Most days I take a bike ride to and from a cafe I have breakfast at. It’s my conviction that exercise is a good thing for people of all ages, but it’s more at required for folks my age. The kind of sitting that goes into composing music or the reading and writing that contributes the texts this project uses is pleasant and absorbing, so I think that if I don’t start my day with something that gets me moving outdoors all I would see is screens and pages. No matter if they are blank or full pages, the book of nature cannot be found there.
When it comes to the book of nature I’m not well read. When I read poets like Emily Dickinson or Edward Thomas I can easily tell that. Therefore, my only advantage is that I get to read the book of nature as if for the first time.
Chemical nature observed. My homage to the Yip Abides blog. I love how the rust has created a sunburst finish lacework that matches the original paint color of this truck I passed this month.
This spring I began to notice birdsong more and more. In early morning rides the birds were active and making a note of that with their calls and singing. Summer writes diminuendo, and by now my northern state is quite silent. Nor do I get to see any birds much, though the streets here are full of the year’s batch of weaned squirrels, now nearly adult-sized, who are dashing about as if they have a plan for winter. And with the squirrels I hear less of the cackles from those that take time to chase another squirrel for sport. I sometimes imagine those pursuing pairs were littermates, another they were once eyeless beside.
No one’s singing because there’s autumn work to be done—but what work? Will it bring reward? What to store, what to leave behind.
Today’s text is a poem I wrote about birdsong, and the larger book of nature in which we are only an entry, somewhere between horseflies and iguanas as alphabetized with our symbols. It’s occurred to me that I have taken time in this later year of my life to listen to the birdsongs, their piercing intervals; and that after I no longer roll down these streets looking for tea and scrambled bird eggs, that there will be birds in spring moving from note to note, and birds in fall, quiet and studious.
Here’s the poem if you’d like to read along as you listen to the performance.
The piece is called “The Birds Before Us,” and you can hear my performance of it with the gadget below. We’ll return soon with the usual Parlando Project thing: encounters with other people’s words.
It’s time for the seasonal tallying of the pieces presented here that received the most listens and likes from you during the past three months.
We presented 36 or 37 pieces in that time, including our increased posting activity during April’s National Poetry Month, but the most notable event for me during this interval was May, which became the most active month ever here for both blog visits and audio piece streams. I’m grateful that you’ve lent this effort some of your attention, and that goes double for any of you that helped spread the word about what we do here informally or through things like Facebook and Twitter.
As usual we’re going to follow the count-down format, moving from the 10th most popular piece as determined by your listens and likes and moving up to the most popular one.
10. Sweet Thames. It was a close finish with Charlotte Mew’s “The Trees are Down,” but one part of our ongoing annual April serial performance of “The Waste Land” made it into the Top Ten. “Sweet Thames,” the portion that kicks off that poem’s longest section “The Fire Sermon” was the part that made it, while the rest did not. Perhaps the listens/likes were lower because I warned our audience that “The Waste Land,” and particularly “The Fire Sermon” part of it, is not light entertainment, and things only got darker as “The Fire Sermon” continues after this. “Sweet Thames” may seem to have jaunty parts, particularly the catchy Mrs. Porter section near the end, but even that has dark undertones as it was sung by the ANZAC troops heading for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in WWI.
I did like the music I composed and played for it though, mixing some buzzy synth lines with American delta-blues style slide guitar. Listen to it here:
You could think of Dr. Tearle’s 3 minutes of video here as the trailer if “The Waste Land” was a film. Definitely not a date movie then.
9. Smoke and Steel. Frequent visitors here know my love for Carl Sandburg, and the Sandburg piece that made our Spring Top 10 was a selection I took from the longer poem that is the title piece from his 1920 collection Smoke and Steel.
I found Sandburg’s extended metaphor of our working lives as smoke incredibly moving, something that a few of you must have agreed with. Musically, the toughest part was the piano part, the song’s musical hook. It’s not a complicated part, but I had to record it in two passes on my tiny plastic keyboard due to my naïve piano skills. Here’s the gadget to hear it.
Sandburg greets Richard Wilbur, Amiri Baraka, and Frank O’Hara at the start of a 20th century poetry symposium. “All poets must wear a hard hat and steel-toed boots before entering the typewriter area.”
8. The Aim Was Song. Robert Frost’s ode to the genesis of poetry gave me an excuse to break out with an unapologetic electric lead-guitar song. The poem’s text talks about wind being shaped by the mouth, which may have clued me into using one of the oldest electric guitar effects devices: the wah-wah. The wah-wah is a foot-treadle pedal which when moved sweeps a frequency-band emphasis. The sweep of frequency seems to be changing the note as it sounds, like a jaw-harp or a horn plunger-mute. The player gadget for “The Aim Was Song” is below.
