The Sky Is Low

This little poem by Emily Dickinson seems at first so slight, little more than a tiny winter nature lyric using the risky literary trope of the pathetic fallacy* deftly enough that it doesn’t cloy. The language is almost entirely simple and plain-spoken, but in such a short poem the words that aren’t entirely clear may reward further attention.

The Sky is low manuscript

Dickinson’s handwritten manuscript for today’s poem from the collection of Amherst College.

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The Imagists that came decades after Dickinson’s work weren’t much for the pathetic fallacy, but if one ignores that element— something possible to do because it’s so swift and unpretentious about it — this poem does work like an Imagist poem or like one of the models Imagism sought to emulate, the classical Chinese short poem.

Let’s start right at the first line, and the first word that requires some figuring out. “The sky is low, the clouds are mean” sets our stage. A “low sky” and “clouds” would indicate that this poem’s day-moment is overcast, but what does “mean” mean? It would be easy to think it’s saying, pathetic-fallacy-wise, that the clouds seem angry and spiteful. I think many modern readers will hear this sense primarily, and I cannot eliminate that Dickinson intended that at least as an undercurrent, as it seems a pair with the complaining wind we meet in the second stanza. Yet, in the context of the sentence that makes up the first stanza, my best thought is that she is presenting the clouds as a secondary definition of “mean” (now somewhat obsolete) as shabby or stingy. The image she’s setting up is that it’s overcast, but it’s not a snowstorm, there’s only a modicum of that mentioned: a specifically singular “flake of snow,” so that may be all these clouds are producing.

Our snowflake does have feelings. From its actions, aflutter in the wind and singular enough for the eye to want to follow it as an individual, it seems indecisive about what route to take over the landscape. It might fly high (“across a barn”) or low “through a rut.” It’s frozen (sorry, can’t help myself) in a moment in the poem and we never find out. In its concise way, Dickinson’s snowflake is like Robert Frost’s chiding portrait of his friend Edward Thomas: two possible roads, and the snowflake thinks it’s important to choose one.

The pathetic fallacy gets stronger as the second stanza begins. A cool or cold gusty wind is presented as if it’s complaining for hours on end. For an old/weak bicyclist like myself who tires of headwinds that seem to always be in my face no matter that one has changed direction, this is an ascribing of malice and forethought that I can appreciate. If you look at Dickinson’s own manuscript, you can see that she considered using a legalistic term**  “some parties,” but “some one” seems the broader and better choice. Here, in a different aspect from the snowflake who thinks it has at least a binary choice, it appears the wind is saying it’s been diverted or prevented from something.

In this small poem’s presentation, these two things are joined. The snowflake thinks it can decide, but we know the wind will send it where it directs, but the wind thinks it has been in someway enjoined. Pathetic fallacy aside, it cannot choose, meteorological forces and barometric lines will send it where they will.

In the last two lines, Dickinson doesn’t tell us how it comes out — she refuses to leave her poem’s lyric moment. Her final line brings one more uncommon word choice. It has it that “Nature, like us, is sometimes caught/Without her diadem.” A diadem is a ruler’s crown, worn to signify that the wearer, well, rules, decides. Once more, the pathetic fallacy is invoked: nature is the decider, but for the poem’s moment they have momentarily forgotten to put on the device that lets them take on that power — but in a tiny aside (“like us”) Emily Dickinson says we actual humans, who can actually think, feel, decide are sometimes also in this situation, we may blithely follow what seems like a free will choice or complain that we are forced into our directions. Which is it, really? Did you forget your diadem?

Read this poem, or many an early Imagist poem or classical Chinese poem, and it may seem a miniature painting of a mundane scene. We may be charmed briefly, or we may think, “Oh, that’s too slight to be a thoughtful poem.” Did Dickinson consciously or unconsciously intend what I see here? The number of times she was able to pull off effects like this poem can produce, and the subsidiary writings demonstrating how she thought***  indicate that even if she didn’t consciously work out the complexities underneath her simplicities in some grand and lengthy inner symposium, she put herself in the place where she could receive and express these charged moments.

As usual, I’m going to perform “The Sky Is Low”  with some original music. The player gadget should be below, but some blog reading software won’t show it. If so, this highlighted hyperlink will also play my musical performance.

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*The pathetic fallacy is the tactic of ascribing human emotions and thought to inanimate objects or forces. Despite the literal words of this poem, it’s not debatable that snow does that, and the wind doesn’t really have some angry dispute.

**I’m not sure how many scholars have considered that Dickinson grew up in a family of lawyers, and even though as a woman that field was not open to her, it’s likely that some of that was picked up by her avid mind.

***Long footnote ahead! What can we gather from how Dickinson used this poem that might indicate how she considered it? This poem was “published” in a personal letter to the wife of a couple that were long-time friends of Emily. The husband in the couple was Josiah Holland, a medical doctor and lay preacher. By the time this poem was written in 1866, Josiah had become a well-known journalist, lecturer, poet, and author. He was a principal in the Springfield Republican  newspaper which famously published seven of Dickinson’s poems during her lifetime. He had just published one of the first full-length biographies of Abe Lincoln, and would a few years later found and become the first editor of Scribner’s Monthly.  His wife, to whom the letter with the poem was addressed, Elizabeth Holland, has no known literary work — but read the letter by following this link.  Here one may get the sense of how another important literary personage who Emily Dickinson interacted with, the formidable Thomas Higginson, remarked about how Dickinson wore him out. The amount of philosophical legerdemain, reference, and zen parable in this short letter is striking to me. Did Dickinson expect Elizabeth Holland to understand that letter?

