The most popular Parlando Project piece, summer of 2022

They tell us: yesterday was the last hot day of the year, with temps peaking above 90 F. The summer night ended, like a fair or exhibition with fireworks lightning and booming thunder, and the coolness of fall seems to have arrived today. The urban trees here have just a touch of autumn colors on the edges of avant-garde branches. A city’s pretense is that it is artificial, a human-made place, but the trees are here to remind us.

Late September Days cartoon

The above cartoon presented without further comment.

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I’ve said that when I look at what pieces were the most liked and listened to each quarter that the results often surprise me. The Parlando Project takes words (mostly poetry) and combines them with various original music. For practical reasons,* the poetry we use is largely in the public domain, poets whose reputation has usually settled to a stable level. We’ve done many pieces from such poets that retain readership into our century: Dickinson, Frost, Yeats, Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Eliot, Millay. I also enjoy reviving work by poets that once had considerable readership, but who have fallen out of favor or esteem: Longfellow, Teasdale, Sandburg for example. And there are poets that have higher profiles in the UK than here in the US: Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy. And there’s my translations or adaptations of work outside of English: Du Fu, Li Bai, Rimbaud, Rilke.** That’s a big world of material, and my attempts good, bad, and indifferent are up in the archives for all to hear. But then there are the wildcards, the poets that only indefinitely reached and failed to retain much regard.

Apparently, Robert Gould Fletcher is one of those. He was identified early on as an Imagist, a form of early English language poetic Modernism that I think has values worth revisiting. Curious, I dipped into a couple of his many books from the first half of the 20th century and found a short nature poem that intrigued me. As I worked to set it to music my city had a summer storm whose aftermath was a striking yellow/green/brown sky tint. In the heat of that evening I started to recast Fletcher’s poem, producing a result that’s a “after a poem by” or “inspired by” work — but it wouldn’t exist without Fletcher.

Despite Fletcher’s non-existent current literary standing and my own low profile as a poet, “Yellow Air”  was the most listened too and liked during our past warm summer. I wouldn’t have predicted that, which is a pleasure.

You can see Fletcher’s original text and the full text of my subsequent version along with guitar chords which you might use if you want to sing it yourself by clicking on this link to the original post. Or you can hear it straightaway with the player below.

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*Submitting writers may know how slow and inconsistently editors will respond. Well, I found the response asking for permission to present poems here was even worse. If an unsought grant was ever to fall from the sky for this Project, I’d ask first for someone to bug and cajole rights holders for the rights to present more recent poems here.

**How much have we done this? Over 600 times! And all of the results are still available here via the archives. If you just want to sample the music more rapidly without my comments on the encounters with the text, the most recent 100 or so are available as podcasts on Apple podcasts or most other places that offer podcasts. Note that the Parlando Project podcasts are just that: the typically less than five-minute audio piece. From time to time I’ve considered a more conventional talking-about-stuff podcast, but I’m unconvinced the interest would replay the work on top of the research, composing, and recording effort that goes into this Project.

Sonnet Suggested by Willy Vlautin

I’m usually not very articulate about my own work, and part of the benefit of this Project’s aim to largely present other people’s poetry is that I can better express my experiences with others’ work than my own. This may be why I am envious of those who can speak effectively about their own art.

More than a dozen years ago I was reading an interview with a novelist Willy Vlautin who also wrote songs and performed with an Americana/Indie rock band called Richmond Fontaine. In explaining his art this is what Vlautin had to say:

It’s sort of a gamble, one’s life. Where will you fall, what are your weaknesses, will they kill you? If you’re hurting, will people help you or take advantage of you? Will the people you love, love you when you need them to? The mistakes you make, they could ruin you, set you off on a bad run. Hell, I think about all that all the time. Nothing makes me sadder than someone hurting and then being done wrong or worse by someone who’s aware of that.”

As you might imagine, Vlautin was not writing cheerful stuff,* but the observation about the human condition, its fears, and the dangers of how others can react to failings in ways deserved and undeserved seemed honest. Humankind differs somewhat on what constitutes crimes and failings, and the hierarchy (lowerarchy?) of such acts and outcomes, but we seem constitutionally subject to the reaction that the bad or unlucky person deserves their fate — or here’s the odd intensifier — deserves more and more bad outcomes, stacked on in order to prove or instruct them in how bad their choice or fate was.**

It seems to me that Vlautin takes this internally as well, or at least wants us to consider that. That’s something I resonate with myself. The fear, much less the result, of failing someone I care about is nearly disabling for me. I fear this enough that I will the not do things for others, little things, things others find routine, because I fear doing them badly.

Reading Vlautin’s interview answer soon caused me to write this sonnet all those years ago, combining Vlautin’s thoughts with my own on these matters, the result merging sins of omission with sins of commission, confronting the fears of both as honestly as I could.

Just as with the last piece here, I found that sonnet among the thousands of song-sheets I went through late this summer from my studio space. Unlike the last one, I think Dave and I attempted to perform this poem as a song years back to little success. After finding the song-sheet, I did a revision of the words and changed the music a little bit. This afternoon I had just over an hour in my studio space to record it. I focused on simple accompaniment, just acoustic guitar to maximize my chances of getting a completed performance, and that worked well enough that you can hear it below. Because the piece’s outlook is stark, the spare music may help reflect that.

