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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fenton Johnson’s “Tired” for National Poetry Month

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 for National Poetry Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Death of Guillaume Apollinaire for National Poetry Month

World War I entered the worlds of both of our last two poems, and that war’s poetry was one theme we visited over the early years of this Project that coincided with the centennial of that conflict. The interaction between that war and the arts was complex, but here’s a simple question: did WWI cause Modernism?

My best short answer: not exactly. The Modernist experiments were already underway before the war broke out. What the deadly and at times absurd war did for Modernism in the arts was twofold: it validated its breaks from past tactics and traditions, and it toughened it up and gave it more existential stakes. Hear, for example, of how quickly Imagist poetry could be turned from short poems about red-faced farmers to the harrowing urban bombing account of F. S. Flint’s “Zeppelins.”

One Modernist source-point that did owe something directly to the war was Dada, which emerged in neutral Switzerland among Europeans who had fled the conflict. Dada was all about experiment and tweaking tradition, and if I audaciously suggested that one can get something from the later High Modernism of Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  by reading it as if it were Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,”  Dada was clearly willing to use outright random non-sense in service of breaking down old patterns.

One of Dada’s originators was a pan-European man Tristan Tzara. And if the young Tzara and European Modernism had an overall figurehead in the years before the end of WWI, it was another pan-European man Guillaume Apollinaire. Americans (who had an outsized influence on English-language poetic Modernism) may not fully credit how invaluable Apollinaire was in this era. He coined the terms “cubism” and “surrealism,” he wrote poetry in a freer and more freely-associative way,* and he began to lay his words out on the page to typographically break up the phrases, predating and serving as a model for E. E. Cummings.

Apollinaire’s war-time fate was to bookend Rupert Brooke’s. Still convalescing from a head-wound suffered in military service, Apollinaire became another victim of the great flu epidemic that swirled around the end-game and aftermath of the war.

And that story brings us to today’s National Poetry Month poetry prompt for those looking to do more than simply add to the solitary outcroppings on the mountain of poetry, another way to mesh and meld with our poetic ancestors. Why not translate a poem?

What, you don’t know a foreign language? Well, you know something about poetry (or wish to) if you write it. Poetry itself is a second language you either already speak or wish to speak fluently. Translation is the way to work hand in hand, eyeball to eyeball, with another poet, and I maintain that any poet can benefit from it, even monolinguals. The Internet offers increasingly adequate automatic translators and online dictionaries for some languages.**  Mixing the two, some research, and your own knowledge of the dialect and tactics of poetry can produce worthwhile translations that can be shared — but here’s the main creative benefit: you’ll learn, intimately, the way a poem can be constructed under the skin. The exercise of trying to find the right sounding, feeling, and meaning English word for another poet’s vision is powerful.   If I could make one request, one rule, for creative writing programs everywhere, it would be to make translation part of the curriculum.***

In was in that spirit that I chose to translate Tzara’s poem “The Death of Guillaume Apollinaire.”   What would Dada’s young provocateur say about this death of this influence? I was surprised at the emotional depth of the piece — it’s an eulogy as a love poem — with opposites-imagery mirroring the opposites of the living considering the dead. I’m not sure how much better a translation of it I could do today, and I’m particularly proud of my rendering of the concluding two lines, a striking gothic image.

With Tzara’s “opposites-imagery” in his poem I couldn’t help but think of M. C. Escher’s later art used in this video.

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You can hear my performance of my translation of Tzara’s “The Death of Guillaume Apollinaire”  from the French “La mort de Guillaume Apollinaire”  three ways. There’s a graphical player below for some, this highlighted link for others, and if you’d like to see the words and well as hear them performed, this brand-new lyric video.

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*For an example, consider Apollinaire’s own poetic witness to the outbreak of WWI, “The Little Car,”  which I translated and presented here.

**You shouldn’t use those automatic translations as anything more than guide and gloss. Your appropriate aim is to produce a poem in English rather than the literality of one-to-one words, to bring the images and the way they are arrayed over to our language. Dictionaries, particularly ones that provide examples of the word used in context, are important adjuncts to the online AI translations.

***Another benefit: this kind of crowd-sourcing of translation can increase the number of translated poems available, increasing the diversity of our culture. And then, like Wallace Stevens 13 lookings at blackbirds, having a spread of translations of the same poem may be a truer representation of the poem’s essence and spreading possibilities than any single one. Cubism activism!

Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” for National Poetry Month

Here’s an old American joke I recall.

“No one knows the words to the second verse of the National Anthem.”

“Sure they do.”

“Oh? What’s the second verse then?”

