Christina Rossetti’s May

Here’s a piece using a Christina Rossetti poem “May,”  that’s both simple and spare and mysterious and broad. Early in this project I presented several of Rossetti’s poems, most of which were new to me, because her short, lyrical poems delighted me with their avoidance of the cruft her English Victorian contemporaries often fall into. Nothing’s universally wrong with elaborate poems, but to my tastes, sparer poems can offer us guidance to pay attention, real attention,  to what remains.

Here’s the text of her short poem. The stuff in curly brackets are variations I found in a short search through versions online.

I cannot tell you how it was; {,}
But this I know: it came to pass
Upon a bright and sunny {breezy} day
When May was young: ah, pleasant May!
As yet the poppies were not born
Between the blades of tender corn;
The last egg {eggs} had not hatched as yet,
Nor any bird forgone its mate.

I cannot tell you what it was; {,}
But this I know: it did but pass.
It passed away with sunny May,
Like {With} all sweet things it passed away,
And left me old, and cold, and grey.

These variations are from tiny to small. A semicolon or a comma? Can anyone make any difference from that? “Sunny” or “breezy?” I prefer sunny, breezy is more active, since this is a poem that works its magic by giving us a still moment, and then showing us it’s not. And if sunny, then “sunny” is nicely repeated in the 11th line, when this short poem begins to refrain with itself. “Egg” or “Eggs?” Close call there. Egg lets us see a singular egg (it’s usually easier to invoke a single thing vividly rather than a multitude), but “eggs” make the point that this is an entire reproductive process. “Like” or “With?” I like “like.” “With” followed by that “all” has a sense of this being an immediate entirety. “Like” allows us to hear the poet say some thing, part of an indefinite series of loss or leaving, has gone away. Again, the power of the singular. Do we know what that thing is? The poem decides not to tell us.* How does that choice rank against the power of the singular? If it’s not named it could be anything,  the ultimate multitude of possibilities. Here choices for singular things in this short poem become more important, because it then sets off this missing piece of information about what has gone away in contrast to the specific things named around it.

Wait, that’s not a springtime bird guarding its nest in the lilacs!

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Do you notice one more variation in the poem’s structure? Hint: how many lines? One, two, three, four…Oh, 13 lines. This works like a sonnet, it even has a turn, a volta, after 8 lines, as in one highly common sonnet format; but the final section is 5, not 6 lines.

It’s too certain a variation not to think that Rossetti decided to make a little meta point that other poets or sonnet fanciers alone will catch. “Yeah, something’s gone and left—there’s no damn 14th line!”

I can’t tell you why the variations in the exact text of this poem. I presume that someone, or Rossetti herself, did a light revision before some level of republication. Which is the latest? Which did Rossetti herself prefer? My scholarship is such tonight that I simply don’t know.

But I did worse. Just today, after I had finished recording the performance that you’ll be able to hear below, I noticed I’d made an error, a variation myself. The copy of the text I was working from had dropped the 13th and final line.

I could simply redo the performance, but it’s become difficult to record acoustic instruments over the past year for this project. Though it blunts the meta-point of the 13-line sonnet, I tell myself there’s power in my unintentional change. “Left me old, and cold, and gray,” the 13th line I inadvertently left out, tells us more about that mysterious thing that has “passed away” with May. My slip-up retains some additional mystery.

The player gadget will appear below for some of you to hear my performance of Christina Rossetti’s trimmed-down sonnet, accidentally trimmed again. If you don’t see the player, you can use this highlighted hyperlink, which will open a new tab and play the song.

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*Here’s another short write up about this poem, which summarizes some of the guesses about what has passed away. Some love gone sour is one guess, and what with the spring birth specifics in the first 8 lines, perhaps some opportunity to have a child would be another. My accidental deletion of the last line, with its emotional damage curtly listed, adds an element of “All things must pass” to the loss, the possibility of a more Buddhist outlook to a change that’s part of the illusion of possession.

Eliot’s Oak

The river of history runs only in one direction.*  And so on our river journey, the Modernist poetic landmark “The Waste Land”  will arrive, and stopping and resting on the landing there will mark us as well past the headwaters, and our memories will diminish of the headwaters, even if the very water that carries our boats flows from there. T. S. Eliot wrote many letters and critical essays, he must have written somewhere about his American poetic forbearers — but if so, the spotty scholar writing this is so far unaware of what he said.

If one searches on that subject, one will see many mentions of Eliot’s Modernism supplanting the American 19th century New England worthies headed up by one Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And then something else might turn up, like this deserves-to-be-better-known sonnet of Longfellow’s titled “Eliot’s Oak.”   Here’s a link to the text if you’d like to follow along.