Emily Dickinson’s correspondence and friendship with the Holland couple seems to have been one of the most stable and ongoing in her life, equal to those who were Dickinson’s blood relatives. Whatever bonds were between them, this letter shows the expectation of considerable intellectual understanding, and for “The Sky is Low”  to be enclosed indicates that Dickinson had goals beyond the simplistic for it.

William Carlos Williams’ January

Recently I mentioned I might return to the Modernists of 100 years ago who inspired a lot of the material I’ve used here over the years. And indeed, I read two early William Carlos Williams collections early this new year looking for material as I prepared to do that.

And then, as a novel from 1925 warned: “Somewhere back in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night….” and we’re borne ceaselessly into Make the Confederacy Great Again. Doomscrolling overcame me, and my concentration scattered without need for pepper spray. Unlike some others this week, I don’t want to play-act armed revolution — and despite the abundant wrongs and injustices of my government, I’m not even enthusiastic about the real thing. If I can’t bear up under the tedium of actual politics and its incremental proposed solutions, why then must it follow I would want the excitement of the barricades?

I had to sidestep new pieces for a while. Yesterday I was granted a few hours in which I might work on them, and so I felt compelled to return to what I had thought of using for the new year, and this poem from American Modernist poet William Carlos Williams was on the top of the stack. It’s called “January,”  and it was published 100 years ago this year.

Young Wiliam Carlos Williams

As to doomscrolling vs. poetry, Williams said: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

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By some caprice of the muses, this century-old “January”  seems to address my situation in this one. Williams speaks of the distractions outside himself as he continues to write, and to winter’s “derisive music” he replies he’s still “bound to my sentences.” I can’t be sure what specifically inspired this poem. Williams could simply be sick of winter, that season that litters itself all over the landscape and then freezes itself in place. Or it could be speaking of his place in the Modernist movement, which was gaining traction culturally while (in Williams’ judgement) it wasn’t recognizing his part in it sufficiently.*

For our own arts, that’s an indispensable act for us: to stay committed to our work. Beside the world’s events that tell me that what art does is not quick acting enough to serve as a vaccine for our society, beside doubts that I should be better at what I do before presenting it, beside my own particular guilts that I should spend less time doing these things and more at promoting it, there’s no work to fail or be ignored unless one does one’s work.

I had to work quickly on the music, relying on some things that have become stylistic standbys for me in this Project: bowed strings (contra-bass this time), electric piano, electric guitar, and drums. In his poem, Williams develops the idea that the distracting winter wind is playing music to interrupt his own word-music. He describes this music as featuring the chromatic scale interval of the fifth. Reading the silent poem, you might think he’s talking about a dissonant interval since he also says twice the winds’ music is “derisive.” But the fifth is instead a sweet interval, even if one plays minors or major scales against it or piles on fuzzy overtone-rich distortion. From a musical perspective, I’m thinking Williams is saying that even the winter winds are not as cutting, honest, and to-the-bone as he wants to write. They’re derisive because they are merely sweet.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Williams’ “January”  should be below, but if you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to play the musical piece. If you’d like to read the full text of the 1921 poem, this is a link to that.

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*The collection this poem appeared in was titled Sour Grapes.  Williams thought — and some later critics began to agree with him — that American cultural critics were more enamored of WASP writers and overly eager to establish their own Ivy League version of the Oxford-Cambridge hierarchy for poets and poetry. Williams’ father was raised in the Dominican Republic and his mother was from Puerto Rico. Now of course, both Williams and some guy named Trump both went to the University of Pennsylvania, which is officially in the Ivy League. While Williams did post-graduate travel and work in Europe too, unlike some other American Modernists he was committed to making his poetry speak in, and to, an American way.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 97 “How like a Winter hath my absence been”

What with Longfellow last time and Shakespeare this time, I’m thinking I’ll return soon to some of the more surreal and avant garde 20th century authors whose work has entered the public domain. That would be the New Year’s thing to do — but then once one penetrates the archaic language of this old sonnet, it gets plenty weird.

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How this poem looked in 1609. I note that most versions of this poem I find online replace the question marks in the opening sentences with exclamation points. I wonder why?

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How many come here, perhaps via a web search for help in figuring out what some hard-to-understand poem might be on about? Well, here’s the usual “homework helper” summary of Sonnet 97:

The clever bi-amorous poet character* in the sonnet starts out bewailing that it’s winter and he’s away from his beloved. But wait, a few lines in, it’s summer, or maybe autumn harvest time, but the poet started out talking as if it’s wintertime because he misses the beloved so much and that makes it seem as bad as winter.

There you go, a greeting-card worthy poem when reduced to that meaning: “Miss you so much, summer’s like winter because of that.”

But all that ignores the strangeness of it. Don’t put this in your school work if you have a conventional teacher only looking to see that you’ve taken the effort to decode Elizabethan English,**  but is it just possible that the poem is really written in wintertime, or that the portrayed states of winter and summer in this poem are not actual, look-at-the-calendar fact? ***

That supposition that this poem is actually set in summer (or maybe autumn) has to be vague, because the statements about seasons in the poem are spread between four seasons: winter, summer, harvest-time and then near-winter fall — but the actual imagery Shakespeare goes with is much more at pregnancy**** and birth, and he’s not subtle about it at all, working a number of angles on that idea, and with a specifically  patriarchal slant on pregnancy.

