From Our Breasts, Frances Cornford’s “The Old Nurse”

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.

Frances Cornford wrote this poem in the 1920s when professional nursing was still a new concept.  Florence Nightingale pioneering nursing in the field during the Crimean War would have been about as far back in the collective memory as the Korean War is to us now.  Nightingale started the world’s first professional nursing school in London in 1860. This occupation would have been as relatively novel as computer programming or palliative care are today.  In an English village in the 1920s, an old nurse would most likely mean an old wet nurse or an old nursemaid.

Wet nursing is a humble and humbling profession:

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.

Breastfeeding is like still being a little pregnant.  Your body is not wholly your own, still providing shelter and sustenance for another.  This is also the case in professional nursing.  When I worked in the hospital, I would often forego sleep, meals and bathroom breaks if it was a particularly busy shift.  This self-sacrifice is why nursing is still considered a calling and is listed as the most trusted profession in the United States and the United Kingdom.

From Our Breasts 1080

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 Old Nurse as published in Cornford's Autumn Midnight 1923

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.

 

To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train

Continuing on with lyric poetry, that short form of compressed immediacy, here’s a poem that seems to be better known in Britain that it is here: Frances Cornford’s “To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train”  first published in 1910.

I think it illustrates one of the things about good lyric poetry of the Imagist* type: it may be right or it may be wrong, but it’s always true. Almost immediately this poem was recognized as “wrong” by many (most?) readers. It could, and was, easily seen as unfeeling, or an expression of cruelty to the extent it has implied feeling. How the hell does the poet on the train know anything about that fat white lady in gloves? Early responses seemed to dislike the compression they read as glibness; more current readers see haughty fat-shaming.

Good lyric  poetry of the Imagist type: it may be right or it may be wrong, but it’s always true.

I haven’t found anywhere where Cornford wrote about her intent with this poem. Given that she lived a long life and this poem became her best-known one, she must have said or written something, but lacking that I’m left to react to the text itself.

The objectionable is the poem’s third line. If the poem did not include it, I doubt any significant number of readers would dislike the poem. Let’s look again at that line: “O fat white woman whom nobody loves.”

If that was a social media post today, one can see the storm breaking rapidly. It sounds like it’s “kicking down” doesn’t it? Our graceless current President could easily tweet this line at someone who disapproved or challenged him, and regardless of one’s political stance, his demeaning meaning would be clear. But even in this short poem that stands alone with no testimony from its author, context may change how we read it.

What’s changed since 1910? “Fat” stands in a strange place in our culture currently. There are elements that regard it as somewhere between a sinful sign and a regrettable disease, but also strong elements that wish to make fat-shaming disreputable. Our general agreement, best as I can read it, is to allow “fat,” like curse words, as something we allow or forgive when we feel the subject it’s applied to has wronged us sufficiently, but not something we should throw around willy-nilly, particularly at strangers. But how damning and diminishing was “fat” in 1910?

Much less I think. First off, let’s look at the U.S. President in that year. A crude reading of the culture for sure, but William Howard Taft was, well, fat, and yet today few politicians are.**  Female beauty standards too were curvier (though this was soon to change). Fat was, to the level of unexceptional cliché, associated then with wealth, and therefore wealth’s courtier, power. This once unquestioned association with wealth and power is partly responsible for how the fat person was treated comically, even later in the century. The lean, skinny person was the scrappy underdog, the fat person the one who ran things. Stan Laurel was put upon by the more officious Hardy. The Marxist critique of Margaret Dumont was to tear down the well-fed power structure of white women in gloves.

Moving on in Cornford’s problematic line: “white” is if anything more striking in its frank appearance in this short poem. Here I’m even more unsure of Cornford’s context and intent. “White” as a term for those not considered a person of color existed in 1910 certainly, and that’s how most of us will read Cornford’s line today. But a consciousness, without the context of other non-white people in the frame, of a white person calling out someone as “white” strikes me as so unusual in 1910*** that I wonder if we’re misreading her intent. Does she mean that she’s dressed in white? If she means, to us as we may experience the poem now, “a member of the favored and privileged racial caste,” we should take that into consideration regarding the effect of the poem more than most readers seem to. If she means “dressed in white,” which I think is more likely in the poem’s context, then she’s extending the “gloves” image as observing someone she imagines is not in touch with the earth. It’s probably taking too large a deterministic leap to think that she’s meaning to reference suffragettes with a singular woman in white. It’s a slightly lesser leap to consider dressed in white as a wedding gown undertone.****

And yes, let’s not miss the third word in this compound epithet: “woman.” Given that the author is a woman, and we presume the train-riding speaker of the poem looking out the window is a woman, we may have something like a peer to peer relationship between the observed subject and the observer.