If we largely forget Longfellow these days, we tend to forget Longfellow the writer of short lyric poems to an even greater extent. If this sonnet had been attributed to Keats or Shelley, it would be no less antique in some of its usage, but I suspect it would be better remembered and rated for achievement. Besides the “speakest,” “days remote,” “eventide,” and “hath” language, its chief crust of old-fashionedness is its use of the pathetic fallacy, where a tree is addressed and converses in the poem. We’d forgive Keats and Shelly for this, where we likely won’t forgive Longfellow. If we allow that bald-faced metaphor to pass, we might notice that the imagery in the poem develops in an admirably subtle way. In the sound of the tree’s leaves the poem hears a variety of sounds whose meaning is just out of reach, and masterfully Longfellow transitions to say that different people will hear different nearly intelligible languages in this sound. Am I stretching this conceit’s move too much to say that this 1876 poem has just sought to impress upon us a key tenet of cultural Modernism?

As Longfellow’s sonnet reaches its turn for a final six lines, we are forced, as much as we might be in parts of “The Waste Land,”  to seek out what is being referred to. With “The Waste Land,”  it wouldn’t be extraordinary to believe that some of the readers of this blog would have some knowledge of Richard Wagner, Jacobean drama, Metaphysical poets, or Ovid; and it’s even more likely today that some here would have some understanding of Hindu religious thought and writings, which will get called out in the upcoming concluding sections. But, do any of you know of the “Apostle of the Indians, Eliot…” Longfellow speaks of, what this story means, and how dark it is? I didn’t.

Eliot Oak before 1936

The Eliot Oak still stood in Longfellow’s time, and long enough for a trolley line to run past it.

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In the 17th century, the Puritans who founded the European colonization of Massachusetts included this stalwart preacher John Eliot who came to believe that he was called to preach to the indigenous Algonquin tribes there. The Puritans had a strong streak of religious zealotry, and given that and the commercial interests of colonization, many regarded the natives of their new colony has the devil’s savage minions. John Eliot believed them to be merely unconverted fellow humans.**  As Longfellow’s poem indicates in his Biblical allusion in lines 10-11, Eliot views the indigenous as fellow members of the Abrahamic family, potential “people of the book.” At first, all this was only a philosophical/theological debate. Eliot was allowed to learn their language, preach Christianity to them, and form somewhat autonomous villages of “praying Indians.” In an act of superhuman intellectual and literary effort he managed to translate the entire Christian Bible into their native language. Just this massive translation alone would be remarkable, but these tribes had no written language, so he had to devise a way to use the western alphabet to depict it. Nor was it an easy job to then print the resulting Bible: the press had to be imported, and the work of setting the type and printing was not trivial either. Eliot headed this project, but it should also be noted that the first nations people who worked with him were indispensable.

The resulting book, in a first edition of 1000, Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God, wasn’t just the first time anyone had created a new written language to publish a Bible, it was the first  Bible to be printed in what would later become the United States.

Now of course the whole issue of evangelical Christianity and native cultures is a complex subject. Even those of you who do not know John Eliot’s particular story will include some who know some of the harmful incidents in such matters. Yes, this story gets dark, but there’s also a strange redeeming element in the end too.

In 1675 some of the Algonquins began a three-year uprising against the colonialists, leading to what was called King Phillips’ War. It makes no difference that Eliot’s converts are co-religionists of the colonialists or if they have any allegiance to the rebels. The very fact that many of them are now fluent in the native languages and English makes any of them prime suspects as spies and informants by both sides. Some of Eliot’s converts are killed, and the rest are shipped off to a concentration camp where many starve, despite Eliot’s efforts. Oh, and most copies of the Eliot bible are deliberately destroyed. Those theological debates have become warfare.

I promised there would be a ray of light in this. I’m not sure this had happened yet when Longfellow wrote his poem — and if so, he prophecies it in the poem’s last line — but in the ensuing colonial disaster inflicted on the native peoples, their language was wiped out. People still existed who were descendants of this Algonquin tribe, but they could not speak it’s Wampanoag language. Surviving copies of Eliot’s Bible become the Rosetta Stone that allows the language to be revived.

John Eliot Memorial Newton Mass

The same year Longfellow wrote his poem a memorial on a spot where Eliot preached to the Algonquin was built. I wondered through Google Streetview to find it still stands, though it looks ignored.

