Here’s a mysterious poem by Carl Sandburg that makes its mystery in an unusual way. I think it may have been written for a child or for children, but by accident or design the matter of the poem makes a different sense as I read it now.
What makes me think it was written with children in mind? There’s the repetition of the idea of spelling these two short, common words in the title, neither of which are “spelling demons” that are difficult for adults to spell. And then further repetition in saying the two words “Good Night.” It seems something between a lullaby or a book like Goodnight Moon, beloved of parents seeking to ease their child to sleep. The middle of the poem has three episodes of things gloriously becoming gone and away, as if being left for sleep and dreams.
This is where the poem now seems to take on a layer that I’m unsure was part of Sandburg’s intent in 1920 as I read it in 2020. He starts with fireworks—which are firing all about me on this Independence Day night as I write this post. Besides the noise—and noise normally has a note-length and measure—a visual aspect which a fireworks display is notable for is its short duration. Those colors and light against a night sky may be stunning, but they are short. They are memories almost from the moment they burst.
And then comes two other short episodes: a steam train and a steam boat. The steam train on a moonlit night is moving of course, but its spume of exhaust is also leaving skyward. Likewise, the river steamboat is moving past a geography leaving the sound of their steam powered horns carrying across the fields they are not as stationary as.
Carl Sandburg. From the size of it, that microphone looks like it could be steam-powered too.
Sandburg the boy would have known those two steam-powered things. A child in 1920 could know them too. They were the ordinary things of freight and travel. In a few decades these steamers would be obsolete and all but extinct. 1920 is a little too early for Sandburg to know that. When he wrote his poem they were moving and gone. Now they are gone and gone. Carl Sandburg is gone too of course. And if he told this poem to his children? They grew up, aged, and are gone too. Many ways to say good night. Many ways to spell good night. Many ways, all leaving. Oh! the boom! The red and yellow, the blue and gold spreading and tailing! Ah! Many ways, all leaving.
*Unless you’re reading this on the WordPress Reader app on an Apple phone or tablet, which for some reason can’t show the player. If you switch to viewing frankhudson.org in the Apple Safari browser, you’ll be able to hear the music. Alternatively, the audio pieces are available as a podcast in Apple podcasts. Thanks for reading and listening!
It’s always the late empire period for old folks. When 1920 Claude McKay prophesied last time of granite wonders sinking in the sand at the end of his America poem, he was a self-proclaimed vital young man. He’s likely visualizing some hazy prophetic event with a undefined date as recorded by an even more distant future, and not the current toppling of certain bronze statues.*
McKay was 29.
To some old folks such as myself, fallen empires and overturned practices are not prophecy, we’ve seen them fall over as presently as gravity after their props and pedestals disappear, and so for the thoughtful among us, the conceivability that we might be living at the end of an American empire is not so strange, and even for the less-considered among us, we know our personal remaining time has shorter numbers.
This summer I showed a 15-year-old a YouTube recording of a live reading by Allen Ginsberg of his poem also called “America.” They’d showed me YouTube videos of earnest anarchists explaining the essential evils of money controlling government, after which they ask me if I’ve read Kropotkin. They live in a world were schoolyard bullying is considered actionable, not character building, and where the ideograms of gender-queer nearly exceed the Phoenician alphabet. Marijuana is about as novel and exotic as some parent’s veneer liquor cabinet.
They also live in a world where the man with a gun is found in the right if he’s afraid, doubly so if he’s a government agent. Economically we have endured a second Gilded Age where we have the Internet instead of railroads. For this generation, their first memory of a President was a competent and graceful Black man. Their second memory of a president, is not.
I haven’t mentioned environmental danger, Covid-19, or spoken of that tiger’s tooth that sank into the throat of George Floyd in our shared city. My catalog will be too long or too incomplete. There’s no other choice.
Here, I said, “This is anarchism!” and I launched the video. A static picture of a 1960’s Ginsberg stayed stationary on the screen and the soundtrack played. Ginsberg wrote this when he too was 29, just as McKay had been, though decades later in the American experiment. There was another red scare going on. Likely it was not much safer to be Black (or Jewish), Left, poor, or Gay and expect legal respect between 1920 and the January 1956 Ginsberg aurally date stamps his poem with.
Ginsberg reading the entirety of his “America.” Warning to tender ears: his performance, like mine below, includes one F-bomb.
In maybe a minute, 2020 made their judgement: “This is bad. It’s terribly recorded.”
I think its faults to this young audience were more at this was old, and this is not new. They had not lived in 1956, the supposed happy, carefree “The Fifties” of which “The Sixties” were in betrayal of. More than merely novel then for Ginsberg to stand up in public and say the unholy word about the holy bomb; for him to speak frankly about not being neurotypical, gender conforming, and accepting of the post WWII social order; to not only oppose, but to make fun of racism and red-baiting, and to say all of this as if it could and should be said in poetry. This was no longer revolutionary to this teenage 2020 set of experience. There’s now a mix tape every day saying the same.
Revolutionary? I’m presenting this series for American Independence Day. “America” is Allen Ginsberg’s declaration of independence. Like the later parochial details in the July 4th document that no one now remembers, parts may have dated. And it’s no longer novel to say all men are created equal either. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
“America” is Allen Ginsberg’s declaration of independence.
So, I’m grateful for Ginsberg. I listened to that recording of his “America” several times in the tumult of this year. Some things he speaks about are not, alas, mooted points. My young viewer may at times overestimate our current state of accomplishment, just as I’m intimately aware of how far we’ve come from then.