Here’s what he says about what his state and season is in this poem: “teeming” (breeding with no concern of to excess), “increase,” “bearing” (and wanton at that), “burthen” (an archaic term that puns on birth, and was used for cargo in a ship’s hold, which the poem notes is owned by the principle, the prime, of the shipping company who has in that way impregnated the cargo), and outright “wombs,” “issue” (a legal term for children), and “orphans” (children again, though patriarchally, orphans from loss of just the father) and “un-fathered fruit” (from what little I know of horticulture and pollination, possible — but in this context, more orphan or bastard status being inferred). Shakespeare doesn’t really care to nail down if it’s summer or harvest because it’s not a calendar season he’s depicting. He’s been impregnated, and magically given birth perhaps more than once from this impregnation.

Now in terms of gender fluidity (no snickering in the back row — and Ms. Rowling, no passing notes you can’t share with the rest of the class) this is outrageous imagery, and something that I’ve seen no other reading of the poem address, though it seems to me overt enough that someone must have noticed it.

What is his point? What’s he getting at? I think the “issue,” the “orphans,” are the poet’s poems, even including this sonnet itself. His beloved is absent, so he shouldn’t be productive (maybe even an undercurrent here of infidelity or artistic parthenogenesis) and at least for the purposes of this poem he is exaggerating the patriarchal attitude that the father (not our fecund womb-bearing poet) owns the children, or if there be “issue” that isn’t his, they aren’t worthy.

There’s also a potential class layer here too, isn’t there. If the “Fair Youth” addressed in this and other sonnets is indeed a titled patron, that purported “only begetter” may be a fancy whose sexual politics shouldn’t be overlooked.

In that reading, it may really be winter outside, as on this late December day in my state it certainly is. And there may be a longing for an absent beloved, but the poet is writing the winter, writing the separation, teeming. I think Shakespeare may be playing with that claim that poetry without a patriarchal father is a dull song and illegitimate. As for us, we should write down our dark verse on the pale leaves of winter, and may you find pleasure in your own ever-fleeting year!

To hear my musical performance of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 97, “How like a Winter hath my absence been,”   you can use the player gadget below or this highlighted hyperlink that will also play it.

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*Modern scholarship has generally come down on the side of thinking that Shakespeare’s sonnets are an invented work, using and playing changes on conventions of Renaissance sonnet topics and plot lines. But the desire to know “the real Shakespeare” still leads a great many to comment on what these poems, seemingly intimate and confessional, say about the person who wrote them. I’m going to write as if the poem is Shakespeare speaking as himself for simplicities sake, as writing “the character of the poet who is writing this poem” is too awkward to keep repeating.

**I wonder how many immigrant and Afro-American students realize that they have a possible advantage in appreciating and interpreting the archaic English of Shakespeare’s time in that they already have a contemporarily developed and working code-switch skill regarding language.

***When I first read this poem I thought of the Twilight Zone episode “The Midnight Sun”  in which (spoiler alert) two women are approaching death on an Earth that is growing ever hotter, only to have the twist ending be that it’s a near-death fantasy of our heroine on a planet that is instead growing ever colder.

****Human pregnancy having a 9 month term could account for some of the seasonal ambiguity and the poem not being clear about it being winter, summer, harvest mid-autumn or near winter/late fall.

The Three Kings

Here’s a piece that will seem appropriate for Christmas, but to be exact, it’s actually early  and only due by January 6th. Yes, even though your standard-issue Christmas decoration depicts a stable with baby Jesus, his parents, livestock, shepherds, a hanging heavenly star, and that exotic trio: the Three Kings, the Three Wise men, the Magi, the reviewers who will give King Herod a scathing no-star* Yelp review—never mind that creche, the traditional story has it that the three kings arrive later.

the-adoration-of-the-magi by Rubens 1

In this painting by Rubens it looks like the Magi have  roadies, a security detail, and an all-access pass

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There’s even a church holiday associated with this January date: Epiphany. And that date, the visit of the Magi, was also the endpoint of the English 12 Days of Christmas, something best remembered here in the U. S. via that crowded, livestock enriched, counting song.

But never you mind. On Christmas, angels appear on high, animals can talk, and Christians celebrate the coming of the Godhead as a small human baby. Let’s not sweat the small stuff.

I found this late Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, “The Three Kings,”  this week, and set about quickly seeing if I could turn it into a Parlando Project piece in time for Christmas. Turns out I can. And as a result, you all get a new Christmas carol today.

The Three Kings

You don’t need a word-a-day calendar when you have poetry. “Kine” is an archaic word for cattle. As to the breath of cattle, well, carbon-neutral poetic license there. “Paraclete” is the consoling aspect of the Holy Spirit.

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The full original text is longer than what I’ll perform. Here’s a link to the full poem in case you want to see what I started with. Figuring that performing the whole thing would run long (I like to keep Parlando Project pieces under 5 minutes) I looked to see if I could excerpt a scene from it, and rather quickly I found what I think is the heart of the piece. Even though the Three Kings are the title characters, and lots of detail on their story is included in Longfellow’s original, the real central character is Mary, the mother of Jesus.

So, I open with the Kings arriving and finding the incongruous royal, holy, baby in the stable. I love the stanza where Longfellow so touchingly, and humanly, recounts something many first-time parents will relate to: Mary with joy and worry watching the fragile miracle of her newborn’s breathing.

And then he follows that with the exact details of the gifts that the Magi are offering, efficiently detailing what they symbolize, ending with the myrrh and the note that it is for burial of the body. Which, as one might expect, is not what worried Mary wants to hear.