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In summary, as you listen to today’s audio piece, it may just seem like a facile little ditty about a talking tree and this, whatever Eliot,*** who isn’t even T. S. Eliot. Understand what its images and references point to, and it’s a memento of one of the least-known and most-impressive American literary achievements and a link to the complex tragedy of some who hoped to turn in some way from genocide. Perhaps it’s the romantic in me, but consider some of the lost or just unheard stories of the land we live on during this #NationalPoetryMonth, the lips that spoke them, the hearts that heard them. The river of history may run in one direction — but go ahead, make a fool of yourself, and listen to the trees. Or listen first or second to my performance of Longfellow’s “Eliot’s Oak.”  You can use the player gadget if you see it below, or this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab or window to play it too.

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*Except in Chicago. See this.

**Here’s a short, two-page summary of John Eliot’s efforts in PDF format written for a local church that bears his name.

***So, is John Eliot related to T. S. Eliot? I don’t have a family tree or other such documentation, but it’s highly likely. Eliot’s family was known to descend from early Puritan colonists.

The Snow Fairy

When it comes to pieces for Valentine’s Day, there’s a great deal of love poetry to draw from. And it’s not uncommon for those love poems to be sonnets — after all, that form has been used from the times of Petrarch and Shakespeare for poems about passionate relationships. The course of love is often complex and unstraightforward, and fittingly most sonnets contain a volta, or turn, where the poem shifts from one aspect to another, a feature that is useful for portraying the alternating currents of passion.

For today’s piece I’ve used a distinctive winter love poem by Afro-American and Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay. In this poem, “The Snow Fairy,”  McKay uses an unusual form, a double sonnet, a pair of 14-line poems that allows additional volta/turns. Here’s a link to McKay’s text if you’d like to follow along.

Claude McKay 2

poet Claude McKay as a young man

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“The Snow Fairy”  opens with a fine sonnet about a winter snowfall. If one was to read it as a stand-alone poem it wouldn’t seem truncated or insufficient by itself, but McKay wants to present it as part of a pair, and as we’ll see it’s both foreshadowing — and in a time-twist, the actual conclusion of the poem chronologically. Sonnet I has the snow, as per the title, personified as fairies, a kind of otherworldly being that may have connotations of light-heartedness or simple wonder. But note a very subtle shift in the supernatural creatures fluttering down in the second quatrain: “As though in heaven there was revolt and riot.” The merely fantastic in the opening quatrain has taken a more consequential air. I’m not sure how many readers notice this, but to me this is an unmistakable reference to Milton and Satan falling after the war in heaven in Paradise Lost.

Third quatrain, and we’ve switched our attention to the poem’s speaker, who’s gone to bed without mention of any other person, and awakes to view the once individual fairies/fallen angels, now lying still, yet joined together after their night long whirling dance. In the concluding couplet, as often in a Shakespearean sonnet form like McKay uses, we have a turn. We’ve spent our focus up to now on these snowflakes, but in the couplet he tells us by the end of the day they’ve melted away.

In sonnet II, the poem’s speaker flashes backwards in time, connecting via the memory of the first sonnet’s night of winter snow. He’s reminded of a “you who came to me upon a winter’s night” as did our snowflake/fairy/fallen angel creatures did in sonnet I. In sonnet II’s second quatrain this couple are like our snowflakes of the first sonnet, tossed and dancing in what he tells us is passion. In an echo of the third quatrain of the sonnet I, in the same quatrain of sonnet II, they are tenderly joined and bedded.

And then the turn, the volta: faster even than the by midday melting snow of sonnet I, at the break of dawn the partner is gone, leaving the poem’s speaker alone to be the writer of sonnet I, watching the snow fairies fall in winter.

Read with modest care, the story told in the most minimal of sonnet sequences is plain. Love is wonderous. Love joins us, un-times us for a time — and then, whether parting by the single night or death, it is “stol’n away.” But are there additional undercurrents?

I sense there’s a question in the last row of readers out there, and over the Internet I can’t tell if it’s snarky, sincere, or asked hesitantly: “The title is ‘The Snow Fairy.’   Is this two guys hooking up? Is McKay gay?”

Even today when the acronym for non-heteronormative affections and gender extends ever outward, such answers aren’t always simple binary switches, but yes, it seems generally assumed that Claude McKay had erotic connections with other men. McKay never “came out” in a way that folks in our lifetimes do. In the context of this poem, the question may be focused to a subsidiary question, is “The Snow Fairy”  a coded statement of his sexuality, written so that that those who know would know, and the others would not?

