Some people live so long as to make time and its boundaried eras seem a foggy measure. Such a man was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the American poet, painter, and bookstore owner who predates and post-dates the Beat poetry scene — or for that matter the Hippie scene, and our century’s activist eras and its search for peace and justice. If you are a fan of generational short-hand (I’m not) you will notice that every one of those eras was widely denounceable as impractical, delusional, and in most ways inferior to those that came before that.
“Thank you for your service” is the reflex response nowadays. Surely due, but I think also of his post-war service, helping promote a new more vernacular American poetry via his work, encouragement, bookstore and small press. His own 1958 poetry collection A Coney Island of the Mind was immensely popular,* and seeing it or Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (which Ferlinghetti published**) in their paperback black and white form was once a common marker in smoky apartments during my youth.
Around the time this Project was beginning I performed a couple of Lawrence Ferlinghetti poems live with The LYL Band. I’d actually hoped to get permission to post those performances someday, but emails to City Lights garnered no replies. Hearing today of his death, and thinking of his life that well-lived, I thought inescapably of this poem of his from A Coney Island of the Mind entitled “The world is a beautiful place.” I’ve decided to post our performance here in the spirit of gratitude and in memoriam. If any rights owner objects, let me know, and I will remove. The player gadget for our performance is often below, but this highlighted hyperlink will also work if you don’t have the gadget on your screen. If you want to read silently, or read along, here’s a link to the text of Ferlinghetti’s poem.
Want to hear another version of “The world is a beautiful place?”
*Some accounts say Coney Island is the most popular poetry collection ever published in English. I’m not sure of that.
**Was Howl a big “get” that he was lucky to land for City Lights? Not exactly. He was put on trial for publishing it, and Ferlinghetti figured he’d go to jail. The Fifties judge, to some surprise, ruled it not obscene.
Continuing in my celebration of Black History Month, I’m going to return to the 1925 anthology that is often thought of as the launching point of the Harlem Renaissance, The New Negro. This book’s editor Alain Locke wanted to demonstrate the breadth of new expression by Afro-Americans in his time, and so concentrated on young and living artists for the most part. In traveling back to 1925 to visit this book, I have to readjust myself to the way Locke and his alternate presenters frames these young artists compared to how someone might do so today.
Each essay I’ve read so far in The New Negro is written in a careful and august style. Don’t get me wrong, the style is not overly academic, and the introductory essays don’t descend into esoteric terminology. It appears that Locke wanted this book to speak to any educated person, white or Black — and probably to non-American’s too. But there’s a focus on the fine arts and how Afro-American work may be measured favorably in those fields — and then some discomfort with the popular arts where Afro-Americans are also increasingly visible to white folks.
There are some complex reasons for that, more than today’s post will have time to go into in any depth. The simplest heading for a large concern there is “minstrelsy,” the long-standing and once highly popular American tactic of using Black characters to represent unvarnished and unrepentant foolish and clownish behavior,* extended often through the use of white actors or artists portraying Black characters. In the popular arts, some of the breakthrough “cross-over” artists of Locke’s time were working off the grounds of this comic and derogatory white approximation of Blackness, giving them back a Black reflection of a racist white reflection of Blackness. Tough way to work!
Midway through I’ve come to the book’s section on music, and in this case Locke himself leads off that section with an essay somewhat different from the main thrust of the book, a lengthy appreciation of “The Negro Spirituals,” a folk music form with almost entirely anonymous composers that came to cultural attention in the 19th century, not in his modern 20th. Locke deftly deals with the dialect of those lyrics, and even at times concedes a judgement of simplicity on the music, countering by pointing out the — well — spiritual concerns, and the evident depth of feeling. He points out that European composers had long been drawing on that continent’s folk music and orchestrating it for concert halls** and suggests the same may be a path for Spirituals going forward.