In the few Frances Cornford poems I’ve read so far, there’s considerable female empathy exhibited. Why are we sure that the woman in the train is disgusted with or condemning the other woman? Does she feel superior or knowing in some way in the lyric moment (regardless if she’s right or wrong) that the white woman is missing something (love, an experience of nature)? Yes, I can see that. Is it a haughty superiority? I think that leans too much on the dismissive way we read “fat” and even “white.” As I read this poem over, I visualize looking out a train window, and the sense that comes to me is that one sees the woman outside through one’s own reflection in the glass we are looking through. I think, in the lyric moment, Cornford is imagining (and letting us know that it’s only that, imagining) a difference and a risk for herself, and for that other woman.

Frances Cornford - two sides

Dialectic: Frances Cornford at work. Frances Cornford without gloves.

 

There’s another mystery in the poem that I can’t decode completely: the gloves that refrain along with the absent loves. One reader jocularly suggested that the woman is hurrying on her way to a cricket match, and she’s wearing gloves because she’s a wicket keeper. Some, I think seriously, see gardening gloves. Others, formal-wear gloves. This is part of what I like about this poem: it’s plain-spoken, allusive, and elusive. That’s a hard combination to pull off. Along with its excellent musicality, that may be why it’s so well remembered in Britain—even by folks who are sure they dislike it.

Like Marlowe’s shepherd, this is a poem that calls out for an “answer record,” and humorist G. K. Chesterton’s retort “The Fat Lady Answers”  is the most famous of several. I stand more with Cornford’s lyric than Chesterton’s busted triolet, but his point is worth remembering as we consider “other people’s stories.” And so I performed the two together today. At the time I recorded this performance I decided to read the female poet’s poem in a male voice and suggest a woman’s voice in the male Chesterton’s response. I was still buying into Chesterton’s objection more than I am now after living with the poem a bit longer.

Anyway, Cornford’s triolet is so damn catchy that I wanted to keep it to the hook today—mostly drums and bass for the music—but I added a little of my naïve electric piano working off an odd inverted-voicing CMaj13 chord. One of my shortest audio pieces gets this long post. Go figure.

You can hear my performance with the player gadget below, or on Spotify, Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. The full text of Cornford’s poem is here if you’d like to read along.

 

 

 

*AFAIK, no one considers Cornford an Imagist, and this poem was written and published before other pioneering Imagist train poems like Pound’s In a Station of the Metro  or Sandburg’s Limited.”  But in its straightforward immediate language, specific color imagery, compression, and avoidance of sentimental emotional language, it follows the intent of those later free-verse Imagist poems.

**King Edward the VII doesn’t look svelte either, nor Queen Victoria in her later years. Of course, “Who made you king of the Britons?” and all that, but this still speaks to how excess weight was viewed in 1910 as representative of wealth and power.

***I don’t know much about Cornford’s political and social beliefs. She had one son who was a dedicated Marxist of the Karl branch, but what she thought herself about racial questions, I don’t know.

****If it was explicitly a wedding gown, it’d be a different poem, but you can re-read or relisten to the poem and imagine that at your own option. Another possibility would be that the woman is white because she’s a ghost. Again, overdetermining the poem. I’d still like to know what Cornford’s intent was, but even if it was a bit of light verse that got away from her, one of the joys of lyric poetry is that undercurrents can be waiting for the next time you read, hear, speak, or perform it.

from Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln: the Prairie Years

I neglected to plan ahead enough for today’s U. S. Presidents’ Day holiday. It’s an odd holiday anyway, of no great interest to the large number of readers/listeners this project has overseas. And for Americans, the title and avowed purpose of the holiday may be especially fraught in our present day.

Back when I was young, it was two holidays, celebrating two specific Presidents: George Washington’s Birthday and Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday. The first President, a leader of the American Revolution, had a cardinal virtue: he could have become the dictator of the newly independent country. That after all, is the result of many revolutions. He was one of the richest and most powerful men in the new country, full-fledged in the 1% for certain. Yes, part of his wealth consisted of enslaved men and women he owned, but these facts strangely testify to this one important fact in his character: he could have been that dictator. He could have run our country as a personal plantation. He would not.

Abraham Lincoln is another case entirely. I’m not au fait with the demographics of the early 19th century United States, but Lincoln’s family was undistinguished in wealth and fame then, and the circumstances of a rural frontier farming family in his time and place would rank his conditions with those of the world’s poorer regions today.

American poet Carl Sandburg was born less than 70 years after Lincoln, the son of a wealth-less immigrant in a rural America that was different from Lincoln’s, but much closer to Lincoln’s country life than we are today. When, in the last previous decade to be called “The Twenties,” Sandburg chose to write a biography of Abraham Lincoln, he could see those differences, smaller though they were to his eyes. And his eyes were an Imagist poet’s eyes.

This led to an unusual book,* one that was once central to Sandburg’s contemporary renown, but now is generally less well-regarded. Sandburg chose to tell the Lincoln story, as he might portray a scene in one of his poems, with a great deal of humble detail that at any moment could slip into a wider context unexpectedly. His palpable reverence for those humble details is unmistakable.

