One of the nice things about this project is that I’m still running into poets that were essentially unknown to me. This is like one of the joys of my youthful musical life: digging through used LP records or a bin of “cutouts” looking for an interesting title, some compelling cover art, or an intriguing song listed, and bringing home a record that as far as I could tell, no one else knew.
In theory this process is easier now, expansive catalogs of recordings available instantly for streaming, but I’m not sure if my son or anyone currently young will do a revised version of that. I suppose part of that was the imminence of the next object, the foot-square cardboard housing with or without wear, perhaps with someone’s name scrawled on the corner against sibling or dorm room misappropriation of the thing, or the shameful diagonal corner amputation, branding the still shrink-wrapped “cutout” record a failure of expectations.
But for poetry, particularly for poetry before 1924 that is in the public domain, there is no lost former ubiquity of sources for discovery of the less-known or passed by, and happily the Internet makes them near alike in availability: Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay—or Fenton Johnson and Charlotte Mew. And so I can come upon work by Louise Bogan who published just over 100 poems in a long 20th century lifetime where she was perhaps best known then as being the poetry editor of the New Yorker magazine for a few decades.
Louise Bogan. I got nothin’ snarky to say today.
I’ve only started to sample her work, but she has a very interesting voice. One could compare her to Millay, and like Millay a complex examination of love and romance seems to be a prime subject, and like Frost she uses metrical and rhymed verse while having a thoroughly Modernist outlook.
Other than the vagaries of fate and the culture of her time, there’s no reason for her work not to be better known. Take today’s example. “Song” is as condensed in expression as it’s title might lead you to expect. It’s a love song of a kind, but its kind isn’t conventional. Unlike some other poems of Bogan’s, there’s also not a single unusual poetic or high-culture signifying word in it. It could have been written yesterday, and it could be sung yesterday as a song for general non-literary or art-song consumption, streamed on Spotify* or iTunes.
And of course, thanks to the magic of the Parlando Project, it now is. Also thanks to the current limitations of the Project, I had to sing it, but then it’s better that it’s sung than not. If somewhere out there there’s a charismatic singer for this, that would be wonderful.
Bogan’s “Song” is a request, a command, a begging cry, a lament, a report, a prayer, a need, a meditation, a love song. You can hear it with the player gadget below. The full text of “Song” is here. You may note that I come in singing with stanza two in the version I present. I think of this song (as I performed it) as a repeating cycle capable of expressing all of those things above, so it can start with either stanza. I also repeated the opening lines of each stanza, a tactic ingrained in me by blues singers.
*Speaking of which Dept. The audio pieces featured here have been, from the beginning, available from the same places that you get podcasts, such as Apple podcasts and the like. Spotify also has podcasts in it’s app, and as of late this summer you can add Parlando Project pieces like this one to a Spotify playlist on the Spotify mobile app, which seems like a good way to spread the news about what the Parlando Project does.
Poetry as an immediate witness to momentous history is not a common thing. Poems of events tend to autobiography, deaths, love, births, personal injuries and triumphs. Today’s piece has both elements—memorable on both counts.
Guillaume Apollinaire is a major figure in Modernism with an influence across the arts as a critic and theorist. He popularized the term Cubism, invented the term Surrealism, and using his own name “Orphism” helped explain and formulate abstract expressionism. In the era surrounding WWI his influence and omnipresence was stronger from his base in Paris with French-speakers than Ezra Pound’s was for English-speakers from London. As a poet Apollinaire bridges the 19th century Symbolists to the Dada and Surrealism to come, and though he wrote in French, many of the English-language Modernists looked to French models for their verse.* While his work is experimental with form and language, it’s also very open-hearted and joyous in a way I associate with later 20th century American Frank O’Hara.
“The little car” tells of a day of Apollinaire’s that would change his life. On that biographic matter alone it would be of interest to literary historians. But it also tells us about the early days of the most influential event in Modernism, the outbreak of WWI. Apollinaire’s poem is comparable to W. H. Auden’s better-known beginning of WWII poem “September 1, 1939.”