I close on Longfellow’s next-to-last stanza, where Mary comforts herself with the annunciation message she had heard from an angel before Jesus’ birth, which didn’t include the fine print of her baby’s eventual suffering, torture and execution.

Longfellow may have a reduced reputation as an effective poet, but particularly when I zoom in on the heart of this piece, I don’t think he comes off badly. I believe also that the aged Longfellow has his own life to draw on here, not just as a parent, but as someone who lost his first beloved wife in childbirth and his second beloved wife to a fire that he himself tried to smother out on her body.

Longfellow himself says the moment of his poem mixes the joy of life with the terror of death—yet oh my, I’ve gone and mixed Christmas joy with sorrowful things, but I will not remove the above, nor decorate it with some statement that sorrow is what makes joy more intense, or that neither is everlasting, or some elaborate reminder that this happy holiday has been set so near our Northern hemisphere’s shortest day and longest night to set it off with hope. As I say from time to time here, it’s not what I believe that is important—it’s what you  believe.

Thank you for reading and listening. A player gadget should appear below to hear my performance of my selection from Longfellow’s “The Three Kings”  using my own music. If you don’t see the player, this highlighted hyperlink will also open a player in a new window so that you can hear it.

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*Astrologers giving out a no-star review is the ultimate burn for those guys. See also haruspex dishing on bad chicken take-out, palm readers who really don’t want you to give them a hand, and numerologists who’ll correct your bad arithmetic.

I wake and feel the fell of dark

Once more let us look at winter-come darkness and see what we see there, this time through Gerard Manley Hopkins and one of his “Terrible Sonnets.”

The name “Terrible Sonnets” is not a review, though I’ll confess that on first hearing of them, that between Hopkins oh-so-British sounding triple name with an extra schoolboy snicker due for the middle name on top of that, that I too wondered what meaning I’d assign to that word “Terrible”. No, my teachers assured me, terrible in the same way that wonderful and awful can be synonyms in strict derivation English.

No, these are poems that have a good scholarly reputation, and some general readership yet today. If there is disagreement about them, it’s not about their worth or poetic quality, but rather if they show Hopkins in a profound spiritual crisis or in a clinical depression. One can find a number of essays online and elsewhere that argue for either, or perhaps both. Either way, this is the night darkness as we often think of it. Yesterday we had Joseph Campbell making a case for a mysterious outward darkness, the exact nature of which is just out of our understanding. Hopkins darkness in contrast is totally intimate. I find it interesting that both of them were writing in Ireland, then still a colonial possession. Campbell may be expressing his country’s subjugation and its ancestors’ sorrow at that in his poem. Hopkins, in turn, was a patriotic citizen of the empire that ruled over Campbell’s country. That’s not a frame I’ll follow up on today due to space, and because Hopkins wrote these poems in the late 19th century and there’s no way to start a Tweetstorm that he can read back then.

Gerard Manley Hopkins 2

Hopkins, about to be pwned for complicity in colonial exploitation, before everyone realized: wait, 1885, no iPhones.

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Here’s another frame, another one with roots in colonialism and subjugation. In America we have a form, the Afro-American Modernist form forged around the same time that some white Americans were over in London helping create and popularize Imagism. That form was called “The Blues,*” and to some degree that indigo name has let it be casually and incorrectly considered a sorrowful song. And yes, a lot of bad and sad things are spoken of in The Blues, but it’s generally from a stance of: “Look what’s happened to me, what’s been done to me, the absurdity of it—but I’m still here to tell you about it.”

Today’s piece, using Hopkins’ Terrible Sonnet “I wake and feel the fell of dark,”  is not a Blues. But despite the harrowing statement of the inside of this poem’s speaker’s experience, it shares one thing with The Blues that makes it outstanding: “I wake and feel the fell of dark”  is full of energy. The description of the state inside the poem is cascading and vivid, coming at you so fast that it seems all at once. If this is depression being described, it’s not the mode of depression that is numbed beyond caring, but the depression that actively calls out and hates the depressive portion of the speaker’s mind. In this way, it shares something with The Blues, it can be cathartic. And indeed, some sufferers of depression (like too, some religious seekers) find the Terrible Sonnets worthwhile as a voice in darkness that can remind them that there are others who’ve felt and seen the same things.

Here’s a link to the full text of the poem if you’d like to refer to it.

I’ll risk trivializing Hopkins’ revered poem by pointing out two trivial things I noted in looking at the text, as few commentators on Hopkins’ work choose to sink to mundane levels. The section “I am gall, I am heartburn…bitter would have me taste: my taste was me” seems to me to me to be on one level a symptomatic report of the experience of nighttime gastric reflux. And in these days of 2020, with lots of long nights this year before this day of Winter Solstice, Hopkins back in 1885 was prophet enough to speak specifically of our popular pandemic baking fad of homemade sourdough bread in this poem’s line 12!

The player gadget to hear my performance of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “I wake and feel the fell of dark” should appear below. Don’t see a player you can click on? Well, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to hear today’s audio piece.

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*The Blues of course is a varied and mutating form whose essence exists beyond the bins carrying that label in record stores or playlist names on your phone. I use it as a name because it’s one that coalesced for the art form at the time it emerged around 1900 in America. I stand to be corrected by my betters in these matters, but I believe the Blues essence remains a vital part of Afro-American expression, and from that, American expression in general. I’m an American musician, and the notes are mostly black.

Twilight Fallen White and Cold

What do we see, what do we learn, what possibly do we gain here in the upper parts of the northern hemisphere from so much nighttime at the beginning of a cold and snowy winter?