When Lincoln wrote and spoke the great American civic poem called “The Gettysburg Address”  he famously began by noting our “fathers brought forth upon this continent.” Sandburg though, in telling Lincoln’s story was not exclusively beholden to the patriarchy. And so, however late for Presidents’ Day, here’s a piece more directly about the holiday’s forerunner: Lincoln’s Birthday, as portrayed in Sandburg’s book.

I could see Sandburg, being a poet, choosing poetic methods of refrain as he tells the story of Abe’s birth, and then but a few pages later the death of Lincoln’s mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln. Each event is set in humble rural isolation, with a central image of a bed of poles and animal hides, cleated to the wall in the corner of a hand-built, dirt-floor hut. This is where Nancy Hanks first presented us Lincoln’s birth day, and also where she died nine years later.

Abe Lincoln's Birth Day

When Dell books got the paperback rights to Sandburg’s condensed version of his Lincoln book, they also made a 1956 comic book from it. The unknown artist didn’t follow Sandburg’s text accurately for the interior scenes however. The cabin drawing is based on a later reconstruction and the interior panel could be a 20th century home familiar to the 1950s reader.

 

Can we believe that’s an American story, much less the story of the birth of a President? It seems like a tale from somewhere else, particularly today. Oh, so much, particularly today. Like a grim fairy tale passed down from some old country. That the Lincolns’ nearest neighbors have the name “Sparrow” only adds to this effect. I decided that Sandburg’s Lincoln tale needed an invocation, a striking way to set us in readiness. My choice for that was to begin with a quote from Patti Smith’s “Birdland,”  another place where music met words to tell the tale of a child who had lost a parent. In the little section I chose here Smith—like Sandburg will at times in his tale—steps outward from the particular in her poem to the promise of an ecstatic future.

The player to hear this performance should appear below. Because I was so late in getting this piece together, the main section retains a “scratch” rhythm section track I used while constructing the piece that I’d normally replace, but I doubt it detracts much from Sandburg’s story.

 

 

 

*The first book, published in two volumes,  Abraham Lincoln: the Prairie Years  was followed up several years later with Abraham Lincoln: the War Years  published in four volumes. These books were in their time a success, and helped form the American cultural understanding of Lincoln in the 20th century. After another interval of years Sandburg created his own one volume condensation of these books, greatly shortening the original text. With my short deadline, it was from that later edition, the one I could get quick access to, that today’s text it extracted.

The Phones in our Hands (are so Magical)

This week I met with a small group of poets that have been sharing their work with each other for a few decades. At the end of the night one of us said that, despite the date, that love poems had been rare.

I said that I do try to look for love poems to present here as part of this project, but when I do I’m often waylaid by something gloomier—“But then, love poems can be as complicated as any other, and there’s always Lorca where the poem is ‘I love and desire you even while we’re between one foot and our whole body and soul in the grave.”

Did I mention the group is all old poets? Young poets can choose to be poète maudit types, and to mine the tropes of love, separation from all, and death—but past a certain age, us old poets have an organic attachment to that role that we’d have to actively deny to escape.

So, for Valentine’s Day, here’s a free-verse sonnet of mine that speaks about a kind of love that old partners may have. I think some readers could miss that aspect in “These Phones in our Hands (are so Magical),”  working as the poem does to contrast the little glowing palm-shrines that are now common to most of us with other kinds of connection.

These Phone in our Hands

Long time readers here know that we’ll be back soon with performances of poems I didn’t write.

The magical incident it describes, of a phone that can display a picture of a couple seven years in the future is not entirely fantasy. As the poem jokes, there are processes that can age a photo to show how a person might look at an older age. For someone older, the assurance that one might see proof that one will be around for seven more years is magical in a more above and below-ground earthy sense. Young lovers can wonder if their partner will stay partnered with them. Old lovers know  that they will part.

The final couplet may be tricky. The empty hands are not just empty of their magical smart phones.

I almost presented this with just the drums, but in the past week or two I’ve spent composing time blowing on the guitar because my fingers have been up to it, and maybe I can recover a little of the few chops I once had. Yet, in the back of my mind I’ve reminded myself that it’s been awhile since I composed an orchestra piece for this project, and that led to the strings today. The player to hear it should be below. If you’re reading this in the WordPress reader on an iPad or iPhone the player gadget may be missing. Why? I don’t know, as the player shows up fine in Safari—but you can subscribe to the audio pieces by themselves in the Apple Podcast app or find us as the Parlando Project on Spotify.

The Labors of Hercules

I’ve largely put off considering the American Modernist poet Marianne Moore. Why? Largely a combination of difficulties in understanding her verse with an inability to appreciate her word-music. When I look at a Marianne Moore poem I’m usually struck by a combination of plain-spokenness with a knotted syntax that obscures the direction of her meaning.

Ordinarily I’m perfectly willing to put up with hard-to-understand-on-the-first-reading poetry—indeed I can like poetry that I can never quite grasp  as long as its language makes me gasp. But a Moore poem on the page, and in its first or even second reading often seems more like a set of notes for a poem or one of my own jumbled first drafts rather than an elusive song I’m driven to follow by the impetus of its structure.