Willy Vlautin

There are direct quotes from Vlautin in my sonnet, also some subtle changes to his phrases, and then too my own interpolations.

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A player gadget is below for many of you, but some ways of viewing this blog will suppress that, so I also offer this highlighted link which will open a new tab to play it.

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*In another interview he says he had pictures of John Steinbeck and the Jam on his childhood bedroom wall. His brother bought him his first guitar and told Willy to “Write about what hurts and haunts you. That’s pretty much what I’ve done ever since. Along the way, I somehow forgot to write about the girls and the parties.”

**Perhaps a small part of the choice to pull this piece out of the pile today has to do with the bizarre news that a couple of governors have decided that some folks suffering from poverty, fear, and abuse should be secretly trundled off in busses to other states in the course of increasing their suffering or insecurity — and with the further aim of using their arrival to instruct other governors or mayors to do what, I’m not sure. Articles indicate that one beef the two governors have with the other jurisdictions is that they aren’t making others already there from similar situations in these other states more fearful and uncomfortable. Am I to infer the theory here is that making folks more uncomfortable, less secure, and more confused will improve their luck and the wisdom of their choices? Or that the other governors or mayors will by this action understand that the two “put’em in busses and dump them outstate” governors are demonstrating their better administrative acumen?

Summer She Has No Lover

I’m presenting a song of summer desire today even as that season ebbs away, but first a little catching-up on the status of this Project for those who follow it regularly.

I planned to produce fewer Parlando Project pieces this summer for a number of reasons. It’s become harder to find composing and recording time, or to focus when it can be found. Audiences drop off markedly every summer anyway, and I had some long-put-off tasks that I thought needed to be attended to. Those tasks? Not even half complete, but a couple of things got done.

I felt I needed to replace the nine-year-old computer I use to write what you read here as well as the final audio mixing and polish for things recorded in my studio space.*   I wanted to keep to a reasonable cost for this replacement, but I also wanted to spec it so that it could last in the roles I use it for, for the rest of whatever this Project’s lifespan will turn out to be. To accomplish this I stayed with my usual tactic over the past 30 years in selecting parts and assembling the replacement computer myself. I did a Ship of Theseus build using some old parts I had, which reduced the cost.**  This new machine is now in service once I installed, configured and re-registered a whole bunch of software that this computer needs to run.

Another task? For more than a year I’ve wanted to deal with nearly 3000 song sheets that had accumulated in my studio space where I record with others as well as my own acoustic instrument recording. Poet, keyboard player, and alternate voice of this Project Dave Moore has been amazingly creative this century, and when I record with him I most often get sheets of lyrics with some hand-written chord symbols. You’ve heard a smattering of his original compositions here, but over the past two decades we’ve attempted hundreds of pieces of his. I’ve nearly matched Dave, as the more than 600 completed pieces I’ve released here show. With orchestral instrument scores I don’t notate by hand, working instead on the computer — but my guitar-based pieces tend to be not-unlike Dave’s, except that my paper sheets usually have neater printed chord symbols. Still, there’s my marginalia of chord voicings and capo positions etc. Thus, the thousands of sheets of paper. Late this summer I sorted through the whole bunch, determining the half or so that would be good to convert to computer storable files, and then scanning them.

Today’s piece is a result of that second large task, as I was often running into pieces on the paper sheets that I hadn’t thought of in years — and even a few that I don’t recall even attempting to perform. “Summer She Has No Lover”  was a sonnet that was written in 2010. I’d written it as a literary page poem but seeing it in the studio space pile of papers made me think that I must have once considered creating music for it — and so that’s what I proceeded to do. The recording was quickly done (studio space time is still limited), but I think the results convey something of the flavor of the piece as our summer ends.

Summer She Has No Lover

Sonnet means “little song” and so why not sing it? “Bechirp” is my own word.

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You can hear my song performance of “Summer She Has No Lover”  with the graphic player gadget below, and if you can’t see that, with this backup highlighted link. I can’t say what level of productivity I will be able to wring out of this autumn for the Parlando Project, but my present intent is to increase the number of pieces and posts from what I was able to do this summer, so look for new pieces soon. Another question remains to be answered: will I have time to do more complex compositions? We’ll just have to see.

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*The old one was still working fairly well, but some components on computer motherboards can start to fail after a decade or so of service. I’d intended to accomplish its replacement early in the summer, but to show that expected service life is worth considering ahead of failure, I had to replace an aging water heater and washing machine that both stopped working in June and July.