So, let’s begin talking about the poetry as history today.
World War I started over a series of days earlier in the month of August 1914, kicked off by a ham-handed assassination in the Balkans at the end of June, followed by a slow enactment of various alliances and agreements plunging the whole world into warfare over the course of weeks (or in the case of the U.S., years).
Unlike the reputation of WWI as a brutal struggle of attrition between trenches, the opening August weeks were fast-moving. German troops cut through Belgium taking over that country in short order, putting them at the northern border of France as they met the French army. Large military movements and formations just slightly modernized from the Napoleonic era, that still included cavalry charges and fife and drum, met modern artillery and rapid firing weapons. Aerial bombings were introduced to warfare (though ground-based actions were more deadly to civilians). Soon amplified by propaganda, there are widespread accounts of bestial atrocities by the advancing army.**
Before the events of today’s poem, which self-dates itself to the end of August 1914 and into the following September day, during the Battle of the Frontiers, France’s army had suffered its largest single day of deaths and casualties in this or any war before or since, a staggering total of 27,000 killed in one day, with a figure of 300,000 casualties. The French army was reeling, withdrawing back toward Paris, which was the Germans’ objective in this first month of the war.
Apollinaire and his friend the artist André Rouveyre are in Deauville on the northern, English Channel coast of France. The poem doesn’t say, but I’m assuming they feel that the German advance is threatening their location, and so they do what threatened people unsure of the future often too, they head for home, Paris, not weighing that the French capital is the objective of that invading army.
Here’s my new translation of Apollinaire’s “La petite auto” used for today’s performance
That they leave “a little before midnight” is not just an image of imminent dark change, it also may say something of a necessity not to wait, or perhaps a decision that traveling at night, as difficult as it might be with primitive headlights, may be safer under the cover of darkness.
The poem continues with a series of Symbolist images, assembled in whatever order, as a Cubist painting might be. These are not mere inventions. Although expressed symbolically, they are reportage. Indeed, some of the symbolic events which may seem mundane to us in our world, would be accounts of dreadful wonder in 1914: men fighting in the sky, submarine monsters of war—the masters/merchants of war with their opulent and extraordinary wares.
Another feature of this poem is that the text begins to wander on the page and eventually is laid out in a manner that Apollinaire called “Calligrammes” to form the shape of “The little car” of the title.*** I’ve not included that concrete poetry text in my new translation for reasons of length and focus on the spoken potential of the piece.
The poem ends with Apollinaire and Rouveyre arriving in Paris on the afternoon of September 1st. I note the poem says they stopped for a bit in Fontainebleau, just south of Paris, which indicates that they took a round-about route that day since Fontainebleau is south-east of Paris though they were coming from the north-west of Paris.
The “mobilization posters” he speaks of that were being put up as they pulled into town tell of the irony of their route to escape the Germans. The German army is now threatening Paris itself, advancing to between 20-30 miles from the city, and legend has it that the French army was able to redeploy quickly by dragooning the entire taxi-fleet of Paris.****
Many of Apollinaire’s WWI generation lived on as forces in my post-WWII lifetime, as still-living actors in the culture, but Apollinaire was not to be one of them. So influential as he was in the early-20th century’s cultural ferment, it could be said that his death during the war was the single most important cultural casualty, more important than the death of promising poets such as Edward Thomas or Wilfred Owen because Apollinaire, like another casualty, T. E. Hulme, was more than just a writer, he was a leader and promoter of ideas. You can make the case that his death is the same magnitude as some alternate-time-line where the world lost Picasso in 1918. Or you could make another judgement: he was so effective in the pre-1918 years, and the Modernist urge was so strong and then intensified by a world war that made the old artistic forms seem like a cavalry charge against machine guns, that his continued life was not crucial. That’s a cold debate. His friends sure missed him, and kept working.
Dionysus and Apollinaire.