The next essay in the Music section of The New Negro does speak to a 20th century Afro-American form, one not yet considered a fine art: “Jazz At Home” by J. A. Rogers.*** Rogers has a lot to say in his essay, and for someone like me who many decades later became interested in Blues, Jazz and their descendant forms, it’s interesting to see how one intelligent Afro-American in the middle of the emergent “Jazz Decade” of the 1920s viewed this music. Here’s a few excerpts that will give you the flavor:
The Negroes who invented [Jazz] called their songs the ‘Blues,’ and they weren’t capable of satire or deception….[Jazz] is a release of all the suppressed emotions at once, a blowing off of the lid, as it were. It is hilarity expressing itself through pandemonium; musical fireworks…..in idiom — rhythmic, musical and pantomimic — thoroughly American Negro; it is his spiritual picture on that lighter comedy side, just as the spirituals are the picture on the tragedy side. The two are poles apart, but the former is by no means to be despised and it is just as characteristically the product of the peculiar and unique experience of the Negro in this country.
Jazz, it is needless to say, will remain a recreation for the industrious and a dissipater of energy for the frivolous, a tonic for the strong and a poison for the weak. For the Negro himself, jazz is both more and less dangerous than for the white — less, in that he is nervously more in tune with it; more, in that at his average level of economic development his amusement life is more open to the forces of social vice….Yet in spite of its present vices and vulgarizations, its sex informalities, its morally anarchic spirit, jazz has a popular mission to perform. Joy, after all, has a physical basis. Those who laugh and dance and sing are better off even in their vices than those who do not…. It has come to stay, and they are wise, who instead of protesting against it, try to lift and divert it into nobler channels.”
The “Um, actually…” annoying and opinionated pedant in me wants to correct him at times,**** which when you think about it, is presumptuous. I’ve got decades of scholarship and hindsight that I didn’t have to do myself to prop me up. Rogers couldn’t listen to Charlie Patton records anytime he wanted to in 1925, so if he thinks Blues was sorrowful and was “incapable of satire or deception” I can’t bring him my evidence back to his time. And if he views Jazz in 1925 as merely happy-go-lucky, is he a reliable first-hand witness to his time and place that I’m not — or is he reflecting the types of Jazz that found the quickest acceptance by broader audiences including whites? Rogers lived long enough that it’s possible he could have listened to “A Love Supreme” before he died, and if so he would have found there the spiritual jazz expression he predicted.
So here I am, some other kind of fool, writing this introduction to — what? — some introductory essays, because directly following Rogers essay in our 1925 book is today’s piece, a poem by another writer who was totally unknown to me: Gwendolyn B. Bennett. She gives us an example of how poetry differs from the typical essay, and it’s not hard to think that Locke consciously chose that position, because her poem extends his and Rogers’ essays, giving us a set of words that are aware of the ideas they wrote about, but Bennett is telling sharply how those ideas feel.
Bennett’s poem, which she called just “Song” is too good to be overlooked, and so despite my current limitations with creating musical pieces I felt I had to present it. One choice I had to make in inhabiting it was just what was Bennett’s overriding stance on the dialectic between Black musical expression — even sincerely joyful Black expression — within an ignorant majority white culture. As in Rogers’ essay, Bennett’s poem seems to be balancing, recognizing the salve of joyful music, and the grace of Black joy and art against Black sorrow. I cannot ask Bennett, but I decided this piece’s performance needed to bring forward the white culture not quite grasping the Black performers’ balancing act, keying off things like the compressed eloquence of lines like “Breaking heart/To the time of laughter/Clinking chains and minstrelsy/Are welded fast with melody.”
In so doing maybe I bring a little white history to Black History Month. After all, it is presumptuous for a white guy to perform a Black woman’s poem, but I can bring my experience of ignorance.
*My cultural curiosity causes me to note that the trope of finding some outsider group to assign the most unalloyed foolishness to for what will be read by the insider group as humor is widespread. See the Rude Mechanicals in Shakespeare, dumb Polish/Irish/Scandinavian/Italian, etc. immigrant jokes, and hillbilly plays. Of course in America, the ways these ready-mades were employed using Black faces on top of the outrages of slavery was extraordinarily cruel.
**Locke also points out the historical link between Spirituals and educated culture in that many of the pioneering Black colleges had raised funds by touring Afro-American choirs presenting arrangements of these songs.
***Oh man, there is nowhere near enough time to discuss Rogers! He doesn’t seem to have been a music writer, but is instead a self-educated and often self-published crusading polymath with an unquenchable interest in every unlit corner of Black history. His books helped inspire a young Henry Louis Gates Jr.