I saw Ginsberg read a couple of times, but never this poem. However, I have an aged memory of it being read, not by him but by an Iowa rock band called the Emergency Broadcasting System in the late Sixties. They would open up their first set with the lead singer speaking sections of this poem while the band riffed behind him. I liked the combining of rock band energy with this then only teenaged poem, and maybe that’s part of why this project exists.
I’ll note that the sections I quote from “America” in today’s piece may be long enough that I could be breaching copyright on Ginsberg’s work here. Rights holders, if that’s the case, I won’t debate your point.
The player gadget for my performance of sections from Allen Ginsberg’s “America” is below. Is there more to say and perform as I look to poetry’s statements on July 4th? I plan at least one more as we approach Independence Day—one from yet another American time, and with another outlook different from McKay and Ginsberg.
*It’s only in this century that I became aware that a large percentage of the Confederate Civil War statues date from the early 20th century period, not to the years right after the war. There were no monuments being erected then to the enslaved people whose bondage was material to making that genteel and romanticized world of noble warriors however. Must have been an oversight.
McKay did have one example of revolutionary change in his experience-bank: the 1917 Russian Revolution. Like many of his era’s leftists he was hopeful, even inspired, by it for some time. Yes, he reevaluated that eventually. Revolutionary ideals do not equal the regimes that follow.
Each quarter I like to look at the pieces here that have received the most listens and likes. It’s time to look back at this year’s spring, and so I’ll be doing that this week. However, I once more need to report that it’s become increasingly hard for me to desire to create new pieces for this project. I say that partly as an apology to those who do enjoy the weird mix of the known and unknown writers whose work I present here, and partly as a statement of the cold facts of our time and how it impacts this artist. Perhaps I’ll write a post about this at greater length soon, but I don’t want to stand in the way of those of you who enjoy what the Parlando Project does. I appreciate you too much.
And too, part of these Top Tens is not just to point out what you liked, but also to help new readers and listeners understand this project beyond the one piece they find here from a web search or something you found linked-to on your social media feed or another blog. We have 460 audio pieces posted here in a range of musical styles and authors.
So on to our countdown, starting today with the 10th through 8th most liked and listened to piece. The bold title is also a link to the original post where the piece was first presented if you missed that earlier.
10. The Old Nurse by Frances Cornford. One of the constraints of this project is that so much of it requires my own voice, which has its limits of which I’m aware. From the beginning Dave Moore has been a great boon as an alternate contributor here, but age and Covid-19 is making that difficult. This spring my wife Heidi Randen has been good enough to take time to contribute her voice a couple of times, and this piece received enough response to just make it onto the Spring Top 10.
“The Old Nurse” is by little-known British poet Frances Cornford. I’ll write more about her soon, but this ghost story requires no introduction or framing to be effective I think.
9. Morning by Sara Teasdale. This project loves the subject of poets whose work needs to be better known (or known in a different way.) Teasdale’s a good example of this. She’s a contemporary of T. S. Eliot (and grew up in the same town and neighborhood, though there’s no record they ever met that I’ve found) and for a time, just as Modernism was arising as a poetic movement in English around the years of WWI, she was recognized as a substantial writer.
And then she fell off the barrel of the canon while others got launched into the circus catch-net of remembered poetic artists. Was this because she was a woman, or that she wrote rhymed metrical verse? The former reason is important, the later not completely unimportant, but I’ve come to think a large part of this is that she wrote short, lyric poems. “Lyric” in this sense does not mean she wrote words to be set to music (though her poetry is extraordinarily amendable to that.) Lyric means that her poems tend to be short and present “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” That phrase, one of the definitions of pioneering Modernism in English, soon became honored more in the breach than the observance. Big subjects, tackled by big poems, often anchored once more in allusions to substantial cultural markers beyond our eternal instant became the ideal in the 20th century. Teasdale didn’t do that, it wasn’t in her range.
Our complex instants in time became a forgotten subject.
So, this project asks you to pay attention to the complexity of Teasdale’s spring moment.
Carl Sandburg and coven with a satanic familiar at his shoulder strike a chord for lyric poetry. Let’s sing along: “See the U.S.A. with your Chèvre, hey….” And guitarists: an interesting voicing for C minor 6 with a 9th in the bass if you sound the open D string.
8. Monotone by Carl Sandburg. Sandburg isn’t exactly a case like Teasdale, though like her, he also is less honored now than during his lifetime. He was able to write long poems on big subjects, eventually becoming known for a multivolume biography of Abraham Lincoln that retained portions of his long-form poetic style. Where he became less rated as an important poet, it was due to his apartness from a later high-culture and academic-oriented school of poetry that viewed his work as insufficiently formed and shaped, as too unsophisticatedly straightforward in expression. The prose-poem looseness of his free verse became just as out of style as Teasdale’s verse.
All of which obscured the Imagist Sandburg, just as dedicated to the “intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” as Teasdale. Like Teasdale, I feel that these now less-remembered shorter poems of Sandburg deserve more attention and consideration of their complexity.
Here’s the other pole of Carl Sandburg, a prose-poem about the nature of government. It seems so far from the tight compressed Imagism of “Gargoyle” that one might wonder how it could be from the same poet. I may have a clue there, so read on, I’ll return to that thought.