But of course all of that is an impression based on limited exposure to her work. Late last year I put down a short list of works that would come into public domain in 2020, and one of those works from the last decade to be called “The Twenties” was Marianne Moore’s first book-length collection Observations.

This month I read Observations.  I was puzzled by many of the poems—that I expected—but what surprised me was how consistently the poems take a stance of protest, opposition and stubborn grievance. Don’t ask me to explicate each poem in Observations,  I’ll fail that test, and even if my understanding of the alliances of various Modernist has been refreshed and expanded by doing this Project, I can’t say completely who or whose poetic theories are being skewered, but Moore’s first collection can be read as a collection of dis tracks.

Marianne Moore 2

Marianne Moore has a few things to say about obstacles and those that put them up

 

Observations  contains Moore’s most famous poem Poetry,”  the one that begins “I too dislike it.” But as it sets out it’s ideas of proper poetry, it’s relatively gentle in chiding those that fail. Other poems in the collection are not so gentle.

Take the one I’m performing today: “The Labors of Hercules.”  The title helps us with a reference before we get to Moore’s discursive style. In Greek mythology these were a series of 12 tasks, each one next-to-impossible on its own, all of which the hero Hercules must complete as penance. Moore doesn’t seem to follow the scheme of these classical tasks.*  Instead she sets out the tasks that have been made next to impossible for her (or her like) to create their own variation of American Modernist art—and there’s a bunch of them.

Is the mule at the start of the poem then her own poetic muse, not conventionally beautiful and lyrical?  The rest of the obstacles/tasks seem more outer than inward. There’s a narrow-minded pianist too tied to the score** to improvise or compose in a new manner. A string of invective brings us some “Self-wrought Midasses of brains” with “Fourteen-carat ignorance” that she’ll disappoint. She sarcastically threatens to rebel and dress up as the specifically male and bearded representation of time and posterity.*** She disputes the theory (propounded by T. S. Eliot and some lions of New Criticism) that detachment from one’s particular personality is required for creative power. She runs into the “High priests of caste” and lashes them with some further, unmistakable invective. Next she says she’ll have to teach saints to atheists to succeed in her penance.

There’s a line I’m not sure of that follows: “Sick of the pig-sty, wild geese and wild men.” Moore might be saying she’s sick of reflexive poetic worship of a timeless nature, as she shared a Modernist interest in observing the man-made and mechanical as worthy of poetry. Myself, I like a poem that freshly opens the book of nature as much as the next person, but there are days when one more poem about majestic wild-geese or another Robert-Bly-has-helped-me-come-to-terms-with-my-masculinity**** wild man poem makes me gag.

The poem closes on a short litany negating a series of common prejudices and ethnic stereotypes. I will not tarry long here to note that several other Modernists of 100 years ago were not shy about displaying each of these bigotries. In the context of this poem, Moore is saying “and besides all of the other things I’ll need to overcome, I’m not going to score easy points with bigots.”

Andy Gill in action with the Gang of Four.

 

It’s my hope that my performance of “The Labors of Hercules”  helps as much as what I’ve written above to illuminate Moore’s poem. Musically I was thinking of Andy Gill, a guitarist who I admired greatly and who died this month. I didn’t mimic his distinctive sound or the can’t-not-dance groove of the group he founded, The Gang of Four—but a little of his attitude was informing me. The full text of Marianne Moore’s “The Labors of Hercules”  is linked here. The player to hear my performance should appear below, and all the Parlando Project audio pieces are also available on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Just look there for (or on other podcast sources) for The Parlando Project.

 

 

*At a recorded reading given decades after she wrote this poem, Moore says the taming  of the opening mules was one of Hercules’ tasks. Maybe she’s referring to the capturing of the “Mares of Diomedes” task in the classical myth?

**”Tadpole notes” made me think of immature notes that haven’t grown into those real toads for one’s imaginary garden, but it appears that Moore’s quoted image is more likely a reference to the shapes of notes in conventional notation with their bodies and tails.

***Moore’s politics are not something I know a lot about. Socialism of the William Morris sort is said to be an early influence, but she was an ardent woman’s suffragist 100 years ago when she still couldn’t vote as a matter of law. At the time that the female “song-bird” poets (Teasdale, Millay, Wylie, and others) were starting to be denigrated by high-church Modernists, Moore was one woman who was going to fight back with her own distinctive Modernism.

Anyway, the whole image here of her clipping on a fake beard and confronting the “high priests” can only make this reader think of the stoning scene in Life of Brian.

****Bly fan and reading this? My opinion on his work is complicated, and your opinions are more important than mine anyway.

We Want to Believe That There Will Come a Moment When Everything Changes

Here’s another in our series presenting poems that address what a struggle for social change feels like. A couple of differences this time, but then this project likes differences.