****This is one of my worst personal characteristics. Hopefully I keep it away from you dear reader. Rogers is so concerned with uplifting the race, that he seems to have internalized (from white critics?) a fear that Jazz and Jazz lovers are backwards and that their effects were achieved naively. And many of the most popular jazz records of the 20s were fast numbers that stressed novelty effects, like this one by “The Original Dixieland Jazz Band.” White guys. Um, actually…
How many poems celebrate the poet’s dream, or dreams? This one doesn’t.
It’s fair to say that American poet William Carlos Williams had a curmudgeonly streak. In this poem from his 1921 collection Sour Grapes he holds the line for the style that early Modernists had championed to break free from the poetic fancies that preceded them. By the 1920s the Modernists were moving on to new things, and it’s safe to say that many of them had developed new fancies. Indeed, in three-years-time the first Surrealist Manifesto would be published. The Surrealists went further than our usual sentiments about the value of an individual’s personal dream presented in the context of following one’s dream with the idea that it would integrate into our plans for work or a place in society. The Surrealists didn’t want to domesticate one’s dreams to society, they wanted to bring the full wildness of dreams to the fore and let society make whatever of it.
But, here’s Williams’ poem “Thursday,” which you can find by following this link. First off, I see that he uses very plain language here, and there’s little trickery or poetic obscurity in his manner of speech either. There are no references to ancient myths, no quotes from Latin or Greek, or even Elizabethan English. He starts by noting the ubiquity of dreams, and at least for the purposes of this poem, he doubts their worth. I like the choice of words he uses here for why he’s going to skip the value of his dreams aspirational or Surrealist: “carelessly.” In other words: I don’t care about that all, at least in this poem’s now. Instead, he spends the body of the poem inhabiting the body of the poet — as we the reader may too if we come along with Williams.
WCW at the wheel. “Yeah, but I’m driving and we’ll have some good ol’Imagism and none of that pretentious stuff.”
This is part of what I found intriguing when, as part of this project, I revisited the original English-language Modernists early work. I loved Surrealism as a young poet. I liked Dada referencing nothing and T. S. Eliot referencing whole libraries. But before those evolutions existed, what Modernism first used in English to break free and “make it new” was very concrete and radically simple: the presentation of the experience of brief charged moments that could include the revolutionary act of taking notice of the mundane and unexalted.
Like just a “Thursday” in Williams’ life, in your life, in mine.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Williams’ “Thursday” should be below, but if your blog reading software doesn’t show it, this highlighted hyperlink will do the job too. More work with piano this time and a return of an orchestra section. I keep hoping to return to more fierce electric guitar soon here. We’ll see.
Today’s piece is a winter poem for troubled lovers, but in the wandering tradition of this project, we’re going to go somewhere else on our way there.
Next week there is to be an inauguration of a new American President. It’ll be the 13th new President in my lifetime. Though I remember witnessing all these inaugurations in part through news reports, photographs and recorded footage; to the best of my recall, I have only watched two as they happened. Which ones? Most recently, I watched Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 while working in a place with a newsroom; and then, before that, as a schoolchild I watched John Kennedy’s inauguration.
I believe this is so because in our democracy we have a tradition of our Presidential terms ending and beginning uneventfully and with a comforting regularity. It’s not that we citizens ignore that there’s a new President, but the event itself happening is largely unremarkable.
Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 was contemporaneously recognized as a post-WWII milepost, the Presidency passing to a young former enlisted man in that war, moving us beyond a country ruled before by 19th century men. As I said, I was a schoolchild. My class watched it on a single gray TV set placed up high in front of our schoolroom instead of our usual lessons. I don’t think I was alone in the audience for that event in thinking it was important to pay attention to what was said, watching for news of a new era we knew was new.
Obama’s election and inauguration said something about America recognizing it had changed its evaluation of people of color.* It’s become a mark of sophistication and analysis to say that was an illusion, disproven by everything wronged people and close examination brought forward then, and since then. I thought, and think, we’re in the midst of things. If more know that now, the marker post of Obama can still tell us where we’ve come from and where we can go.
Is it a coincidence that both of those Presidential Inaugurations had a poet read a poem as part of the ceremony? That’s not a common choice: Kennedy was the first President to ever do so, and only one other President, Clinton, did so besides Obama.