Some might say we learn endurance, a sense of obligation besides the dark and ice to carry on. Or a concentration, winter solstice as the fasting of light. But night is a filter, a frame, offering another way of perceiving. So, I went looking for poems this month that might allow you or I to look at darkness and see differently. One of the strongest and strangest poems I found was this one by a little-known Irish poet named Joseph Campbell.*

I’m trying to gather more info on Campbell. He was born in colonial Ireland in 1879 and died 1944 in a now independent Ireland. Most of his available poetry was published before WWI. He was imprisoned in the events surrounding the Irish Civil War of the last Twenties** (he was aligned with the losing side) and afterward he lived for a couple of decades in the United States. Shortly before his death he returned to Ireland and died there. I’ve read one of his book-length collections of poetry and parts of two others, all of which predate Irish Independence and the Civil War. I find him a striking poet worthy of more interest. Most of his poetry is brief, rhymed lyrical poems, using short metrical lines, such as today’s selection. One collection, Irishry,  contains incisive small character sketches of Irish life at the turn of the 20th century. Another, The Gilly of Christ,  has elements of Christian mysticism. Inherent in many of the poems seems to be a speaker who has spent time hiking about the country, and in this regard, Campbell reminds me at times of Edward Thomas with his attention to the book of nature and the landscape. While he likes rural and sometimes peculiar words, his language is clean and modern without the taint of worn-out 19th century leftovers.

There are also a handful of poems I’ve read in the collections so far that are very much in the style of the early Imagists, and this is striking because they may date to around the same time as their initial ground-breaking experiments. I so far know of no direct connection between Campbell and the largely London-based pioneering Imagists, but like his Irish contemporaries Yeats*** and Joyce, Campbell seems to be an early Modernist voice regardless of his use of rhyme and meter for most of his poetry.

Twilight Fallen White and Cold

Here’s today’s piece with chords in case you want to make sounds in the winter night

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Today’s Winter Solstice relatable piece “Twilight Fallen White and Cold”  mixes his modes a bit to produce an interesting effect. It’s on one layer a jaunty nature poem, almost nursery rhyme simple. This seems an easy effect to achieve, but particular to moderns, it’s not. Subtly mixed in with the “child in cradle, lamb in fold” comfortable lines are misty undercurrents. Well, yes, those trees are a bit ghostly in fading light and cold mist. Yes, birds are on the wing, but also “Black-winged vampires.” What? No, there are no vampire bats in Ireland.****  And in the last line of the second stanza we meet “rath and burial mounds,” the former a word that has an Irish meaning that an modern American reader might slide over. No, the burial mounds aren’t explicitly angry, a “rath” is the remains of an earthen-walled stronghold dating back to Celtic chieftains. The poem final stanza intensifies that hold and call from the indigenous past. Though Campbell is depicting an Irish landscape, these rounded-over and landscape-worn earthworks bring to mind the areas of North America in my native Midwest where indigenous people built similar structures.

But the most mysterious part is repeated as a refrain to make sure we don’t miss it: “Wounds of Eloim/Weep on me!”

The darkness of coming night may be mysterious, but this is more so. I don’t know exactly what Campbell is getting at there, other than the effect of mystification assuredly delivered. Eloim, which I believe in a variation of “Elohim,” is word that will not become less mysterious if one researches it. It appears to be a Semetic language family word for gods. In the Bible the word appears to have taken on several meanings. The Abrahamic Semites are famously monotheists, and they will use the word to refer to the multiple gods of the other tribes—but even though the word is plural, they will use it to refer to their own, singular god, or to the ambiguous angels that are not human but are also not plural gods. At some point, I believe post-Biblical times, this association with angels has led the word to be used at times as synonym for heaven.

Does that help us understand what Campbell meant to ring out multiple times in his poem? Not exactly. I gather some sense of a lost past, of a suppressed culture, is being invoked, but the mysticism never reduces itself to a “this stands for that, it’s just a code to be broken” level. That may increase its power, and it certainly increases the strangeness of this poem.

Returning to my original question, what might the darkness, our winter-come overwhelming night portion teach us? The example of this poem says that I shouldn’t answer that question quickly and simply—but that I should ask it.

A player gadget to hear my performance of Joseph Campbell’s “Twilight Fallen White and Cold”  will often appear below. If you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink will play it too.

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*As I have to say whenever I mention Campbell to anyone: no, not the American Hero With A Thousand Faces  and “Follow your bliss” Joseph Campbell. This is another guy. The Irish Joseph Campbell also used a Gaelic name, Seosamh Mac Cathmhaoil which would have given him a more secure doing-business-as cultural brand, and near the end of his life a pen-name of Ultach.

**Until this year I was entirely ignorant of the events of the Irish Civil War and now only know the summary story as reflected in things like this Wikipedia entry. I am, so far, unacquainted with Campbell’s political beliefs and actions.

***Like Yeats, Campbell seems to have been a committed cultural nationalist, seeking to use the arts as a way to uplift his country’s prestige and as a foundation for independence from colonial status. Like Yeats he also seems to have been involved with theater and as a song lyricist. One tidbit I found, which may be related to the mysterious element in today’s poem, is that he may have been the source responsible for a broadside folk ballad “Reynardine,”  being performed in a version by several British Isle folk-revivalists later in the 20th century as a tale of a “ware-fox” rather than in its original guise as tale of a bandit. Here’s two of my favorites versions, one by the incomparable Bert Jansch, and an unaccompanied one by the equally special Anne Briggs.