One could write an essay longer than this post, but on balance my reading is that, like his equally lovely summer-day-long love poem “Memory of June”  this feels as if McKay is describing the difficulties of gay people being able to form lasting relationships when that was desired in his time. The subtle turn from fairies to Miltonic fallen angels in sonnet I also seems to be signaling outsider status. There’s also a possible significance in the title snow fairy being singular while the snow fairies/snowflakes are multitudinous. But was “fairy” a clear signaling word? It seemed like that to me when I first read this poem, but upon research that’s ambiguous. Terms used for gay people have a history of emerging and shifting over time, both inside and outside the community. Fairy as a slang word for an effeminate man seems to have emerged in the mid-to-later 1920s,*  and was in common understanding by 1940 or so, but this poem was published in 1922. That means that it might  be too early for it to be understood by other gay people generally, or even McKay, as signaling. On the other hand, it seems likely that a general reader in 1922 would not  read fairy = gay when seeing this poem on the page then.

But in another way, is that the only thing that matters about this poem? No. Love and desire is both complex and unitary. Passing love, passing sweetness, unrequited desires, loneliness for absent lovers — put all the genders, nationalities, races and practices together in one snowbank and you can’t separate out the unique snowflakes. We love and we are gone is one whole part of humanity. Perhaps that’s why Valentine’s Day is but a day?

I performed Claude McKay’s “The Snow Fairy”  in this simple arrangement to get it done in time. I had another version with basic tracks of a more full-band arrangement, but this one with just 12-string acoustic guitar and bass was easier for me to complete. To hear my performance, use the player gadget below — or if you don’t see the player this highlighted hyperlink will do the job too.

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*Somewhere in my research I found citations that seemed to narrow it down to this between-the-wars period, at least for significant usage, but alas I’ve lost my cite notes on that, and, this blog post indicates fairy = gay may have origins as early as the 1890s.

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

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

Sonnet_97_1609

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of the Sky–A Doomscrolling Sonnet after Du Fu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of the Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mostly.  That’s important.

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

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

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

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

Longfellow’s Harvest Moon

What value is mystery and strangeness to gratitude, to a sense of thanks? Let me try an experiment with you here.

American Thanksgiving still retains a degree of its nature as a harvest festival, and so when looking for a text to use today I came upon this one by highly unfashionable poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Looking at the poem on the page one can see why modern poetic esteem may have passed Mr. Longfellow by. It’s a sonnet, intricately rhymed (ABBAABBA CDECDE), an antique skill that we no longer appreciate as much. Its imagery is both pat and removed from most of our daily lives, a rural landscape at night before the coming of electric lights, where moonlight can illuminate reflective objects and cast discernable if low-contrast shadows. Harvest signs include loaded wagons (“wains” is the charming old word for wagons chosen perhaps for rhyming needs), bundled sheaves of grain after reaping by hand, the changing of the bird population, falling leaves. In summary, we have imagery that is largely meaningless or lacking impact to us today in our modern America. It looks like stuff that is, and justly is, filed away in dusty poetry collections.

Harvest Moon

An illustration for “The Harvest Moon” from an 1880 edition of Longfellow poems

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But what if we were to experiment a bit with Longfellow, and make him stranger and more mysterious? After all, this past rural world is now alien to most of us as some far-off land. And Longfellow, who we mistake as a rote poet here, has a subtle point to make, one that cultured British people might excavate and polish if this were a poem by Shelley or Keats, but which Americans may be too willing to overlook due to the old modes of Longfellow’s poetry.

In today’s performance of Longfellow’s “The Harvest Moon”  I attempt that act of mysteriousation. It started with breaking up the lines and underemphasizing the end-rhyme. This lets it act as an occult undercurrent, rather than a regular chime we know is coming. I sing the words as if this is new and not fully understood to the singer or listener. And as I often do here, I make the music I wrote and performed carry a lot of the load. The main harmony is carried by a 12-string acoustic guitar, which is playing primarily suspended chords, chords that remove the 3rd of the scale that makes a chord major or minor, and replaces that significant note instead with a not fully discordant but unexpected 2nd or 4th. The bass plays a busy but similarly unsettled melody line under this. And as a final signal that we are to regard this old American landscape with a time-tourists’ eye, and not as an old poem full of discarded conventions, I play a higher melody line and drone on a sitar,*  an instrument from another continent.

All that distancing effect is to force the listener to hear this poem as if it may have some meaning other than a decorative picture of a quaint and therefore meaningless scene. Longfellow outright begs us to do this in the text when he writes “All things are symbols.” This poem is late Longfellow, he’s nearly 70 when he wrote this, his America has passed through a horrible civil war, his life has passed through multiple family sorrows, and he is now an old man. The songbirds gone here are but counters perhaps, but his life of poetry is nearing its close. He’s spent his life helping establish that there can and should be an American poetry, that there can be American poets. We are them. Our grandparents and great-grandparents are the children asleep in those strange and now far-off curtained rooms. We are the piping quails, grounded birds gorging on the grain-seeds fallen to the under-shadows of the harvested sheaves.

