Wabasha and 5th, 1949

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the United States, a harvest festival with elements of a more general event for gratitude. Those who wish to emphasize the gratitude aspect will often decry that Thanksgiving has become too connected with the Christmas shopping season. Their criticism would be: how inappropriate that a day to count our blessings is the day to launch a month of acquisitions and striving for more to give or get.

Earlier in this frankly troubling week for my family, with losses, stresses, and dissatisfactions, I happened upon a photograph from Twitter user Gary Hornseth, who specializes in archived photos and scans from my region. As I glanced at it, I first noticed that it was a very nice urban nightscape shot. The photographer, either freelance or working on a newspaper’s staff, was able to get a long exposure and the right amount of what painters call chiaroscuro to make the high-vantage-point monochrome shot eye-catching. The archivist’s note didn’t tell us who the photographer was, but they say its source was the November 23rd 1949 edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press newspaper.

Wabasha and 5th 1949

I don’t know who the photographer of this midcentury downtown St. Paul shot was. Fine work.

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But then the next thing intrigued me. Hold it, I know that section of St. Paul Minnesota. I worked for 20 years just a couple of blocks away from that corner later in the 20th century. There — that must be the church spire next door to where my coworkers and I worked for a radio network. Back then, from the 4th floor or the roof of my workplace, nearly the same viewpoint on the night was on offer. The streetcar that runs down Wabasha in the old photo? That would be ancestral to the light rail that eventually ran down the street by my work. I looked closer to see what else I could find in the photo. Oh look, there are Christmas decorations spanning the street. Many cities and towns used to string them between light poles for the season, and there they were, like a Minnesota Bedford Falls, arrayed across Wabasha. I checked a calendar. Just as today’s 23rd of November, the day this photo appeared was the eve of Thanksgiving.

And finally, I saw the one thing that drew me furthest into that picture. At the left margin of the photo, silhouetted in a lit window on the 4th floor of an office building, is the single human figure in the shot. Not enough detail to say who they are, just their unmistakable human form. A cleaning person, night watchman, midnight-oil-burning worker, or business owner? Could it even be a writer such as myself? Because they are not so blurred in the photo’s long exposure, we know they were standing still, looking out for a good moment. To look out at the night on a settlement of people, especially from a high vantage point, is to have a thought, or the experience of something that may be more encompassing than an ordinary thought. Here then, as I would have seen decades later, are people and their creations, their government, their religions, their workplaces, their schools, their hospitals, their arts, their businesses. All of them have someplace to be or someplace to be lost from, something to celebrate or something that does not fit them. The gap in time from 1949 to now, is something like a lifetime of moving through those states, even on one corner in St. Paul Minnesota. To someone my age, that doesn’t seem that long.

In conclusion, that’s the real and balanced Thanksgiving, the one of all of us satisfied or unsatisfied, grieving or gathering, living in justice or injustice, may observe.

I wrote today’s piece you can listen to below after viewing that photo. It started somewhat prose-poem-like, which I revised more toward prose. It’s a couple minutes longer than most of our Parlando Project pieces and I didn’t have much time to put together a performance of it, so I decided to go word-jazz, working as spontaneously as a one-man band could do so. I quickly ran through the piano part, worked with percussion samples to get a drum track that worked (easily the longest task), and then played the fretless bass part. The spoken word story recording was one pass, not perfect, but close enough considering the time I could devote to this. You can hear it with the player gadget below, and where that gadget isn’t displayed, with this backup highlighted link.

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Ghosts

There’s a story that a poet once read a poem to a small group. There were a few murmurs in that small audience, that kind of appreciation — the kind that a not-uncommon everyday poet might expect at a public reading. It’s a sound that says “That certainly sounded like something. Might be good, but can I trust myself? That was poetry, and poets can be clearly beautiful without being, well, clear.”

Yes, there are poems that can cause amen shouts. Yes, there are poems where audiences will applaud. Some of those poems are useful, and isn’t that a kind of beauty? Yes it is — but I said this was one of those poems one more commonly hears when a poet reads.

This time, one listener in the small audience spoke up. “What does that poem mean?” they asked.

The poet looked at the honest questioner for a moment. Looked down at the podium. Paused a moment more. And then they simply read the poem again.