But first let me note that Carl Sandburg had some unique experience to bring to this subject. This poem comes from his landmark Chicago Poems published in 1916, a collection that both established his bonafides as a Modernist poet and as a foundational writer of American proletarian poetry. But before that he’d been a first generation immigrant,* a Spanish-American War soldier, a college dropout from a no-where college, and an itinerant worker. In the first decade of the century, as he turned 30, he was working as a daily paper journalist as he began a period of political activism in Wisconsin as a Socialist party organizer. In 1910, the city of Milwaukee elected a Socialist mayor, and Carl Sandburg took a position in his city administration. He was a self-proclaimed idealist as well as an aspiring poet. In his new job in government he was ready to—well, let me quote how he remembered itin an interview in 1953:
We were to build in Milwaukee the kind of planned city which existed in some places in Germany and in other European cities where socialism had taken hold….Then came the jarred awakening. Hordes of job-seeking Socialists descended on our office wanting the crumbs of victory. They behaved just like the Republicans and the Democrats on that day when they swept into power. This was not idealism; it was the old spoils game.”
In another account he said that his first official act in the new administration was to handle a citizen’s complaint about a dead dog in an alleyway.
After two years in government, Sandburg kept with poetry but went back to Chicago and to getting his paycheck from the Fourth Estate. Thanks to Ben Hecht, a fellow Chicago newspaperman, we can sense what being a newspaper reporter in Sandburg’s Chicago era might have been like. Hecht’s play The Front Page has been made into a movie three times, with most favoring the middle version, His Girl Friday, as cinema, but the original 1931 version is most faithful to the original play and era.**
Sandburg’s “Government” may not be one of his greatest poems, but I’ve maintained that poetry (like other arts) can serve us even when it’s not some sublime act. You’ve heard me maintain that Sandburg has poems that deserve to be considered in that sublime class, but this one shows us something too.
So now that we’ve detoured in the non-aesthetic realm of politics, let me come back to that thought, however unformed, that I have about the compressed Imagist Sandburg, the one we forget or underestimate, the poet who has poems that can stand with the other Modernists in concrete and incised compression. In “Government” Sandburg, though in a prose-y and less concise manner than the Imagist Sandburg, shows government in its evil and corruption is us, human us. It seems an institution as we speak of it in tired language that poets must avoid and repair, an external thing, like a building or statue put up long before our time—or if living, a monster from the other. However impure, however damaged, our republic is; however unclean our language is; however dull, ignorant, insufficient our thoughts are; we are the blunt weapon that damaged it, we are the only tool to repair it. Blunt tools break, sharp tools repair.
Here’s my performance of Carl Sandburg’s “Government” available with a player gadget below.
*I grew up in a small Iowa farm town with substantial Swedish heritage. In my half of the 20th century I believe I may have underestimated the impact that Sandburg’s parents were immigrants, or that parts of WASP culture may have noticed this about Sandburg more than you or I might think. Last year when reading more about another under-considered Midwestern Modernist Edgar Lee Masters who crossed paths with Sandburg in Chicago, I was struck at how often Masters referred to Sandburg as a Swede/poet in a context that I believe was meant to be read as a natural incongruity, that such a coarse background could be associated with the athenaeum of poetry.
**Footnote fans, be prepared for a wild mouse of a ride in this one. In The Front Page remember how the corrupt mayor is indebted to “the black vote.” In 1915, the black vote was largely Republican, and the Chicago mayor that year was William Hale Thompson, a character that could give our 21st century President a run for his money. He survived WWI politically despite being pro-German and reflexively anti-English, and with a drain-the-swamp campaign that was working to make sure the money sump-pump went toward his pockets. He was finally voted out of office by the campaign of Anton Cermak, the most important mayor in the history of Chicago. In that campaign, Wikipedia quotes Thompson as Tweeting (well, I guess not, it’s 1931 after all—but the flavor sure sounds reminiscent of our contemporary) “I won’t take a back seat to that bohunk, Chairmock, Chermack, or whatever his name is. Tony, Tony, where’s your pushcart at? Can you picture a World’s Fair mayor with a name like that?”
So, what’d Cermak do that was so important? In 1933 Cermak took a fatal assassin’s bullet that could have hit the U. S. President-elect Franklin Roosevelt standing next to him. Regardless of who took what bribe from who, or who did a better job of expired canine disposal, or even weighed against the epic odyssey of the Afro-American migration to urban centers, the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 would have likely changed America and the world’s history immensely.
By way of footnote dénouement, I’ll note that Cermak’s son-in-law Otto Kerner chaired the commission that was charged with evaluating the urban riots of The Sixties. Read this linked article for a sense of what was said then, and then consider Sandburg’s words in his great poem “I Am the People, the Mob:” “When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: ‘The People,’ with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.”
Continuing on from my post late last night, and the feelings of insufficiency we as artists may feel in the face of horrible things: cruelty, injustice, the taking of lives, the crippling of souls. As one of America’s sublimated poets put it, I think it all together fitting and proper that when we do this, that we feel this insufficiency. If something has risen to the level of being unspeakable, how can we speak it?
I’m still silent with answers tonight—and as with many things, my answers as an old man are less important than those you may find. So, let me instead give you a story and a testimonial.
The story may seem long ago to you, but it doesn’t to me. It happened in 1963, in my lifetime—not 1863 and the time of Lincoln, slavery, and Civil War.
It begins not with art but a group of domestic terrorists who were bombing and burning things in Birmingham Alabama. Terrorist is an ugly word, as it should be, but it’s likely that most terrorists think of themselves as partisans, as fighters against oppression, the necessary ones who will take the steps others shrink from.
Of course, I see these men as simple killers. I can suspect them of getting off on the clandestine evil of setting bombs and fires, of shooting into the night. And the “oppression” they are righteously bombing to oppose? They are more at the license to continue an oppression of others. On a Sunday morning, September 15th in 1963 they set off a bunch of dynamite at a church in their town. Just another bombing in a series.
