Edward Thomas’ “Cock-Crow” cleaves the wood of thoughts that grows by night

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:

Fort Huachuca stamp

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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 Spendor

“Heralds of splendour’ he says of us! That’s about right. Lions’ll  go and eat you, and unicorns don’t even bother existing.”

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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.

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*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.

The Aim Was Song for National Poetry Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bicycle Spring

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.

Green vs Snow - photo by Heidi Randen

Not a satellite image of Antarctica, but a representation of how ice is fading and green emerging in Minnesota.

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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.

The graphical player to hear the LYL Band’s performance of FitzPatrick’s “Bicycle Spring”  is below for many. If you don’t see that, here’s a highlighted hyperlink to hear it too.

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*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.

Unrequited March

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.

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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.

Unrequited March

The meter’s a bit loose, yet not loose enough to cry “Kings X — Free Verse!” either.

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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.

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*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.

Silent Steps

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.

Silent Steps

The text of my adaptation used for today’s song-setting of Tagore.

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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.

The small graphical player will appear below for some of you to hear my adaptation and performance of Rabindranath Tagore’s “Silent Steps.”   If you are reading this where that player doesn’t appear, this highlighted hyperlink will also open a new tab window to play it.  Thanks for reading and listening!

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*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.

Spring 2021 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 10-8

It’s time for our every-quarter look back at what pieces you, my valued and appreciated listeners and readers listened to and liked most during the past Spring. This one turned out to be a tight bunch over the past three months, with only a little over a dozen listens and likes between the 1st and 10th position. Given the range of musics I’ll use and the variety of poetry presented, that means that there are a lot of different “yous” out there in this project’s audience, or that some of you don’t mind my jumping around a bit.

We’ll progress in the countdown format, starting with number 10 and over the next few days getting to the most listened to and liked one from this past springtime. If you missed what I wrote about each piece when it was first presented, the bold-faced titles are also hyperlinks to the original post where you can read more about my encounter with it.

10 The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes  One of my favorite pieces I’ve done this year. It’s been rare lately that I get to create, record and present an out-and-out electric guitar centered piece like this. This one would place higher except that it was released last winter and its February listens aren’t counted in the Spring Top Ten. As it happens, a great audio piece for Juneteeth though!

Here’s the player gadget to hear my performance of it, or for those who don’t see the player, a highlighted hyperlink that’ll open a new tab window to play it.

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9 Branches by Carl Sandburg   Sandburg set his poem specifically in April, but as much of the United States has current drought issues it might also serve as an invocation for some summer rain too. Nice to have this one next to the one above — Sandburg was one of Langston Hughes’ models when the younger poet created his own poetic voice.

Limits on recording time this year have led me to present more pieces as simpler and more immediate acoustic guitar and voice arrangements, some of which, like this one, seem to work pretty well.

Player gadget below, and here the alternative highlighted hyperlink.

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On electric guitar: Langston Hughes, acoustic guitar: Carl Sandburg, and on whistling bats with baby faces: T. S. Eliot.

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8 What the Thunder Said Part 3 by T. S. Eliot   Each April this project has presented a part of the landmark Modernist poem “The Waste Land.”  This April I completed that long task with the final section of the poem “What the Thunder Said.”  One of the few pieces this Spring where I got to deploy my orchestral instruments forcefully. Player below, alternatively this highlighted hyperlink.

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Christina Rossetti’s May

Here’s a piece using a Christina Rossetti poem “May,”  that’s both simple and spare and mysterious and broad. Early in this project I presented several of Rossetti’s poems, most of which were new to me, because her short, lyrical poems delighted me with their avoidance of the cruft her English Victorian contemporaries often fall into. Nothing’s universally wrong with elaborate poems, but to my tastes, sparer poems can offer us guidance to pay attention, real attention,  to what remains.

Here’s the text of her short poem. The stuff in curly brackets are variations I found in a short search through versions online.

I cannot tell you how it was; {,}
But this I know: it came to pass
Upon a bright and sunny {breezy} day
When May was young: ah, pleasant May!
As yet the poppies were not born
Between the blades of tender corn;
The last egg {eggs} had not hatched as yet,
Nor any bird forgone its mate.

I cannot tell you what it was; {,}
But this I know: it did but pass.
It passed away with sunny May,
Like {With} all sweet things it passed away,
And left me old, and cold, and grey.