Note, the poet didn’t chastise the listener. It’s good when readers and listeners want to know what they can take in from a set of words and sounds. The issue here is that many poems are written by sincere poets who wrote and crafted a poem without being able to express what they labored to put in the poem nearly as well otherwise. The object of such a poem isn’t a summary, an allegory, or single thread of argument or narrative, rather it may be something designed not to be vague, but to exactly reflect differently as one stands around it.

Ghosts

Are we to comfort and remember the ghosts or be frightened of them? Yes.

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I wrote the text for today’s performance. I accumulated a few lines in my head during a day — and then when I should have been going to sleep, they asked to be written down. Three revisions later and it’s at the version I performed today. I think this is a fairly plainspoken poem, but I know from experience when I’ve presented my work to other people they often find poems in this style baffling and ineffective, this even though they too are poets. I could write here about what they’ve suggested, and what I’ve resisted in those suggestions, but let’s defer that for now. I could also write about what engendered this poem, what the lines seemed to mean when I looked at them from a variety of directions, but tonight I feel the poem at this level of revision says what it should say as well as I can say it in its resonances and refractions. You can hear me perform “Ghosts”  with the player gadget below. Don’t see any such player?  Use this highlighted link and it will open a new tab with an alternative player so that you can hear it.

 

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Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox

I first encountered Leonard Cohen in one of those so serious  Sunday arts, religion, and culture shows that broadcast TV felt required to provide around the past mid-century. As he was consistently able to do throughout his life, Cohen was able to articulately weave a good deal of provocative thought into an interview. I was struck, and took to reading and listening to Cohen from that point on.

I was young then, and Cohen’s eloquence was novel to me. In the many decades since, I have heard others work the provocative angle in interviews, but never with the same level of quality as in Cohen’s spiel. Poetry, religion, music, politics, and more could enter into his answers — and often when the question didn’t determine which of those things would be in his response.

I cannot find any online video of that exact Sunday TV show from The Sixties, but his 1966 CBC interview is an example of what a Cohen interview would be like.

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To some that could seem pretentious. And that is a risk: a lot of provocative interviewees when challenged are bluffing. Asked to show their cards, they will throw the cards and the table in the air, or will fold into muffled defensiveness. Cohen seems to have never done that. He always had, seeming at hand, another answer, deeper or funnier, or more provocative. And those Sixties interviews are even more remarkable in that many current televised interviews are prepared: a demi-scripted performance where the interviewer is tasked to ask questions prepared beforehand, so that the interviewee can be setup to tell their clever story or give a canned pitch for their current work, cause, or situation. My sense is that Cohen wouldn’t have followed such a scheme even if it was expected of him then.

Did you “huh?” at that “funnier” in the above litany? Maybe it’s the baritone voice or the unrestrained gothic concerns; to many superficial observers Cohen has always seemed the uncut expression of despair and sorrow — but with a little sex in it. Yet absurdity and satire were always part of his expression. Those looking for the correct and proper level of seriousness, those with the least sense of humor and the highest expectations for consonant entertainment, are the most likely to miss that element in Cohen.

This a longer-form documentary on Cohen from the mid-60s. Watch the first 3 minutes and ask yourself if songwriting might have lost a talent to stand-up comedy if Cohen had emerged a couple of decades later.


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Today’s piece is a short passage from Cohen’s first novel, The Favorite Game, though the words (and I) perform it much like a poem in the Parlando Project manner with The LYL Band. I thought of this older performance today because I recently had a restless dream which had a jukebox in it, and that caused me to think of the disappearance of this phonebooth appliance that directly connected one to the sound of a voice for a coin in public places. How strange that seems now, with our earbuds and all-you-can-bear-to listen-to streaming. Cohen calls out the mechanism’s comic mystery in this passage, and you can hear it without a dime or quarter with the player gadget below — or if you don’t see that player, with this highlighted link.

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Jimi Hendrix’s Tears

Long time readers may recall that I’ve made a personal practice of pausing and noting on each September 18th the anniversary of the day that American guitarist Jimi Hendrix died. This observation has taken various forms over the years, though plugging in and playing electric guitar has usually been one of them. Playing music would seem to be an appropriate way to observe the passing of player that we wish was still able continue playing and composing music.

Strat-Television-Hendrix

The Stratocaster I’ll play later today is heard at the very end of today’s story audio. The original lineup of Television rehearses circa 1974, Lloyd is the guitarist in the center. On either side are the two poet/musicians who founded that band: Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine, Billy Ficca is the drummer. Hendrix in the lower right.