****Maybe St. Patrick and Van Helsing teamed up to take care of that?

Fall 2020 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 4-2, and what is it that you’re trying to do anyway?

Before continuing with our count-down of the most liked and listened to pieces here this past autumn, let me remind newcomers what the Parlando Project does. We take words, mostly other people’s words, usually poetry, and combine them in different ways with original music.

“Oh, you mean you make them into songs?” Well, sometimes, yes. But not always. I don’t always sing the words, thus the project’s name.

“So, it’s spoken word with some music in the background.” You could say that about some pieces, but I want the words and the music to interact, comment on each other. The music isn’t just background.

“Music with chanted words. Are you a rapper?” I wish. Can you imagine the commercial potential of old guys chanting poetry, often to acoustic instruments? House-party! I’ll bring the Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, and Fenton Johnson! No, I’m not a rapper, but you could say that I’m more a separate branch growing off the roots of things that rap also grew from.

“Are you some kind of beatnik?” Wait, where’s my black turtleneck, I’m going to reverently listen to some cool jazz records now while trying to remember what was so important about being intoxicated first. Oh, what was the question again?

“The last few numbers on the Top Ten had those orchestral instruments. Are you setting poetry texts to music in the tradition of art song?” One limitation of this project is that neither Dave, nor certainly I, possess bel canto voices that can realize what most art song composers do. I’m conceptually doing what art song composers do, but the empirical results reflect my outlook, performance resources, and limitations. Also, like Yeats, I fear that elaborately sung melodies obscure the impact of the words.

OK, back to the countdown. If you’d like to read what I wrote when I first presented these pieces, the bold-faced titles are hyperlinks to that.

4. O Let Me Be Alone Awhile  by Emily Bronte.  You could feel bad for Emily B. that my Halloween piece using her spellbound poem didn’t make the Top 10, but this one, an introvert’s shout-out that some readers and listeners might have felt was especially appropriate in this pandemic “everyone stay at home” time, did. The player to hear this should be below, but if you don’t see the gadget, you can use this highlighted hyperlink instead.

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Autumn Indian Pipe and Dickinson Poems cover

The first edition of Dickinson’s poems featured a picture of Indian Pipe flowers in bloom, but like all flowers, autumn, if nothing else, ends their term. Indian Pipe (also called Ghost Pipe) is a strange plant that doesn’t use photosynthesis, but rather gets its energy from fungus. The picture was chosen because avid botanist Emily liked this unusual plant.

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3. As if the sea should part  by Emily Dickinson.  From Emily B. to her American admirer Emily D. we go. For all the mythos about Dickinson’s later years of not leaving her family home, does anyone ever ask if being cooped up in a house with a family half-heartedly uninterested in poetry was all that comforting to her? In her most vital writing years, Dickinson still roamed some physically—and mentally. I’ve had some fun over the years here suggesting musically and graphically that Emily Dickinson would rhyme with Sixties psychedelia. “As if the Sea should part”  is certainly mental traveling of the purest sort. The player for this performance is below, or if you can’t see the player, you can use this hyperlink.

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2. The Listeners  by Walter de la Mare.  When I started this project I thought I’d be rocking out more often than it’s turned out to be the case. Part of that result comes from being increasingly unable to record with Dave or others, and some from enjoying the novelty of being able to score and play orchestral instruments. My version of de la Mare’s weird minimalist ghost story isn’t crossing the hardcore boundary, but this is  a rock band arrangement that sounds good turned up on your speakers. The player to test that claim should be below, or if not, this highlighted hyperlink will play it.

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Fall 2020 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 7-5

Continuing on with our count-down of the most listened to and liked pieces here this past autumn. A reminder, each of these selections starts with a bold-faced hyperlink to the post where I first presented the author’s piece. There you may find a bit more about the writer and a link to the full text of the poem I used.

7. Her Strong Enchantments Failing  by A. E. Housman. Our Halloween series of eerie spell-casting stories drew strong listenership, with this one coming in at number 7. It’s likely just coincidence, but I enjoyed thinking of Housman’s selection as if it could be a response to Emily Bronte’s poem “Spellbound.”

Musically this one combines electric guitar and electric piano, two instruments that don’t sound exactly like their acoustic siblings, but they mesh together just as well. There’s a player gadget below to hear Housman’s “Her Strong Enchantments Failing,” or you can use this highlighted hyperlink if you’re reading this in a reader that doesn’t show the player.

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6. Truth Never Dies  by Anonymous. After encountering this poem extolling the endurance of truth despite human disbelief and ridicule on Kenne Turner’s blog, I just had to try and find out where it came from. In the end I wasn’t able to come up with any likely author despite a day or two of searches, but it now looks likely that “Truth Never Dies” was written in the early part of the 20th century, and the author likely was connected to the Seventh Day Adventists, though a version of the poem appeared in early trade union and temperance publications as well as church bulletins of various denominations.

Now of course most Protestant churches, labor halls, or temperance meetings wouldn’t have a string ensemble at their disposal, but I set “Truth Never Dies”  to one anyway. Once again, here’s a highlighted hyperlink to hear it, or you can use the player gadget below.