Now, as it happens, I hope to watch the Inauguration next Wednesday, because this one seems more precious to me, more extraordinary, something not to be taken for granted. I will not watch it expecting or requiring great words — no need anyway, because the event alone now has a greatness thrust upon it. Yet coincidence or not, there will be a poet, a particularly young one, reading next week: Amanda Gorman, all of 22 years old.
There are several videos of Gorman reading on the web, but I wanted to bring forward what she says here about her poem for Independence Day, which starts with Phillis Wheatley and mentions that she’s speaking in the Washington-Longfellow house that day. It occurs to me that Gorman seems to be essaying a kind of civic American poetry that Longfellow might recognize.
So, now I’m ready to return to today’s piece, one using the words of American poet Kenneth Patchen’s poem “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground.” If you’d like to follow along with the text, here’s a link to the poem. “The Snow is Deep on the Ground” seems to fit my times, and perhaps it fits yours too, and so we may think of it as my unofficial poem for this January’s Presidential Inauguration.
What did Patchen intend with the repeated image here of deep snow? As a northerner I know one thing it portends, a restriction of movement, and it’s often too a trope of accumulated time. I read something now in the image that Patchen may not have intended, restricted as I am in movement by our current epidemic and having just endured a cloddish act of insurrection deep in whiteness. It seems, or we hope it is, that that “war has failed.”
Patchen says the snow is beautiful though — but specifically it’s beautiful in a fallen state, something meteorologically and theologically true in Patchen’s poem.
The poem’s third stanza has muffled terrors. What a strange and yet strong line “Only a few go mad” is! And the whiteness “like the withered hand of an old king” undercuts any sense of simple winter landscape beauty. To say twice “God shall not forget us” implies this is in question, doesn’t it?
The poem has it what we know more than we know by faith: our love, our lovers. How beautiful it is to be loved, to love. And to know that after talking of politics in a world where lies and flags are used as shields and lances to beat each other with!
My performance of “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground” can be heard with the player below, or if you don’t see that, with this highlighted hyperlink. The musical core today is my naïve piano playing, over some drums and small percussion instruments. To add some character to the string bass part I doubled it with a synth-bass. Thanks for reading and listening, particularly as my ability to produce new pieces is reduced right now.
*There was something else about that Presidency. I’ve lived a long life, and yet in all those years Barack Obama is the only President I’ve ever had who was younger than me.
Well, this is sort of embarrassing. The Parlando Project is about wandering about in the universe of other people’s words that I might combine with music. I wanted to cast for a wide choice of words because that was part of the core energy of one of the project’s ideas: “Other People’s Stories” and how could my music and the performances illuminate a range of experiences.
You see, I think that the performer—like you, the reader or the listener—should become the co-creator with the author’s text for the fullest experience. I find it rewarding when, in taking my part, I am collaborating with William Butler Yeats, Fenton Johnson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Du Fu, Emily Dickinson, or Tristan Tzara. Long-time readers here may have noticed that in the past year I’ve increasingly turned to translation from non-English authors, which enforces that need to become the respectful collaborator with the author’s text, but in effect even those authors who wrote in my native language require translation into a performance with music.
I had the damndest dream! I was this 4th century BCE Chinese guy eating breakfast in Minneapolis. And then I awoke, and I was just Walt Whitman, a cosmos.
So despite those principles, the most popular piece in terms of likes and listens this past fall was “Two Butterflies,” an exception where I wrote the words as well as the music. In my original post on “Two Butterflies” I didn’t take much time to write about my intent with the poem. Let me do that today.
The original experience that brought this poem to my mind was sitting at an outdoor city patio early one morning eating breakfast when I was startled by the pair of butterflies flying past me within inches without stopping on their way to the potted plant near the café’s door. For the next several minutes I was enraptured by them, compelled to watch them experience the same transient morning I was in. I noticed them intent on their connection to the flowers that co-existed with a watchfulness so that they would each take off in a spiral flight when someone else would enter the café for takeout.
Much of the poem then was pure observation, its ideas derived largely from what I selected to report. The effect I was seeking to bring out in the reader in that part of the poem was an intense investment and identification with these creatures and the poem’s speaker. At times the speaker is away and watching, at times he seems as close as one of the butterflies is to the other, or even seeing through their eyes the humans about them.