Musically I’ve had this thought lately that I’ve avoided use of some of my most basic musical genres. And Iggy and the Stooges are the definition of that. They started as an art project, making free-form noise on stage, with Iggy Pop, a converted blues-band drummer as their front man. Somehow they decided that the most elemental and elementary expression, however untutored and unvarnished was the way to go. Iggy Pop’s lyrics were the “Blue Undershirts” of 60s rock, the rejoinder to “you call that poetry.” A song such as “1969” from their debut LP is a bored and hedonistic critique of a year deep in another war, cultural and shooting. Robert Lowell it’s not. It’s really not. No, it’s really really not.
For this performance I’ve enlisted my son, the “in his first year of it” bass player and singer, who from his interest in punk and indie-rock can explore that aesthetic with a fresh set of fingers. Conceptually, this song is inspired by the Stooges “1969” because here we have (with “The little car”) two songs about war across a nation,***** but in my tribute I simplified the Stooges’ typical 3 chord trick into a 2 chord chug. Of course, to my son the Vietnam era is exactly as old as WWI was to Iggy and the Stooges. All wars should be so old.
***E. E. Cummings was heavily inspired not only by Apollinaire’s dropping of punctuation, but his freeness with placement of text on the page.
****The taxis that saved Paris legend may not hold up. But my favorite part of this linked story? The account that the taxi owners kept the meters running and presented a bill to the government after the battle. Paging Joseph Heller or Milo Minderbinder to the white courtesy phone.
*****Or not—at least by intent. On the rattling plastic luggage record players of the time, I always heard Iggy Pop’s opening lines in 1969 to be “It’s 1969 OK/War across the USA.” Some cover versions say I’m not the only one who heard “war” as part of the folk process. The published lyrics and close listening with headphones say Iggy was singing “All across the USA.” Well, excuse me while I kiss this guy. The Iliad was carried by an oral tradition long before it was written down. Regression analysis says Homer wrote it about some sunny Mediterranean partying and dancing. The homoerotic and warfare parts were just misheard by the folks in the back row.
I start off talking about the words or context in which I experience the words, mostly poetry, that are used here. That goes on, and I notice that I’m getting near to—or even above—what I consider to be reasonable length for a blog post (around 1,000 words*) and I haven’t mentioned the music.
In the end I’ll often mutter a few things about the instruments used, urge you to listen—and roll the footnotes!
So, let’s start off today talking about the music for a little bit. I enjoy the variety of musical contexts I use for the words here. I have wide musical tastes, and yet there are still genres and sounds I haven’t yet used that I will use as this project continues to push toward 400 audio pieces. Inexpensive technology has offered an enormous audio palette to a composer/musician, unbelievable sounds and resources compared to what was available even to the commercially viable counterparts of my childhood. And yet all these possible variations are not used. How curious. How self-limiting.
Well, there are reasons for that. While I admire musicians that push out the boundaries of what they do, the marketplace often finds such efforts self-defeating, and I don’t know that they are misreading substantial audiences in their verdict on that. I’d like the audience for what the Parlando Project does to grow. Indeed, reflecting on the amount of effort that goes into this, it’s nutty that it continues at this level for an Internet audience a thousands-time smaller than pictures of a sandwich. But I’m also grateful for an audience that can at least tolerate my musical varieties on top of poetic varieties. That’s you. You’re rare. You’re not supposed to exist, and yet you do. That’s the audience this project deserves.
Perhaps a more important reason is that technology, tools, resources—while they can extend what an individual musician/composer can do—in the end revolve around the axis of the abilities of that musician/composer. I’m far from a virtuoso on any instrument, some days I’m not even competent on my core instrument, the guitar. And then there’s a key problem I work around constantly: I’m a poor singer.
I use spoken word, chant, talk-singing, altered timbres, but real, full-voiced, pitched singing of melodies escapes me. A beautiful resource I don’t have available! This limit constrains me, frustrates me—though it sometimes leads me to work on ways of integrating poetry and music other than the existing traditions of art song.**
But some material must be sung. Today’s piece is one of those. “Soon Be Gone” is imaginatively taken from an episode early in the adult life of my late wife, who left her Twin Cities hometown to follow a mountebank to southeast Iowa where he had a job offer to work as a radio announcer. It didn’t go well, or work at all really, and she traveled back north by north-west to home where she accepted my pretentions.