Let us be grateful, let us be thankful, for those before us. Wrong and right they labored for us. Enslaved and wrongful masters they planted and harvested on lands that cannot forget the exiled feet of those before us. How strange, that it was exiles and the tempest-tossed that appropriated this place. Exiles creating exiles. There is a mystery in that.

The player gadget for my performance of “The Harvest Moon”  should be below. If you don’t see the player gadget, you can try to use this highlighted hyperlink to hear it instead.

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*If you visualize me sitting cross-legged on a damask pillow with incense wafting in paisley curlicues while plucking on that elaborate musical device, it may be good for the effect of the piece—but in the spirit of full disclosure I’m playing a MIDI guitar here which allows my plucking to be translated into the notes and sounds of that difficult to maintain and master South Asian instrument.

I’m not a scholar, but I play one on the Internet

Let me write a post about something that I experienced recently, just like a real blog would do.

Early this month I attended a virtual symposium Sonnets from the American  organized by Dora Malech and Laura T. Smith.*  I’ve heard “Zoom Fatigue” is a thing now, but I found it energizing. I’m still integrating things from this experience, but here are a few preliminary things this three-day program brought forward.

There’s still a lot to be discovered out there for me.  Even when I saw the listing of sessions, I came upon the subject of Fredrick Tuckerman’s poetry, a name that I’d never heard, and someone who was certainly not part of the American Lit canon in my mid-century day. I can see why he’s a fascinating subject, and the simplest thing I can say about his biography is one could quick-take him as “a male Emily Dickinson.” Similar locations, times, and period of social isolation. I’ve read a few of his sonnets, and so far they aren’t grabbing me, but then that may be me. I’ve been quite distracted as this difficult year has progressed.

Americans don’t mind messing with the sonnet form.  I started writing sonnets around age 20 or so. It was the first poetry form I cottoned to, and the only one that I’ve ever practiced much. There’s something about the length of 14 lines, long enough for a contrasting pair of lyric statements, but not so long as to ask the reader to maintain the mind-meld intensity lyric poetry asks for past endurance. The venerated Petrarchan and English/Shakespearean forms have mechanisms that have been established to work, and I wrote close to the form to start. I recall writing a crown of English sonnets as a 20 year old in a barracks on a fair grounds, but mostly since then I’ve wanted to see how many variations I can create inside the 14 line form, while at the same time worrying that I was cheating by not being faithful enough to it.

In session after session I learned from scholars that Americans not only brought a different sensibility to the matter of their sonnets, but that they didn’t mind morphing the form too. And why not, after all the Elizabethans didn’t just clone the Italian form.

I’m pretty sure I’m not up to snuff as a scholar, but I like running into scholarship.  Compared to any scholar (and many avid readers) I’m under-read. I’ve perhaps read more poetry than a few, but I’ve read many fewer novels than almost any serious literature person, and I’ve got lots of holes in contemporary poetry that this project doesn’t help me in remediating. And at my age, there’s also the “I read it fifty-years ago” factor. The younger scholars at the event had a reasonable retention of what they had read, perhaps more than I have read in my longer time. Is there a minimum amount of poetry one has to have read to have a significant interaction with it? I’m unsure. But what the scholars presenting at the event brought to this is new outlooks, new connections. In my modest, under-read way, this is what I try to do here.

To non-scholars who read this, if you think (perhaps put off by scholarly terminology or personal educational experiences) that scholars have dissected poetry only from corpses, the Sonnets from the American  event let me see the real enthusiasms that are out there.

Just this month I’ve noticed that the Royal Holloway, University of London seems to have linked to some thing or things I’ve written here. The referrers link lets me know that folks are coming here via that institution, but the referring links are behind a staff/student login, so I don’t know what. I’m not sure if that’s a blessing. I might be embarrassed by what I wrote!

There are more light-skinned people writing about Afro-American poetry.  I’m a hybrid music and poetry guy, this shouldn’t have surprised me. While this is a complex and delicate subject which cannot help but interact with wider social forces and existential injustices that this post cannot even begin to cover, in my 20th century Afro-Americans tended to write (where they had the opportunity) about current or recent generations of Afro-American music, and white writers, performers, and impresarios did a lot of the noticed work in reviving interest and applying attention to older Afro-American musical artists and forms. This is changing in the 21st century.**

Again, there can’t help but be an overlay of the American racial caste system here, but my observation, blinkered as it may be, is that this factor still exists in music scholarship and non-institutional enthusiasm.