Then two stanzas from the end, the poem has its turn, its volta. I’m not sure if the way I went was the right way to go. I destroy the imagist mood of the opening three-quarters or so of the poem, but I often quite like it as a reader when a poem destroys its mood or continuity in service of another frame or facet of what it’s portraying.* My readers often note this as a fault, a mistake on my part, but if so, it’s a mistake following my intent here. The poem could end before the last two stanzas, and it’d be more likeable. The casual reader would find that foreshortened poem largely understandable, a pleasant word picture.
The sin I risk in the last two stanzas is pretention—and that’s not a tantalizing sin to me. I fear committing it as much as I fear being caught committing it. To say what I sincerely thought in that morning’s moment is not an air-tight alibi. I pack a lot of metaphysics into those last two stanzas, and most readers don’t want to be waylaid by such. Most of us are too busy competing with or caring for each other to find that useful. For a few moments—and pretentiously, for only a few moments—one morning I was unoccupied enough to think on these things. You, dear reader, are not obligated to do the same. If you’d like to hear my performance of “Two Butterflies” the player gadget will usually appear below. If you don’t see a player, this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.
*The desire for this kind of sideways explosion in a poem’s intent or at least a slicing undercutting of its statement was something that I found in my attempt this month to come to terms with the Zhuangzi, and its own Butterfly Dream. Casual readers and even philosophers seem so taken by the implied question in Zhuang Zhou’s Butterfly Dream of how can we be sure if something is dream or reality, and then entirely miss the extra explosion Zhuang Zhou put at the end of his parable: that we find these two states completely distinct, and yet we move between them. Therefore, can we not move between completely different states in our outlook in other matters?
I’ve got Burton Watson’s translation of The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu containing all the inner books of the Zhuangzi, and it’s somewhat slow going to fully grasp despite Watson’s helpful framing and notes, but as promised Zhuang Zhou hops around quickly, hoping perhaps to destroy conventional reading.
Before continuing with our count-down of the most liked and listened to pieces here this past autumn, let me remind newcomers what the Parlando Project does. We take words, mostly other people’s words, usually poetry, and combine them in different ways with original music.
“Oh, you mean you make them into songs?” Well, sometimes, yes. But not always. I don’t always sing the words, thus the project’s name.
“So, it’s spoken word with some music in the background.” You could say that about some pieces, but I want the words and the music to interact, comment on each other. The music isn’t just background.
“Music with chanted words. Are you a rapper?” I wish. Can you imagine the commercial potential of old guys chanting poetry, often to acoustic instruments? House-party! I’ll bring the Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, and Fenton Johnson! No, I’m not a rapper, but you could say that I’m more a separate branch growing off the roots of things that rap also grew from.
“Are you some kind of beatnik?” Wait, where’s my black turtleneck, I’m going to reverently listen to some cool jazz records now while trying to remember what was so important about being intoxicated first. Oh, what was the question again?
“The last few numbers on the Top Ten had those orchestral instruments. Are you setting poetry texts to music in the tradition of art song?” One limitation of this project is that neither Dave, nor certainly I, possess bel canto voices that can realize what most art song composers do. I’m conceptually doing what art song composers do, but the empirical results reflect my outlook, performance resources, and limitations. Also, like Yeats, I fear that elaborately sung melodies obscure the impact of the words.
OK, back to the countdown. If you’d like to read what I wrote when I first presented these pieces, the bold-faced titles are hyperlinks to that.
The first edition of Dickinson’s poems featured a picture of Indian Pipe flowers in bloom, but like all flowers, autumn, if nothing else, ends their term. Indian Pipe (also called Ghost Pipe) is a strange plant that doesn’t use photosynthesis, but rather gets its energy from fungus. The picture was chosen because avid botanist Emily liked this unusual plant.
3. As if the sea should part by Emily Dickinson. From Emily B. to her American admirer Emily D. we go. For all the mythos about Dickinson’s later years of not leaving her family home, does anyone ever ask if being cooped up in a house with a family half-heartedly uninterested in poetry was all that comforting to her? In her most vital writing years, Dickinson still roamed some physically—and mentally. I’ve had some fun over the years here suggesting musically and graphically that Emily Dickinson would rhyme with Sixties psychedelia. “As if the Sea should part” is certainly mental traveling of the purest sort. The player for this performance is below, or if you can’t see the player, you can use this hyperlink.
