British poet Edward Thomas, who deserves to be better-known in the U. S., is one of the best nature poets I’m aware of. And today’s ode to the beginnings of spring shows one reason why. Like many a good nature poet, Thomas’ landscape, animals, and plants are infused not only with his region’s specifics, but with his own understanding of the order and significance of life. What takes his poetic observation to a next level? In this poem, it’s, well — bird poop.
You can hear my rock-band setting of Edward Thomas’ “But These Things Also” below, but before I leave off writing about his poem, let me speak a bit about what I note about the poem’s use of rhyme. Like another great nature poet, Emily Dickinson, Thomas here is not over-determined by his need to make perfect rhymes, and the ABCB scheme starts right off with a sight rhyme of “grass” with “was.” Let’s not mark him down a grade, because the poem has a great deal of near rhyme, an effect that I find often more effective than ding-dong perfect rhymes. The pair of adjacent words “earliest” and “violets” are as strong to me as violet’s eventual end-rhyme with “debts.” And “debts” still hears the echo of the preceding “dung” and following “mist.” You may hear other consonance, assonance, and pararhymes in Thomas’ word choices.
It’s these sorts of things that make me resistant to some poetic formalists. While perfect regularity can reinforce a sense of fate (or to be honest about my own response, boredom) — irregular rhyme appearances, and variations to and from perfect rhyme, can evoke surprise and discovery.
OK, enough dancing about architecture. Let’s get onto the audio piece, the performance. Graphical player below for some of you, and if not, this highlighted link that’ll open an audio player. This is one of those pieces where I wish there was a better singer than myself handy, but it was still fun to move from chair to chair to create this one-man-band recording. I recorded this close enough together with our last piece, Anna Akhmatova’s “Like a White Stone,” that I’m thinking if this was a polished prog-rock album that I’d fade the two pieces into a 7-minute medley.
*I decided to insert into Thomas’ ode my own aged vision issues, by making “man” in his text, “old man” in my performance.
It’s time to look back at the last quarter and see what pieces were the most liked and listened to during those months. I released (or re-released) 51 pieces since March 1st here, more than enough to return to our regular multi-post Top Ten countdown format, so let’s present numbers 10 through 8 today as we move toward the most popular one this spring. As usual, the bolded titles are links to the original post in case you’re new here and want to read what I said when I first presented them.
10. “Blackberries” by Kevin FitzPatrick. Kevin, who died last year, was a contemporary and fellow poet to Dave Moore and myself, and this charming poem about his early experiences as a life-long urban dweller (and reader of Irish poetry) getting used to his life partner Tina’s small rural farm is a fine addition to our Top Ten today. This audio performance is a live take, and in honor of our mood of remembrance that day, I decided to leave our longish instrumental prelude in place for the version you heard here.
“Sonnet to Beauty” is likely one of those poems. Though Ridge soon became known early in the 20th century in the US as a staunch advocate of social reform and radicalism as well as knowing and interacting with many of the NYC area early 20th century Modernists, “Sonnet to Beauty” is a regular sonnet about the radical appeal of the artistic life — even while life may present buzzards misapprehended as if swans. Ridge lived that twin social and artistic radicalism thoroughly from most short accounts I’ve read.
When I presented Ridge’s poem this March it was easy for me to pair that twinned dedication with another contemporary of Dave, Kevin, and myself: Irish-American poet Ethna McKiernan. Ethna died this past winter. Yes, somedays it’s hard to see the swans instead of the certain buzzards.
The 3 poets whose words I use today: tilt, tilt, and look away. The light turns a buzzard out a swan?
8. The Pool by H. D. I said, re-released above, and here’s the story. Roughly a third of the listeners to this project’s audio pieces never read the posts I put up about my encounter with the poems or any thoughts I write on composing and realizing the original music. Instead, they find the recordings via podcast directories where I present only the musical pieces without the usual talking and joking that fills the running time of most podcast presentations. Having seen radio production done at a high level close-up for a couple of decades in my day-job life, I suppose I could have attempted a talking pod show about music and poetry — but if only for myself I see an appeal of these 5 minute or less podcasts that might serve as a palate cleanser between main courses of talk-talk-talk.