“Play ball!”*

We continue our celebration of National Poetry Month while tipping our hat to American Baseball’s Opening Day. Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry”  seemed fitting, not just because she was a lifelong baseball fan, but because this poem of hers always seemed to me to be American poetry’s National Anthem. Like our constitution’s “More perfect union” the overall thrust of the poem is that a real, complete poetry is still a goal, still in process, and so in the meanwhile it’s OK to snub poetry’s failures, but to pass the time, OK too to enjoy its at bats anyway.

Partway through the poem Moore explicitly calls up a baseball metaphor:

the base —
ball fan, the statistician—case after case
could be cited”

Here’s today’s lyric video. Baseball has Blue Jays, Cardinals, and Orioles. Why not Cockatoos?

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Moore has already given us the choice to “Not admire what we cannot understand,” but my estimate of what she’s getting at there is that hitting a baseball effectively at a major league level is extraordinarily difficult. The very best players ever to play over more than a century fail to do it about two-thirds of the time over a career. Careful records have been kept. Fans know this is so. Poetry too may be a sublime effort to try to hit the implausible cleanly to land in the improbable place.

It’s become a common observation that baseball has diminished popularity because of this, because one needs to endure so much failure and not-quite to get to the aim of the game. Perhaps poetry can commiserate.

Here’s hoping my home team’s opening-day rookie pitcher can throw implausible stuff this week. Gnomic fastballs. Hermetic curves. Enjambed change-ups. Surreal sliders. Let the opposing bards wave their wands and form nothing but wind, and all their strokes come up trite and merely sentimental. Let their bats hang upside down, asleep.

This performance from our archives has vocals recorded in 2018 by the then members of the Lake Street Writers Group: Dave Moore, Ethna McKiernan, and Kevin FitzPatrick. Two-thirds of that lineup have been called up to another league since then, the one where we have no statisticians or toads — you may have read our memorial pieces to them here this winter. And now it’s spring, even if we don’t understand. How can we admire what we cannot understand?

Three strikes and you’re out, but three ways to hear this performance. There’s a graphical player below for some of you, and if you don’t see that, this highlighted link. And if you want to see the lyric video that I just made that is part of the series of those I’m doing for National Poetry Month, that’s above.

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*Joke footnotes — they always add so much to the humor — but I know we have a lot of foreign readers. American baseball games traditionally start with a singing of the National Anthem. Yes, just the first verse. Patriotism, but in a measured dose there. After which, the head umpire announces the commencement of the game with the cry of “Play ball!”

Anne Spencer’s “Dunbar” for National Poetry Month

In 1922, amazing Afro-American polymath James Weldon Johnson* published an audacious anthology titled The Book of American Negro Poetry.   Not only did it claim that there was a tradition worth an anthology at that early date; in his preface Johnson made the observation that Afro-American music was disproportionately important in American musical culture, and furthermore that he saw no reason that Afro-American’s literary impact shouldn’t also arise to that level.

A century later Johnson the prophet could be charged with underestimating Black American’s musical impact, but we are entering an era when his predictions about Afro-American poets are no longer considered exceptional cases, and not even a “why not” situation — but instead an “of course” predilection.

One has to give Johnson credit for declaring this back then, with what poets had managed to be published or otherwise eked out a career at a time when the ex-enslaved were still living. A few of the poets he put in his anthology would soon be known as the vanguard of the “Harlem Renaissance” and yet others would remain little-known afterward. Only one, Paul Laurence Dunbar, really had made writing a career at that point, and a large part of that career’s viability was on the back of a 19th century fashion for dialect writing, with rough printed approximation of regional and ethnic speech being put forward as evidence of America’s diversity or oddness. Reading Dunbar’s dialect poems today is rough going, a lot of context and translation cultural and phonetic is required.** But Dunbar also wrote fluent poetry in the rhymed metrical styles of the day, and those are the poems he’s remembered for now.

And what about those “deep cuts” in Johnson’s anthology, those poets and poems that aren’t required in a modern summary anthology of American poetry? One of those is Anne Spencer.  It’s an imperfect analogy, but you could roughly think of Spencer as a sepia Emily Dickinson. The two poets even shared a passion for gardening. Except there wasn’t a preserved and handed-down pack of good copies of poems in Spencer’s case. Imagine what we’d know of Emily Dickinson if the tiny number of poems that were published in Dickinson’s lifetime were all we had?

It’s plausible the proximate reason that Spencer’s poem praising Dunbar was included in Johnson’s anthology was that Spencer’s home was a waystation and salon frequented by Black artists and civil rights activists in the Jim Crow era, which would have included Johnson. But let’s just be grateful, it’s a lovely short lyric making in a handful of words, the case that Dunbar, and by extension Afro-American poets yet to come, can stand with and extend the tradition of British poets then considered “canon.” And by linking Dunbar with the struggling working-class poets Chatterton and Keats, and the exiled radical Shelley, Spencer may have been making a subtle point about where poetry could, or should, come from. And like Johnson, she predicted with her poem’s linkage that by our present time we’d remember Dunbar as a supple lyrical poet unlinked from the fashion of dialect poetry.