2. The Listeners by Walter de la Mare. When I started this project I thought I’d be rocking out more often than it’s turned out to be the case. Part of that result comes from being increasingly unable to record with Dave or others, and some from enjoying the novelty of being able to score and play orchestral instruments. My version of de la Mare’s weird minimalist ghost story isn’t crossing the hardcore boundary, but this is a rock band arrangement that sounds good turned up on your speakers. The player to test that claim should be below, or if not, this highlighted hyperlink will play it.
It’s time to count-down the audio pieces that you liked and listened to here most this past autumn. But before I get to the count-down I’ll mention that new pieces are getting harder for me to produce for a number of reasons. As of now, I still plan to produce some additional examples of what the Parlando Project does: combining various words (mostly poetry) with various original music (as varied as I can make it). Still, given the over 500 pieces already posted here, there will be a lot to explore while you’re waiting. What are those pieces like? Or unlike? Well, our quarterly top-tens are one way to see.
In each of the listings below and in the coming days, the bold-face titles are also links to the original posts where the pieces were presented in case you’d like to see what I wrote about them then.
10. The Poetry of the Root Crop by Charles Kingsley. I love coming across a remarkable poem I’d otherwise never come upon unless I was working on this project. “The Poetry of the Root Crop” is largely unknown, and its author Charles Kingsley is too. No one seems to care much about his poetry, and even his lonely web biographic sketches barely mention it. I remember one I read saying his poetry was “competent.” Oh my. We poets are claimed to be a grandiose lot, and “competent” is a pen-knife between the ribs, not even a public execution. Kingsley the man is also lesser known, particularly here in the U.S., which might be unfair and yet favorable to us enjoying his poem. Considering Kingsley as a thinker and active force in his time has me going over this project’s many presented authors and recalling that while many had ideas I could agree with, they are often mixed with other prominent ideas and convictions that appalled me.
Poems can be about ideas, though they are not the ideal container for them as such I think. We are blessed that “The Poetry of the Root Crop” isn’t a manifesto, though it uses some cultural markers as part of its scenery. What it is, what poetry is, is an apt container for communicating the experience of experience. Kingsley’s experience of a graveyard and/or garden can change how you see the thing yourself. To have that transference between minds isn’t merely “competent” I think. If you don’t see the player gadget to hear this piece, this link will also play it.
9. No Common Ground by Dave Moore. Oh, how I miss having more of Dave Moore’s voice here. The pandemic has separated many artists, and performers most of all. How cruel this illness has been to have one of its earliest American super-spreading events to be through a group of people singing with each other!
So, it’s ironic that Dave’s piece that found so many listeners this Fall is about our chosen separations, one that I thought particularly apt for our current year when I reposted it on November 7th. The player gadget for “”No Common Ground” is below, or as an alternative, this highlighted link for those that can’t see the gadget.
8. Back Yard by Carl Sandburg. I think it likely that Carl Sandburg had some ideas I don’t agree with, but I don’t look for them too hard, because I’m so grateful for the feeling of fellowship I often feel with him. “Back Yard” too is not a manifesto, though it’s not hard to see its experience of the experience of an urban immigrant night as a statement by a son of a Swedish immigrant. Part of what I plan when I return to new pieces here is to talk a bit about our experience of the common ground of darkness as winter solstice approaches here in the Northern Hemisphere, and while Sandburg talks here of summer, his night somehow holds more than broad daylight can.
“Back Yard” has continued to draw listens since it was first posted here two summers ago, and this September, as summer was leaving us, there was another strong spike in listens. My stats tell me I have listeners here who are approaching summer solstice below the equator, so this one is right on time for you.
Oh, there are a few words you’ll hear in the background that aren’t Sandburg’s. Some other angel’s alchemy from the common ground graveyard/garden of Kingsley’s poem perhaps? You can use the player to hear those night voices, or this alternate, highlighted link.