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Times, Times. It’s silly, no? When a rocket ship explodes and everybody still wants to fly…” (Prince was raised an Adventist)

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5. The Dream  by Lola Ridge.  I may be attracted to lesser-known authors here from time to time, but then in some cases their personal biographies are often as rich in detail and adventures as any better-known poet. Ridge is one example of this. Ridge, like Mina Loy touched scenes on more than one country and continent early in the 20th Century, but like Loy she ended up connected to New York City bohemian circles around the time of WWI. After decades of obscurity, 21st century scholarship is starting to show more interest in Ridge. This poem of hers is as resolutely Modernist as Loy, William Carlos Williams, or Marianne Moore—but in our year 2020 of wildfires, pandemic, political illusions, street demonstrations and disorder, Ridge, and her more than a hundred-year-old poem, seemed to fit our zeitgeist.

Music for this? More strings, though a smaller group of them. Maybe it’s somewhat incongruous to hear my bellowing yap chanting along with bowed instruments, but those are just conventional expectations, and I don’t go to conventions. This is the hyperlink to hear my performance of “The Dream”  or you can use the player below.

Fall 2020 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 10-8

It’s time to count-down the audio pieces that you liked and listened to here most this past autumn. But before I get to the count-down I’ll mention that new pieces are getting harder for me to produce for a number of reasons. As of now, I still plan to produce some additional examples of what the Parlando Project does: combining various words (mostly poetry) with various original music (as varied as I can make it). Still, given the over 500 pieces already posted here, there will be a lot to explore while you’re waiting. What are those pieces like? Or unlike? Well, our quarterly top-tens are one way to see.

In each of the listings below and in the coming days, the bold-face titles are also links to the original posts where the pieces were presented in case you’d like to see what I wrote about them then.

10. The Poetry of the Root Crop  by Charles Kingsley.  I love coming across a remarkable poem I’d otherwise never come upon unless I was working on this project. “The Poetry of the Root Crop”  is largely unknown, and its author Charles Kingsley is too. No one seems to care much about his poetry, and even his lonely web biographic sketches barely mention it. I remember one I read saying his poetry was “competent.” Oh my. We poets are claimed to be a grandiose lot, and “competent” is a pen-knife between the ribs, not even a public execution. Kingsley the man is also lesser known, particularly here in the U.S., which might be unfair and yet favorable to us enjoying his poem. Considering Kingsley as a thinker and active force in his time has me going over this project’s many presented authors and recalling that while many had ideas I could agree with, they are often mixed with other prominent ideas and convictions that appalled me.

Poems can be about ideas, though they are not the ideal container for them as such I think. We are blessed that “The Poetry of the Root Crop”  isn’t a manifesto, though it uses some cultural markers as part of its scenery. What it is, what poetry is, is an apt container for communicating the experience of experience. Kingsley’s experience of a graveyard and/or garden can change how you see the thing yourself. To have that transference between minds isn’t merely “competent” I think. If you don’t see the player gadget to hear this piece, this link will also play it.

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Snow started falling. I could hear the angel calling…He started to sing. He sang ‘Break it up, oh,  I don’t understand. Break it up, I can’t comprehend…”

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9. No Common Ground  by Dave Moore.  Oh, how I miss having more of Dave Moore’s voice here. The pandemic has separated many artists, and performers most of all. How cruel this illness has been to have one of its earliest American super-spreading events to be through a group of people singing with each other!

So, it’s ironic that Dave’s piece that found so many listeners this Fall is about our chosen separations, one that I thought particularly apt for our current year when I reposted it on November 7th. The player gadget for “”No Common Ground”  is below, or as an alternative, this highlighted link for those that can’t see the gadget.

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8. Back Yard  by Carl Sandburg.  I think it likely that Carl Sandburg had some ideas I don’t agree with, but I don’t look for them too hard, because I’m so grateful for the feeling of fellowship I often feel with him. “Back Yard”  too is not a manifesto, though it’s not hard to see its experience of the experience of an urban immigrant night as a statement by a son of a Swedish immigrant. Part of what I plan when I return to new pieces here is to talk a bit about our experience of the common ground of darkness as winter solstice approaches here in the Northern Hemisphere, and while Sandburg talks here of summer, his night somehow holds more than broad daylight can.

“Back Yard”  has continued to draw listens since it was first posted here two summers ago, and this September, as summer was leaving us, there was another strong spike in listens. My stats tell me I have listeners here who are approaching summer solstice below the equator, so this one is right on time for you.

Oh, there are a few words you’ll hear in the background that aren’t Sandburg’s. Some other angel’s alchemy from the common ground graveyard/garden of Kingsley’s poem perhaps? You can use the player to hear those night voices, or this alternate, highlighted link.

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End of the Sky–A Doomscrolling Sonnet after Du Fu

In the 8th century, in China, there was a poem written by a man whose name we now write in our alphabet as Du Fu.*  It’s a short poem, 8 lines, and in it Du Fu addresses a friend, another Chinese poet of his time, Li Bai. Du Fu was able to compress a lot into those few lines about their shared task of writing. I’ve seen the poem’s title translated as “Thinking of Li Po at Sky’s End.”

Here’s a literal gloss of the original Chinese ideogramic text translated into English:

Cold wind rise sky end
Gentleman thought resemble what
Goose what time come
River lake autumn water much
Literature hate fate eminent
Demons happy people failure
Respond together wronged person language
Throw poems give Miluo

I’ve been carrying this gloss around in the background since August, thinking about how to render it when I chose to translate a poem by Li Bai instead. Then this November I was taking time out from the Parlando Project for a task I complete each month: to write up my reactions to a small group of poems from a circle of poets I’ve known for over 40 years. I try do do my best at this. The members of this group are generally accomplished, two of them markedly more so than I. In-between responding to their work, I continued to consider the Du Fu poem.