**Given that this Project is assuming a Venn diagram audience that has interests in poetry and often non-commercial musical genres, it’s probably pushing it to think that anyone reading this is interested in computer parts too, and choices here are just as controversial as music and poetry can be among the cognoscenti. I decided it would reduce costs and still be safe for future roles by using an 11th generation Intel I7, and an ASUS Z590-Plus motherboard which uses the inexpensive/widely available DDR-4 memory and PCIe 4 solid-state-storage drives, and for video I bought a Nvidia Quadro card which is not worthwhile for gaming that I don’t do, but which can drive up to 3 QHD screens if I ever upgrade to those in the future. I went for 32 gigs of RAM and a 1 TB PCIe 4 SSD. The one truly “lux” component I bought was a Seasonic power supply, based on good experiences with them over the years. Total: $785.95. I was able to use an existing Antec Silencer case that weighs as much as an e-bike, an existing CD-DVD drive, and a year-old mechanical hard drive used for audio and video project storage which I simply moved over from the incumbent computer. My keyboard, mouse, and screen remain unchanged.

From Us She Wandered now a Year

How much did Emily Dickinson want her poetry to be understood? I can’t be sure, but I suspect she wanted it to be both puzzling and  understood.*  While she didn’t publish to any extent in her lifetime, she did send by mail or otherwise share poems with friends. The conventions of Dickinson’s 19th century America may be different, but it’s possible that not everyone understood each poem, or even welcomed the arrival of those poems’ enclosure, but these acts indicate that she had elements in her poetry that asked for a public place for her work.

The posthumous publication of a large selection of her poems in a series of books at the end of the 1800’s did find ample volunteer readers though. Selected from her handwritten manuscripts by outside editors and somewhat regularized, they were also presented with tacked-on titles and within subject sections like“Time and Eternity,”  which however criticized by current scholars helped frame her work for her first posthumous readers.

There’s a certain kind of Dickinson poem, often with a touch of gothic whimsy, that most easily attracts a general readership. Others feature proto-Imagist observations that continue to delight readers. While there were other American poets of Dickinson’s time who had a substantial non-academic readership, now more than a century-and-a-half later, few read any other than Dickinson and Whitman.**

Having a general readership should discount no one’s literary merit, but snobbery may ask to have its say. If Dickinson is a poet admired and even read by those who are otherwise unattracted to poetry, this can be introduced as evidence against her worth as a true poet.

Given that, I have been noticing someone on behalf of the Emily Dickinson Museum has been regularly posting short Dickinson poems on Twitter asking for those who come upon them what their interpretation of these poems are. Few of the Dickinson poems this Twitter docent shares are the well-known “Greatest Hits” of Dickinson. Many are eight short lines, and those lines are often full of Dickinson’s oddest syntax and metaphysical musings. Being asked for an on-the-spot interpretation freezes many a reader as much as an armed robbery would — but at least in such a street encounter one likely knows where one’s wallet and valuables are. While I’m old enough to have grown accustomed to my own misreading of subtle poems that my fears of embarrassment are diminished, even I am hesitant to offer a Twitter reply. And this is true even though I’ve already performed some of Dickinson’s poems of that sort. What this series of Twitter posts demonstrates most vividly I think is that a great deal of Dickinson, though a time-tested popular poet, verges on incomprehensibility. So why did Dickinson write such poems?

My theory is that Dickinson was seeking to record in these cryptic short pieces certain moments of personal insight. Why take the time to versify them then? There’s evidence that Dickinson had a musical mind, and containing them such may have been a combination of the matrix of natural “music of thought” and the practical mnemonic virtues of verse. Dickinson was known to write short poems down on household scrap paper, indicating that thought was going on during domestic workdays. Perhaps I’ve come up with this mentally-drafted commonplace-book theory in that I spent some of my ordinary working life composing poetic stanzas in my head that were informed by things I was seeing and thinking while my hands were occupied. Such work is not necessarily “public poetry,” though in Dickinson’s case it now can be viewed by us strangers far removed by Dickinson’s time and place. Here’s her poem. You can be one of those strangers.

From Us She wandered

In memory of my feelings. Dickinson’s austere compression here.

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So what was Dickinson on about with her poem known by its first line: “From Us She wandered now a Year?”   I’m not sure, and I’m sort of comfortable with that. What is clear? It doesn’t have the attraction of imagery. “Wilderness” is totally undescribed, not rising to the level of an image, and “feet’ and “eye” are the only other concrete nouns in the entire poem. There’s no clear sense of where or when this poem occurs. While there’s some sense of separation or change as of the first phrase, the poem evokes no clear-cut emotional tone. “She” and “Us/We” are vague characters, though I read the latter as a general evocation of humanity. Dickinson’s eccentric capitalization invites us to consider many words as philosophic entities, not a “wish you were here” note about a traveling friend.***  Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, her posthumous editors, put this poem in that “Time and Eternity”  section, and invented a title “Invisible”  for it, which indicated they didn’t know what she was on about either.

Do I have an impression? I think the poem’s “She” is Transcendentalist Nature, which as I understand Transcendentalism is essentially the revered manifestation of the true universe and any Creator. “Wandered now a year” is the unstoppable progression of seasonal time which goes forward over any barren obstacle that might stop a corporal creature (Wilderness) or without any memorial break for death or state of nothingness (Ethereal Zone). The second stanza says we cannot not fully understand this, though we may have some autumnal intimation at some part of this cycle, where we “took” (in) this “Mystery.”****

I could be wrong, but a worthy enough meaning. Still, the overall effect remains its stark unsensual expression. Few of the normal pleasures of poetry are found in these eight lines. No imagery, no statement of the senses meant to invoke feelings in the reader (other than mystification perhaps). Word-music alone is there in Dickinson’s hardwood-seat pew hymn-meter, the thing she used to write her own hymn book. This is a highly intellectualized and discorporate poetry, but as I said at the beginning, I don’t know if Dickinson intended us to read it. If not, then Dickinson’s feelings and experiences being left-out are beside the author’s point. After all, she herself may have sufficiently felt them, and this artifact is meant only to evoke that memory for herself.  I, this other human today, have this overall emotion evoked: awe at the dexterity of her mind.