Literature is the time-travel tourists’ Baedeker, an excellent way to visit the experience and outlooks of those no longer alive. Setting the Wayback Machine now…
The 4th century B.C.E. was a pretty busy time for philosophy. Over in Greece Aristotle was homeschooling some teenager who’d become Alexander the Great. For some reason I had teachers back in my teenaged years who were Thomists—so I myself got a limited dose of Aristotle back in those only slightly less-ancient years.
Not enough to conquer the world apparently.
In some other reality, perhaps I’d have been exposed to the Chinese classics. And from what I understand another 4th century worthy, Zhuang Zhou,* is a pretty big deal there, not only in philosophy but in Chinese literature and arts.** His collected teachings, the Zhuangzi, is a core Taoist text alongside Taoism’s founder Lao Tzu’s.
Anyway, I’ve just started searching for an available English translation of Zhuangzi, and I may have found one a couple of days ago, but just as I am no scholar of Thomas Aquinas or Aristotle, I at this point know little about Zhuang’s writing. One thing that the overviews of it let me know is that he used humor extensively.
Picture of two butterflies dreaming of Zhuang Zhou, or…
A picture taken today at the shore edge of Lake Superior. Zhuang also wrote: “They cling to their position…sure that they are holding onto victory. They fade like fall and winter—such is the way they dwindle…they drown in what they do.”
Musically, I had a couple of itches to scratch with today’s piece. One? I’ve been listening again recently to some modern disciples of a school of acoustic guitar playing that is sometimes called “American Primitive Guitar.” I don’t care much for that label, even if it was coined by John Fahey, it’s chief progenitor. It traditionally uses flat-top, steel-strung, acoustic guitars (a design variation perfected in the United States before WWII) and it’s informed by some of the tunings and techniques of early 20th century Afro-American Blues musicians, mixed with an appreciation for a variety of Asian musics and some Modernist “classical” composers. The other personal desire? I’ve been missing playing bass in the mode that makes it a lyrical equal to the rest of an ensemble. As a composer, I know the value of the simple bass line too, but sometimes I want it to sing away.
The player gadget to hear my recounting of Zhuang Zhou’s “The Butterfly Dream” should be below. If you don’t see it (some blog readers and reader view options don’t show it) you can use this highlighted link to play it. I apologize to any Chinese speakers for my attempt at pronunciation of Zhuang’s name. I did my best on that, though I’m likely wrong.
*OK, you probably know the drill if you’ve followed along with this project’s presentation of other classical Chinese authors. Zhuang’s name is also rendered as Chuang Tzu, Chuang Tse, and Chuang Chou. And he also was referred to as Zhuangzi, which seems to be the more settled name for the book of his parables and teachings. The shorter part of his name is an honorific, meaning “master,” but given the difficulties with spelling out Chinese names in the western alphabet, I’ve decided not to call him Jam Master Zhuang.
**The later master poet Li Bai would be one example of a writer highly influenced by the Zhuangzi. How far can Zhuang and Taoism’s influence be found? Martin Buber referenced him, and Wikipedia says that Taoist thought has been claimed by anarchists as foundational to their political philosophy.
Here’s a surreal, enigmatic, and yet compelling story by Dave Moore that I adopted and combined with some orchestral music I composed for it several years ago. Dave wrote this during a period when he had returned to Iowa to help is aged father who was dying, and while nothing in the piece refers directly to that situation, this reader feels something of that experience is present in its absence in this.
Dave’s father was a Protestant minister, and so church buildings of various sizes would have been part of his upbringing. And the mysterious boxes within boxes that the story’s protagonist must pack may be a visual image for the tasks of dealing with the stuff of wrapping up a life. But neither of those things can completely anchor the way this tale unwraps itself.
Easily the strongest, most enigmatic, and potentially objectionable image in the tale is the encounter with a young woman. A listener may meet this image in the story and react to it quickly (or thoughtfully) as an intrusion of some kind of male gaze trope, that thing that can be a tiring and reductionist frame on the real lives of half of humanity. But to my reading of this, it is the core image of this piece and it’s remarkably faceted with a cubist/surrealist multiplicity of reflections: an anima, a reminder of the exiled female in the masculine church, a strange mixture of sexuality, ambivalent reactions to sexuality, and yet also with a bit of the nature of parental caretaking roles reversing themselves. Many a time when I revisit this image by listening to this piece, I see something new in it.