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However, today I’ve decided to do something different, a bit opposite really. There’s a story I’ve heard in interviews and through various tellings that includes another guitarist whose playing I admire. That guitarist, Richard Lloyd,*  while still an uncelebrated teenager and nascent guitarist, met Jimi Hendrix. I’ve always thought it was one of the great rock’n’roll stories, so I decided to tell it to you in my own words. No music this time, just me telling the story, audio-book style.

You can hear it below with a graphical audio player. No player visible? This highlighted link will play it.

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*Lloyd was a guitarist in a great New York City based rock group Television, whose debut album Marquee Moon  stands toe-to-toe with Patti Smith’s Horses  as an expression of the remarkable originality that launched what we now call Indie Rock. He went on to record solo records and contribute to other records, notably Matthew Sweet’s Nineties landmark Girlfriend.  Lloyd has a 2017 autobiography Everything Is Combustible   ISBN: 9780997693768 (or ISBN10: 0997693762). One line I remember from a Richard Lloyd guitar tutorial went something like this. “So the student said, I don’t know much, I’ve only been playing for a few months.” Lloyd replied “No, if you’ve played guitar for a few months, that’s over 2,000 hours! You should be able to develop a lot of skills in that much time.”

Working Girls, Happiness, and Muckers: three Carl Sandburg poems about workers

I wrote a short piece a few years ago, which goes like this:

The Temple of Summer is guarded by two pillars:
Memorial Day for those who gave up their lives in war,
And Labor Day for those who gave up their lives in peacetime.

This Monday is American Labor Day.*  What constitutes a laborer, a worker? Someone who works for someone else, who doesn’t own their own business? Are poets and musicians workers, or small businesspersons? These things are not simple — after all, that musician-derived term “the gig economy” shows that grants of independence can be superficial. Anyway, let me defer that discussion and say that poet and musician Carl Sandburg was a worker, knew he was a worker, and understood work. It should be no surprise that I’ve chosen to present three poems from his 1916 breakthrough collection, Chicago Poems for Labor Day — or for any working day if you read this later. They’re observed and written in the situation of their time, but let’s not dismiss their concerns and experiences as outdated this Labor Day — at least, not without hearing Sandburg out.

How many times, even today, when someone seeks to portray the working class, is a white male presupposed? Sandburg doesn’t make that mistake as his “Working Girls”  will show. My wife, a nurse, came home this week concerned around a strike deadline, and it’s safe to say that women have carried proportionally more of the stress of the past few years in the workplace. She tells me her coworkers are riven by this announced possibility. Some of the most stressed, see this as adding to their stress; others see this as an attempt to remedy some of what’s wrong in their field. Sandburg sees a dialectic in his river of working women, though his poem’s more about the general wearing-down of a life of work.

“Happiness”  is probably the best-known of the three Sandburg poems in today’s piece. It’s significant to know that Sandburg is a 1st generation immigrant, and he writes continually of the immigrant experience in his poetry. I don’t think it’s too hard to translate from Sandburg’s immigrants to today. My weekend summer nights here in my neighborhood feature accordion music as this poem mentions, though the singing is in Spanish for my ears. Oh, my wife and teenager sometimes have trouble sleeping, and then there’s this noise. I have trouble sleeping too, but I also hear this Sandburg poem in my head, accompanying from his time the Mexican songs from the yard three houses down the street.

Consider this on a holiday: no one feels leisure like a working person.

“Muckers”  may take a little translation. When I was growing up, closer in time to Sandburg’s than today is, a ditch digger was not a job description so much as a derogatory term. It stood for someone who had no ambition, no skills, no ability to advance. If you lacked those things, you might be cursed to become “a ditch digger.” It was essentially workplace hell — and the inhabitants, damned by their sins of omission. My father once preached a sermon I can recall from my youth in which the dignity of a ditch digger’s work was proclaimed. The detail he spoke of then, the part I can remember, was that some care as well as muscle was required to carve out a stable and straightaway ditch.

Sandburg’s poem takes a red-wheelbarrow to the job site, writing (as he would often do) an Imagist poem concerned not just with concise precision in the observation, but more at why so much depends on what is observed. And he’s got a punch line, one anyone who’s ever suffered through the worthlessness of unemployment will understand.