The lyric video includes a poster for a Dunbar performance and some photos of Spencer. Spencer wrote poetry throughout her life, but didn’t focus on publishing.

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Three ways to hear my setting and performance of Spencer’s “Dunbar”  today. You can use a players that will be shown below in some ways this blog is read, or this highlighted link if you don’t see the player. And, as we’re doing this April, there’s the lyric video above.

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*Polymath? Well, let’s see: key early civil rights leader, helped found NAACP, poetry, novels, wrote the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing”  (aka “the Negro National Anthem”), diplomat, teacher.

**Dunbar made a go of it touring and reading his poetry, the sort of thing that was the YouTuber or podcaster route for extra-literary revenue and publicity then. His dialect poems were often touted on the billings, and so may have been the crowd draw. I don’t know how integrated his audiences were, or indeed how the dialect stuff was presented. I’m unaware that any recordings of Dunbar exist, and I don’t know that we even have secondary recordings such as exist of folks who knew Twain, imitating him on early records from direct memory of performances.

Zeppelins for National Poetry Month

Here’s another piece from the early days of the Parlando Project that we’re re-releasing for this year’s National Poetry Month. This is the place where I’d often encourage you to listen to the musical performance made from this poem, but I also could see why you might want to skip it and wait for tomorrow’s.

The poem “Zeppelins”  is by F. S. Flint, a too-little-known man who rose from poverty to help launch English language Modernism early in the 20th century as one of the original Imagists who shucked off the expectations of overused poetic tactics and filigree for what he called “unrhymed cadences.”  As a piece of poetry, I think it still sounds modern, still hits this listener with an impact you can feel.

And there’s the rub regarding this poem. It intends to be disturbing, to communicate an intimate dread and revulsion. Not everyone respects Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow”  celebration of utilitarian beauty for its insistence on simplicity. There are probably even some who won’t “get” Frost’s exuberant ode to the shaping of nature’s gusts to singing words. But neither of those poems will disturb you, and our lives may have enough disturbance that I can see one not wanting to seek out a poem that gives us more of that. Flint’s poem is the story of one of the first aerial bombing raids on a city, an attack in May of 1915 on London that caused around 100 casualties, including children.*

Furthermore, this poem from 1915 is disturbing for another reason: it’s still topical. It was so when I first posted it in 2017 — cities and towns were being bombed and civilians killed then. So it is today. As another bombing witness was wont to say: “So it goes.”

Imagism in action. Note how Flint intimately invokes confusion, dread, and fear directly in this rapidly accelerating narrative poem

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So skip today’s poem if you don’t want to be subjected to that, if your life is already strafed. I’ll understand. Poetry like “Zeppelins”  can serve as a powerful witness, we should respect that, but I can see why we may ask poetry for something else too.

The performance is available three ways. You’ve seen the picture of the lyrics video above, you may see a graphical player below to play the audio of the performance, and then there’s this highlighted link to also play it.

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*I felt obligated to put an advisory on the video, not because I desire a world of poetry that cannot frighten or offend, but because such a piece may be too much for children who may be introduced to poetry during National Poetry Month.

The Aim Was Song for National Poetry Month

It’s National Poetry Month, and we’re celebrating here by re-releasing some of my favorite pieces from early in this project’s six-year history. Today’s poem’s poet is American Robert Frost speaking about spring, spring winds, and the poets’ transcendental task of continuing and shaping nature.

I’ve often reminded readers here that I didn’t care for Robert Frost when I was a young person. He was still a living poet while I was a teenager, and I associated him (wrongly) with dreary homilies and his placement in the school anthologies as the most recent poet included. More than once I complained to teachers and any fellow students who seemed at all interested in poetry that there had to be something, someone, newer and more relevant than Frost that could be studied.

What I didn’t know then was that Frost could be a nimble lyric poet delivering subtle messages, and that he was, in the generational nomenclature that would come 20 years later than my youthful 1960’s complaints, “a slacker.”

Frost spent the first 40 years of his life basically failing and flailing as a poet and human being. American interest in his poetry was nil. Only after wandering to England did he find a publisher for his first collection and a key promoter in fellow American in pre-WWI England, Ezra Pound. Pound was nearly a dozen years younger than Frost.