Today’s performance has music I composed and played in my “punk orchestral” style along with 12-string guitar. I’m using simple musical structures for the orchestral instruments, but I tell myself I can do so in the same way that guitar combo bands using a few root-V chords can none-the-less communicate something. It’s a brief poem that I represent in a short musical piece you can hear below with the graphical player, or in its absence this alternative highlighted link.

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*This is a common, if not always acknowledged goal of poets: to be worthy not just of a reading, not just of some understanding, but to be worthy of a deeper and more careful and caring reading. That’s a lot to ask for words, even beautiful sounding words.

**I considered adding Poe to this exceptions list. Despite my own efforts, I doubt I could make a case for Longfellow retaining 21st century readership.

***Possible that there’s a specific lower-case “she” and this poem is more simply a “missing you” poem? I’ll offer this aside my theory, that if Dickinson felt that toward specific shes then it could occur to her to personify a manifestation of at least a conceptual Godhead as “She.” It’s possible to be thirsty and thoughtful.

****Sandy Denny’s song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”  would be an example of a more elaborate and sensuous expression of the same sort of thought. It’s also a feeling I tend to get each fall, which may help spur my Septober Energy, where I set out to harvest what creative energy I have.

Arthur Hoehn: A Radio Romance

I hear that today is something called National Radio Day. I read that on social media, which I suspect in turn will be a strange artifact to be explained to unformed young people of some yet undisclosed future. After all, as I write tonight I have doubts I’ll be able to convince any current young people of the romance of radio.

I grew up midcentury in what was supposed to be the TV age, but TV was a very constrained and arid thing then. TV was usually one set in the living room with maybe 3 or so channels receivable. It signed off in the evening, came back on with the dawn, and presented one thing at a time under the control of a schedule that could be memorized by its viewers. Radio may have been the old tech, but it was richer, stranger, more able to surprise with chance. Kids had their own radios, cars had radios, and the talking/singing boxes continued all night — and radio was never stranger than at night. Small local stations were required to dim their watts and disappear at sundown, and then certain stations would appear like the night stars, receivable across the countryside with varying reception. In my tiny Iowa town I ran an antenna wire out my window to an apple tree branch outside. The radio’s tubes glowed and Chicago and WLS were certain. KOMA in Oklahoma too. Detroit and Tennessee sometimes.

To be honest, I don’t recall hearing the famous super high-powered mid-century Mexican X stations. Maybe I did for moments — listening to the radio at night meant that stations would sometimes drift in and out, so I might not have heard every call sign. One of those stations, XERB, had a DJ and program director who was too unremarkable as his given name Bob Smith, and so became Wolfman Jack. At XERB he had an on-air compatriot named Fat Daddy Washington.*  But today’s piece isn’t about the Wolfman. It’s about Fat Daddy Washington.

You see it’s not just those night-time radio signals that jumped around and changed with the stars. Just as Wolfman Jack had been Bob Smith, and “Daddy Jules,” and “Roger Gordon and the Music of good Taste” as he bounced around formats and jobs; Fat Daddy Washington was not some longtime hepcat, but a kid just a few years out of St. John’s University, a Roman Catholic affiliated college tautologically located in Collegeville Minnesota. “Washington” had worked at the college’s radio station under his real name Arthur Hoehn.

Now let’s zoom in on the “Summer of Love” in 1967. For some reason Hoehn headed back to his old school in north central America from its southwest corner, driving in a sharp new Thunderbird. There’s a story there I’m not privy too. Was he going to impress old schoolmates with his newfound flash — a not uncommon move? That doesn’t sound like the unassuming Arthur I later knew a bit. Was he possibly out of a job at the X? Plausible. When he arrived back in Collegeville, he ran into one of those schoolmates, a guy named Bill Kling who wanted to expand and professionalize the college radio station.** Kling later told the story that Hoehn unilaterally offered to help out. Kling joked years later that he wasn’t even sure he paid him at first. However, Hoehn was also recalled as what became Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media’s “first professional DJ hire.” Since the Collegeville station played classical music with news breaks, I’m not sure that Hoehn’s Fat Daddy Washington mic-time at the heavily R&B oriented X was much featured in their early pitches for funds.

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Earlier in this century, MPR/APM employees tried to ID all the people in this early staff picture posted at our headquarters. The only ones I knew from my time were Michael Barone (2nd from left), Arthur Hoehn (3rd from l) and Gary Eichten (5th from l)

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By the time I worked alongside Hoehn his regular gig under his given name was working the overnight shift as the host of a classical music program “Music through the Night.”***  If nighttime is the right time to maximize that romance, I’ll still tell you that when I’d actually run into Hoehn it wasn’t romantic. Radio in the flesh rarely is, and nighttime shifts are no place to dress for success or to put on a show of supercilious professionalism. Hoehn would likely be wearing comfy wild-print Zubaz lounging pants and a nondescript open collar shirt. We’d likely nod at each other knowing we each had a job to do.