I’ve noticed that some of my most popular early episodes, ones that racked up a lot of listens in the early years of this Project, had rolled off the “last 100 episodes only” offering lists of most podcast directories, and so for April’s National Poetry Month I decided to “re-release” 30 of them. Even for the blog readers like you, I think many of them would be new to current readers here as well. Coming in at number 8 this Spring then is early Imagist Hilda Doolittle’s “The Pool,” a mysterious very-short poem about a tidal pool encounter. It’s so short and compressed that even at one and a half minutes of run time I had to creatively elaborate the text a bit to reach that length. I rather like the music I composed and realized for this little piece. A lot of listeners did too.
I mentioned earlier this spring, that master classical Chinese poet Du Fu wrote in a troubled era that also troubled his life. Both he and his contemporary poet Li Po were exiled or forced to flee at times, and while I know no details of this poem, I get an exile sense from it somehow.
Have I mistaken this poem? It’s possible. To say I’m no expert on Chinese history, culture, and literature, is to greatly understate the concern one should have. On one level it seems to be a nature poem, set in spring with tree blossoms and flowers. The poem’s speaker walks out among them one morning and notes how extravagant their splendor is.
American nature poetry, such as Emily Dickinson’s, is often suffused with Transcendentalism and a sense that the book of nature presents truths to a close observer. It’s in that sense that I read this poem. The speaker (I’ll just call him Du Fu for the rest of this) is letting the wind (nature, fate) carry him on a path. He notes that the peach trees are blossoming, though no one owns them. No boss, no lord, no slave master, has sent the requirements for this work. Du Fu observing them wonders if he should prefer one shade of blossoms to another, and decides choice is beside the point.
Nor is there any need for an accounting and report of the number of petals that cover his path. They are not losses to be put on a balance sheet, for the trees simply have “more blossoms than they can hold.”
The concluding two lines have my greatest leap of faith or invention from the literal English gloss that I worked with. If, as I sense, this may be the poem of someone fleeing trouble or in exile, this beautiful morning presents a bittersweet scene. Should he simply stay and revel like the butterflies? I sense the final line’s “free and unrestrained” oriole bird is a contrast to that. That bird has choice. It, like Du Fu, can leave. That freedom, to flee beauty, is not a simple thing.
Here’s the text for today’s performance that I adapted from Du Fu’s Chinese poem using a literal gloss in English. All I had were two portions (#5 and #6) of what is apparently a longer poem or series:
Here’s what that gloss had:
Huang abbot pagoda before river water east Spring bright lazy sleepy rely on light wind Peach blossom one clump open without owner Lovely deep red love light red
Huangsi girl house flowers fill path Thousand blossom ten thousand blossom press branch low Reluctant to leave play butterfly constantly dance Free and unrestrained lovely oriole cry
The music today features an acoustic guitar that doesn’t harmonically move much with a root note of D. While an actual D minor chord is sounded at times, much of the music stays on suspended chords without a major or minor defining 3rd. At one point I’m fretting an F and F# at the same time which somehow works to my ear in this song’s mood. You can hear the performance with a player that appears below for many of you. Don’t see a player? This highlighted link is an alternative way to hear it.
If I didn’t read the news, it would still be spring.
I’ve mentioned it’s been hard to produce new pieces here recently. While there’s a variety of reasons for this, here’s one: I’d planned a little series on May flowers. I was inspired by my wife’s love for our native northland wildflowers and some gorgeous photographs of cactus blossoms by Kenne Turner that I recently viewed on his blog. I had this witty little poem by Emily Dickinson with a not so obscure moral underneath about being an artist — Emerson with a dose of playfulness. I’d completed composing the tune for it. And I planned to pair that Dickinson with a couple of poems by the master of Chinese classical poetry Du Fu.
But I was only halfway there in how captured I was by transient beauty. Earlier this spring on my morning bike ride I started to mull over this line that hasn’t found its poem yet: “This spring is filled with bird-songs and the death of young black men.” So, the horrible and the hortatory were already mixing in my thoughts, while I have nothing but good will and empathy to claim there.
Everyday I try to will myself to make useful or pleasurable work toward this project, and this, among other things, makes me pause. Am I missing the point? Do I even know what the point is, or the series of points that lead to it? I feel bad for the limits of what I can offer, and then I feel bad for not offering that little. Still, I’m stubborn with this. I keep butting against it, trying to push it over or trick my way around it.
And Tuesday I did. Starting early, I recorded an acceptable performance of the Dickinson poem with my music, worked on music for the Du Fu flower poems, and practiced my understanding of how to perform a poem of Kevin FitzPatrick’s that I will present at a memorial event this weekend. A good day it seemed, even if I missed the day’s near-perfect spring weather outside — never mind, the internal weather of being able to create, to illuminate for myself and perhaps for others the work of Dickinson, Du Fu, and Kevin was pleasant and enough.