Now this project is enjoined by practicalities and by copyright law to concentrate on pre-1925 texts, which means that my interests in Afro-American poetry must make do with a shorter list of authors, but the Sonnets from the American event had plenty to interest me there. I could fill my dance card with presenters who’d have something to say about Paul Laurence Dunbar, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer. One of my favorite pieces I’ve presented here, Toomer’s remarkable Modernist love poem “Her Lips are Copper Wire,”  a 12-liner that works like a sonnet, got mentioned in several sessions I attended. Another personal favorite of mine, Fenton Johnson, got a shout out in question time at another.

I don’t want to give a misleading impression here. There were people of color presenting at this event and presenting important insights, but in the current isolation of my project I could think I was the only white guy whose interests in “Other Peoples Stories” included Black Americans as well as Elizabethans, Tang Dynasty Chinese, South Asians, various early Modernists, some French-speaking guys, and sundry 19th century library stack dwellers.

Negro sharecropper and two wagehands shucking corn for the landlord, a white woman. On road to Cedar Grove, west of highway No. 14, Orange County, North Carolina, Sept 1939

Different tunes, same words:  “Happy Harvest” or “Maggies Farm

Since I’ve written this instead of working on new audio pieces, I’ll leave you with a piece I did last autumn, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “October.”  Dunbar, the first successful Afro-American poet, emerging late in the 19th century, wrote in several styles: dialect poetry that I find hard to read and impossible to present, competent variations of late 19th century literary poetry and subjects, and a handful of poems speaking about the experience of an American Black man in an era when the promise of freedom was decaying steadily into a new era’s variation of denial of humanity. It’s those last poems, small as the number may be in his work, that he is most remembered for now. But what about this one? On the face of it, this is a harvest poem, a “happy autumn” number taking joy in the last bounty of fall.

It works entirely on that level. I’m not enough of a scholar to tell you if Dunbar ever expressed any other intent in writing it.

Now, listen to or read the poem again. Published in 1913, when large numbers of Afro-Americans were trapped in a feudal agricultural share-cropping system, where harvest’s bounty went to the white landowner and their family. I can’t unread the subtext here.  My performance of Dunbar’s “October”  can be heard with the player gadget you should find below.

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*I found out about this symposium via writer/editor/professor Lesley Wheeler. A big thanks to her for that! Wheeler’s own presentation at the event was on sonnets with radically short lines, a variation that I hadn’t thought of or tried.

**And wait a few years, and any fresh Afro-American musical innovation will get adopted by white musicians. I’m an American musician—most of the notes are Black. This blog started out largely focusing on the early 20th century Modernist poetry revolution, part of a multi-art-form change. Fenton Johnson’s poetry and Toomer’s Cain  are public domain examples of Afro-American Modernist poetic work from this era that I’ve run into so far, though maybe there are others yet for me to find. But, but, but, if one asks the question: “Where are the pre-1925 Afro-American Modernists?” all you have to do is look to poetry’s sister art music and the blind will see.

On the Grasshopper and the Cricket

There used to be a thing, back in the Seventies when “The Sixties” were being established as a retrospective era: “The Beatles or The Stones?” The idea was that this choice, which was supposed to be somehow exclusive, was an “opener,” a what’s your (astrological) sign query that would tell the questioner who you were—or at the least start a conversation.*

Among the smallish subset of 20th century young people who liked poetry in English and were inclined to the Romantic revolution launched by Wordsworth and Coleridge at the beginning of the 19th century, one could play a similar game: “Byron, Keats, or Shelley?”

Sarcastic Byron “Mad, bad and dangerous to know” was the bad boy. Shelley was the beautiful intellectual, the man whose genetic material you wanted to incorporate. And Keats was the misunderstood outsider, the garageman’s son who presumed words alone could elevate him.

English Romantic poetry’s boy band—choose your poster.

I was easily a Keats man in this forced choice. I’m not sure, but I think Parlando alternate voice and keyboardist Dave Moore was a Byron guy back then. Early supporter of this blog, Daze and Weekes, Shelley. There are no wrong choices there, and when it comes down to it, no necessarily exclusive choices there either.

Keats hasn’t played a lot here in the Parlando Project. I’ve expanded my interests much since my teenaged years, and I guess the English Romantics have fallen back into the pack of poetic schools as I moved on to other things. Coincidence can bring Keats back though.

John Keats and the Chirping Crickets 3

Unheard music will Not Fade Away! John Keats and his “Chirping” Crickets.