When broadcasting live (as Hoehn did) the radio host is near alone even in larger stations and networks, and they can expect that most of their listeners are also sameways singular. There might be someone in the next room asleep or another driver in some light-pool car transiting the passing lane, but the listeners are each alone with the host and his record’s vinyl voices, like-black pianos, and sleep-breathing strings. They may be listening to you to try to fall asleep, they may be listening to you because they just don’t want to go to sleep right now, they could be in love full of bright energy, or just out of love and wanting company, they may be working a night shift like you, they could even be — as I watched my father-in-law one night — in a hospital bed awaiting death with the radio murmuring the needle-dancing angels of this side of life.****

Though some old folks reading this will remember this with me on Radio Day — young people, you likely didn’t/don’t live this. Yet I’m writing this more for you. I’ll allow that this is likely as imaginary as any fantasy world for you. But this went on once upon a time. The feeling of the romance of radio, intensified by nighttime, was as real as any current or future fantasy is, and so this has the value of any fantasy tale, as an exercise for imagination, and as a demonstration that shared fantasies can dissolve into air like dew after dawn.

When my coworker Arthur Hoehn died in 2011, I thought: there are a number of songs about DJs, but the music these song-celebrated DJs play is inevitably jazz, r&b, or rock. What about the man alone playing orchestral instrument music, likely in recall/remembrance of those classical “dead guys” compositions, while most of the world sleeps for a few hours in the little analog of death. Is that goth or what?

A performance of the song “Arthur Hoehn”  I wrote is below, recorded soon after Arthur’s death. You can play it with the graphical player if you see that, or with this alternative highlighted link.

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*Wolfman Jack the nighttime DJ was featured as a romantic mentor to the kids in the movie American Graffiti, and parlayed that role into a larger TV and radio broadcasting career in the 1970s. It’s a point too large to deal with in a footnote, but some white DJs in this time-frame took on portions of Afro-American argot and signifying. Given that American popular music in general has done likewise before and after Wolfman Jack and Fat Daddy Washington, I’ll leave this as a footnote.

Here’s a link to blog post about XERB, with a contemporary flyer saying of Hoehn show  “’Fat Daddy; Washington, one of the heaviest swingers in the world, presents 9 tons of soul and is a real “mama’s’ man.”

**Several other Collegeville student-station alums were part of the early MPR/APM core. Longtime news program host Gary Eichten was another. Pipe organ enthusiast Michael Barone too. And another who cut his teeth hosting classical music only to break from that into a unique combination of oral story-telling mixed with musical variety: Garrison Keillor.

Coincidentally, I’ve just realized that I believe my High School English teacher Terry Brennan who introduced me to Keats, Frost, Donne et al in my tiny Iowa town was just out of St. John’s too. If so, it’s highly likely that he was an overlapping classmate of some of those folks. Odd to put that together decades later!

***Eventually this program with Hoehn hosting was syndicated live around the country via satellite (yes, they used satellites, not the still nascent Internet, to do that then). One of the national listeners who sent a fan letter: Joan Baez. Baez also worked in the Sixties with Peter Schickele, who I met in my first month at the network headquarters.

****Other famous overnight DJs? Alison Steele “The Nightbird” was the overnight FM rock DJ in the late 60s-early 70s on NYC’s WNEW-FM and had no-less than Jimi Hendrix as her recorded praise-singer. A British guy in the American southwest conned his way onto the air as an experienced DJ (he wasn’t) during the early days of the British invasion in the early 60s. He broadcast on “KOMA in Oklahoma” one of those “clear channel” stations that I could reliably get in Iowa at night, though he had the early morning shift there. His air name was John Peel, and he went back to the UK and worked for pirate Radio London with the “London After Midnight”  show which in 1967 became “The Perfumed Garden”  launching many an underground rock group in England with his eclectic playlists before a subsequent long and influential broadcasting career. I’ve never even heard air-checks, but musician/writer Tony Glover had an overnight “underground” rock show on KDWB in Minneapolis during the Sixties that some recall with fondness.

Palingenesis — three anniversaries noted

Today’s post is part of observing three anniversaries this week: this blog’s launch six years ago, Atomic Bomb Day (noting the anniversaries of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and my late wife’s death in 2001. An odd combination? Well, yes, but they coincide.

Odd? Personal loss has an odd size. If one holds one’s hand in front of one’s eyes it can block out the entire sun. How close grief is to one, has a similar effect. When the 9/11 plane crash attacks occurred a month after my wife’s death, it was objectively a sad, horrible, thing. To some small and nearby degree it impacted the place I worked. There were employees traveling, in the air as the attacks became known. We had at that time a floor of offices in a tall local building in St. Paul, over a thousand miles away from the attacks, but a tower named at that moment ominously “The World Trade Center.” And the radio network I worked for had a large news component. Everyone and I did what we needed to do in the wake of the attacks. It was not that I did not care or have consideration then — but the sharp pain of that public grief could not be felt to the same degree in my self still encased in loss.