Never mind, as I got ready to go to bed after this fruitful day, and I caught the news of another rain of bullets. Grade-school kids!
Should I have something appropriate to say, something useful about that? The horrible and the hortatory. Something that isn’t so entirely obvious to some and beside the point to others? Long time readers here will know one motto I have here: “All artists fail.” I’m certainly failing here for some today.
So, you’re going to hear me perform this little poem about flowers, about the work that goes into making mere transient beauty. Here’s a link to the text I used today if you’d like to read along. Dickinson judges right off that she’s sure this isn’t some “minor circumstance.” And Dickinson would know. She knew her flowers, wild and cultivated, intimately.* She was a serious gardener of food and flowers, and despite her growing reputation for being some secular nun always in cloister, she purposely chose that outdoor work with plants over other household chores. She knew their use for food, she knew their use for transient beauty. Flour and flowers.
Her little poem goes on, and the little bud fights several ways for survival. I love the litigious line she uses in passing that she may have borrowed from her male family’s life as lawyers “Obtain its right of dew.”
A prowling bee “Assisting in the Bright Affair so intricately done…”
My dear wife left me on the rise to her job with a hug this morning, wishing me success in being creative today. Was she being a “prowling bee?” If so, as another bard had it, “Sail on my little honey bee, sail on.”
To fail in art, as with Dickinson’s final judgement on our flower that blooms past bud, is a “Profound Responsibility.” If you’re working on art this spring, I’m not asking you to fail, or to be happy with failure — at least I never am. This spring is full of bird song and dead people, the lightness of flower petals laid on us are a suffocating “heavy brocade” as Du Fu had it in a poem of his, one I was able to complete a performance of. All I know and can tell you is how that feels.
To hear my musical performance of Dickinson’s “Bloom” (Bloom — is Result — to meet a Flower) you can use the audio player you may see just below, or if you don’t see the player, through this alternative highlighted link.
*As I mulled over this poem’s presentation, I was reminded of how seriously Dickinson took her connection with gardens and flowers by Twila Newey musing on Twitter that Dickinson’s mature aversion to publishing could have been the result of her individual conviction that transient and intimate beauty, as in her garden, was sufficient, or even superior to a wider advertisement fixed in type.
Early this week, Poet Jose Hernandez Diaz on Twitter put out a call for people to respond with their go-to poets in our troubled times. I’m always uneasy when being put on the spot for short-lists, because I’m by nature a person of various moods and needs. The poet I need today is not always the one I need tomorrow. And then, it’s the same or even more so with music for me. Perhaps some of that comes through here in this project’s variety?
Two things seem to connect me to this master of classical Chinese poetry: Du Fu wrote his best work as an old man (such as I am) — and that productive period coincided with a great governmental rebellion and crisis in China. When Du Fu writes a lovely nature passage, I always read it as the work of someone who is also seeing great destruction and violence in the human part of nature.
Du Fu, not an Asian-American, but his poetry sometimes speaks to my country none-the-less.
In this troubled week I went looking for a poem I could get close to and perform, and I found this one of Du Fu’s. For practical reasons, I need to make my own translations of Du Fu from English language glosses (such as the ones found at Chinese-poems.com) and the difficulties of making a graceful poem in English out of an 8th century Chinese poem would seem daunting, but they attract me all the more. Obviously, there are great risks that I will misunderstand what Du Fu is trying to say — but not only do I accept those risks, I’ve been tempted more than once to transform key images from Du Fu’s time and place to contemporary America. For these reasons most of my Du Fu pieces should be understood as adaptations, the kind of thing that I’ve decided are best labeled as “After a poem by….”***
This is the gloss I worked from for today’s piece.
And here’s my “Rain on a Spring Night (after Du Fu)” version used for today’s performance:
I usually would work longer on one of these, but it’s been too long since I presented new work here.
I think of my opening section as a good faith attempt at an accurate translation into a working English poem. I used English syntax and conventions, added the poetic device of parallelism to substitute for the word-music losses inherent to translation, and tried, as I always do, to present vivid images.