 

Last weekend I hesitantly went to the newly reopened Minneapolis Institute of the Arts with my family. It was my wife’s idea, a way she hoped would be fairly safe in these Covid-19 times and still get us out of the house. She wanted to see a special exhibit on the immigrant experience. I thought I’d like to review their Chinese section.**

I may well write about the immigrant exhibit later, but the reason I wanted to do a bit of a wander in the Chinese wing was from my recent presentations of 8th century Tang dynasty poets here: Du Fu, Wang Wei, and Li Bai. As it turns out the holdings are a bit lacking in artifacts from that time. While this was a golden age for classical Chinese culture, that might not have carried over to the tastes or availabilities of objects to Western collectors.

But as I wandered the hall, I noticed something that had persisted in Chinese culture for centuries that I hadn’t encountered before. Beside a large, lacquered Chinese string instrument (the size of a pedal-steel guitar), there was a note that Chinese interest in music extended to modifying pet crickets vibrating wing edges with metallic powders and resins to increase the qualities of the cricket’s song. That grabbed this music-nerd’s interest! I started to examine other displays: there were cages and holders for pet crickets, tiny dishes in cricket-scale to feed them, and in one, two tiny wands, like fine detail paint brushes, only finer, the brush a single small hair. These, the note told us, were cricket ticklers designed to encourage the insects to start their music.***

Chinese Qin and Cricket Note

Beatles or Stones? Qin, songbirds, or crickets? The sort of things that a Chinese scholar might have in China during the time of Keats.

 

I’d already been looking at Emma Lazarus’ summer sounds poem before this trip, with its pairing of cricket-chirp with far-off children’s laughter. And then I found this slight little sonnet by John Keats, another one with crickets. My favorite short Keats poem, In the Drear-Nighted December  is a fine quasi-Buddhist meditation on suffering depicted as an appreciation of a frozen winter water-run. This one, “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket”  doesn’t strike my heart as strongly, but it’s still charming in comparing warm days and winter. This one has almost a Midwestern tang to it. I could see James Whitcomb Riley or Paul Laurence Dunbar writing it. The humble man in nature noting the grasshopper’s****  song even in the hottest summer days, and the comparison of the like sound of a housebound cricket chirping behind a wood stove in darkest winter.

The player gadget to hear my performance of John Keats’ “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket” is below.

 

 

 

*Don’t ask a music-nerd like me this question. Yes, I understand the points it’s attempting to weigh, but I won’t be able to resist spilling out mini-improvised essays on The Animals, The Yardbirds, The Zombies, The Kinks and so on, and then I’ll interrogate the now exhausted and bored questioner about how these exotic British acts are viewed as “saving” us from Bobby Rydell et al, when Afro-American jazz and R&B artists—right on the other side of town in a lot of cases  here in the U.S. —were doing vital work then that inspired these Brits. You can see I’m no fun at parties now, can’t you.

**Like some American museums that date from the late 19th century, Asian art was a significant part of the MiA collection. A significant number of wealthy collectors then were interested in the “exotic east.”

***There’s more I learned. Besides keeping them as pets and enjoying their music, cricket fights were a broad Chinese cultural thing as well, and because a full-formed cricket’s life span is but a few months even without visits to the Disabled List, an entire industry rose up in the capture of crickets for song and sport, with a hunting season in August and September gathering the most from the wild.

****Despite their somewhat similar appearance and sounds, the cricket makes its spiccato with its wing-edges, the grasshopper with its legs. I plucked a 12-string guitar and had double-basses provide some heavy late-summer air for this piece, but probably the most cricket-like sounds in the recording are from a marimba. The old saw says that if you take the number of cricket chirps in a quarter-hour and add 40 to it you’ll get the temperature in Fahrenheit. If so, this is a fairly cool bpm cricket.

Claude McKay’s America

As we enter into the weekend celebrating American Independence Day on July 4th, I thought I’d put together some poetry about the American experiment. While not unprecedented, this is a complex time to be doing that. We are clearly in troubled times, and while I myself am as troubled as the times, I can still try to grasp what some others in their troubles and troubled times have chosen to say about America.

Let me start off with what a particular immigrant had to say almost exactly 100 years ago. The immigrant was Claude McKay, a Black man who came from Jamaica in 1912. Now of course, the presence in the then English colony of Jamaica of a man of African descent can be traced to the violent and involuntary diaspora of the slave trade before McKay’s time, but in his own lifetime, as an immigrant, McKay chose to come to America.