Together these three poems I perform today celebrate those who give up their lives in peacetime. “You dreamy poet,” some may be saying now, “That’s the way of the world. Don’t you know?” Oh, Sandburg knows. He went to work at 13. I was self-supporting at 18. The difference between us and some other poets is that we’ll write and sing about this. It’s as universal as love and heartbreak, near as universal as death, and it’s the mundane ground upon which poetry and music and all the arts are stroked upon.

Carl Sandburg with light guitar

Carl Sandburg: proud to be the guitar strangler, rockin’ maker, stacker of tracks of wax, hex-string player, and folk-rock maven of Modernist poetry.

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My musical performance is longer today than most Parlando pieces, but then it does present three poems and asks for a quantity discount. After working out and executing the acoustic guitar and “punk orchestral” setting of Emily Dickinson last time I wanted to plug in a Stratocaster and wail a bit, and so what you’ll hear today is a live electric guitar performance recorded then. One production oddity I’ll note: I recorded the two chordal “rhythm guitar” parts after the lead melodic part. The player gadget to hear the performance is below for many of you, and I provide this highlighted link for those viewing this blog in ways that cannot display the graphical audio player.

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*My teenager reminds me that “Labor Day” is not the international workers day that is May Day. I remind them that American Labor Day came out of the labor movement too, and no matter how you parse things, having two days to celebrate work and workers is not too much, no more than we should be embarrassed in America to have a Veterans Day and a Memorial Day.

Let Us Be Midwives!

Here’s a second part of my short series marking August 6th, Hiroshima Day, the day the first atomic bomb was dropped on that city, killing tens of thousands.*

Did the previous post’s intentionally odd linkage of personal grief with the deaths of thousands seem thoughtlessly, even offensively, narcissistic? Or did that consideration never occur to you? Not to make a show of putting on the hair shirt, but that sort of question does occur to me.

I’ve come to an acceptance that with poetry that charge is hard to avoid. A poem — one performed to an Internet audience like this project has, or to one spread over time on a silent page — works as a connection between one voice and the audience of one, as one. We may talk usefully of inspirations or conceptually of muses, we may choose to represent causes of multiple voices, but in the end a poet, or any writer, is asking for your attention with a claim from their attention. It’s that simple.

So, must what we put in our poems’ attention field be important, generally important? That’s a heavy burden to put on a few singing words, perhaps making also a claim to be novel, beautiful, even a source of pleasure. The bombing of Hiroshima passes any test of consideration surely, but today’s piece by Sadako Kurihara (translated by Richard Minear) makes choices in portraying this epochal event.

hiroshima-shadows

Imagery beyond poetry. The intense flaming light from the Hiroshima blast burnt shadows onto walls.

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Although short, it’s a narrative poem, and its story has power as story, so I’m not going to summarize it here today, asking instead that you take the 2 ½ minutes to listen to the performance of it. Let me instead tell you a little bit I’ve learned about its author.

Kurihara was an anarchist poet who grew up in an increasingly militarized and authoritarian Japan before the war. Living away from her country’s cultural centers and holding unpopular ideas, she and her family lived a life of poverty and obscurity, marked only by occassional run-ins with the authorities. Throughout the war, she continued writing poetry, though publication was out of the question. On August 6th she was at home in Hiroshima when another country’s military dropped an A-bomb on it. The poem I perform today was completed by September and was published early in 1946 after the defeat and occupation of Japan. It predates by a few months John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”  article that helped form widespread attention to the particulars of today’s event. It therefore is likely one of the first poems written or published about the bombing.

Sadoko Kurihara

Sadoko Kurihara

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The poem reads like an eyewitness account, though from what I’ve read in the past few days about it and its author, it’s based on events she heard about from those who had sought shelter in the basement of her city’s central post office.** So, there’s a choice here. Kurihara used someone else’s story, a vary particular one, to portray one aspect of this large event, one small enough to fit into this short narrative poem.