First difference: the words I adapted for today’s piece weren’t intended as a poem. How’d I come upon them? I saw this post over on the Afro Punk blog which had a linked short video with long-time radical activist and thinker Angela Davis. Davis’ younger interviewer starts off with a philosophic observation about the nature of time and changes, and ends by asking Davis to “get us to a different place.”*

Davis’ reply did that: it included an insightful statement that may be useful across generations. Listening to it in her exact and measured speaking cadence I began to see a structure already implied in it that could be expressed poetically. My contribution to the text was simply to cut out and arrange some of her words in order to further compress and focus on an element that I heard and resonated with and that I’d like to emphasize. Though that’s audacious on my part, my intent was to respect and re-amplify this part of her message. Did I succeed or fail by changing the context of some of her words in this way? Listeners will judge.

You may not agree with every one of Davis’ ideas, but my point is that through poetry we can better understand the experience and soul that fires those ideas

 

 

Here a second difference. When I presented Yeats’ poem about his country’s civil war, I said most living Americans will likely have no knowledge of which sides and positions were involved in that struggle that Yeats wrote about in 1923, much less a position on them or their consequences. I certainly didn’t. Time and distance can do that. What might a civil war feel like so soon after Ireland had gotten its independence? We can still feel that element in Yeats’ poem regardless.

Similarly, the complex theological structure of William Blake’s 18th century “prophetic books” require footnotes for many of us, but his stance for human freedom and possibility despite our fallen nature may still come through.

Davis though is still a person of controversy. That’s a radical’s job after all, and she’s been at that for more than 50 years. Furthermore, actual questions of life and death of people—people that other still-living people know or knew—are connected to those positions and tactics over the decades. Arguments of necessity and priority are complex. As it is, no passage of time has made racism, sexism and homophobia mooted points, and no country I know is a safe refuge from these things. These are too important questions for me to be glib about them.

But what about what Davis said during this Black History Month about us who want social change? There is some wisdom to take in. You can listen to my performance of a few statements from this February 2020 talk by Angela Davis with the player gadget below, and you can see Davis herself make her points herself. Musically I believe I was thinking of Gil Scott-Heron when I tried to do my best playing a couple of electric pianos. Gil Scott-Heron is another one of those influences that helped form this project.

 

 

 

*For Black History Month, Afro Punk has taken a theme “How long ‘til Black future month?”

from The Book of Urizen, Chapter 9

Let’s return today to the English mystic and poet William Blake, but continue on a thought that is inherent with the last two pieces, one by Yeats and the other by a long-winded guy who writes this. Poetry, just like other writing can, within its levels, do any number of things. One can seek to teach, to reassure, to tell stories, to amuse, to make philosophical points, or to abstractly portray beauty in poetry. Some poets, some critics, some projects, believe some of these are more worthy aims than others. From one day to another I may favor one of these over another in my reading, my performances here, in my own writing.

There’s a certain “high church” of poetry that feels that which aim and which methods are used in reaching it is crucial—and that other choices harm the art. I’m not smart enough, or well enough read, to know if they’re right.

But there’s one thing impactful poetry shares with the other arts: that’s the texture of the immediacy of experience, of how its creation, its creator, its reader, its listener feels and shares of any of this.

So, it largely makes no difference to readers today what political side William Butler Yeats was on in the Irish Civil War. And if post-WWII “Westerns” dealt with certain horrors: racist terrorism, genocide, colonialism, and the responsibilities of citizenship in an uncertain and sometimes buffered way, well so be it. What remains is the emotional and perceptual core transferred now.

Today’s piece is a section from one of William Blake’s “prophetic books,” a series of very small editions he wrote, illustrated, colored and printed himself. As a young man I admired that. Blake bows to no other as far as “Indie Cred,” “get in the van,” and DIY spirit. Furthermore, he developed (or envisioned) his own mythology to explain his metaphysical outlook.

I can still remember first reading about Blake in a list of minor poets*  in some leftover textbook of one of my parents sometime in the mid-60s. The note said that while he wrote some charming short lyrics he later descended into longer works that were judged as borderline insane. To many a young person that’s not a tragic story so much as it’s intriguing.

A year or two later the rock’n’roll band The Doors dropped a Blake line into an album cut and I eventually was able to get a few paperbacks collecting Blake poetry. “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” youthful Byronic mythos was part of this no doubt.

I couldn’t make head nor tails out of Blake’s “prophetic books.” I could see the Milton and Books of Moses references, but that didn’t illuminate things much. In the decades since, there have arisen many Blake scholars who worked out his structure and epistemological themes to a great degree. That’s helped. But even then as a teenager, and now as an old man, I could and can still catch glimpses of how it felt to apprehend and sing these things Blake wrote. The poems are like their illustrations in Blake’s great plan for “illuminated books:” they are meaningful in their impact without necessarily telling you what they are meant to mean within some overall structure. And that’s probably how visionary works should be.

Blake's Ancient of Days on St. Paul dome

A recent special exhibition of Blake works in London was celebrated by projecting one of Blake’s most famous images on the dome of St. Paul’s cathedral. Not shown: the irony of nonconformist Blake’s image on a national religious landmark.