When I wrote “Soon Be Gone” some years back, not long after she had died, and decades after the events, I made some choices. I think primarily from my grief, I wrote it from the view of the mountebank, who in the piece is reflecting immediately on his loss of her.
“Hebrew sun?” If you’re facing north, one reads its daily path from right to left
The opening two lines of the bridge section before the final chorus are a variation taken from a translation of “The Song of Solomon” which had a special meaning to my wife and I.***
As a lyric writer I often prefer to leave “the plot” of a song undetermined, and if it works “Soon Be Gone” doesn’t require that the listener know those things. I mention this as a suggestion to writers here that compression and leaving out details could add a mysterious power to a song or poem. If your listener wants to connect, give them space to fall into your words.
It’s an organ. And it’s LIVE! Forget the dance—run!
The difficult and ultimately imperfect task of recording the vocals for this piece aside, I did enjoy plugging my Telecaster into real cranked-up amps and doing the two-guitar weave at the center of this song. The other featured element here is a Farfisa combo organ**** (well, a virtual instrument recreation of one) which is a tip of the hat to Dave Moore who played one with the LYL band back in the 80s.
To hear the results, use the player below. I’ll be back with more poetry and “other people’s stories” soon.
*It takes time to create shorter posts about complex subjects, but I feel the author owes it to their audience. I’ve subscribed to about two-dozen blogs that I read whenever I get a break from this project, and nothing pains me more than a talented and perceptive blog author with more words than content. Although elaborative words strung together have their pleasures, I’m often in the mood to spend more time thinking and doing than reading. This is probably why I’m drawn to the compressed lyric form in poetry.
**I rather like art song settings of poems, though they often seem to me to be one solution to the problem of setting complex texts to music while there are others less explored (what we do here.) And since I can’t sing them, there’s little incentive for me to write complicated melodic lines for singers, which means that even if I had singers to write for I’d probably find that skill undeveloped on my part.
***For example, the 8th chapter in the King James Christian version which renders things this way: “Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death….”
****It’s falling back into the mists of time, but a player of a small electronic organ shaped like an elongated suitcase and fitted with a folding or removable set of legs was once a common feature of rock’n’roll bands. They were often played through overtaxed guitar amplifiers with only one hand playing arpeggiated parts like I use here. This sort of thing is sometimes associated with “garage rock” combos of the early 60s styled like The Kingsmen, ? and the Mysterians, The Sir Douglas Quintet, or Paul Revere and the Raiders et al. But that trope survived into the “Rock” evolution later in the decade too: The Doors, Country Joe and the Fish, early Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead and so on.
The Farfisa was an Italian-made-and-designed brand used in this role. Later in my century Phillip Glass utilized Farfisa combo organs in creating his version of composed music built on repetitive and driving organ arpeggios. The timbre of those combo organs always had me listening to Glass’ early work anticipating that they would, at any moment, break into “96 Tears” or “Light My Fire.”
How did you like that last Carl Sandburg piece? It’s about as majestic as Sandburg goes, what with its extensive catalog of life in its fullness and emptiness. It seemed to me about right to mark the anniversary of this project’s launch, and my late wife, and my son, and my wife and family, and my country, and you. And I much enjoyed making the large-scale orchestra music for it.
But if it catches you in the wrong mood or with a different and certain analysis of life it can seem a bit too new-agey, suffused as it is with non-denominational spirituality.
Sandburg is best taken in large and varied portions. He has many moods and is open-hearted in a way that many poets are not.* Before I reminded myself I should do an anniversary piece earlier this week, I had another Sandburg poem I wanted to present, but I put “Black Horizons” on hold and completed “For You.” These two selections this week can be taken together to form a better picture of Sandburg.**
Sandburg can offer you balm and clarifying anger, and today’s piece is much closer to the later pole. Published in 1922, there’s not much I can think needs updating or footnoting to explain. You can read it, hear it, speak it yourself this month in 2019 and feel it as freshly as when it was written.