This time they kill four little girls getting ready for sunday school.
Earlier that year, another of America’s displaced poets, Martin Luther King, had written his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in that town, that great document of the necessity of ending racial oppression, and now that year he would eulogize the four little girls. Eloquence was in town, continuing political pressure was in place, and the evil light of the terrorist bombing illuminated the words of those the bombers opposed. How sad and horrible it is to recount that.
That same year a jazz musician, John Coltrane was very busy earning a living with his art. When I say busy, I mean busy in a sense that boggles the mind. In that year alone he released four studio LPs while gigging constantly with his Quartet. Two weeks after he would have heard the news of the four little girls, he was due to play a New York City engagement at the Birdland club, which produced the live recording that gives its name to today’s post. Right after Coltrane finished the Birdland engagement, the group was off to Europe for a tour there. Four little girls dead, dynamited by their fellow human beings in furtherance of an evil idea. John Coltrane kept working.
Weeks then in Europe, and upon returning to the States the gigs and recordings continue. Somewhere between the day after the bombing in September and a one-day recording session on November 18th Coltrane came up with a musical piece that he called “Alabama.”
Then at the beginning of December when Coltrane’s tour was stopping in San Francisco he recorded a TV show. The format of the show was for the artist to play 3 or 4 songs and engage in a few minutes of interview with the host, but Coltrane begged off the interview. The host, Ralph J. Gleason, Mr. Rogers’ cardigan and all, subbed in a little explainer about the how jazz was like writing poetry in the middle of a supermarket. Cringe if you like at the metaphor and the white guy non-musician explaining it all to us,* but that’s what Coltrane and the Quartet then do. “Alabama” is strictly-speaking wordless. The John Coltrane Quartet spoke with their instruments.
The TV show where “Alabama” premiered. At 7:40 Gleason gives his “poet in a supermarket” metaphor, and at 9:35 the Quartet starts “Alabama.”
The four little girls, so cruelly and unjustly dead that same fall. In the interim, a U. S. President has been killed too. Hot studio lights for the cameras, a cost-saving bare sound stage to film in. Those five minutes of “Alabama” have been introduced to an audience for the first time.**
To my taste, Coltrane’s playing on the TV show performance of “Alabama” is even richer than the recording made a couple of weeks earlier though the rest of this Quartet of great musicians were a bit sharper in the recording studio take—but in either case there are notes he plays in “Alabama” that are quite possibly the saddest and most resolute notes ever to come out of a horn.
That winter “Coltrane Live at Birdland” is issued as an LP record which includes the recording studio version of “Alabama.” Another release in Coltrane’s furious pace of working and creating. The liner notes on the record were penned by the man who’d sign them then as LeRoi Jones.***
The art of the liner note is a dead art now, but today’s piece quotes a few lines from Jones’ piece of work (the entirety of which you can read here). Those that remember Jones’ notes often recall its opening line, which is also the first line I speak here today. If the job of a liner note writer was akin to writing advertising copy, to attract the consumer, that opening line is highly subversive of that intent:
One of the most baffling things about America is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here.
Way to ship units LeRoi!
When it comes to writing about “Alabama,” the song on the record where the Coltrane Quartet most directly speaks to that vileness, Jones writes:
I didn’t realize until now what a beautiful word Alabama is. That is one function of art, to reveal beauty, common or uncommon, uncommonly.
Jones knows what the tune’s about surely. I don’t know if I’ve fully absorbed that sentence yet, but if you are a person for whom 1963 might as well be 1915 or 1863, and you want to know what it felt like to know of such evil and endure it with an open heart, and to counter it with something that is beautiful (Oh! How can that be?), then you can find it in John Coltrane
Jones says John Coltrane’s art can change us, though neither he nor I will guarantee it. Can it? These are days that cause me to doubt. But if Coltrane doubted, he didn’t’ stop. I honor that belief. Perhaps art works in ways small but deep, and then only for some portion of us humans some of the time. If art like Coltrane’s carries me through sometimes, is that a reason I create art myself?
The player to hear me read a small section of LeRoi Jones’ liner notes to Coltrane live at Birdland is below. When I created this performance early this month I did not include any of the sections where Jones talks about the tune “Alabama,” but I was trying to give some flavor of Jones parable about Coltrane’s power and conviction. Musically, my composition and performance is just a trio, there’s no saxophone.
*Yes, I cringe because I recognize myself there in a black&white mirror. Because I operate a musical instrument at times, I claim to be less guilty of the cringe factor. This likely convinces no one.
**Some have sought to document Coltrane’s gigs and recording sessions. There’s no account of “Alabama” being played at any of the live gigs before this TV show. The version on “Coltrane live at Birdland” is not live, but from that short studio session in mid-November.
***Later Amiri Baraka. A man who went through so many stances and positions in his life that it’s unlikely that any sane man can find agreement with all of them.
Musically we ricochet again (as this project often does) from last-time’s acoustic South Asian ensemble to today’s rough’n’ready one-take rock band. For the words though, maybe not so great a jump, even though Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert Frost are approximately a century apart.