So too the atomic bomb attacks on the two Japanese cities must have been in 1945 to many Americans. Some had lost loved ones in that war, some feared for losses to come. Some were waiting for what, how many, conventional deaths before the war’s end, and wondering if one of them would be their own.

Those nearby close things can blot out an atomic bomb. Ethical philosophers try to make true weights and perspectives, poets on the other hand talk instead of how it feels to think of these things.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, an American poet whose importance is now obscured by judgements of excessive conventionality against the bright lights of Dickinson and Whitman’s new approaches, wrote the poem which I’ll perform in part today. Written and published in 1864 during the American Civil War, it’s author certainly knew of the generalized grief and loss of that war and the human slavery it was fought over* — but he also had closer griefs. His wife had not only died in 1861, she died in his arms, her body on fire from a household accident as he himself was burn-scarred trying to extinguish the blaze. And then his teenaged son was serving in the Civil War and was grievously wounded in 1863.

Longfellow-bomb-Renee

Three anniversaries remembered. There’s no way to picture this blog in a single picture, so we’ll show Longfellow.

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The opening section** of “Palingenesis”  considers memories and grief, considers the imperfection of the rebirth that the obscure word used as the poem’s title offers. If the eternal noises of the sea and ghostly apparitions in the mist may strike us as all-too-tired poetic tropes to our 21st century judgement, the image at the end of the segment I perform, the ashes from which some fabled alchemist might be able to reconstruct a burnt rose still has power for me. This “rebirth” without scent, and without the ability to change and bloom, is not a true rebirth, it does not repair the loss.

My life path after my wife’s death is a complicated story including joy and gratitude. Are those considerable things big enough to obscure the loss — in reverse, a planet bigger than a hand? I cannot honestly weigh that, other than to live in the scent of life and to bloom. Starting this project, even if over a decade after my wife’s death, was one way to return to poetry what my young poet-wife would have given.

I have at least one other planned part to this anniversary post, one other musical performance that doesn’t yet exist. I don’t know if I’ll be able to find time to do that, but this part that I did complete is available below. You can play the performance with the graphical gadget below where you see it — and where you don’t, you can use this highlighted link.

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*A close friend, a U. S. Senator, was beaten unconscious and seriously injured on the floor of the Capitol over an anti-slavery speech which was deemed insulting for inferring the same crimes of sexual slavery Longfellow wrote about in a poem.

**The rest of Longfellow’s “Palingenesis”  concludes with the realization that a forward-looking new birth, not an attempt at exact repair and reincarnation, is the better answer. Not only would the entire poem produce a piece longer than I prefer to present here, I think the poem’s older poetic language might wear down many current listener’s interest. Here’s a link to the complete version.

From Cocoon forth a Butterfly – Emily Dickinson’s summer consideration

I shared with my wife, who has many concerns bearing down on her this summer, recent video clips of Freya, a celebrity lady walrus who’s lately been hanging out in Oslo Norway’s harbor. Freya is a young 1300-pound mermaid who spends around 20 hours a day sleeping while carelessly lounging on marina boats, sinking a few with her what-the-hell-I’m-wiggling-aboard anyways. During the other four hours Freya chases ducks and swans. The marina also has kayakers and paddleboard riders which she also likes chasing. Recent videos have caught her eating one of the swans,*  but perhaps thinking of her beach-body figure, she’s skipped eating the humans so far.

“Twenty hours of sleep…” my wife responded. “goals!”

Freya

Hot Girl Summer: Freya, in her liminal state between 20 hours of rest, bird and clam eating, boat wrecking, and being adored by her Norwegian fans.

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Now as far as I know the great American poet Emily Dickinson never got to observe a walrus. On one hand, Emily did have a privileged life as the child of a successful lawyer, but then it was the 19th century and they had fewer smartphones, washing machines, lawn tractors, induction stovetops, and air conditioners. At least in her youth her parents believed strongly in self-reliance and careful household finances, and so distained servants, since after all they had a pair of daughters who could do that work. If we think of the later-life Emily Dickinson as the housebound hermit, you may not know that the younger Emily Dickinson divvied up the household work so that she had more outdoor chores compared to her sister.

One of the things I learned when I visited the Emily Dickinson house a few years back was that across the main road in front of the Dickinson house the family also had a field they farmed. And then on the house’s main lot there was an orchard and food garden which were largely the creature of Emily and her mother. Harvesting hay from the field was probably men’s work, but I was told that Emily would be tasked with bringing the harvesters water and food during their work. All that came back to me as I read this charming poem of Dickinson’s that is generally known by it’s first line: “From Cocoon forth a Butterfly.”  Here’s the full text of the poem if you’d like to follow along.

There are three or four characters in this little poetic drama. There’s our Butterfly (joined by others of her kind later), a “notwithstanding bee” who is proverbially occupied pollinating and presumably making honey, and the harvesting men. The fourth character is animated by the poet herself, a flower which despite being a plant is described as “zealous,” waving in a summer breeze for an afternoon.