Musically, no orchestra today, just drums and percussion, fretless electric bass, acoustic guitar and voice. I tried to add a little color to my I, iii, IV, vi repeating cadence by flatting the 7th in the bass line, after watching Rick Beato on YouTube analyzing some Nirvana songs’harmonic complexities.*** In a more ideal performance I think the piece would work great with a choir or audience singing the refrain.
The player to hear my performance of Carl Sandburg’s “Black Horizons” is below (unless you’re reading this on an iPhone with the WordPress app—in which case, switch to a web browser to see the audio player, or you can subscribe to the audio pieces alone through most podcast services such as Apple Podcasts.)
*Why would that be? In literary circles by the middle of my century, poetry was the literary art devoted to complex, sometimes nearly unfathomable, emotional and perceptive states. A poet I heard read last night used a word “Apophasis,” which means describing something by what it is not, surrounding it with words that are not it. That term also describes a great deal of Modernist poetry. Poetry did this, at least in part, because so much tired verse of the preceding century or two repeated the same few emotional tropes until poets were tired of them. The great models of High Modernism made poetry a cult of misdirection, irony, personae, parody, and beautiful hermeticism. That poetry had power, if to a smaller audience, and one thing this project tries to do with music and performance is inject it with audible expression to illuminate the complex humanity in it.
**Yet they leave something out, the shorter, more purely Imagist Sandburg, a mode of his that I personally love and think deserves to be better remembered. That Sandburg has all the elusiveness and compression that Modernism propounded as a remedy to the overblown “listen to me play the cathedral organ stops of poetic sentiments” poetry it was rebelling against. For examples of the subtle Sandburg see this well-known poem and this deserves-to-be-better-known one.
***My son has been learning Nirvana bass lines this year, which is stuff I can’t teach him because I only understand such things long enough to use them and because I lack the mimetic talent to transcribe existing pieces well. While recording this I discovered, to my horror, that I’d more or less forgotten how to play fretless bass while working on orchestration.
****Yes, it takes only seconds to decide. Revolution implies it takes only a little bit longer to implement that realization. We’re nearly 250 years into the American Revolution, and we’re still working on it. Sandburg’s poem is almost 100, and we’re still working on it. “The Sixties” are mostly 50 years old, and we’re still working on it. That’s your choice: still working on it, or giving up working on it.
Here’s more of our “Before they were Modernists” series, another by Ezra Pound from his 1908 pre-Imagist collection A Lume Spento.“And Thus in Nineveh” is a curious short poem, kind of a humble brag where the speaker starts right out saying “I am a poet” but then goes on to assess that craft in a mixed manner.
In the following lines the poem’s speaker, perhaps Pound himself at this point in his young life, takes the personae of a poet in the ancient middle eastern city of Nineveh and makes these claims:
Poetry does not belong to the speaker. I at first took this as a reference to poetry being inspired by the muses, where the poet’s job is as an attentive transmitter of that, but on further reflection I think he’s claiming more that to be a poet is a sort of civic job.
The populace’s attention to poetry is mixed. They will celebrate a poet at their death, they seem to sort of expect poetry to be around, even plentiful, but in the auditorium where poetry is sung, they might just doze off.
“Surely someday the citizens of Nineveh will recognize the sublime beauty of your ironic yet rootsy banjo sonatas.”
Other poets are judged to some degree to be better than our speaker. The poet’s humble-brag makes a show of agreeing with that, those better poets are more subtle (perhaps not as vigorous and direct?) and their song has a “wind of flowers” (literally, flowery, all fragrance and filigree?) while our poet’s work is “wave-worn” (sturdy and long-tested).
And in a final claim, the poet says that the reason he’ll be remembered in the end is that his poetry is more full of life and experience than those “better” poets.
In summary, the poem claims that the true poet, or at least Pound’s expectations of himself at this point early in his career, has a calling, a job he’s been asked to do by a culture that may not consistently pay attention to his efforts. If he perseveres, he will only get his due appreciation at death when his efforts will be summed up.