Wah-Wah Robert Frost
Next time we’ll continue the count-down with numbers 7 through 5.
We’ve already heard from Claude McKay and Thomas Wentworth Higginson on the month of June, and now it’s time to turn to one of the foremost spirits of the mid-19th century American Transcendentalist movement, Henry David Thoreau.
Thoreau is well-known for being in the activist, live-the-ideals, wing of Transcendentalism, though readers here have been introduced to Thoreau’s contemporary Thomas Wentworth Higginson—more than a footnote in the Emily Dickinson story—who also spent considerable time living those ideals.
Collect the series: Unfortunate Hair Stylings of Important Personages
Thoreau and Transcendentalism’s major domo Ralph Waldo Emerson lived in the same town in Massachusetts, and one of the most striking things for me when I first visited that town, Concord, was to think that in a matter of a few blocks there lived Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott—all in this place not that much larger than the small farming community I grew up in. What a town that must have been in those years!
Transcendentalism is a little hard to put a finger on exactly as a movement because it was interested in and had change-convictions about so many things. Higginson in his 1899 collection of memoir pieces Cheerful Yesterdays calls it “The Period of the Newness” and speaks of “The Sisterhood of Reforms.”
My current working-definition of Transcendentalism is it is the belief that there is a primary knowledge to be obtained from the deep study and meditation on the structures and methods of nature, as opposed to the accumulation of received and conventional truths about it. Thoreau the Transcendental activist helped to pioneer this, often writing about his direct experience of nature. His thought process also caused him to develop political ideals, including Civil Disobedience to unjust and violent government actions, famously inspiring Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Thoreau didn’t just inspire Gandhi and King with his writing. The first story I ever heard of Thoreau recounted the tale of Ralph Waldo Emerson visiting Thoreau who had been jailed for refusing to pay taxes as a protest against the Mexican-American war and its support of slavery.
Henry, what are you doing in there?” Emerson asked across the jail door bars.
“Waldo, the question is, what are you doing out there?” Thoreau replied.
But here’s one lesser known thing about Thoreau, the deep naturalist, writer and political activist: he was also something of an engineer. Between writing and other activities, he was active in his father’s business, a small factory that made pencils. A chief problem at the time was the formulation of the graphite used in the “lead” for these indispensable writing instruments. Thoreau’s father’s pencils, like other American pencils at the time, used a too soft binder that led to a crumbling point and blurry line. Through study of European pencils (and one suspects a little lab time on his part) Henry David Thoreau, Transcendentalist writer, philosopher, and activist figured out a clay formulation to mix with the powdery graphite to produce a much better American pencil. Profits from the sale of these pencils and the underlying technology* were largely what supported Thoreau’s writing career.
Not to make too fine a point of it—and King and Gandhi might have found other inspiration, and Thoreau other funding—but the 20th century Afro-American civil rights movement and the independence of the Indian sub-continent owe something to a thing as prosaic as a better pencil design—monumental things that literally come from a feet of clay.
Today’s piece is a short meditation taken from an entry in Thoreau’s Journals for June 6th 1857. Adding to the above connection, when Thoreau was writing his nature observations in the field, he most likely was doing so using a pencil of his own design. Note too that at one point engineer-Thoreau talks of the revolution of thought connected to the revolution of the natural cycle of seasons as if they are the meshing of a gear train.
Handwriting as bad as mine! The page from Thoreau’s journal containing today’s text.
Written as prose, it has a flow that I could find to recite and accompany it with music. The piece’s chordal part I played on an electric 12-string guitar recorded in the manner Roger McGuinn and the engineers on The Byrds recordings devised in the Sixties. Instead of the John Coltrane-inspired lead 12-string melodic line of something like “Eight Miles High” I played an acoustic guitar with an E-Bow, a magnetic invention that drives a guitar string to vibrate and produce a flute-like sound. As I read a little about Thoreau this week, I came upon the information that he was also an avid flute player, so it seems appropriate.
The player gadget is below. My apologies for being away from this blog and blog activities so far in June—you know, life and things.
I cannot start any presentation of a Longfellow poem here without noting his extraordinary fall from esteem and fame. Once, through a combination of the historical moment in the growth of the United States, his talents, and a desire to write earnestly meaningful poems, Longfellow seemed our national poet. Did it seem, when that was so, that this would be for all time—or at least for an age longer than a decade or two short of a century?
Any reading across this project’s nearly three years will show that I find worth in the less-well-known, the overlooked. But nothing that is honestly popular can be unworthy of examination—after all, even manifold problems and failures of art in that which drew a large audience tell us something about that audience, our fellow human beings. Which case now, overlooked or popular, is Longfellow?