Emerson is the prime American cultural instigator. Like many pioneers it’s easy to see where his maps may have been a bit off, his cultural borrowings misunderstood or missing sufficient attribution, but the route he set the American culture on, however paved, fueled, and electrified, is still one many travel on today. His conceptual school, Transcendentalism, whether acknowledged or not, can be found easily in 21st century America. It is impossible to think and write about ecology, perhaps even to use the word at all, without echoing Emerson. It’s difficult to examine mysticism or Asian religious traditions in America without going places that Emerson went before the Civil War, and if we do either of those things along with some practical sense that we’re using them to rebuild and reform our individualist understanding of the world, we’re doing as Emerson urged. It is both diminishing and praising of Emerson to say that he’s the first self-proclaimed “self-help” American authority.
If Emerson isn’t a great poet, America’s greatest poets often owe much to him. Whitman sought to use his concepts. Emily Dickinson clearly absorbed some of his then new thought. And so too Robert Frost, who is always examining nature and mankind and drawing hard lessons from the pairing of them. When Beat poet Michael McClure’s speaks as a bird or otter, and declaims public maxims,such eccentricities are Emersonian as much as they are from Emerson’s own small-town neighbor Thoreau.
So, today’s piece, which Emerson called simply “Fable,” may not be a great poem if we have criteria to judge such things, but it has begotten great poems. The sage as small animal theme would please Dickinson. The flattening of greatness across multitudes of small things would be Whitmanesque. The cracker-barrel retort of the squirrel who knows, for all external mightiness and achievement, that his daily talent to be able to crack a nut is exquisitely necessary would fit Frost. The charge of change in attention, that the mountain is also just a squirrel-track, would serve Wallace Stevens well.
Returning to end, why the rock band today? The current Covid-19 situation has removed coincident live music—that joy of sounds and breaths in the same room—not only in public performance but in the kind of informal get-togethers that musicians of all skill levels and genres have enjoyed forever. I now miss even the difficulties and limitations of such things, finding it sad that I have no way of knowing when I’ll experience them again. “Fable” today is an approximation of a live band. I started with the drum pattern, added bass, the rhythm guitar, the piano track, a second “lead” guitar part, and declaimed Emerson’s words, doing each in one pass. There’s no composition process as a separate step, no great consideration on instrumentation. Even if it must be done sequentially: end, back to start, and track again, I wanted to approximate what playing live with others feels like.
In Emerson’s “Fable” the mountain calls the squirrel a prig: a self-righteous, self-superior, self-satisfied prude or killjoy. That’s an odd accusation: a majestic mountain charging a little bottom-of-the-food-chain critter with unjustified audacity. Gee, Mountain, project much? The squirrel is “self” indisputably—it cannot be otherwise—but that doesn’t mean it must also be any of the other things on the right-hand side of “prig’s” synonyms. Covid-19 is a mountain, large and natural, undeniable. My little squirrel track, my little path to crack the nut today, is not majestic nor considered in geologic time. What care I for the age and resolve of the mountain. The eagle, the owl, the car-tire have already said there’s no time to waste.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Emerson’s “Fable” is below. If you’d like the text of the poem, here’s a link—and at that page there’s a link to someone else performing “Fable” with music, music with it’s drone and percussion that sounds a little like last time’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”
Perhaps today’s audio piece and what I came to write about it has an interesting path. In words it’s a medium-length journey—so I beg your patience—but the places it goes are vast. Eventually, we’ll answer a question you may not have asking: who’s buried in William Blake’s tomb?
It started with an illustration drawn by Sergio García Sánchez which I saw on Kenne Turner’s blog this month. Turner’s blog has a great deal of manipulated and beautiful nature photography, mixed in with things he notices in his desert region location and occasional poetry, so it was unusual to see a drawing at first, but his post correctly located the words in the drawing and let me recognize the white haired old man whose beard is a star’s journeywork in this cartoon. The man in the drawing, the words, was Walt Whitman.*
Perhaps because Whitman’s words were embedded inside a drawing, they seemed Blakean to me as I read of that grain of sand, a hinge in the hand across the starry dynamo machinery of night. The main effect was to grab my attention and bring thoughts of doing it for this project.
And so I composed a small orchestra piece of music to accompany my reading of this piece, taken from the 31st part of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” using the 1855 edition. I’d normally give you a link to the text, but the two links above to Turner’s blog or to Sánchez’s picture are the best way to see the 1855 text I used which includes a line that was dropped in later editions, the line with the farmer’s girl and her iron tea-kettle that reminds us back to earth and daily life. For many compositions I’d be done.
I know McClure best from a record album he made with ex-Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek and flautist Larry Kassen called The Piano Poems in 2012. This was nowhere near my introduction to the Beat-associated “jazz behind poetry reading” style, but it’s a very good one. Listening to that helped build my own convictions for this project back then.
One of the poems performed on this set is McClure’s “Action Philosophy.” Though he didn’t on Piano Poems as released, McClure would often introduce it by saying that his poem begins with words written by Henry David Thoreau. That led me to think about combining McClure’s incorporation of Thoreau with Whitman’s Blakean lines about the universe’s manifestation in everyday nature. After all, McClure extends Blake’s and Whitman’s vision, seeking to become the animals he sees, to inhabit them fully. That’s the animal meat of his poem, but it’s in a reality sandwich on this deli menu—those separated first and last lines present a vital dichotomy. Here’s the text of McClure’s “Action Philosophy.”
Fifteen jugglers, five believers, six angels in the same performance! Tell your mama not to worry, ‘cause they’re just my friends. Yes, learn to play the triangle and visionary poetic figures will flock to you.
That first line: “That government is best which governs least” is taken from Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience,” an essay that soon became important to certain liberation movements. Thoreau himself was speaking about the Mexican-American War and slavery in his essay, oppressive evils that he felt he had to take action against. Gandhi and Martin Luther King made explicit reference to this work of Thoreau in their movements against colonialism and American racial subjugation. Lines from it had vital currency during the anti-Vietnam War movements of The Sixties.