 

So today I’m going to perform part of the final chapter of Blake’s Book of Urizen  which comes after Blake has told something like a condensed tale of “Paradise Lost”  or the book of Genesis;  but with his own vision of the creation of the world and religion and the fall and fate of humankind. It doesn’t require that you understand or agree with Blake’s ideas if I can help illuminate Blake’s words so that you can understand the feeling of creating in a failed and fallen world.

In Blake’s mythos mankind is descended from fallen Eternals, blind to the infinity of the universe and their own souls. When we see his famous picture of a bearded Urizen with a compass at right angles measuring the world it’s not only a picture of visionary might—it’s the picture of a fallen, blind Eternal assiduously measuring a world with a puny device.

I didn’t go directly Doors rock’n’roll for today’s audio piece, instead the words led me somewhere else, to one of the things that influenced that band: the mythos of another visionary: Sun Ra, the Birmingham Alabama born Afro-American who recast himself as a prophet from the planet Saturn, and thereby encoded African and Afro-American culture as an infinite thing.

So Afro-Futurist saxophones today in gratitude to Sun Ra and to William Blake. The player to hear my performance is below, and the full text and illuminated plates of Blake’s Book of Urizen  is here if you‘d like to read along, The section I perform is near the bottom, Chapter 9, verses 3-6.

 

 

*Blake started gaining some reputational ground by the late 19th century in England, but American literary forces lagged in appreciation for him.

The Stare’s Nest at My Window

I’ve done a number of William Butler Yeats poems here over the years as part of this project. We might agree that occurred because his words on the page just demand to be sounded. But there’s another side to Yeats that attracts too. He can write about political subjects with that same lyrical voice.*

One potential problem with political poetry is that a poet may not share the reader’s political stance, and while Yeats later dalliance with Fascism seems less ardent than Ezra Pound’s stronger convictions, the excellence of a poet’s lyrical gifts can’t save all examples.

Where Yeats succeeds in his political poetry, it’s often when he’s expressing complex moments of political disappointment or even disaster. This is properly the lyric poet’s area: the form where poetry isn’t about ideas but the experience of ideas.  When Yeats does this the details that led to these moments are sometimes sketched in, but the poem can succeed even if one knows nothing about them.**

After all, every person with a cause eventually knows days when the cause seems damaged, perverted or defeated.

Today’s Yeats poem is a case in point. In my parochial ignorance I knew nothing about the events of the Irish Civil War of 1922. Reading a bit about it could add some more resonance to the harrowing tale Yeats tells in this poem taken from a short sequence of poems he wrote that year about the conflict, but I don’t think the reader needs  to know those details for the poem to be powerful.

The poem has a central image, referred to in a refrain at the end of each stanza: honey bees and starlings*** are both nesting in the deteriorating brickwork of the place Yeats is staying in Ireland during this civil war, symbolizing those Irish factions fighting. Yeats seems to stand with the honey bees, which I read as the industrious, pragmatic, and fruitful symbol. The starlings are only raising their own brood in the same wall crevices, but from what I understand the starlings of the British Isles are somewhat of a nuisance bird, lacking in beauty and melodious song.****  Note too the detail that the starlings are being fed “grubs and flies.” Maybe the starlings aren’t evil, but what they’ve been given to subsist and grow on isn’t portrayed as lovely, a thought echoed in the final stanza.

Thoor Ballyee (Yeats Tower)

Not quite an ivory tower. Yeats had bought this old castle tower in disrepair. This page says they are still trying to repair it.

 

So, written in the sorrow of a civil war in his freshly independent country, Yeats’ plea is for a time when the chippering and tweeting loudmouths will eventually give way to those who may one day make his country prosper, though they will do so building in a country that has been emptied and hollowed out by the current disaster. That’s not a political platform, but it is an experience  that you and I may resonate with now.

Musically I didn’t stint on the discordant effects this time. Despite spending a few days with this one, it may take more time and listens for me to decide if I did right by Yeats with it. The full text of the poem is here if you’d like to read along, and the player gadget to hear my music and performance is just below.

 

 

 

*Although Yeats wrote about a variety of subjects, it’s easy to find him fitting into the same bag as other poets seeking to reform their culture out from under colonialism. In that effort he may be more of a cultural nationalist than a functioning politician (despite his eventual term in the Irish legislature), but this concern was central to his art.

**That said, one of the most popular posts here over the years has been this one about the exact issue and persons behind the Yeats poem “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing.”

***Yeats chose to use an archaic name for the common starling: “stare.” Yeats claimed the name was still in use in Western Ireland, but it still seems to be a deliberate choice . Stare does give him more rhyming words, but I also wonder if Yeats was thinking of punning undercurrents of stare as in looking—looking as in out his Irish window at his vision for a new independent Ireland; and “stair” as in a climb toward a higher, more perfect purpose than centuries of colonial exploitation followed by civil war. Or even “state.”