If Whitman, Dickinson and Frost—or their unseen ghosts in our zeitgeist—still motivate our inner singing muses, can we understand that trio—our current national poets—as reactions to Longfellow, making him still a prime-mover of some interest?
So, let’s listen to “It Is Not Always May” today. Rhymed metrical English language lyric is not easy to do, and harder to do if you want it to sound easy, and this one is pretty good. Yes there’s a bit of “poetic diction” here, words and word-order that we’d never say in actual speech, and I suspect that would be true even in 1842 when this poem was published, but it doesn’t greatly harm the poem.
The imagery is largely conventional, though as a seasonal poem we may expect some of these ready-mades to be checked off: birds, bird-song, budding trees, the young, the frolic. Can one do a winter poem without snow and stasis, an autumn poem without colored falling leaves, and so on? Yes, this is possible, and originality can be a great strength—but there’s a certain resonance with the choir of poets to sing those ancient notes in one’s own song. Conventional and outdated it may be, but I rather liked the clouds as sailing vessels in a river-fed harbor awaiting a west wind to up-anchor from New England for the “Old World.” And the poem’s refrain: “There are no birds in last year’s nest,” which Longfellow identifies as a Spanish proverb, has its vividness too.
Oh in my soul, I think the Imagists were right, that too many poems use conventional images as mere counters, pro-forma symbols, not real vivid objects we can consider as existing outside the poetic line. But I could just see Longfellow and the sea-side clouds as an actual charged moment.
And how about this poem’s sentiment? Well many acceptable modern poems have opinions, outlooks, sentiments, and so the charge against Longfellow isn’t really that, rather it’s sentimentality, the idea that he has no original outlook, no fresh take. What would his readers in the days of his fame have thought? A feature, not a bug? Longfellow was the premier “Fireside Poet,” suitable for reading to the family, suitable for school-books and children’s illustrated early readers. Did they view this poem as a basic truth to be reminded of, or did they view this as sufficient in itself? I assume some thought each.
Yes, I want more than that from poetry. Reassurance and singular conventional answers aren’t even what children want and need exclusively. But this poem is balanced in a way that I can admire. It’s a carpe diem poem without a smarmy pickup line, a song of the life-death cycle that plays the undertones, a poem that asks subtly for youth to be irresponsible, or responsible to their youth not earned wisdom (“to some good angel leave the rest”).
So, it’s fitting that I chose to sing this May poem of Longfellow’s, even given the limitations of my singing voice. Once more I was drawn to using the less and more than realistic Mellotron flute and cello sounds to signify a pastoral scene. Even with my limitations, “It Is Not Always May” sings well and easily, and I urge you to hear it with the player below. The poem’s text is available here if you’d like to read along.
The great thing about Emily Dickinson and her around 2000 poems is that there’s always one you haven’t experienced yet—and just this week over at the Interesting Literature blog I saw this Dickinson spring poem. “May-Flower” has Dickinson doing her most subtle music to accompany her most Blakean attention. Just like it says itself: it’s a “bold little beauty.”
It’s short and compressed, and if you read it quickly and silently it may seem slight and slide right by you. Spring, May, flowers, check. Robins. Yup, spring. Its abrupt ending might stop you for just a moment. It ends: “Nature forswears/Antiquity.”
Oh, I get it, the flowers in early May are new, there isn’t such a thing as antique flowers. Easy enough to see that—but the undercurrent is deeper, because this is another carpe diem poem, though this time without much bombast and no overt hey-baby-what-about… pickup lines. Yes, there are no old flowers, and so this flower will come and go with May.
Not many words in this poetry-machine, but without choosing any esoteric ones, Dickinson has made some choices that may arrest you the second time you read it. “Punctual,” the flowers know right when to be there. “Covert” those early signs of spring, like some advance spies. “Candid” for May, and spring fully here, no need to hide as a generic bud. Even “Dear” in “Dear to the moss” is a choice I wonder about. I’ve even read it incorrectly as “Near to the moss” once or twice, and sound-wise “near” works very well and is clear in meaning. Does Dickinson want to pun on deer, another spring poem perennial? Does she want to pickup and connect that D sound from “Candid” in the line before it rather than predict the upcoming N sounds of “Known,” “knoll” and “Next?”
Which brings me to this: if you listen to the poem, or plant it in your own mouth, the sound is exquisite. Rhymes and near-rhymes abound without locking down to a scheme: “small/punctual/low/April/knoll/soul” and “every/beauty/thee/Antiquity,” and consonants and vowels are echoing each other too.