This project that you meet me at here has allowed me to explore intensively how I respond to poetry, poetry that is often of widely different styles. This only makes me more worried as I respond to this circle’s new work. I’ve seen varied ways poems can work, but I’ve seen the varied ways they can fail with an audience too. I try to respond authentically to the circle’s work, with an open heart, just as I do with the poems I present here, but in the end, what do I know for sure about what works or makes something work better or less well? What then to tell other poets, perhaps ones better than you?

After all, the same thing that seems to succeed in one poem seems to fail in another. I often think of how many musicians and writers have said that if they had the maps and mechanisms to make their art work each and every time, they would go to that place and never leave.

Similarly, if we knew as readers and listeners how to always pay the proper attention, would more poems, songs, or tunes succeed or fail?

This year I’ve begun writing a series of sonnets about my inability to come to grips with a number of simultaneous crises: a viral pandemic, a wider and painful realization of our racial caste system and its costs, the climate change frog-potboiling, and a government in proud, foolish, and willful disarray regarding these things and the judgement of voters. Round and round I go trying to find out what I don’t know. Trying to figure out what’s best to do. No next thing I read or watch will answer that, and some of what I come upon will dismay or anger me. That syndrome has been given a name: “doomscrolling,” and perhaps you have found yourself falling into it too. In honor of the obsessive nature of us little people trying to make sense of these senseless things and manage some mitigating protection for ourselves, friends, and family, I’m calling my series The Doomscrolling Sonnets.  We try to puzzle these things out, just as we continue to try to make poetry or other art work.

I think that may be what Du Fu wants to tell fellow poet Li Bai he understands in his poem.**

In my roundabout way, I came to a decision about how to present Du Fu’s poem. I decided to use it as a rough framework, an inspiration, as the kind of translation as starting point that is most accurately described as “After Du Fu” rather than an attempt at a faithful translation.***  This poem isn’t going to be written to Li Bai, it’s going to be to my friends, and to you if you too read, write, speak, or listen to poetry in this troubled time when our rudder is stuck hard to one side and we circle endlessly.

End of the Sky

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I love dividing the 14 lines of a sonnet in various ways. Instead of an octet and sestet, this one is two 7-line stanzas with the turn/volta in the middle, and a closing couplet. Rather than end-rhyme, I decided to use a variety of internal rhymes, repeated words, and near-rhymes. The effect I’m aiming for here is a constant but irregular little chime occurring rather than a fixed rhyme that has the reader settling into an expectation.

I open the poem trying to render Du Fu’s autumn setting with some extra elaboration, though I translated it to my colder Minnesota clime. I think of the geese here as our occasional encounter with our muses and sometimes the song we hear from them isn’t as sublime as we’d like. And late autumn reminds us of what we must, and have, finished, what we’ve written down: the dried, settled ink and frozen surfaces of pages.

Chinesepoems.com, the source of the gloss above, gives us a helpful hint at what Du Fu is getting at with his closing line. Qu Yuan is a poet who, in a time of despair, threw himself into the Miluo river and drowned. In tribute, poets would come later and throw poems into the Miluo at the site of Qu Yuan’s death. Here again, I had my own localization to apply. I used to walk every day over a bridge crossing the Mississippi River, that mighty stream that runs through the middle of the Twin Cities and the rest of our country. A couple of years before I came to the Twin Cities, John Berryman, a poet and professor had copied Qu Yuan (or Hart Crane) and jumped from that bridge, a direct downward path taken presumably in giving up his own doomscrolling life and literary problems. I knew nothing of Qu Yuan or Du Fu back then when that was my daily walk, but I too once dropped a poem over the side of the bridge. Maybe Du Fu spoke to me before I knew his name? Muses will do that.

This poem’s two best lines I think are my attempt to directly translate Du Fu:

True literature doesn’t care if it is popular, and
It is only demons that care about a poet’s failures!”

You can stick that one by your keyboard or in your notebook. I think it’s better to listen to muses than demons, even if the muses lead us on, because muses tell us to write poems which we may throw in the water rather than throwing ourselves. I say that, even though I have reminded you here over the years: “All artists fail.” And so, we, poets, will fail. We fail mostly.

Mostly.  That’s important.

You should see a player gadget below to hear my performance of “End of the Sky.”  If you don’t, you can use this highlighted hyperlink to hear it.

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* Du Fu is also spelled out as Tu Fu, and Li Bai as Li Po. The poet Ch’un Yuan referred to at the end of Du Fu’s poem can also be spelled Qu Yuan. It all has to do with the problem of taking Chinese language and portraying the names with the Western alphabet.

** Du Fu’s poem was written in a troubled time. The government of China was in turmoil, the country divided in civil conflict. Both Du Fu and Li Bai were imprisoned during this conflict, and Li Bai eventually had a death sentence handed down against him. Li Bai’s death sentence was commuted, but he was sent into exile. The two friends were separated for the rest of their lives.

*** I read poet and blogger Robert Okaji’s version of Du Fu’s “Thinking of Li Po at Sky’s End”  last month. Okaji, faced as I am with the challenges of translating Tang Dynasty poetry into an unlike language in a place centuries later, calls his versions “After…” rather than presenting them as translations. This year after reading some of his “After…” poems I’ve decided to do the same sometimes. Here’s a link to Okaji’s fine rendition.  For other examples of how “After a poem by…” translations may work see Campion’s “Let Us Live and Love”  after the Latin poet Catullus and Ezra Pound’s free translation of Li Bai’s “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.”