likely a young woman artist Edna Clarke Hall*** who had what was at least an emotional affair with Thomas. I wondered if the “lost one” could be American Poet Robert Frost, a man who never had many friends, but who had struck up a strong friendship with Thomas while Frost was in England before WWI. Frost had planned for Thomas and his family to emigrate to the United States so that they could continue their friendship, but then the war.

I’d guess the reason there isn’t more speculation on a possible particular “lost one” is that the same stanza ends on a couplet so strong that the opening two lines are overlooked. That couplet? “And when the war began/To turn young men to dung.”

The lyric video. There’s a picture there of the Blenheim apples to get citrus out of your mind, and when we get to the lost one, a photo of Edna Clarke Hall and then Frost.

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The concluding four stanzas develop the theme of an abandoned house, something which rhymes with my own experience of abandoned farm houses in the American Midwest. The concluding stanza mourns the schoolboys who wantonly vandalize these absences, to which Thomas gives full and poetic attention.

I’ve always been happy with the music I composed and realized for this performance, including some parts for muted horns and woodwinds. I did mis-sing a number of Thomas’ words in the recorded take that was otherwise “the keeper.” I hope that won’t detract. On the other hand, one mistake I made I still consider an accidental improvement: “grass growing inside” in place of Thomas’ “grass growing instead” is not only a stronger image, it’s a better rhyme.

Three ways to hear my performance of Thomas’ “Gone, Gone Again:”  a player gadget is below for regular browser viewers of this blog, others may need to avail themselves of this highlighted hyperlink — and we’re continuing our special National Poetry Month series extra feature yet once more: there’s a lyric video above.

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*Quay is an uncommon word in American English. I learned it first from an avid Scrabble player, who probably triple-word-scored with it. A quay can be a seaside dock, but from some knowledge of the landscape Thomas wrote about, it’s likely a river or canal landing he speaks of. With the men overseas in the war, I’d assume the regular canal traffic in the English countryside would be reduced.

**Blenheim Oranges are a British apple type. It’s possible Thomas chose this particular apple not just because it was cultivated in the area of England he knew best, but because it’s named for an estate built for the victorious English leader in a battle fought centuries earlier in Blenheim Germany.

***I knew nothing of her, and research is so rewarding when you come upon a character like her. She’s fascinating, and abundantly talented in an era when women artists weren’t considered. Edward Thomas’ emotional and love life is complicated enough that it would make a tremendous series, with characters any screenwriter or actor would hunger for.