But that’s not what I associated this line with from my life in the later 20th century, or where you may most likely hear it today. Now if you see this line quoted, (perhaps misattributed to Thomas Jefferson, not Thoreau) it may be used to buttress some form of conservatism, particularly conservatism that has a claim to libertarianism. Libertarianism is a complex subject, too long to explore here today, but on the other hand, elements at the foundation of the Beat literary movement were anarchists, an alignment that would have fitted Thoreau.
Now we take another side-step. Back in the 1990s I worked with Gary, a white database programmer from South Carolina. He aligned strongly (as do some technology people today) with libertarianism and the political right that was ascendant in parts of America at that time. He was a great fan of Thoreau’s line, though I think he’d attribute it to his fellow Southerner Jefferson, rather than the Yankee Thoreau. From talking with him I felt that his philosophical libertarianism might have protected him somewhat from the racism, acknowledged or unacknowledged, that can be found in a lot of American conservatism. When he would talk about his political opinions, I’d say “Well, that’s not me, but you know a lot of the folks I read are anarchists, and they sort of have the same feelings about the dangers of governments.”
Gary replied with a question that might take a long time to answer. “What’s the difference between libertarianism and anarchism?”
What an interesting question, and how long could that answer go on? I improvised my first thoughts, observational ones that day Gary asked it decades ago. “Well, some of it is just cultural associations. They dress differently, they listen to different music. And some of that is reflected from where they are moving from: Libertarians come largely from right-wing backgrounds and anarchists from left-wing ones, though each of them may be disenchanted with something from the Right or the Left respectively.”
McClure’s “Action Philosophy” takes what might be a book-length examination and instead put a distinction into his poem’s first and last lines. The world of the Randian side of libertarianism is perfectly fine with hierarchies and a thought that the unfortunate are the unworthy, or if not that, the unavoidable. Most anarchists—and from McClure’s final line spoken here today, McClure himself—were not. So the first and last lines today are a meaningful combination.
That was my process, a path of liberties and syndication, from within which the piece emerged as the Whitman Blakean section enclosed in McClure’s poem which seemed so Whitmanesque. My performance and recording was done, and yet I went to bed last night with a question in my mind. “What did Whitman know of William Blake? Those lines seemed so Blakean to me.”
How did they come to similar forms of poetic expression? The translated Hebrew poetry of The Bible influenced both strongly. And the same political philosophies informed both men, Blake knew Thomas Paine, Whitman was reading Thoreau and Emerson. And maybe the muses, the angels, the wake-waves of ghosts from the last movements of the dead moving in our air pressed similar things into each poets’ ear. Right after Ginsberg read “Howl” at the Gallery Six reading for the first time (and by some accounts it was the first public reading of any kind Ginsberg or McClure had ever given of any of their work), Lawrence Ferlinghetti contacted Ginsberg from out of the Gallery audience and said “I welcome you on the beginning of a great career.” Ferlinghetti no doubt knew he was echoing what Emerson had written to Whitman in response to that 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.
To hear a performance mixing in Thoreau, McClure, and Whitman with my music for a small orchestra, use the player below. Thanks for reading. Thanks for listening. Thanks for sharing these ghosts with me.
*Should I have used the more multitudinous verb “where” here?
**McClure didn’t even have to be there. In the summer of 1970, I was working frying hamburgers in Port Chester New York. Down the road was the Capitol Theater, one of those converted to rock concert venues of the age. At a bar in town Janis Joplin was drinking with Bob Neuwirth, and Joplin started riffing on a line from a McClure poem “Come on God, and buy me a Mercedes Benz.” Neuwirth scribbled the night’s journeywork on a paper napkin. Later that day she performed the resulting song at the Capitol Theater. Me? I just kept frying those burgers.
***True to their anarchist-hearts, the reading seems to have been blessed with several “organizers” but happened anyway. Kenneth Rexroth MC’d, Phillip Lamantia, Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen, Michael McClure, and Allen Ginsberg read. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, Ann Charters, and Jack Kerouac where in the audience. Since it was at this reading the Ginsberg premiered his long poem “Howl,” that seems to have become the summary of the event, but the edges of the blast broke more windows. The 22-year-old McClure read a poem about the death of whales, showing that his “Mammal Patriotism” was already forming.
The Parlando Project is mostly about presenting other people’s words. I like that. It adds variety and it lets me write about what encounters with those words bring forth. We’ve done that over 400 times since this thing kicked off publicly in 2016
So, we’re always ready to celebrate National Poetry Month. Any month is poetry month here! But every once in awhile I slip in one of my own poems. Sometimes it’s just because I have something I want to say to this adventuresome audience, but it’s often because I’ve read something someone else wrote and I think of something I wrote (or should write, and then write) that relates to it.
A blog I read regularly by Paul Deaton has ranged over various subjects in the past couple of years, but lately he’s been writing some about the past, including lives that range back into his parents and grandparents generations. I’m not going to go back that far, I’m only going to go back to when I was a young man. Given my age, this is “Boomer” territory that’s been already over-farmed—but bear with me. This isn’t really a poem about the past, it’s about someone in my generation who has a past, but presently. For those Gen X and Millennials who find this insufferable, I remind you that I’ve been priming my High Schooler who isn’t a Millennial to blame Gen X and Millennials for ruining things for the current and subsequent generation. I urge other geezers, crones and wise-ass elders to do the same. As our aged, but still very stable emperor demonstrates, the best thing to do to deflect blame is be proactive in shoveling it elsewhere. I don’t know why that should work, but it does!