Foreswears antiquity: I’m not sure if anyone who reads this will remember the poster I’m referencing here.
To perform “May-Flower” I made some choices. First, to slow the listener down, and to give extra chances to hear that echoing sound-play, I repeated each line. And to emphasize the moment rather than its passing, I interleaved the first and second stanzas as responses to each other. In the last stanza, the responses are just additional echoes of that stanza’s lines.
For the music, I decided to refer to The Pink Floyd. No, not the auditorium and eventually stadium-filling rock band, but the original 1967 Syd Barrett-fronted line up, which was based more around the sound of that era’s electric organs with a taste of Barrett’s unique take on slide guitar. So, time to dabble and wobble organs and break out the Telecaster and a finger wrapped in a vase of glass.
Emily’s poetry-machine obliviates the need for dodgy recreational chemicals. Attention is the drug. This is not the first time I’ve referred to Emily Dickinson’s visionary side here. I see it coexisting with her skeptical wit. And this poem, for all it’s Blakean a heaven in a wild-flower aspect was also intended by the botanically knowledgeable Dickinson as a riddle, the correct answer is a particular New England wild-flower, the trailing arbutus. See Emily play. There is no other day. Free games for May….
Here’s the text of Emily Dickinson’s May-Flower if you’d like to read along.
This is the regularized version with conventional punctuation. Emily’s own was full of her dashes.
And here’s my performance of it with original music. Use the player below.
Let’s give the lyrical reins over to Robert Frost one more time for another electric guitar driven piece. “The Aim Was Song” is a poem from Frost’s 1923 Mountain Interval collection, and not only is it a reasonably straightforward poetic credo from Frost, it speaks a little to Parlando’s goals too.
I put forward a definition of poetry as I was starting the Parlando Project as “Words that want to break into song.” I don’t recall where I read that definition, but when I searched this afternoon, all I can find is myself, so the source of that phrase may remain a mystery.
Unlike Sandburg and Yeats, Frost himself had no desire to sing or perform to music that I’m aware of, but his desire to use metrical/rhyming verse goads me to use him often here. And Frost had his own theory about how meter and language worked in poetry. He called it “The sound of sense,” and he once described it in a letter as akin to what comes through if you listen to talk in another room from the other side of a door. I don’t think he’s writing there about meter as commonly scanned in metrical poetry, I think instead he’s talking about human vitality that arrives through the panels of a door, the rise and fall, the breath and repetition. Frost’s theory was that you then laid that over the structure of metrical/syllabic prosody, so that each side pushes and pulls on each other. Too much evenness and it’s a motorik machine. Too little and you have only thoughts scattered on the page where only a silent and uncycling eye can gather them. You find that balance with one’s ear and heart.
Perhaps what Frost is aiming for here is the thing musicians call phrasing, but one thing that’s sure is that Frost believes poetry, even poetry of complex meaning or subtle rhetoric, is received through the ear and not the eye. So, even if Frost was not thinking directly of his poetry in association with music as we present things here, he is thinking of poetry as suffused with orality.
In “The Aim Was Song” Frost develops one image throughout: how the human being captures breath, moving air in waves, the essence of that natural force of the fierce spring wind, and shapes it into a smaller but more intimate thing. That is the work of musicians and poets. I could almost hear Lord Buckley read this one, as Frost repeats some words in his short poem that seem to pun on musical terms, to “blow,” “how it ought to go,” and “measures.” I didn’t go that route (if I could) but consider that an undercurrent in this.
To hear my performance of Frost’s “The Aim Was Song,” use the player below. U. S. National Poetry Month is coming up in a few days, and I’m hoping to have a good number of encounters between music and words here in April. Please check back or subscribe, and spread the word.
A bit earlier this month we presented a landmark very short Imagist poem, Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” 14 words, and a prime example of the Modernist’s reaction to the rhetorical flourishes of a worn-out 19th century. Today I’m going to release a Robert Frost response, a 47-word rejoinder, a spring poem with some winter snow left in it.
Frost was born 145 years ago this week. His relationship with Pound is complex. On one hand Pound could view himself as responsible for launching Frost’s career, writing the first substantial review of Frost and seeing to it that his poems were published in Poetry magazine. Without Pound’s endorsement, Frost had submitted poems there which had been rejected.