****Despite the bird’s little-liked vocalizations, starlings can learn and repeat other sounds in their environment. The best story I came upon in looking for information on why Yeats might have chosen the starling for his poem was the tale of the composer Mozart’s pet starling who could sing Mozartian passages. The starling’s discontinuous song has also been posited as an inspiration for Mozart’s famously odd-ball A Musical Joke” (K. 522)

The Little Ghost

Tom Rapp is a singer-songwriter whose work I love, and whose 1972 joint setting of a Shakespeare and a Sara Teasdale poem is one of the inspirations for this project. Rapp had a favorite story about the earliest days of his overlooked career: while still a child he entered a talent contest in Minnesota. The story varies. He may have performed an Elvis Presley song. He finished second or third. Another Minnesota singer, a similarly young Bobby Zimmerman,* finished fifth. The Zimmerman kid eventually went on to have a career that outpaced Rapp’s.

But then, Rapp would always add, it was a baton twirler who finished first.

American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay is another poet who began writing and publishing early, sending poems to magazines when she was still a teenager. At age 20 she submitted one of her grander early poems to a literary magazine’s 1912 poetry contest, and that poem “Renascence”  oddly created considerable publicity when it didn’t win but finished fourth. She was a young, poor, rural kid and some said she should have won on the merits of her poem—even including the guy who won the contest, Orrick Johns. As with Tom Rapp, you may have to be a reader of blogs like this one to have some sense of who Orrick Johns was.

If you ever loose a talent or poetry contest, consider that baton twirler.

Millay suit and tie

Just kids. Whiten the background and Sinatra the jacket over one shoulder, and you’ve got that Robert Mapplethorpe/Patti Smith’s Horses cover a few decades early

 

After the contest and the brouhaha, a benefactor saw to it that Millay could attend college, and a few years later this other early poem of hers, “The Little Ghost,”  was included in her first poetry collection. “The Little Ghost”  isn’t the grandest or most incisive poem Millay would write, so even though I’ve done many Millay poems here, I had overlooked this one until I saw it this month over at the Fourteen Lines poetry blog.

My reaction is shared by most who encounter this poem: it’s charming and only a little bit chilling. Yes, there are a few mildly annoying inverted word order make-rhymes, but it’s the little details that make it work I think. That the ghost seems to enjoy the poet’s garden-work (gardening inherently partaking of the life-death-life cycle), that she enigmatically shows no sadness at being dead, that she (though immaterial) is gracefully careful of the poet’s favorite plant, that she walks away (though a ghost, and a ghost of a child) with the substantial while insubstantial bearing of a great lady.

There’s no redrum, no haunted charge to the living, no absolute-zero temperature of next to death. Millay doesn’t even make the revelation that the child is a ghost a held-off-for-the-big-surprise-reveal—that fact’s in the title and the first line. Still, in the moment the poem lets us experience, the poet doesn’t yet know what we know. That’s the little chill.

Some readers have said that Millay intentionally or otherwise put her own past childhood self in as an undercurrent of this little ghost, and that reading works too, though I don’t know that’s a secret meaning that one must get to fully enjoy the poem. What with the garden setting, and that annual reincarnation, I do get some sense of spiritual kinship between the poems living speaker and the ghost.

Did that inform the music choice? I am back in my South Asian mode today with hand percussion, tambura, and harmonium. The instrument in the right channel that sounds vaguely South Asian is an ordinary electric guitar, one with a vibrato arm that lets me get a bit of that characteristic pitch waver.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The Little Ghost”  is right below.

 

 

 

 

*Zimmerman changed his last name to Dillon and then to Dylan. My late mother-in-law used to tell the story of meeting Betty Zimmerman at a function decades ago, and as mothers in those olden days were prone to do, they got to talking about each other’s children.

“You may have heard of one of my sons. He’s Bob Dylan.” Betty proudly said.

My future MIL Maxine came back with: “Who’s Bob Dielan?”

When she told me the story some years later, she explained “I didn’t know! I didn’t have much time for music back then.”

Poem 1 from Twenty Love Poems

Last post I said that Pablo Neruda’s departed lover was by definition absent by the time we got to the final love poem in his Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.  I’ve now read the entire collection in an English translation, and I’d have to say that the lover is to a large degree absent throughout—not just in the sense that elements of a doomed romance are woven into the whole series, but in the sense that she isn’t really given a living presence.

Still, quiet, and dark are all attributes Neruda sees or applies to her.*  Erotic attention is  given, moments of apparent mutual intimacy are sketched, and most importantly to us as readers (as opposed to actual partners of Neruda) a range of striking imagery is used to represent her and the poem’s apprehension of his experience with her.

This last point may be crucial. Without it, this poetic series would be only another example of the syndrome of “The Male Gaze.” If that sort of thing, and the patriarchal power dynamics associated are a point of pain, this series of poems by the eventually Nobel Prize winning poet may not be for you.

Sexuality and its expressions, its inescapable intertwining with the rest of society’s hierarchies and prejudices, is not a simple thing. Twenty Love Poems’  popularity testifies that not everyone in the past 100 years sees it this way or is equally bothered by that element.