Our main character, the Butterfly is described as if she’s an idle lady. She seems to have no task, something she flaunts in the poem. The field workers, the men, have obvious tasks. That hay won’t harvest itself. The bee, a cliché of purpose. The flower is a bit more ambiguous. If we assume Dickinson chose zealous carefully, the flower may be ardently worshiping the summer day or perhaps it’s divine author, shuckling in vegetative prayer.

Which character does Dickinson identify with? Maybe a little with all of them, if not entirely with one. If one has farm tasks (or for that matter the artistic tasks of a poet) the idle lady making a show of her leisure isn’t your model, even if you may feel a bit of envy — and yet poetry can be charged as like a butterfly, a piece of beauty that seems to do nothing. The men are doing useful work (see Robert Frost on mowing in this poem) but though Dickinson tends a garden this haying is not her work. Same for the bee. Dickinson no doubt knows the bee’s work, appreciates it too, but it’s not her work. We know Dickinson is highly knowledgeable about flowers, and often makes them the subject of her poems, but this zealot flower? If she’s serious about that characterization, she stands outside that level of belief.

The closing stanza, like her more famous “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose”  poem resolves this separation from her, the observer of it all — Vanity of Vanities, all is Vanity — and so the purposeful actors and the purposeless Butterfly will all be gone by end of day. Emily the poet remains, as does her poem if we take the time to observe with her again, many days and decades later.

Before I leave you with an opportunity to hear my performance of Dickinson’s “From Cocoon forth a Butterfly” I want to put in a note here about the lack of activity here this summer. I share some of the concerns of my spouse, and I am also trying to reevaluate this Project to see if I can make what I do here more useful, or beautiful, or something. Traffic and listenership always drops off in the summer, so a good time to reevaluate, and you may see fewer new pieces until autumn.

To hear my performance with original music you can use a player gadget many will see below. Don’t see any gadget?  This highlighted link is here as a backup for you.

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*Showing a connoisseur’s appreciation for the swan greater than William Butler Yeats’ I’d say. Yeats only looks at his swans, and yet the great poet distains at putting his tusks into one like Freya. Walruses also eat clams, which as far as I know have never moved Yeats to poetic transport. Apparently, Norway has a problem with lots of invasive clams, which may be why Freya has been hanging out in Oslo.

Yellow Air (Heat)

Are you new here? If so, this is what the Parlando Project does: we take words (other people’s, mostly poetry) and combine them with a variety of music we compose, create, and perform. I find this fun, and I also find that even more than reading another person’s poem — even reading it aloud — performing it illuminates corners inside the text that I might otherwise overlook, so I write here about that experience. Then when you listen to the pieces you get to hear the poem in this new context to freshen your appreciation of poems you know, or to allow you an entry into a poem previously unknown to you.

Most of the time I’m faithful to the texts I use to create these pieces. Oh, I might take a part of a poem and make it a refrain/chorus, or I may select some tasty phrases from a prose paragraph so that expresses something more sharply, as if it was a poem — but my usual idea here is to honor some poet or their poem no matter how famous or little-known it is.

John Gould Fletcher is shelved in that little-known section these days, even though he was associated with writers and movements that are still studied, still read (at least by those interested in early 20th century American Modernist poetry.) I wanted to look at some of his work because I read that one of those associations was with those pioneering Modernists who took to calling themselves Imagists. Imagism was often that 2:40 punk-rock single of a hundred years ago. Instead of spendthrift merely decorative language, rhyme, and imagery, the Imagist poem wanted to get right down to it: direct treatment of something observable, not some ideal distilled from abstract thoughts imagined or philosophically proposed. No extra points would be scored for extra words. Rhyme, while not forbidden, was also not the main point. If rhyme led to extra words, those unneeded ones, it was worth discarding.

The musicality of poetry wasn’t thrown out, but like Modernist music, Modernist verse wasn’t interested in the old formal beats so much.

Best as I can tell from my early readings, Fletcher’s personal interpretation of Modernism and Imagism was not the same as others. He didn’t write much in hyper-short forms, while many of his fellow Modernists published whole collections, or sections in collections, made of sub-20-line poems. At least at first glance, Fletcher cared more for sound and less for freshness and concreteness in his imagery than others.

This Project likes shorter pieces, even more so now because my time and opportunities to compose and record are less than in the Project’s early years. In reading through a couple of Fletcher’s collections from a hundred years ago, I did come upon this short poem that was part of one of those roman-numeral separated sequences like other Modernists used. “Heat”  seemed an attempt at the short Imagist poem to me. Here’s how “Heat”  goes:

As if the sun had trodden down the sky,
Until no more it holds living air, but only humid vapour.
Heat pressing upon earth with irresistible langour.
Turns all the solid forest into half-liquid smudge.

The heavy clouds like cargo-boats strain slowly against its current;
And the flickering of the haze is like the thunder of ten thousand paddles
Against the heavy wall of the horizon, pale-blue and utterly windless.
Whereon the sun hangs motionless, a brassy disc of flame.