By the time he wrote this poem, first published in 1920, a number of then current events would have been impressed upon his thoughts. He first landed at the Tuskegee Institute in the de jure segregated American south, as close to the time of American slavery and the Civil War as we are to Martin Luther King and Woodstock today. He eventually traveled to the onset of the Harlem Renaissance in New York as well has visiting London and Russia. The life of a Black man was complicated by racism in all these places. Furthermore, if we are to apply the 21st century term “intersectionality,” McKay was working class, gay, and a committed Leftist.

Troubled times? The Palmer Raids and the original “Red Scare” imprisoned or deported many. The now better-known* and understood series of race riots and other acts of terrorism in the service of racial oppression were raging. Even in black and leftist circles, issues of black sexuality were a third rail, and McKay touched that rail.

And, as we now all know, 1918-1919 was also the time of the last great worldwide epidemic.

Given this background, as you listen to or read McKay’s sonnet “America”  you may be surprised that this cri de cœur is as nuanced as it is. In the three quatrains before the closing couplet McKay is essentially making the case that he’s energized by being at a time and place when these evils are present and unmasked to confront. I’ll personally extend his statement: The American Experiment is this. It’s not the absence of evil, our country was never an Eden. That we are still fighting for our ideals of openness, opportunity, and equality under the law is evidence of our frailty—and our stubbornness.

McKay America

Tragic persistence of metaphor: in 1920 McKay would paraphrase “I can’t breathe.”

 

Now what to make of McKay’s closing couplet, the turn the poem takes there as many a sonnet does? My first reading was that this is just the judgment of history: Babylon will always fall. Ozymandias leaves so fast he forgot to pack his trunk. That’s the clear reading of the 13th line.

A final line follows though. I think McKay the prophet here might have meant this too in his warning: we must change to extend our republic’s life, that all is at risk—even if every human, and every civilization, like every artist, will fail. Did we change from his time to extend our experiment? I believe we did. Are we called, are we in need of, more, further, change today? Well, what I think is less important that what you think, particularly if you are younger.

The player to hear my performance of McKay’s sonnet as a song with acoustic guitar is below. Is this the only statement for the 4th of July? No, I’ll be back soon with a reading from another American prophet.

 

 

 

*I was a history and civics nerd as a young person. I can tell you there was next to nothing to read about the racially charged riots of the WWI period until this century unless one knew to dig into primary sources from that time. The more distributed evil of lynching was acknowledged to some degree, but even when urban unrest returned less than 50 years later in the United States during The Sixties, I can’t recall a single pundit or think piece that referenced these events of the post WWI era.

The Phones in our Hands (are so Magical)

This week I met with a small group of poets that have been sharing their work with each other for a few decades. At the end of the night one of us said that, despite the date, that love poems had been rare.

I said that I do try to look for love poems to present here as part of this project, but when I do I’m often waylaid by something gloomier—“But then, love poems can be as complicated as any other, and there’s always Lorca where the poem is ‘I love and desire you even while we’re between one foot and our whole body and soul in the grave.”

Did I mention the group is all old poets? Young poets can choose to be poète maudit types, and to mine the tropes of love, separation from all, and death—but past a certain age, us old poets have an organic attachment to that role that we’d have to actively deny to escape.

So, for Valentine’s Day, here’s a free-verse sonnet of mine that speaks about a kind of love that old partners may have. I think some readers could miss that aspect in “These Phones in our Hands (are so Magical),”  working as the poem does to contrast the little glowing palm-shrines that are now common to most of us with other kinds of connection.

These Phone in our Hands

Long time readers here know that we’ll be back soon with performances of poems I didn’t write.

The magical incident it describes, of a phone that can display a picture of a couple seven years in the future is not entirely fantasy. As the poem jokes, there are processes that can age a photo to show how a person might look at an older age. For someone older, the assurance that one might see proof that one will be around for seven more years is magical in a more above and below-ground earthy sense. Young lovers can wonder if their partner will stay partnered with them. Old lovers know  that they will part.

The final couplet may be tricky. The empty hands are not just empty of their magical smart phones.

I almost presented this with just the drums, but in the past week or two I’ve spent composing time blowing on the guitar because my fingers have been up to it, and maybe I can recover a little of the few chops I once had. Yet, in the back of my mind I’ve reminded myself that it’s been awhile since I composed an orchestra piece for this project, and that led to the strings today. The player to hear it should be below. If you’re reading this in the WordPress reader on an iPad or iPhone the player gadget may be missing. Why? I don’t know, as the player shows up fine in Safari—but you can subscribe to the audio pieces by themselves in the Apple Podcast app or find us as the Parlando Project on Spotify.