In the last post, I talked about how near grief can seem larger than massive suffering. This poem uses that effect to do its work. My performance of Kurihara’s “Let Us Be Midwives!”***  has a player gadget below so that you can hear it. Some ways this post can be read will not show that gadget, so I provide this highlighted link to also play it. I’d originally thought I do a more complex musical setting for this poem, one that would somehow (that I’d have to figure out) express the massive horror and scale of destruction. But I lacked anything like the time, focus, and opportunities to do that. Instead, the music has a simple and entirely major chord guitar part that I performed live in one-take, and I spent most of the compositional time making the drum part. In the end I decided to add nothing else, as I think Kurihara’s poem is powerful enough to earn your attention without further elaboration. If you’d like to read the poem yourself, here’s a link to four of  Sadako Kurihara’s poems including this one.

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*There will be no ethical discussion today about the decision to drop the bomb, nor any attempt to adjudge and weigh the evils of any side in World War II. Not that that isn’t important, but it’s nothing I want to try to summarize in a few hundred words. Any reflexive “How many American lives were saved, so spare us the stories of Hiroshima” take should pause and consider that Kurihara opposed that war and her country’s militarism. That would be like accusing Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five  as cozying up to Nazis.

**This may bring to mind stories of others sheltering in the largest ruins of their cities today.

***The poem was further subtitled, in the translation I used, “An untold story of the atomic bombing” but it is also referred to under another English translation of the title as “Bringing Forth New Life.”

She’s so unusual: "The Trees are Down” for National Poetry Month

Americans know little of English poet Charlotte Mew, who wrote today’s poem during “the last Twenties,” but her poetry shows some unusual qualities, particularly for her time.*  For example, this poem starts off off-hand and rises at its end to hearing an angel — so beginning like a reserved Frank O’Hara and ending as if she were Rilke.

Oh, and in the middle of the poem, there’s a short meditation over the corpse of a dead rat.**  Joyce Kilmer must have forgot to add that kind of touch in his better-known Arbor Day connected poem!

Accounts from those who were acquainted with Mew often commented on her eccentricities, and even though Virginia Woolf and Thomas Hardy thought highly of her writing, Mew’s writing career never really gained traction. Over the decades since there’s been some increase in interest in Mew, especially in England. I’d suppose that the eccentricities and tragic arc of her biography help some with interest, but in the immediacy of Parlando’s performances we’re left with just the text of a poem like this. This performance is a live LYL Band take, and like much O’Hara, I found the conversational style makes the text easy to perform.

As with Frank O’Hara, or Emily Dickinson for that matter, just what Mew is getting on about in her poem may not be grasped on one listen or read-through. Yes, the poem’s audacious empathy for the trees comes through easily, but what’s the purpose of that rat? I think Mew is explaining that it’s the absences, the deaths, that more fully convince life into our memory, and that this is so for the “god-forsaken” rat and the angel-blessed trees.

The poem’s Plane tree is a species well suited to urban spaces, able to survive the Victorian pollution of London that Mew was born into.

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One last day to go in our celebration here of National Poetry Month, but I’ve got some plans for a big send-off day tomorrow if time and life allows. As with most of the 30 performances of a variety of poems that we’ve re-released this April, there are three ways to hear Charlotte Mew’s “The Trees are Down.”   You can use a player gadget below, this highlighted hyperlink (supplied for those who won’t see the player), and via a lyric video above.

Thanks again for reading and clicking play. It should be obvious if you read or listen to the things here, that there’s a reason I’m attracted to the unusual. You must be too. I’m grateful for that.

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*That relaxed  beginning, interrupted by the interjections of the workmen’s voices all related in long prosy lines is still an unusual effect today. Maybe the beginning has some Whitman in there too?

**Without plan, 3 poems in the 30 have had rats in them. T. S. Eliot’s “Waste Land”  river rat in “The River Sweats,”  Du Fu’s scurrying rat in the ruins from “Jade Flower Palace,”  and now Mew’s spring corpse rat.