The language is deliberately archaic again (Pound is still under the pull of the Pre-Raphaelites) and it’s distanced in another way by being set in the exotic Middle East, quite possibly in ancient times. This too may be part of the Pre-Raphaelite influence: Middle Eastern scenes and Biblical stories were a common subject for the painters in that movement. Why were the two particular proper names chosen? I’m not sure. Nineveh is legendary as an ancient city, but not the only choice there. I thought of Nineveh as the city that the Biblical prophet Jonah was supposed to go and speak to when he chickens-out and whale-belly-ins. If Pound thought of that too, then it could be more subtext for the idea that that poet personae should persist in heeding his calling. Raama is also a name mentioned in the Bible.
“You using prophets for bait? I’ve been having good luck with leaches, I’ll stick with those.”
I myself went through a period in my youth when I elevated the writer’s profession into something between prophet and preacher. That has a clarity, a purity, that is far too simple. However earnest and self-aware Pound was when he wrote this, what attracted me to it now much later in my life was the idea implied in the middle of the poem: that art’s job is asked for by a culture that knows somehow its value while commonly forgetting that.
Maybe there’s a new level in the final couplet of today’s poem? By persisting in working on art we are as deluded as an intoxicated person, we see our work through “beer goggles,” and all possibilities look more beautiful then, than in the cold light of day. We “drink of life as lesser men drink wine.”
Foolish? Well, so be it. This is the fool we choose to be.
The musical setting today is a languid mix of guitars, fretless bass, and vibraphone. The player to hear my performance of Pound’s “And Thus in Nineveh” is below. The full text of the poem can be found here.
Whose fault is it when a poem is hard to comprehend, to understand? The first thought may be that it’s the fault, or even intent, of the author. Communication via written language has its weaknesses, but we know from our day to day lives that it can convey information successfully. Poetry, particularly poetry of literary repute, has a reputation for frustrating expectations of understanding.
For thoughtful people there should be second thoughts on this matter. If a writer, a poet, asks for a certain level of engagement, knowledge, curiosity, and openness are they always being unfair? I’m willing to grant they can ask too much, but asking too little of an audience of readers has costs as well. Here’s a principle worth remembering as you approach poetry (or other arts): poetry isn’t about ideas, it’s about the experience of ideas. Experience isn’t permanent, one-sided or clearly binary. If we for an instant experience something as a simple truth, a moment of clarity, poetry can express that—but properly comprehended simple truths exist in a contradictory and changing world. Sometimes we can misunderstand a simple poem as much as a more esoteric and confusing one.
Early English Modernist poetry, particularly those poets around the Imagists, wanted to explore these things. It may surprise you, but many of its pioneers before WWI made a choice for clarity, for simplicity. It did to me. I came to the early works late, already steeped in the poetry of the post-WWI High Modernists: Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Paul Eluard and Dada and Surrealist associated writers. But look at the pre-WWI work of some English modernists, like this poem by T. E. Hulme, a poem that has been identified as the first Modernist poem in English, “Autumn.”*
A touch of cold in the Autumn night—
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.
Does it seem strange to you that such a poem could change things? It’s so un-assuming, so easily grasped. Two homey images that require nothing in the way of pre-requisites to visualize, though it may be helpful to be as Hulme was, a rural person who had migrated from the fields of his childhood.** If one pauses and looks again, notice what’s not here: length, words naming emotions instead of objective description (save the single “wistful” which carries power in its exception) and rhyme. A not strict, but appreciable meter appears gradually with the final three lines, but the previous four are free
Today’s audio piece presents another poem by T. E. Hulme, one that isn’t easily understood at all. Hulme often wrote his pieces to demonstrate the theories of Modern English poetry he wanted to bring to the fore critically, and like “Autumn,” the rest of his extant work has a radical clarity. Hulme scholar and professor Oliver Tearle reports that today’s piece “Conversion” may have literally been a blackboard example of a revamped kind of poetry. If so, those looking at the chalk marks may have been as puzzled then as we are now.
