The Poet’s Voice

Stick with me here valued audience. I know awards speeches are not a popular genre. First off, everyone watching has just lost except for the speaker—not just the tuxedos in the hall, but anyone watching at home who aren’t important enough to be invited to the event. So maybe it’s safest to thank others effusively until your time is up and the music plays you off. A choice to make other points can be ineffective.

Yet, this isn’t the first time I’ve used an awards speech as the text for a piece, though the other two times they were speeches by actors, David Harbour and Viola Davis. Both of those speeches made claims about the value of dramatic art: Harbour making the claim that we may use make-believe heroes to inspire us to do necessary things, and Davis testifying that art, because it includes the illuminated communication of intense human experience, is the only complete way to explore humanity.

The Nobel Prize award requests an acceptance “lecture,” which sounds more high-falutin and boring than an acceptance speech. The literature winners often take the bait and tell us something about the value of their art—but it just so happens that I’m listening for that right now, because I’m not sure about the value of the arts of poetry or music, the things this project is made of, in the midst of this year’s multiple crises: a pandemic, an economic downturn that I fear we haven’t sounded the bottom of, a king of misrule, and a tragic occasion to consider remedies to racial oppression. When I talked about these things this week with friends, they reminded me, “And we haven’t even talked about global warming lately.”

The first section of today’s piece is taken from William Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Even a couple of decades later his statement was much loved in liberal arts departments as I was getting in touch with them in “The Sixties,” because we still hadn’t gotten over the fear we talk even less about: global atomic warfare destruction. Faulkner was a wordsmith to reckon with, even if he couldn’t figure out the plot of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.*  When I looked back at his speech this month, the line I open up with today grabbed me in 2020 as much or more than it would have back in the mid-20th century:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it.”

Don’t misread the end of that sentence. He is saying we can bear that fear (his contemporary fears, and ours) and go on writing. One may raise their hand before the Nobel-Dynamite-Prize winner Faulkner and ask: “Well, yes I suppose we could. But shouldn’t we be doing something else instead? A lot of people’s survival is at stake.”

The next section I quote from Faulkner’s speech tries to answer that. It’s a fine piece of writing too. If one abstracts the thought from the rhetoric, he’s saying that we have jobs in relationship to those that will be doing something else instead. This is akin to Viola Davis’ argument about art: no position paper, resolution, or negotiating point can fully connect one heart with another, and no struggle can see its way without full illumination of the human experience.

Is Faulkner right about that? I don’t know. It may not be right for you, but it’s a plausible idea for an old man like myself, one who lacks the social cohesion to build a barricade and the bravery to mount and advance over it.

Faulkner Stamp

An example of writers not being much good at other jobs, Faulkner was bad when given a job as a postmaster. His resignation letter read: “As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.” The Postal Service had its revenge in 1987. Faulkner’s price had risen by 20 cents.

 

The concluding statement in today’s piece is from another American Nobel Literature prize winner’s “lecture,” Bob Dylan’s. The inspiration for this came from a gift Dave Moore gave me this month, a small, handsome book containing Dylan’s lecture. When Dylan won the Literature prize there was a great deal of consternation that what he did wasn’t literature, possibly also not very good, but for sure not literature. Some commentators seemed to feel that poetry might not even qualify, wondering what novels he had written.** But never mind, song lyrics can’t be poetry can they?

In the concluding part of his speech Dylan cleverly concedes that point, and then collapses his wings around those objecting that performed oral poetry is not literature. That’s books, stuff written and read on paper. Suddenly they are surrounded with no retreat. Shakespeare*** wrote for voices and audiences in common. We only know his plays in page form from bootleg tapers. Songs, music, are like that too. They are alive, they live on the currents of breath. Literature is an artifact—a voice is the art, a song is the immediate fact of an experience. I, you, anyone, can doubt art in its absence, in silence—while fear likes that space just fine. But while a song is sounding in your breath and ear, doubt is beside the point. “Songs are alive in the land of the living” Dylan proclaims.

My performance mashing up these quotes from the two Nobel Prize speeches accompanied by my own music can be heard with the player below. If you’d like to read the entirety of these two speeches, Faulkner’s text is here, and Dylan’s is here (with a link to his own audio reading).

 

 

 

*A Hollywood anecdote had Faulkner, who was working as screenwriter for hire in the 1940s, getting stumped about the famously convoluted plot of Chandler’s detective novel he was adapting for a classic 1946 movie. A point about an early murder that deepens the plot was unclear. “Yes, but who killed General Sternwood’s chauffeur?” he queried. Chandler replied: “Dammit, I don’t know either.”

**I found it interesting that novelist Faulkner more than once refers to poets as he speaks about the writer’s task in his speech.