Long time readers here will know that I admire Dave’s work, and once more I thank him for his contributions to this project with his voice and keyboard playing—but for you that is of little matter. Perhaps my specific and not necessarily popularly aligned taste, or knowing Dave and the circumstances around this pieces creation including that it’s my own music and performance that presents it here, distorts my evaluation of this image; but listen to this piece and see if you agree that the strange encounter at the center of this dusty and enigmatic tale is a remarkable image worth contemplating.
Remembrance of warfare is a complex thing. There are forces for forgetfulness and memorial fighting inside us regarding war, and the entropic forces of time passing put a thumb on the scale as years pass. This Wednesday was once Armistice Day, the day when, for a mere two decades or so, countries celebrated solely the end of “The War to End All Wars.” In America this date eventually became Veterans Day, a holiday to celebrate all those who served in the military, particularly during wars—whereas we already had a spring holiday, Memorial Day, established in the years after our Civil War, to decorate graves of the fallen and to remember their deaths.*
In Great Britain and other countries in the Commonwealth, November 11th continued as the Remembrance Day, and the deaths of WWII or other subsequent conflicts were incorporated, and the holiday remained unchanged, save for the erosions of time. It remains a solemn day. The Sunday nearest the 11th has royal celebrations in London centered around a memorial there, The Cenotaph,** and it’s still customary on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to pause for a couple of minutes of silence to remember those who died seeking to reach that Armistice Day. This results in an odd divide: Armistice Day was generally a festive, celebratory holiday in 20th century America with joyful parades celebrating surviving veterans.
But that is just the surface of the complexity of the remembrance of war, where the questions of the wisdom or justification for a particular war are adjacent to the undeniable sacrifice of the war’s dead. Those questions are left to the war’s survivors who, from some level of power or acquiescence, made those judgements. In America, so fraught are those two strands of thinking about wars, that we have come to strictly segregate these two issues, out of fear or concerns that to speak of the evils of wars is to speak evil of our dead countrymen, or that to speak of the folly of some wars would denigrate the last full sacrifice.
This painting by William Nicholson shows the temporary London cenotaph that was put up for the first Remembrance Day in 1919. Note the flowers strewn at it’s base, and a woman adding to them in this portrayal by Nicholson and echoed in Mew’s poem.
Today’s piece, “The Cenotaph,” was written by a British poet, Charlotte Mew in time for the first anniversary of the Armistice, the first Remembrance Day, in 1919. Here’s a link to the full text if you’d like to follow along. It begins with nods to conventional rhetoric about the sorrow of those who lost loved ones, it voices sentimental tropes of the dead in “splendid sleep” and the grave as a bed. I was not sure how to perform those lines. Mew’s poem is complex, not just in syntax and some long lines and sentences that can trip up the breath. If one was to read it with only casual attention, more than three-fourths of it can seem a conventional Victorian poem of mourning—but read or listen to it all the way through! It ends with a statement of anger so shocking that it should make you reconsider how you read the opening body of the poem. No spoilers here—it’s best to experience this by reading the poem or listening to my performance via the player gadget below.
In my performance I tried to subtly undercut some of those early phrases, but I’m not sure if I (or anyone) can successfully portray the totality of Mew’s poem. Musically I got to write a fanfare, something I hadn’t done before now, and then there’s a quieter, contrasting motif played at the end on a bassoon and two English horns.
*In some ways the American Civil War experience was similar to the British WWI experience, as the levels of mass casualties Americans suffered in the mid 19th century conflict previewed the shocking casualties the British and Commonwealth soldiers suffered in WWI. America entered WWI late and suffered proportionally fewer deaths from the combat.
**The London Cenotaph in Whitehall, central to Remembrance Day activities in England, particularly since the advent of mass media, is not the only one. Many other cities erected their own versions. Cenotaph means “empty tomb” and the imposing markers were meant to be local sites for decorating and mourning the war dead that were largely buried near foreign battlefields as the logistical challenges of so many dead prevented them from being repatriated. Mew is not in fact describing the particular London Cenotaph in her poem, for when she wrote her poem it didn’t even exist yet, though it was planned and a temporary structure was in place by the first Remembrance Day in 1919. So like Keats’ “Grecian Urn” it’s not a cenotaph, but the concept of a great war memorial in the center of the marketplace that she grapples with.