“Conversion” starts off conventionally enough: a walk in nature, and hyacinths are in bloom. It’s beautiful and fragrant. We are altogether conventional here, save for the free verse. Then the next two lines are a clear image, but not necessarily an expected one: imaginarily our poet is drugged and kidnapped. In Hulme’s era a rag soaked in some ether or chloroform was a standard illustrated weekly/pulp fiction trope for this, but flowers as an agent is not unprecedented either (Midsummer Night’s Dream) and in the poem the scent of the flowers is associated with this. For all Hulme’s Modernist intent, this does seem to follow a lot of fairy story plots from Tam Lin to “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” The two lines that end the kidnap incident are uncharacteristically sound rich for Hulme: “Motionless and faint of breath/By loveliness that is her own eunuch.” It’s like Yeats or de la Mare broke into the poem for a moment.
I have a theory, one that greater scholarship or historical knowledge than I have might bolster. The word “eunuch” in the poem is our fuse. Eunuch in the context of Hulme’s time would likely bring to mind the Ottoman Empire and the exotic non-Christian Middle East. Exoticism is a complex thing, elements of fascination and sublimated desires are part of it, as are, alas, stereotypes and racism. But one common trope in the European mind of the time was the kidnapping and sexual enslavement of women in eunuch-run harems of Ottoman rulers. My guess is that’s what Hulme is referring to here, and that it might have been familiar enough to his time and audience to assume the reference would be understandable even in this highly condensed poem. The poem’s hard to explain title “Conversion” could also be fit to this idea.
Mysterious Victorian abductions, non-Christians portrayed as evil so that Europeans can look at pictures of ladies breasts.
That still makes the final three lines hard to follow. Is Hulme’s personae in the poem female, or is this a male-male cross-cultural bondage fantasy? Does it end with the death of the personae or just being carried away in quasi-erotic bondage? Come on Hulme, you may be using some unenlightened xenophobic twaddle for your image here but give us a clue!
“Final river” (Tearle reads the mythological river Styx here, and domo arigato Dr. Tearle) “without sound” seems to lean to drowning death. The one thing I came up with trying to figure this out is the apocryphal tale of the 17th century Turkish Sultan Ibrahim (“The Mad”) who was said to have had his harem of 280 concubines thrown into the Bosphorus to drown, a punishment that otherwise would be fit for a peeping Tom-Turk spying on the ruler’s harem.*** But by now I’m feeling like Wylie Coyote standing on thin air trying to explain those sparse final lines.
Drop all the guesses and dodgy cultural stereotypes, even if we blame the author for them, and “Conversion” may still work to some degree, after all what I think the images set out to do is to convey that the apprehension of beauty can involuntarily change one by confusing our priors. The philosophic idea is not instantly clear, its images are problematic and opaque, but the words and the sounds of them intrigue. This “Beauty will be convulsive or not at all” as André Breton later wrote.
Of our three London-based “School of Images” pioneers, only Pound would later write “High Modernist” poems with such knotty allusive problems. F. S. Flint drifted out of poetry after WWI, and Hulme was killed in that war. Pound admired Hulme considerably, and T. S. Eliot spoke highly of him too. Those two may have chosen to follow the Hulme of “Conversion” more than the Hulme of “Autumn.”
Well, this is a long post, and once more I’ve run out of room to talk much about the music and performance of the piece. I decided to make the musical setting discontinuous to reflect the confusion of the narrative and I hope I’ve brought out the mystery and lyricism of Hulme’s poem in my performance. The woodwind instrument featured at the start and finish of the piece is a virtual instrument version of the duduk, a gorgeous-sounding free-reed instrument that might be found around the shores of the Black Sea. I also couldn’t resist blowing a chorus on the Telecaster, an exotic instrument as old as I am, designed by a radio repairman on our western shores. The player gadget is below. Text of Hulme’s “Conversion” can be found in Terle’s post on the always Interesting Literature blog.
*Like the “first rock’n’roll song” or “the first rap record,” there are probably lots of candidates, but it’s still helpful to have a marker to say about it: “This is different, and points to how things can be changed.”