Fenton Johnson’s “Tired” for National Poetry Month

As we continue into the last week of National Poetry Month I’m going to remind casual readers here that poetry is not only beauty or amazement, even if during this month we often emphasize those qualities. Yesterday’s piece by Chicago’s Carl Sandburg was about a lovely evening, about a generalized bonhomie with love, music, and moonlight. Today’s poem is by Sandburg’s Chicago contemporary Fenton Johnson and it’s about abject dejection and bitterness. It’s called “Tired”  and it’s strong stuff, even today more than a hundred years after it was written.*

As you might expect, it was controversial when first published, even among Johnson’s fellow Afro-American writers. Some didn’t care for the poem’s prosey free verse. Some thought it’s despair unseemly or unreflective of the demonstrated willingness of Afro-American’s to struggle and overcome. Here’s how James Weldon Johnson,** a multi-talented Black American who republished “Tired”  in his pioneering anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry,  judged Fenton Johnson:

He disregarded the accepted poetic forms, subjects, and language, adopted free verse, and in that formless form wrote poetry in which he voiced the disillusionment and bitterness of feeling the Negro race was then experiencing. In some of this poetry he went further than protests against wrong or the moral challenges that the wronged can always fling against the wrongdoer; he sounded the note of fatalistic despair. It was his poetry written in this key that brought him recognition. The central idea of this poetry was startling. Doubtless its effect was in some degree due to the fact that it was an idea so foreign to any philosophy of life the Negro in America had ever preached or practiced. Fenton Johnson is the only Negro poet who has ever sounded this precise note.”

There doesn’t seem to be any good summary available to me about what Fenton Johnson himself thought about his poetic methods, or his political beliefs — but after reading a range of his published verse accessible to me I believe “Tired”  to be a “persona poem,” presenting one of a series of characters,***  not the author speaking their own memoir as poetry, not a summary of correct political stances, but one of a variety of examples: some comic, some ironic, and none quite as despairing as the speaker in “Tired.”   My theory: much like Sandburg and other early Midwestern Modernists such as Edgar Lee Masters, Fenton Johnson wanted to show a range of outlooks and modes of expression.

Do James Weldon Johnson, or others who’ve wrapped Fenton Johnson with the label of bitter and despairing, know better? You and I should consider that. Still, even when they speak of Fenton Johnson’s work in mixed terms, that testifies to the shear condensed power of “Tired’s”  expression and how it struck them as it might still strike you today.


Sandburg’s “Back Yard” celebrated immigrants, and Chicago’s Afro-American population in 1919 included a lot of interstate Black immigrants fleeing a Jim Crow South.

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As National Poetry Month continues, still three ways to hear this piece. There’s a graphical audio player below for many, and this highlighted link if you don’t see that — and our April bonus, a lyric video with more 100-year-old photographs like those in our contrasting-mood Carl Sandburg “Back Yard”  video last time.

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*As with “Zeppelins”  from earlier this month I thought it best to put warnings on the video description so the casual watcher doesn’t come upon the depiction unawares.

**These two Johnsons aren’t related, but it makes references to the pair in this post more longwinded.

***The “Last Chance Saloon that haunts “Tired”  appears for example as a place of musical conviviality in another character poem of Johnson’s that I’ve performed here The Banjo Player”.  A third Fenton Johnson poem I’ve performed is his masterful recasting of a spiritual sermon “A Dream.”  Feel free to click the hyperlinks for those two to get a wider view of Johnson’s poetry.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 for National Poetry Month

This Saturday is Shakespeare’s day: the day he died, and by counting roughly from his christening, the best estimate of his birthday — and so as I revisit the early years of the Parlando Project, it’s a good time to re-release my first performance of a work by Shakespeare. It’s one of his most famous sonnets, number 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

Short poems, and sonnets are short poems, can have a prismatic character: shifting light, new facets. As I wrote when I performed it back in 2017, I then mostly picked up on the boasting nature of it. While it starts off flattering the “fair youth,” all that lovely flash is really about Shakespeare the wordsmith and prolog to the final turn where the poet brags that he’s going to make the youth immortal with his “eternal lines.”

I concluded back then: “It’s not bragging if you can do it.” Immortal is a bit beyond guarantee, but a few centuries is practically close enough to settle that matter.

This morning as I thought again about Sonnet 18, I see another side. Since this is April Poetry Month, I’m perhaps led to think more distinctly about poetry’s evidence for the worth of poetry. Read in that frame, one can take the opening line as more than a rhetorical flourish. It’s asking a real question about the worth of metaphor, a prime component of poetry’s way of experiencing.

If it’s a real question, then it’s all but asking “What’s the worth of a poem?” The fancy language that completes the sonnet’s first 8 lines give some reasons just by being a word-music aria on beauty. Any IRL summer’s day varies, changes — often away from our desired day. It’s been a cold, dark April where I live. I look forward to May or better yet June, when it’s warm, when snow and ice isn’t plausible, when I can go with bare arms and legs into air without it carrying off my body’s warmth. But then comes a week or more of humid highs-in-the-90s weather, and I’ll want a crisp spring or fall day, even with some spitting rain.