The last section of Du Fu’s poem is where I likely diverge. I do sense a turn in the poem at this point, I think it’s possible Du Fu’s trying to contrast the peaceful rain following nature’s order in his opening. The (cooking? signal? lantern?) fire on the boat is the only human sign in the poem. Is that only coincidental decoration? The gloss’ final line is most difficult. A single image there comes through to me: that flowers, perhaps even fallen blossoms, are like the patterns on a brocade fabric. “Government city” puzzles. Like brocade on rich courtiers? Or is this spring morning near a capitol city?
So, my choice was to allude, somewhat obliquely as Du Fu seems to have done, and the final scene is designed to depict not peaceful spring and beneficent rain, but the aftermath of violence as we all to well know it now and here: the yellow crime scene tape, the flower memorials left. A rain of bullets is not a good rain.
My music and performance is very sparse for this, but I decided that’s starkness was effective. You can hear the performance with a player some will see below, or with this highlighted link.
*I wouldn’t even have known their names, much less their poetry or something of their lives before starting this Project six years ago.
**I have to note his name was often spelled in the western alphabet as Tu Fu. Du Fu is supposed to be the better approximation, even though there are as many or more references to him as Tu Fu online or in books.
A lot of these performances begin somewhat randomly. Oh, Edward Thomas isn’t random, I’ve enjoyed exploring this British writer with you since I first ran into his connection with Robert Frost in the years just before WWI. Was I looking for a poem considering a particular subject or event? One could see today’s piece, “Cock-Crow” as a spring poem. Well, spring is random, the current one where I live more so than most. but I wasn’t looking for a spring poem so much as I wanted to find someone else to present from the early 20th century.
I picked up a poetry anthology from 1929. It’s titled 20th Century Poetry, which would be audacious for a book published a little more than a quarter of the way in, but the editors were aware of that and they rightly note that their century milepost had marked a noticeable change in poetic expression.*
It starts with selections from 50 British Isles poets. Names you might expect are there: Yeats, Hardy, Houseman, De La Mare, Masefield, and so on. A couple of distinctive British women poets you may recall from posts here too: Charlotte Mew, Frances Cornford.
It’s to be expected, given that 1929-to-now allows plenty of shelf-life for poet’s readership and notice to expire, and because Britain and the United States do not share a completely unified poetic canon, that there are a good number of “Who?” names there too: Edmund Gosse, William Watson, Henry Newbolt, Clifford Bax, and Edward Shanks.
It may have been my mood, but though I would have loved to find a little-known poem I thought would be interesting to perform there, much of it was quite dreary as I skimmed through it. The copy I was reading was a library scan, and these books sometimes have interesting marginalia. In my boredom, I examined the library stamp:
I wondered where Fort Huachuca was, and what would be going on there between the World Wars? Turns out it’s near the Mexican border in Arizona. It was a military facility since Western Frontier times, and it was the base for a “Buffalo Soldiers” Afro-American Calvary Regiment. Just before America’s entry into WWI, the base commander was Charles Young, the Black officer that was the subject of this poetic tribute by Countee Cullen that I presented here last year. So, as I wandered off from the poems themselves, an interesting place for this poetry anthology to reside — even more so when I glanced at the Wikipedia list of the notable people who had been there over the years. That list includes Jayne Cortez a Black Arts Movement poet and (out)spoken-word performer who was born while her father was stationed there. She’d have been too young when she left Fort Huachuca to have read this anthology, but the momentary thought that perhaps her parents had read this volume I was scanning was more intriguing than many of the British poems — or at least it seemed to me reading through it in the middle of a 21st century night.
The editor** is faint-praise in his introductory note to Edward Thomas in his anthology, calling him accurately (but misleadingly) a “commencing poet” and saying that Thomas’ poetry “comes from a very shy and personal mood that sometimes seems to lack variety if we bear it company for long at a time.” He oddly concludes Thomas’ “Invention made no parade of vigour, but he borrowed hints from no one.” Gee, Johnny Editor, it’s the middle of my American night and a lot of the early 20th century British poets you’re presenting are boring me to the point I can’t get to sleep with their all-too-unoriginal “vigour” — an odd effect which I attribute to my hopefulness of discovery — but I’ll take Thomas’ originality thank you.
“Cock-Crow” is a little 8-line poem describing awakening from disturbing or unresolved dream-sleep, or lack of it, to a set of chickens — not hanging out round a New Jersey wheelbarrow, but amusing Thomas with the bird-pair’s face-to-face rural dramatization of a veddy British heraldic motif. Is Thomas simply smiling at that coat-of-arms likeness, or is there a resonance toward Britain’s more overt class structure?