Frost tells the story of their initial meeting, with Frost’s first book A Boy’s Will so newly published in England that he himself hadn’t gotten a hold of a copy. F. S. Flint (a too-often-forgotten pioneer of British Modernism) had met Frost at a bookstore reading, shortly after Frost had moved to England. Flint noticed Frost’s American shoes and insisted that he must meet his countryman Ezra Pound, now also residing in London. Frost later went to Pound’s apartment, and this is how Frost recounted their meeting:
[Pound] said, ‘Flint tells me you have a book.’ And I said, ‘Well, I ought to have.’ He said, ‘You haven’t seen it?’ And I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘What do you say we go and get a copy?’ He was eager about being the first one to talk. That’s one of the best things you can say about Pound: he wanted to be the first to jump. Didn’t call people up on the telephone to see how they were going to jump. He was all silent with eagerness. We walked over to my publisher; he got the book. Didn’t show it to me—put it in his pocket. We went back to his room. He said, ‘You don’t mind our liking this?’ in his British accent, slightly. And I said, ‘Oh, go ahead and like it.”
Even in prose, there’s some Frost-ian ambiguity it his account. He notes in passing that the American Pound was putting on a British accent. And his sly quote of Pound “You don’t mind our liking it” before Pound has read it—a subtle dig at poetic politics that—and who’s the “our” here. Pound (and Flint too) were promoting a poetic movement, Imagism—poetry that used direct, concise treatment of “a thing” without any extra words whatsoever.
Frost never liked a movement that included more than him.
And to some degree this soon led to a break between the two poets. Pound thought that Frost fell short on the “use no extra word” dictum of Imagism. He apparently offered to help Frost learn to excise those surplus words—and though similar offers from Pound were taken up by literary giants like T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemmingway, Frost refused it.
There was a second catch. In Pound’s review that launched Frost, Pound wanted to make a point of Frost’s rejection by American editors, and he was loudly saying this in an American magazine (one of those that had, in fact, rejected Frost). Many musicians and music fans will quickly recognize Pound’s move here. This is the punk/indie/”street cred” claim. This artist has too much honesty and individualism and lacks the subservient guile to please the suits and the mainstream! The problem here was that Frost was a middle-age man with a family—he wanted to cross-over to those editors. Frost thought Pound was pulling this move to show what a discerning critic he was more than to promote Frost as an outsider artist.
But note too in Frost’s account of his first fateful meeting with Pound, the subtle admission he makes about himself. “Oh, go ahead and like it.” He wanted, needed the help—by any means necessary.
Oddly, if you were to read Pound’s short review today, you might be surprised that it worked to launch Frost at all. There are condescending elements, Frost is almost treated as some idiot-savant country bumpkin. And worse for Pound, he goes on record as the first man to misread Frost as simple and earnest (the same mistake that I made as a teenager, but then I’m not Ezra Pound).
A patch of old snow, blossoms on wet dark bough not included
Here’s the text of Frost’s poem I use today and here’s Pound’s 14-word Imagist flagship. Look at Frost’s first stanza. Sure, Frost’s is rhymed and metrical, though Pound uses a near rhyme that many miss. If Frost ended there, his poem is purely Imagist. “Old” in front of snow isn’t a wasted word. We need to know it’s spring now, and that the snow is past its sell-by date. And it’s an interesting choice to say “blow-away paper” instead of blown-away—more immediate, and it indicates that its transient nature is inherent, not something acted upon from without.
Frost’s second stanza? Pound’s editor’s pencil might have suggested he’s restating the image from the first stanza, but Frost might have countered by noting that he’s making clear this isn’t just any crumpled scrap paper the snow is being made equivalent to, but a newspaper or other publication, with “small print.”
Here’s the Imagist difference. In conventional poetry, the images, the similes and metaphors, are only decorative—look, clever I can compare this to this. In Imagist poetry this comparison shouldn’t be just decorative—it’s the meaning of the poem. This last edition of winter is “yesterday’s papers.” And bilaterally, wrong-headed reviews in Poetry? They will pass like the lonely grimy snow-bergs.
The last line, “If I ever read it,” is Frost’s touch. Pure Imagism doesn’t like to draw conclusions, even enigmatic ones. Does it mean one thing? I think it predominantly says, it’s the past, I’ve endured, it’ll soon be gone completely. The poem first appeared in Frost’s third book, the first to be published in America not in England. Frost was on his way. But there’s an undercurrent—with Frost there always is. Is that small print an edition of The Book of Nature? After all, we also know this: winter will return, and should we not read what it has written to us?
Frost will do that too in many of his greatest poems.
This morning I ask myself, what a strange way to spend a weekend full of news and melting snow, reading the small print about two poetic innovators at cross-purposes to each other.
Musically, I wanted to let loose a bit for this one. I’ve been playing acoustic guitar for many recent pieces, so I wanted an unleashed electric guitar. The wild spring bird-whistles near the end are feedback between the guitar’s pickups and the amplifier.