Frost didn’t write poetry as memoir, as many modern poets do, but all that experience made it into his poetry. Frost wrote often of failure and limitations* — but today’s poem “The Aim Was Song”  isn’t one of those poems. First published 101 years ago, this is Frost exulting in the triumphs of poets and poetry after he had finally broken through into acclaim in his home country. And it’s a good one for the Parlando Project to perform during National Poetry Month because Frost’s imagery here celebrates the oral, vocal, and musical heart of poetry. Also it’s an excuse for the composer to tell the guitar player: “Why don’t you turn up and play some.”**

Laptops were larger and more wooden in Robert Frost’s day. 

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As with our other re-releases this April, you can hear my performance of this poem with the player gadget below (where seen), or this highlighted link, as well as with today’s low-budget lyric video that is trying to catch the attention of additional listeners to the Parlando Project.

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*By the time his poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay”  was made into a motif in The Outsiders  movie in the 1980s, “slackers” could sense that kinship that I missed.

**OK, it’s the same guy, so the guitar player has considerable influence over the composer.

The Wall Around Heaven (for Larry Williams)

Let me start out by saying I think that today’s poem is a fine piece of writing capable of making its listener think anew. “The Wall Around Heaven”  is satire. Satire has two dangers: that one will take its audaciousness as a literal program or doctrine, or that one will laugh simply at the outrageousness without thought. Satire often believes laughter can be the germ of thought even if you laugh before you know what that thought could be.

This project’s usual thing is to present poetry old enough to be freely reused, and then performing it with original music. If one was to note that the poetry wasn’t meant to be performed with music, or that there is a danger that our understanding of the poet’s intent is incomplete, I reply that’s part the point. We want to think anew about the works, some of which are revered poems, some of which are poems that are lesser-known or rated.

In this case we have the poet themselves performing the piece, longtime Parlando contributor Dave Moore. When I asked Dave if he wanted to add some background on “The Wall Around Heaven’s”  intent, here’s what he wrote:

At this point I don’t even remember when Larry died. As you know he lived right around the corner from you, drove a cab, and identified as a folk poet. Not to mention, tho I’m sure you will, sharing a name with a musician. He also vocally retired from poetry, tho a lot I heard from him seemed spontaneous (I’m missing a word here). When I wrote this of course I was thinking about Trump’s cruel & ridiculous buzzpoint (missing another word, must be too early in the day for me).

Anyway I was thinking in Larry’s voice when I drafted the piece.”

Who’s that Larry Williams that Dave speaks of? Nope, not that guy. Our Larry was also someone who attended the Lake Street Writer’s Group along with Dave and myself, and the two poets who died this winter that we’ve been introducing you to: Ethna McKiernan and Kevin FitzPatrick. So, in that way, Dave’s poem inspired by our Larry Williams is of a piece with those matters, even if it uses different tactics than the poems by Ethna or Kevin.

I don’t want to say a lot about Dave’s “The Wall Around Heaven.”   I think it’s best encountered as one listens to its satiric fable, its parable, without my commentary. I’ll add only this: this month I went the long way around to see the roadshow production of the folk opera Hadestown.  Hadestown’s  first act closes with what may be the most heard song from this opera, a rousing act-closer “Why We Build the Wall.”   I think that song was written nearly 10 years ago, but by the time Hadestown  evolved into its current staged version, the song was seen — as Dave also recalls about the genesis of his own piece — as commentary on a certain U.S. presidential campaign’s idée fixe: an impenetrable border-long wall on the country’s southern border.

Hadestown set

The set for the production of the folk-opera Hadestown I saw last week.

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To this listener “The Wall Around Heaven”  is something much more than that. In some part it’s a satire on a long-time Christian theological question. But what if you’re not a Christian? Well, one doesn’t need to be an acolyte of classic Greek polytheism to enjoy Hadestown.*   The Larry Williams I knew would often speak, poetically or otherwise, about social injustice and elite indifference. I suspect that the muses were whispering those shades into Dave’s ear as he wrote this — but the concept of a wall around paradise and the capricious human understanding of the rules to gain entry is broader and richer than even that.

This one is a bit longer than many pieces here, but it’s well worth a listen. The player gadget is below for many of you. Can’t gain entry to that? This highlighted link is the other way to hear it.

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*Here’s my summary review of Hadestown:  I enjoyed, appreciated, and was moved by it. Having heard a few of the songs by the original Broadway cast, and having a modest grasp of some of the mythological tales, I was still glad that I encountered it as a discrete story-telling experience whole for the first time. I discovered, as with Dave’s parable, Hadestown  adds an undercurrent of social inequality to its mythopoetic story. External to Hadestown  itself, the story’s impact was amplified by sitting next to someone just out of hospitalization for suicidal ideation during this performance. Orpheus in Hadestown  makes a point that he entered the underworld of the dead “the long way.”

That’s the way I wish for you to get to heaven or hell — the long way.