“Heralds of splendour’ he says of us! That’s about right. Lions’ll go and eat you, and unicorns don’t even bother existing.”
The charm of this poem is that Thomas acknowledges the unsettling “wood of thoughts that grows by night”*** yet allows them to be chopped down by bird-song — and transcendental bird song is ever-present in Thomas’ poetry. And what revelation does that song bring? Farm workers putting their boots on and getting to work. So. Much. Depends. Upon. Putting your boots on and getting to work. Want to read the text while listening? Here’s a link.
Musically I started with a simple folk-guitar accompaniment, though I tried to be settled and unsettled with the harmonic cadence in this one. I ended it with a minute-long coda where I used a vocal chorus to spread out across the English countryside like all the birds of spring. Why do I do these audio pieces? Because I want to hear them — and you can to. You can use the player that appears below, or this highlighted link in the player’s absence.
*We’re approaching a similar milepost in the 21st century. Can we say that English-language poetry has significantly changed since 2001? You might say “We’ll know later what we can’t see now in the midst of things.” But the editors of this book were in the midst, and yet thought they could see something distinct in their new quarter-century.
**John Drinkwater for the anthology’s British half.
***Whose woods these are, I think he knows. Thomas led a troubled life. Every peaceful British rural scene in a Thomas poem is set next to that dark woods of thought that grows by night.
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.
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.
*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.
Let’s celebrate our arrived spring with this LYL Band performance of another Kevin FitzPatrick poem. Here’s a link to the full text of Kevin’s poem that we used — a link which also serves as a reminder that Garrison Keillor’s old Writer’s Almanac program used this poem once too.
Not a satellite image of Antarctica, but a representation of how ice is fading and green emerging in Minnesota.
Like most all of Kevin’s poems this one yields a straightforward meaning to many readers or listeners without need of study or re-reading. As I mentioned last time, that was one of Kevin’s aims. You may also notice the care he takes with the word-music in this piece. In our little poet’s group, Kevin’s suggestions would often be metrical improvements, and isn’t the sound of this poem’s opening line: “Windy, sunny, and Sunday” a fine springboard into this spring poem!
If one expects, requires, or prefers a more allusive and elusive poetry, you could shrug at this poem on the page. The poem’s overall metaphor — that learning to ride a bicycle in childhood is representative of a parent and child’s task of independence and departure — is likely apparent before you complete the poem. Myself? I found the poem charming. I can come to like a poem that doesn’t charm me at first — but how many poems survive to be understood when we initially stand coldly next to them? Oh, some poems taunt you with mystery. Some ask you to be impressed with verbal richness. Some present unknown worlds you may choose to explore. “Bicycle Spring” seems simple. So, is it less good, or good only for lesser pleasures and less respect?
I’ve been writing, reading, and performing poetry for decades. I suppose I should have a valuable opinion on that matter. Sorry to disappoint, but I do not. Readers often tell me that my own poems and lyrics are too obscure and mannered. I personally prize originality in outlook and images highly, even at the risk of asking my readers/listeners to drop expectations and habitual/familiar ways of understanding a piece. Is that the best way, or do I even execute that way very well?
Way back in the 20th century I was taking a seminar class with poet Michael Dennis Browne, and in talking to the group he suggested that most of us students were writing poems that were more obscure than the ones he was writing. He asked, or at least strongly implied, that we should ask if that obscurity was necessary. I now ask you — as I continue to ask myself — to ask that. One thing should be key to your analysis: obscurity may be a way to cover up bad writing, insufficient intention, and fear — yes fear — of being understood.
Kevin FitzPatrick’s poetry was one poet’s answer to those questions. He truly wanted to speak to a broad audience, and yet at his death had achieved only a small (if appreciative) one. Dave and I are trying to enlarge that audience a little bit with this series,* as well as to memorialize our feelings after the death of our colleague.
Before I leave you with Dave Moore’s performance of Kevin FitzPatrick’s poem “Bicycle Spring,” let me point out that there are often little figures on the horizon or in the background that can add depth to the first hearing or reading of one of Kevin’s poems. In our first example this month “Blackberries,” I should have given you a link to the Seamus Heaney poem “Blackberry Picking” that serves as the distant core of FitzPatrick’s poem. FitzPatrick’s “Blackberries” is homey, humorous, even practical. Heaney’s “Blackberry Picking” is fatalistic, mildly tragic, haunted by waste. Kevin admired one poem, wrote another, and says so in “Blackberries.” To know the tragic and to choose the comic is a complex choice isn’t it? And in “Bicycle Spring” the background is there too, those concluding “blocks where he/has forbidden you to walk.” The father’s job is in part to help himself disappear.