**One cultural-particular is present: in the sunburnt face and white colored children of its two images, it’s not melaninanicly universal, but the particular in the case of poetry can still speak to us. Around the time Hulme wrote this, Charlie Patton was probably singing the floating blues verse that Son House later recorded “My black mama’s face shines like the sun…”
***”Michael Cohen, I like grand viziers who don’t get caught. I’ve got to get me some of the best people.
Here’s the next in our occasional series “Before They Were Modernists,” a performance of “Grace Before Song” by Ezra Pound. Like F. S. Flint’s poem from last time, Pound’s poem comes from the poet’s first book, in this case: A Lume Spento created before Pound and a small group of London-based writers settled on the set of ideas they were to call Imagism, sparking off modern English poetry.
In the A Lume Spento poems Pound appears to vacillate, at least in character, on the value of his poetry, and like Flint he’s showing the influence of William Butler Yeats and the Pre-Raphaelites who had influenced Yeats. The Pre-Raphaelite ideal was to look further back culturally than the 19th century for inspiration, so in A Lume Spento the soon to be “Make It New” Pound is often referencing Dante and medieval Provencal troubadour poetry.
Even if A Lume Spento as a collection was a retrospective statement of where Pound thought he was as the 20th century got underway, “Grace Before Song” seems to have stuck with Pound. It led off A Lume Spento and it retained its position in his later 1920 selection of early works Personae.
Choose your own adventure: Hipster wants you to see his book of poetry referencing Dante…
How does Pound present his task and the poet’s task in “Grace Before Song?”
First off, it’s a prayer, starting by addressing itself to a godhead. And there’s an element of modesty or at least fatalism/submission in it, beautifully so I think (even with the inverted/archaic syntax): “our days as rain drops in the sea surge fell.” That image is further developed by requesting that his song at least be fresh rain (“white drops upon a leaden sea”) and reflective, however briefly, of some higher reality (“Evan’scent mirrors every opal one”). The poem ends stressing that briefly part. In “Grace Before Song” Pound is expressly no Shakespeare making claims for the immortality conveyed by art.
If we think of the later Modernist Pound as an iconoclast, this early Pound presents himself as either the pious poet, explaining the world of God to man, or as the aesthete who believes beautiful artistic creation justifies itself as an expression of higher orders. From what I understand Pound at this point was more the later using the mask, the personae, of the former—but either stance opens the poet up to disappointment when their work is ignored by the “grey folk” of those leaden seas.
And in 1908, Pound is largely ignored. American publishers aren’t interested, and A Lume Spento was self-published in Venice in a tiny edition of 150 copies. The Wikipedia article on the book says Pound arrived in Italy with $80 to his name and spent $8 getting the book printed on some odd-lot paper in Venice. An inflation calculator says $80 is a bit over $2200 in current dollars, but the tithe to his art indicates the level of faith (self or otherwise) Pound had at this time. And then there is the account that Pound thought about chucking the page proofs in a Venice canal—now there’s a story that makes white drops into a leaden sea a concrete image!
My “studio B” (a 12’ x 12’ room where I write these posts and do much of the non-LYL Band recording) is now fully operational again, so I put it to work on this one. The cello part that sits in the arrangement over the low strings is from a new virtual instrument re-creation of the Mellotron that I obtained this month when it went on sale. Long time listeners here will know how much I love the Mellotron, which doesn’t sound like “real” strings, but does sound like a real Mellotron.
You can listen to my performance of “Grace Before Song” using a player gadget* you should see below.
*I’ve just been made aware that the WordPress app for IOS doesn’t display the player, leaving those of you who read these posts on the iPhone WordPress app puzzled as to what I’ve referred to above. If you’d like to hear the audio pieces you can see them in the mobile version of Safari, but this is a good time to remind those who like to listen to the audio that the Parlando Project audio pieces by themselves are available as a podcast on most podcast apps including Apple podcasts or on Spotify in Spotify’s podcasts section. Just search for “Parlando Where Music and Words Meet” to find them.