I’m willing to put Neruda on the stand, but only in our moot court, since he is now long dead, and no one now living likely had to try to negotiate an erotic relationship with him. He’s now become his writings, and his youthful lovers too have become the imagery that he preserved them as. Take that in the balance as we weigh the once living beings and their kindnesses, cravings and blindspots against the art that one of them has left.

“Poem 20”  in the series began by launching one last extravagant image about the love affair as it writes that there can be no more, but as I now turn to the opening of the series, the 19 year old Neruda is going to try numerous audacious images to describe his beloved and their relationship. They’re all going to be one-sided. She never speaks. Her emotions can be sometimes made out if one reads the poems in an Imagist manner (where emotional words are not used, but depicted with external description) but they are not the point of the series which is focused on the male speaker’s suffering, confusion, and dissatisfaction.

I’ve mentioned before that I fear that I may ere in my translations because my prime goal is to make vivid the images I discern in a poem. In Neruda’s “Poem 1,”  I differ from other translations I’ve read of it in that I see some images they have muted or made more abstract and “prettified.” I worried about my tendency here so much that I pulled back from some rawer translations I considered. This may be cowardice on my part—but the most noble explanation I can give is that to make a sure judgement on that level of tone I would need to be a fluent speaker of the source language and more familiar with the entirety of Neruda’s work.

Poem 1

Here’s the translation I mined from Neruda. “It’s much cheaper down in the South American towns where the miners work almost for nothing.”

 

Here are some brief notes on my experience of “Poem 1”  in making my fresh translation of it from the original Spanish.

The poem opens with an audacious image: the beloved is portrayed as an immense (if inhuman—not even animal, but mineral!) landscape. My reading is that Neruda is making an extended metaphor that erotically he’s engaged in mining his lover’s body. Are there subtexts here (I assume unintentional, but who knows) to foreign corporate exploitation of Chilean resources?

The first quatrain ends with what I read as a brag that lover-man Neruda is so potent that his lover could only conceive a son from his mining operation. See what I warned about? Either Neruda or I—or both of us—is risking risibility here.

In the second quatrain, Neruda recovers. This is flat-out marvelous and mysterious writing. Perhaps it benefits in that Neruda is no longer trying to describe his beloved, only himself here. In my translation task I worked a bit on what word to use for “túnel.” “Tunnel” is the obvious choice, but I never liked it as word-music when I tried it. I chose “cave” instead, preserving the anima subtext I sensed.

The third stanza, problematic again. It opens well, and as word-music compels. The “de leche ávida y firme” phrase is rendered by all the other translators in whatever their best Surrealistic/poetic manner finds. I’m more base it seems, and was struck by secondary Spanish meanings for “leche.” I could also have chosen the idiomatic meaning of smacking or bumping, even though other translators haven’t. Third line? If she was to speak: “Neruda, my absent eyes are up here!”   Fourth line. “Rosey pubis” is just bad, and I couldn’t justify linguistically my alternative.

OK, you in the back row. Stop snickering. Or otherwise we’ll stop with erotic poetry and go back to Longfellow right now!

Last stanza. How self-aware was Neruda when he wrote this?** As he refrains on woman and body, he goes and drops in the “my woman” formulation with it. Given that in the course of this series of poems or even the rest of this stanza, this isn’t going to be a long-term commitment, I’m not sure how he gets the deed and mineral rights on his beloved’s mortal corpus, but if you like you can just say that I’m 2020 anachronistically considering 1924. The final three lines make plain, even if it’s lovely verse, that, well: a man’s gotta ramble, I can’t be satisfied, and the problems of us little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Am I being unfair to Neruda? Even here as a 19-year-old he’s an accomplished poet who found an avid audience that bonded with what they received in his art. When reading his Twenty Love Poems and Song of Despair   I came across as many “wow!” lines as problematic ones, and I wasn’t bored. Not everyone looking for a lover, much less a love poet, is going to ask for the correct dialectic to get them through the night.

A possible defense is that this isn’t poetry as memoir (a common form today) and that the woman in the poem seems soul-less and silent because she is intentionally an abstracted metaphor. As I said when we started—whatever, she is now.

For my performance I chose not to go romantic for this as I did with “Poem 20”  last time. While there is a tender cello present, the main music is carried by pianos playing astringently. I performed it more as if it was a Browning-like dramatic monolog—for monolog it is. Feel free to hiss or sigh with the character of this very young dramatis personae.***  The text in Neruda’s original Spanish alongside another English translation is here. The player gadget to hear my performance is below.

 

 

 

*In “Poem 15”  the poet says to her “I like for you to be still: it is as though you were absent,/distant and full of sorrow as though you had died.” This may be taking a Goth stance a bit too far.

**In “Poem 14”  he shows a moment of sympathy, “How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me.”

***Former REM frontman Michael Stipe had one of those interviews via a standardized questionnaire recently. To the question “To whom would you most like to say sorry, and why?” he answered:

“Anyone I slept with before the age of 27…”