*Kevin’s poetry collections were published by Midwest Villages & Voices, and are not available through easily linked online booksellers or AFAIK, even directly from the publisher. “Bicycle Spring” is in his 1987 collection Down on the Corner which is ISBN 978-0935697025 and this information may help you get a copy via your library or local bookseller.
Here’s a sonnet of my own about the oncoming spring. I live in Minnesota, and here that season’s arrival is something of a lottery ticket. Oh, it’s likely that by sometime in February a Minnesotan is tired of winter, and we know that somewhere around May Day we’ll not have snow or cold to deal with for a few months, but when today’s high got to 40 F, we know no more than that. When I moved here, I was told that on days like today we might see folks wearing T-shirts outside — and yes that’s so. We are so in a hurry for spring that what would be a 5-degree Celsius winter day in more temperate regions seems time to ditch the jacket. Yet we are still likely to have more cold, and even more likely to get substantial snowfall, particularly in March.
So it is, from late February to late April is a two-month season of “what d’ya got” in our state. That’s what my poem performed today deals with.
Things are still snow-covered around here, but it’s not fluffy, Christmas-card snow— more at rugged crusts. I still ride a bicycle nearly every day year-round, and so winter means that I pay special attention to the surface conditions of the side-streets that I most often ride. You know the old factoid that Inuit peoples have a multitude of words for snow in their vocabulary? A day or two after a snow what’s often found is compressed and polished snow with some patches of white glaze where tires’ friction has buffed a gloss.* A few days later there will be areas where that surface further abrades and patches of dull-brown porridge-like snow aggregates are scattered on the roadway. I call the later “brown-sugar,” and the earlier hard white surface looks to me like the smooth inside of a shell.
Spring-time bike rides in Minnesota aren’t necessarily what you think.
Low-pressure studded bike tires work pretty well on the hard shiny stuff, and large knobby treads are the thing for the loose brown sugar. My deep-winter bike’s tires are a pair of Venn diagram hoops circling both.
That’s a poet’s bike ride for you: metaphors per hour.
The meter’s a bit loose, yet not loose enough to cry “Kings X — Free Verse!” either.
Does any of this help “translate” my poem for those without my climate? That’s my hope anyway. Though the title of my poem is “Unrequited March,” my wish for you, curious or stalwart reader/listener, is that spring will love you back this year. The player gadget to hear about the uncertainty of that is below for many readers, and for those whose way of reading this blog won’t show that graphical player, this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab to play the performance just as well.
*The large, knobby, low-pressure tires are also capable of riding on fresh snow before cars get to it. Un-rutted light and granular cold-weather snow is kind of fun to ride in. The wetter and clumpy snow that will likely come in any heavy storms for the rest of the season is much less joyful. That stuff is like riding in deep mud. The tires’ knobs will get traction — it’s not the tires, it’s an old out-of-shape guy like myself who’ll get tired quick riding through that.
Rabindranath Tagore is surely one of the most remarkable writers ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. If you’re a veteran of this project you might recall that a few years back when Bob Dylan won the same Nobel there were objections from poets and novelists that song-writing wasn’t literature, and that giving such a Nobel to Dylan was unprecedented and wrong.
While “Wrong” is a debate, unprecedented was an error on the part of the objectors, even though they often stated their objections from a stance of knowledge, craft, and learning. I was explaining this to someone earlier this summer, who had innocently asked your hosting windbag here if songwriters hadn’t taken over some of the place that poets occupied a century or more ago. The concise person would have just agreed with a “Yes,” but I wanted to tell him the story of the 1.5 songwriters who like Bob Dylan had already won a Nobel Prize for Literature.
The .5 songwriter in my tale was William Butler Yeats, a great poet who once decided that if the ancient bards presented their poems with music, that he should revive that practice. He went so far as to commission the building of instruments to accompany his poems and setup a tour from a professional performer* to realize this aim. “Yeats, The Musical” was not a success, and when Yeats won his Nobel it was largely for his poetry printed on paper.