***And Dylan closes with Homer, the blind one in the silence of sight, who didn’t ask the muses for paper but the music to tell the story.

Artists Hunting Monsters

The motto of the Parlando Project is “The Place Where Music and Words Meet,” but in practice it has been the place where music and poetry meet.  However, just as I want variety in the music used (within the limits of the musician’s talents) I don’t plan to always use poetry for the texts here. Today’s post is an example. I’m going to use a short public speech, but as I have done with poetry in other episodes, I’m going to treat the words as if they are specifically meaningful, and I’m going to treat those words as if they want to sing.

We are also continuing the investigation of artists and politics, something I’ve touched on several times already this winter.

A few days ago, a cast of actors received an award, and the actor acting as spokesmen for the cast delivered the acceptance speech. Though not entirely a political speech, it was received as one, and it was almost certainly intended to make a political point.

The actor, David Harbour, was speaking for the cast of a series available on Netflix called “Stranger Things.” That show is a sort of bumblebee. Like the famously un-aerodynamic bee, it shouldn’t fly, but it does.“Stranger Things” is a show that uses tropes of 1980s movies and books to tell a story set in that same decade. It should be a winking meta exercise where you spend more time noting the references than to the story itself, or a dreary “I’ve seen this one before” drama that plays as an unoriginal re-hash of ready-made plot points and incidents. Perhaps for some viewers it is one of those things, but for many viewers it’s an ingenious contradiction of all the ways it could fail, doesn’t, and instead flies.

bumblebee flying2

I read on the Internet this is supposed to work!

As an actor, Harbour was part of that levitation. In his acceptance speech, he makes a choice as doomed to fail as the concept of “Stranger Things.”  In his awards-banquet tuxedo, standing in front of an audience of actors, he gives his acceptance speech more-or-less in the person of his character, a gruff, down-on-his-heels Midwestern town sheriff.

What’s the percentages on this working? First off, actors are not their characters, often not even close. Humphrey Bogart wasn’t a grizzled tough guy, he was the son of a cardiac surgeon who grew up upper-middle class. John Wayne was a football player and son of a dirt farmer, not a cowboy or a military man. Actors themselves would know this more than anyone else. Secondly, whatever audience size “Stranger Things” has, that audience isn’t everyone. Will folks who haven’t watched “Stranger Things” get your message if it references tropes from your series?

Well, like the series, like the bumblebee, Harbour’s speech worked in the room none-the-less. You can view that short speech and the reaction here.

In turning this speech into today’s post, “Artists Hunting Monsters,” I changed a few things. First off, the video I first saw after the event did not include his prelude to the words I ended up using. In the part I didn’t have while composing, Harbour talks eloquently about his view of an artist’s role today. In editing the words I did have, sifting them down, and dressing them with music, I choose to universalize his rhetoric to the degree I could, so that even those who haven’t seen “Stranger Things” would have access the message; and in so doing, I changed things to address the role of artists in general, not only the actors that were his present audience.

I’m once more going to violate a principle I thought I would hold to here, and “explain” the text. Harbour, and my selection and recasting of his text, says that an artists’ job, an artist’s calling, is to offer succor to the disenfranchised: to show with our artifice, truth; with our play fighting, successful struggle; with our imagined detectives, the underlying monster.  It’s a call to arms for artists to pick up blunted stage-swords and to deploy magnifying metaphors against oppressive decisions, systems and persons.

How did I speak with the music? Well, I won’t be so bold as to dance about that architecture. The main melodic line is a guitar played with an Ebow, a device that drives an individual guitar string into a cycle of feedback where it sustains with increasing volume until the device is moved away from the string. As the name implies it, it can mimic the sound of a bowed instrument, but that increasing volume feedback loop takes some finesse to manage. The secondary electric guitar line that emerges about halfway into the piece is a guitar feeding back with an amplifier, an even more chaotic effect. I was playing that part live in the main tracking session with bass, drums, and keyboards and was trying to get to the feedback “spot” with the guitar, but mics and other stuff were in the way, and it wasn’t until the track was nearly over that I finally got it to howl properly. And so, I was “hunting monsters” during the main tracking session for recording this piece.

Ebow on Telecaster

This guitar D string is about to find out how bumblebees fly

Before we leave the music part, did you know that the way the bumblebee flies is the way those guitar strings vibrate?

There are still questions left to examine on the role of the arts, and more Parlando Project expressions of music meeting up with words to be posted here in the upcoming months. If you would like to be notified about these new pieces when they are posted, you can click  the little orange “RSS – Posts” icon down on the right side of this post. To hear the LYL Band perform “Artists Hunting Monsters”, use the player you should see just below.