Anyway, I’ve presented quite a few poems this year by younger-than-mid-life poets whose poems speak as if they are aged.
Besides National Poetry Month, April is supposed to bring us Record Store Day. It would have been last Saturday, an annual celebration of those venerable little stores that once again were selling dark flat petroleum circles that sing when you poke them with a needle. Our current crisis has canceled that.
Now back in my day…Oh man, having a past and dragging it around does make one insufferable doesn’t it…this sort of thing was serious business for me. I had little spending money, but I would hope to have it in order to buy one of those foot-square pieces of art with the circles inside. Something cool. Something that represented my generation.
I can remember a particular spring afternoon. Somehow my girlfriend and I had caged a ride in a keyboard player’s new AMC Javelin to travel to Iowa’s capital city where there was a “head shop” (which is where the best new records were sold, along with, well, “smoking accessories.”) On the way we listened to an 8 Track tape of the Moody Blues To our Children’s Children’s Children. When we got there, I could merely marvel, as I had barely enough for one record album, and couldn’t decide which one to get or if I might need the money for something else. So, the only thing I bought was a pinned badge: a smaller, paler circle, containing a bit of the cover art to the Cream’s Wheels of Fire record.
A circle from “The Sixties.”
Recalling this day 50 years ago or so, says paradoxically to me what music and recordings meant to me then. A record was a precious clue to take me through days or weeks. Foolishness? It’s always been partly that.
But of course something else was on my mind, and the mind of some of my generation on that non-official, just another record store day. War. Justice. The cutting edge of the then gap between generations and elders that had been through WWI, WWII and the Korean War, and were often sure we were ducking our war turn. Our best thoughts of ourselves were that there were more important battles, and of course some of us didn’t succeed in avoiding the war they wanted us to fight. And some of us went off looking for Eden, a place you can sort of find, and then lose track of again.
What else does that memory mean? What does it mean presently? That’s what today’s short piece is about. The player gadget is below to hear it.
This may have been one of the first poems I fell in love with: the richness of the language, some sense of strangeness, the exoticness of the depicted setting–all enough for a young teenager. I did not mind the often outdated language then—less then than I do now—as I expected poems then to be written in an old and alien adult literary language.
If you’d asked that teenager what it meant, I would have probably stumbled out something to defend my appreciation of it—but what I did know was that “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is just flat-out lovely word music.
One could go on about that, but no technical analysis will increase or decrease a listener’s appreciation for that element. Music has a structure, theorems and practices, but it remains subjective and it is not engineering. My performance of it today may not do it justice either, let your own ear or voice be the judge.
You don’t need biography to feel this element in the poem, but Keats wrote this in the spring of a year in which he had cared for his brother Tom as he died of tuberculosis that previous winter. In around a year, the medically trained John Keats would notice symptoms that he well knew were from his own infection. Another year from there he would be dead from the feared infectious respiratory disease of his time. So I read it differently today in our time of the pandemic Covid-19.
But “Ode to a Grecian Urn” isn’t poetry as memoir, a common genre in our time. Instead, despite its failure as an example of pared-back language avoiding words describing emotions, the concept of the poem is not unlike that of Imagists nearly a century later.* Keats looks at a thing, a decorated classical Greek vase,** and records that moment.
I’ve figured out why it’s hard to create this week—the muses are sheltering in place. And it ain’t mine.
I’ll resist the urge to go through this poem line by line, but as the poem’s speaker approaches the titular urn he wants to interrogate it. One could draw a cartoon where the vase is in a police station room and the poet-detective is trying to tease out the details of the caper, while we the audience look on. The vase ain’t talking. The detective says that you were seen with that couple at that musical party, would you like to tell us why she was running? OK, so who were the musicians at the gig? You don’t know! Whatd’ya mean?
But let’s return to that almostness, that never. The lover and the beloved are palpably close, yet they cannot touch. The musicians are playing, but it’s somewhere out of ear-reach. Are they all six-feet, a social distance apart? What’s avoided by this freeze, this lock-down? The sorrow with a “burning forehead, and a parching tongue.” Keats seems to intend this as an illness metaphor.***
The poem tells us this vase includes another scene, a cow being led to a ritual slaughter. A vegan, Hindu, or animal-rights advocate may cringe, but the scene is one of an entire town wishing for this consummation, and we may conclude the scene is “You will die so that we may live or prosper”—which after all is the belief of all such rituals. I’m not supposing that Keats was Joaquin Phoenix, however we may view this sort of thing; and most readers have historically taken the poem’s characterization of this as pious at face value. But Keats could have imagined his urn with another religious scene, and chose this one.
If he doesn’t want an element of dread in the sacrifice scene, why does he choose to add the detail that the pious morn has left a town with eerie deserted streets?
At the poem’s end, Keats places the famous couplet “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” As well-known as these lines are, they’re the source of some controversy. Some think them profound, some glib. They are meaningless babble or a concise summary of Keats’ aesthetic.
The urn, this mesmerizing object, has artistic impact, and that means it’s beautiful in an aesthetic sense. It doesn’t mean it’s clear in its message. It doesn’t mean it’s a simple comfort. Yes, Keats says near the end, the urn is “A friend to man.” But friends are friends partly because they will tell us things that mere sycophants or acquaintances won’t, and friends will be there when things are not all wonderful and happy. It’s true too in this sense: that it is not telling itself with ulterior motives or self-interest.