Tagore was a much more significant songwriter than Yeats’ case, though Tagore wasn’t just a songwriter. He made other 20th century polymaths like Albert Schweitzer look like pikers, with copious literature in all forms, political activism, painting, teaching in several areas, social reform work, and more. But for those who spoke his native language, Bengali, he was a very well known and liked songwriter. Nor was he just a poet with a sideline as a lyricist. Tagore the composer had his hand in not one, not two, but three South Asian national anthems.
When Tagore won his Nobel for literature, there was one book most Westerners could read of his: Gitanjali, a work he had translated himself into English. That title references songs, and from what I’ve read it consisted of Tagore’s prose-poem-ish adaptations of his song lyrics. Yeats himself knew this, remarking in an introduction in the 1912 English edition of the book that because Tagore was a songwriter all strata of his society knew his work intimately.
Today’s song is my adaptation of the 45th piece in that 1912 collection, using my own music. “Silent Steps” may seem familiar even if you are not familiar with Tagore or his beliefs. I hear echoes of Hebrew psalms and prayers, and the other Middle-Eastern-origin religions such as Islam and Christianity too. Are you instead secular? I’ll come back to you.
I lightly adapted Tagore’s phraseology for much of this piece to make it more singable in English, because one of Gitanjali’s chief issues is that it often doesn’t sing in our tongue. I departed more widely for the final verse. Tagore’s image there is hard for me to follow, and even if I haven’t clarified it much, I was moved to modify the image.
Tagore originally wrote this in English as the final stanza:
In sorrow after sorrow it is his steps that press upon my heart,
and it is the golden touch of his feet that makes my joy to shine.
See what I mean about hard to sing? But let’s get to the overall issue. What are, or whose are, the poem’s titular “silent steps?” To those familiar with Tagore’s beliefs, it’s the godhead, manifesting itself through nature and human consciousness attuned to it. Tagore is saying that human awareness that the godhead is present and manifest in its creation is consolation in times of sorrow. His “press upon my heart” is perhaps more at “seal,” as in the Hebrew Song of Songs “Set me as seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm.” And the touch of the feet more at something like the Christian “If I could touch the hem of His garment, I know I would be made whole” line that has been used in many Christian song-settings.
The text of my adaptation used for today’s song-setting of Tagore.
To be audaciously critical of the great man Tagore, his concluding stanza lacks visceral power. I thrashed around a bit to come up with a different image that may be adjacent to Tagore’s. My last stanza says in effect: as we walk in the footsteps of our life, trying to follow our precepts and finding in that journey the inescapable sorrows of infirmities and imperfection, we feel not only our own lowly footsteps on the path, but the pressures of (unrealized) perfection and completeness pressing on ourselves. All of our footsteps polish the surfaces of the paths we trod — and that the higher consciousness (the godhead consciousness for believers) does the same to us. We try to make life shine in our footsteps — and the limits of trials, troubles, and tribulations that press down upon us in turn polish us. Our joy shines because of those pressures, those rubs.
I said I would get back to the secular among this readership, because I don’t think the poem requires agreement with Tagore’s beliefs, or any adjacent religious beliefs either, to retain power. The godhead manifesting in a chariot would please the Biblical prophet Ezekiel, or 20th century Midwestern Afro-American Fenton Johnson, and so too the onrushing, unstoppable “time’s winged chariot” of 17th century English poet Andrew Marvell, who recasts that cosmic sound as a booty call. In American sports idiom, “hearing footsteps” is when a player senses a play-ending tackle is forthcoming. The successful player knows that, just as the unsuccessful one does — but the successful ones are able to continue to complete their task despite that knowledge.
For all I know, the heaven of death and reunion with the godhead and the heaven of oblivion may be two neighborhoods of the same city.
*From accounts Yeats was (like myself) somewhat pitch-challenged as a singer. And he didn’t exactly want his poems sung, thinking that a complex melody might detract from the words. Yeats instead choose some kind of middle-ground for the vocalist of which we have no extant recordings to demonstrate. From some research I did a few years back, the closest we may have to understanding what he was proposing was his “Song of the Wandering Aengus” which Burl Ives and Dave Van Ronk and then Judy Collins performed back during the midcentury “Folk Scare.” Van Ronk said in performance that he learned it from an actor Will Holt who was also a folk singer, and it’s speculated that Ives and/or Holt may have learned the melody he used from another actor (Sara Allgood) with connections to the Abbey Theater, where Yeats was a foundational force. Here’s how I recounted that story a few years ago back here.