The poem says the fair youth it addresses isn’t like those inconsistent days: they’re always temperate and sunny. I call BS. It’s not possible to know if Shakespeare’s sonnets are poetry as memoir, real events from his life captured in verse, or if they are characters and situations created by a wide-ranging dramatist — but here, as in some other “fair youth” sonnets, I see inequalities of class and caste being exhibited. Do newly beloveds seem perfect, always compatible? I’ll grant that. I’ve been in relationships with some pretty good human beings over the years, but as a short speech in verse, this rhetorical portrayal of the perfect fair youth who in power analysis seems to be of a higher social standing than Shakespeare and his family, is (in character or reality) pandering to vanity, and I would consider it a wink and a nod to those who’d share Shakespeare’s aspiring-to-be-middle-class background that “we all know this.”

There’s a visual pun in my “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”  lyric video’s first dissolve.*

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Have I spoiled this poem for those who have read it, or shared it, as a sincere poem of love? I hope not. But that’s the facet I see today of this famous sonnet — but I said above I was seeing Sonnet 18 as being about poetry’s worth. How’s that? First off, it gives pleasure. If the opening 8 lines flatter too much to make me read them without context, they are  word-music. Sing me silly love songs! I think the poem’s conclusion to the opening question is “Yes! You should  compare. Do make metaphors. Do sing word-music.” Some of these poems will be close-enough to be immortal. Some will be about as short-lived as the shortest relationship; some will have a combined readership of 1.5. Even if those poems are not immortal, the desire to make poetry and the hope of reading poetry with pleasure is immortal as “long as men (editorial comment: and women too you gender-exclusionist-pig Billy) can breathe or eyes can see.”

You can hear my 2017 performance three ways. There’s a new lyric video above, and for some of you an audio player gadget below. Just want to hear the audio of the performance but don’t see the player? This highlighted link will do that. Listening again to that performance recorded from the feeling of the poet bragging on his words, I think it also works to portray my feelings about the poem today.

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*I value the audience this Project has: people like you who are interested in some pretty odd corners in a variety of poetry and a variety of music are rare. That’s not flattery, just fact. So, I have faith someone out there will laugh. The rest, forgive me the indulgence.

Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.) for National Poetry Month

It’s Easter and time to close my short Edward Thomas series for National Poetry Month with a short elegy written by a poet both less and more known than Thomas in the United States.

But before I get to that, let me fill in a few spaces in the Edward Thomas story. I ran into Thomas while researching Robert Frost’s stay in England before WWI. During this time three things happened that are part of our story: Frost published his first poetry collection in London (no one in American publishing was interested in Frost then). Frost was praised by Ezra Pound as an authentic new poetic voice and he finally gains attention in America. A man who made and kept few friends, Frost made one with Edward Thomas. Accounts have it that it was Frost himself who told Thomas that he was a poet who could and should write poetry, starting off the around two-year binge of poetry writing that comprises Thomas’ legacy today.

Thomas’ poetry, metrical and rhymed like Frost’s, has, like the best of early Frost, a sense of the direct object that the Imagists (promoted by Pound) were all about. Read quickly and with casual attention this poetry can seem cold or slight. Who cares about the red wheelbarrow, or that it’s quiet in an English village when the train stops except for a spreading universe of birdsong, or that there’s an abandoned woodpile in a frozen bog? Where’s the breast beating, the high-flown similes, the decoration of gods and abstracts?

In the face of World War I, a war the old gods and abstracts seemed to cause and will onward — to the result of turning “young men to dung” as Thomas said last time — all that seemed beside the point. Thomas knew that, and knew that. He was philosophically a pacifist, an internationalist. None-the-less in 1915, in his late 30s and the sole breadwinner for his family,* he enlisted in the Artists Rifles. He had one other offer: Frost had asked Thomas and Thomas’ family to join him in America.

There’s this other famous point in the Frost-Thomas connection: what may be Frost’s most beloved poem, “The Road Not Taken”  was written about his friend Thomas and their walks about in England. Frost meant to gently chide his friend’s intense observation and concern for choices on smallest evidence, though many who love the poem today take it as the motto for the importance of life choices. Some misremember Frost poem as “The Road Less Travelled By,”  when in the text the poem’s speaker says the two roads were ‘really about the same.”  Thomas’ two roads in the matter of the war were not “really about the same.”