The experience of the two scenes that precede this summing up are not happy ones. Even the consolations of artistic immortality are slight: we know nothing about the end of the lover’s pursuit, the musician’s tune, the name of the village or if it prospered, or if the sacrificial cow had a soul that was reborn.
As I performed it I decided to downplay what that past teenager would have read as a ringing conclusion. After all, whatever Keats’ sweet unheard intent might have been, his object that we can see and puzzle over tells us that the urn is saying this to him, not some “deity or mortal, or both.” A piece of art says what it says in ways its creator cannot control, as the poem predicts it: “In midst of other woe than ours.”
So, I read it today as that weak voice that says, from when this poem was written, from this time when I performed it, in a time of contagious illness, in a time when caretakers were at risk, to a time when our streets are silent, at a time when some pious ready sacrifices instead of remedies, a time when music is silences and lovers parted—that there is somehow something beautiful to be discerned that is still as true as our living moments.
Speaking of musical engineering, I decided to keep the music silent or very minimal for the first part of this one, even though this project is all about combining music with words—the text’s “unheard music” was just to powerful to contradict. I also chose to keep everything in a major key/major chords, because that too is how I read the text: the urn’s subjects think they are in joy, though we see them, like re-viewing films and video of past happy social crowds today, in a different frame. To read the full text of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” go here. The player gadget to hear my performance of it awaits you clicking on the player gadget below. Stay well. Take care.
*The idea of poetry expressing the experience of another piece of art, particularly visual art, ekphrastic poetry, long predates Modernism and Imagism. By using this approach to the everyday encounter with the world, the Imagists extended this technique.
**There is wide agreement that there is no singular vase/subject to discover that Keats actually encountered in a moment. Britain had recently absconded with “The Elgin Marbles” from Athens, a series of marble sculptures that Keats viewed in London, and he had seen period vases, even making his own drawing of one.
***In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag spent a good deal of time on the historical ascribing of tuberculosis to a dissipated or too passionate life-style in pre-germ-theory times. Currently, lovers may be close but separated precisely by our knowledge of microbes.
I’ve been planning on presenting this eerie ghost story by English poet Frances Cornford for awhile now, but I wanted to take care with the musical setting while working on our recently completed countdown of the most popular pieces here from this past winter.
Heidi Randen was interested in doing this as a guest reader, and it’s her voice you’ll get to hear today. She’s also the guest blogger for this piece, so before I say our customary few words about the music let me turn it over to Heidi.
From Our Breasts, Frances Cornford’s The Old Nurse
By Heidi Randen, guest writer for Parlando (and Frank’s wife)
Like the subject of this poem, I am an old nurse. When my husband shared these sad, sweet, ghostly, gothic verses, they resonated with my experience of nursing in the biological and professional sense. I breastfed our kid and have worked as a Registered Nurse in hospital and clinical settings with very old and very young people.
Against my breast I felt a small and blunt-nosed head.
To breastfeed is to be reduced to a mammal, a one-person dairy operation. To share your milk with an infant in need who is not your own is an extravagant act of human kindness, yet it carries great stigma. In my family’s American immigration story, relatives on my mother’s side repeat the line: Our family was so poor that your great-great grandmother had to work as a wet nurse in the Netherlands.
The circle of life: the woman who breastfed me and who suffers from Alzheimer’s, being helped long by the person I breastfed, my kid who talks about going into nursing when they grow up.
In my experience talking with fellow nurses, neonatology, pediatrics, oncology and hospice are considered extra special callings. It takes greater emotional mettle to get close to babies and children in pain, to help people with serious or life-limiting illness and their families. Put any of those specialties together: neonatal hospice or pediatric oncology and you are exponentially special, perhaps super-human.
But nurses are very human. We see things that are unbearably sad. And there is nothing sadder than a dead baby. It seems like the worst violation of the order of things. But it is not. To me, the worst thing in the world is when people are left alone in sadness and fear. Like the woman in the poem, the nurses of the world—in all senses of the word—hear crying over the sound of storms, seek out those in distress and provide comfort. The satisfaction of this experience is expressed tangibly by the poet:
And a sob-quivering body slowly growing calm
And toes like round cold buds that warmed inside my palm.
Like the subject of this poem, I too see dead people and they don’t frighten me. The longer you watch human beings move through all their stages, you see that the end of life has much in common with the beginning of life. This became most apparent to me in the space of one day when I visited a friend in the hospital with a newborn and a friend dying in hospice. The mystery of where that baby came from was the same as the mystery of where my friend was going. To nurse is to help for a little while on another’s journey, then—like the old nurse at the end of the poem—to be alone again with this mystery after they leave.
The page from Cornford’s “Autumn Midnight” collection where the poem was published in 1923. Woodcut by Gwen Raverat
Heidi didn’t mention this when she wrote this earlier this year, but of course now we are asking nurses and others to put their bodies on the line with our current Covid-19 crisis.
Here’s those few words on the music. My original starting idea was to use singing bowls as part of the arrangement, but I have only one available, and while I could manipulate the single pitch after recording, I wanted them to play intervals and triads and decided to go another route. I used some gongs and bell for the piece’s intro, but much of what sounds like the singing bowls is an electric guitar being sustained to feedback levels and then being fed through a modulated reverb. I also made use of one of my favorites, the Mellotron cello sound, because that instrument’s uncanny aural valley always sounds spookier than the real thing to me.
The player gadget to hear Heidi’s performance of Frances Cornford’s “The Old Nurse” is below. If Cornford intrigues you, I’ve presented two of her poems with original music earlier this month.