Short as it is, it’s a little wordy and formal in its manner of speech compared to other Imagists, but a palpable feeling is evoked in the description. I could have performed “Heat”  as it is above — but then a week ago tonight, I was sitting on my front porch after a summer thunderstorm when the entire outdoors started to take on an intense yellow cast.*

Yellow Sky the Picture 2

It was hard to get a modern digital picture of last Tuesday evening’s sky with a phone. The smartphone kept correcting the heavy yellow and darkening cast to that sky, and as I looked at the photo preview on the phone I wondered why my phone wouldn’t believe me as it showed things brighter and blue. I resorted to using a much less smart device with a lesser digital camera to get this.

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I decided then and there to use Fletcher’s poem to remark on that experience. This recasting went through a few drafts and produced this reuse of some of Fletcher’s words in a different poem:

Yellow Air song PRINT VERSION

Here’s “Yellow Air” with chords in case you want to sing it yourself.

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What did I change? I wanted my own yellow air in a hot, humid summer experience to be portrayed. Though I retained many of Fletcher’s original words and phrases, my variation is present tense and uses a much less literary/formal sentence structure. Mine’s 61 words — Fletchers, 80. The clouds as ships image is borderline cliché and Fletcher’s “cargo-boats” wasn’t specific enough to fight that, so I substituted my own upper-Midwest image: the 18th century indigenous cargo-boats of our region, the voyageur canoe — still reflected even today by those who use their modern canoes to carry themselves and gear into the Boundary Waters for camping. I wanted a more definitive ending too, and so ended my “After…” poem with the sun portrayed as a ruling strong-man who doesn’t care that the sky is yellow and the heat and humidity oppressive.

What I kept, or even tried to bring out was Fletcher’s word-music. Rhymes near and perfect were increased in number and paused on, and I tried to make this variation more easily singable than Fletcher’s more prolix lines.

You can hear the resulting song with the player gadget below, or if that won’t show up in your way of viewing this blog, with this backup highlighted link.

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*The Twin Cities Weather Service explained last week’s yellow sky cast this way: “Behind thunderstorms in the evening, high clouds remain. The setting sun emits light that is bent with longer wavelengths. While the blue (shorter) wavelengths are scattered out, the yellow-orange-red part of the spectrum remain, thus producing the sky we’re seeing tonight.”

The Dick & the Dame, or Dave Moore goes Pulp Noir

This project spends a lot of time in the first quarter of the 20th century where the public domain diamonds are scattered free for recutting and reuse — but If I was able to expand this, I’d probably skip the Thirties and delve into the 1940-1965 mid-century quarter, the era I personally remember through youthful-eyed memory. What were those adults up to then, what were they thinking?

We can never answer that fully. Even through that time’s poetry and other art we can only get shadows and dappled sunlight. The high-level summary is “The Greatest Generation” with its dedication to institutions and its obverse face of turned-away conformity. One way the dark leaked out from this gloss color print with scattered blood stains was through paid-by-the-word hard-boiled detective fiction and the run-fast through the projector snap-traps of film-noir. This stuff was white-male written, and mostly for male audiences too. Misogynistic? Well, yes — and in its defense it’d plead misanthropic. That first quarter of the 20th century had its Lost Generation, but this quadrant had exiles. The former wandered off in search of something and doesn’t know where home is anymore. The latter was sent away from home and was pretty sure it couldn’t go back.

The misogyny can bother me when I read or view it, but the magnetic soundtrack of caustic oppositional views attracts me too. And then the outmoded slang involved can seem almost Shakespearian now, the anarchic becaming archaic.

Pulp Detectives 600

“The underwires on this dress are killing me, so don’t think for a moment I won’t use this piece.” Dames on the covers, dicks on the bylines.

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When Dave Moore and I got back together to set down some live “in-the-moment” tracks this spring, Dave brought two outstanding longer pieces he’d written since we last worked together. The first, already presented here was “The Wall Around Heaven,”  a satire which is set in our present day. If you haven’t heard it, you should. Here’s a link to it.  I can’t praise it enough. The second I present today is a re-weaving of pulp detective and film noir tropes, told though. as Dave turns the pages, with his own poetic verve. Language of course was the chief freedom of the grayscale Abelards & Heloises in those stories, and Dave makes the most of that argot. In a note on the copy of the text we performed this spring, Dave wrote that “The Dick & the Dame”  was “inspired by Robert Coover’s Noir.”   Dave marked a handful of lines as “taken or shaped by Coover.”

The music here is Dave’s too, though some of the decoration is mine. There’d be a temptation to dress this set in mid-century Jazz sounds, which I didn’t do here. Afterall, Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives”  went with the end of the mid-century era with its reggae and Secret Agent Man guitar twang. I went with funky electric guitar neck wringing and whammy bar abuse which would scorch the manners of the Jazz cigarette world. The result is longer than our usual pieces, and neither Dave nor I are well-known poets who’ve written well-known poems, so this breaks from our “Poetry’s Greatest Hits” format. I figure: by this point summer is breaking out and there are fewer listeners and readers of this project until fall anyway. Might as well turn it up and go loose today.

Warning: in this crescendo of innuendo, bad words and flawed people show up.  You can hear that and it with the player gadget below, or where that doesn’t show, with this highlighted hyperlink.

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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.