Thomas chose to sign up with the Artists Rifles. You may think, “What an odd name? What’s up with that?” Well, it was what it sounds like. It was founded about 50 years earlier by some painters who wanted to start their own volunteer military unit. It saw action in some of the British colonialist battles before WWI, and in-between it was sort of a shooting club, a weekend-warrior kind of thing. Sound like an old-school-tie/old-boys club? I guess it was. Even during WWI it was invitation-only from existing members. So what happened with it during WWI? It produced junior officers, the kind of lieutenants and scouts that would account for the unit having some of the highest casualty rates in the war. So, there you have it: an exclusive club where the winnowing greeter is waving you in to the trenches and a mechanized manure-spreader of a war.

Busts of Mars and Minerva are featured in the unit’s insignia. “Artists Rifles” sounds kin to Sex Pistols or Guns & Roses, doesn’t it?

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While still in England and in training with his unit, Thomas was able to mix with his circle of friends. He shipped out to France in 1917. He was killed a few weeks later, during what he thought was a lull in the battle. A late shell or sniper got him. He’d written about 100 poems, none of them published at the time of his death. His friends, other poets, wrote elegies. I know of at least three. Here’s a link to a post on another admirable blog, Fourteen Lines, which includes two of those elegies to Thomas.

One of them is by Robert Frost. Re-reading it again I think, Frost must have been so grief stricken that he’d forgotten to be Robert Frost. It’s filled with the kind of fustian crap, romanticism, and poetic diction that Frost the rhyming Modernist was all about throwing off. I tend to forget the poems that don’t give me strong pleasures, so maybe I’m overlooking something, but this elegy may be the worst poem Robert Frost ever wrote. By the time I got to “You went to meet the shell’s embrace of fire” I was through with Frost’s attempt.

Oh, if he could have concentrated on the concrete, the palpable. He may not have known it, but the records of the British military recorded the meagre personal effects found on Thomas’ body: a small notebook/journal, a watch, a compass, a copy of Shakespeare poems…and “Mountain Interval,”  one of Frost’s poetry collections now published in an expanding career in the United States.

So, to end the story of Edward Thomas, who found himself as a poet in middle age writing about how England changed as war arrived, only to die in that war, I chose to perform the second one in Fourteen Lines’ post “Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.)”  by Eleanor Farjeon. Farjeon, like yesterday’s Edna Clarke Hall, was a young woman enamored of Thomas** who like Frost and Hall enjoyed walks with Thomas in the countryside. While few Americans are familiar with any of Thomas’ poems,*** Farjeon wrote the lyrics to the hymn song “Morning Has Broken”  which became famous on the back of a Yusef Cat Stevens 1971 performance, and as I write this it may be being sung in an Easter service in my country. So, many Americans know a Farjeon poem, but since Yusef Cat Stevens was known as a songwriter, most probably think he  wrote the words.

Farjeon’s elegy for Thomas doesn’t’ make the mistakes Frost made. It begins as particular and offhand as Frank O’Hara’s masterpiece elegy “The Day Lady Died.”   I don’t know if it’s intended, but after yesterday’s poem of Thomas’ “Gone, Gone Again”   Farjeon picks up with Thomas’ love for apples, speaking of a package of English apples she’d sent to him at the front and of the budding apple trees in the orchard around her. Like “Morning Has Broken,” “Easter Monday”  starts in Eden, and where can we go from there?

The oblique grief of her last line? What can I say…

I may or may not do a lyric video for this one, but you can hear my performance of Eleanor Farjeon’s “Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.)”  two ways now. There’s a graphical player below for some, and for those without the ability to see that, this highlighted link.

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*It hadn’t occurred to me, but some have pointed out that a steady paycheck, even if soldier’s pay, may have been one of Thomas’ motivations. His freelance writing work was always running to catch up with the bills.

**Thomas’ wife was open to these relationships, and was friends with Hall and Farjeon before and after Edward’s death. As I said last time, Edward Thomas’ emotional and love life would make a fascinating TV series.

***In England, Thomas is better-known. “Adlestrop”  often ranks in best-loved poem surveys there.