These variations are from tiny to small. A semicolon or a comma? Can anyone make any difference from that? “Sunny” or “breezy?” I prefer sunny, breezy is more active, since this is a poem that works its magic by giving us a still moment, and then showing us it’s not. And if sunny, then “sunny” is nicely repeated in the 11th line, when this short poem begins to refrain with itself. “Egg” or “Eggs?” Close call there. Egg lets us see a singular egg (it’s usually easier to invoke a single thing vividly rather than a multitude), but “eggs” make the point that this is an entire reproductive process. “Like” or “With?” I like “like.” “With” followed by that “all” has a sense of this being an immediate entirety. “Like” allows us to hear the poet say some thing, part of an indefinite series of loss or leaving, has gone away. Again, the power of the singular. Do we know what that thing is? The poem decides not to tell us.* How does that choice rank against the power of the singular? If it’s not named it could be anything,  the ultimate multitude of possibilities. Here choices for singular things in this short poem become more important, because it then sets off this missing piece of information about what has gone away in contrast to the specific things named around it.

Wait, that’s not a springtime bird guarding its nest in the lilacs!

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Do you notice one more variation in the poem’s structure? Hint: how many lines? One, two, three, four…Oh, 13 lines. This works like a sonnet, it even has a turn, a volta, after 8 lines, as in one highly common sonnet format; but the final section is 5, not 6 lines.

It’s too certain a variation not to think that Rossetti decided to make a little meta point that other poets or sonnet fanciers alone will catch. “Yeah, something’s gone and left—there’s no damn 14th line!”

I can’t tell you why the variations in the exact text of this poem. I presume that someone, or Rossetti herself, did a light revision before some level of republication. Which is the latest? Which did Rossetti herself prefer? My scholarship is such tonight that I simply don’t know.

But I did worse. Just today, after I had finished recording the performance that you’ll be able to hear below, I noticed I’d made an error, a variation myself. The copy of the text I was working from had dropped the 13th and final line.

I could simply redo the performance, but it’s become difficult to record acoustic instruments over the past year for this project. Though it blunts the meta-point of the 13-line sonnet, I tell myself there’s power in my unintentional change. “Left me old, and cold, and gray,” the 13th line I inadvertently left out, tells us more about that mysterious thing that has “passed away” with May. My slip-up retains some additional mystery.

The player gadget will appear below for some of you to hear my performance of Christina Rossetti’s trimmed-down sonnet, accidentally trimmed again. If you don’t see the player, you can use this highlighted hyperlink, which will open a new tab and play the song.

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*Here’s another short write up about this poem, which summarizes some of the guesses about what has passed away. Some love gone sour is one guess, and what with the spring birth specifics in the first 8 lines, perhaps some opportunity to have a child would be another. My accidental deletion of the last line, with its emotional damage curtly listed, adds an element of “All things must pass” to the loss, the possibility of a more Buddhist outlook to a change that’s part of the illusion of possession.

In England Now (Home Thoughts, from Abroad)

One of the odd things that can happen to a poem is for a single line to become remembered while the poem itself may fade out of fashion. Today’s poem, which is likely to be our final poem for this April’s American National Poetry Month was published in the middle of the 19th century by an Englishman who was away from his home country in Italy. So yes, this one goes out to my faithful British listeners — but, at least in my country, about all that remains of it is the poem’s opening two lines: “Oh to be in England/Now that April’s there.*”

I didn’t know what poem it came from before this month. I didn’t even know it was from a poem, or that Robert Browning wrote it. A poem like his wife’s Sonnet 43 “How Do I Love Thee? Let me count the ways.”  may be similarly antique in age and language, but I recall, however hazily, something of the whole of that poem, it’s sense, and meaning.

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Robert Browning, making the chin-beard somehow work for him.

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Since it’s likely that many of you don’t know this poem more than I did, here’s a link to the full text as Browning wrote it.

So, what is this poem saying, what is it on about? It’s a poem very much of longing for one’s home. A romantic catalog of nature details from the English countryside is mentioned: birds, trees, flowers. I’m ignorant enough about such things that I can’t tell you the song or plumage of any of the birds (I even mispronounced the name of one of them in my performance), I know little of the exact trees, and only a bit more of the blossoms and flowers listed, but I think the poem survives this ignorance. The catalog is enough to demonstrate that there’s a specific spring, specific to place (and by now, perhaps to time), that Browning is missing.

There are three telling lines in the midst of this nature catalog. Early in the poem Browning says that if someone simply wakes in an English April morning, they are unaware. This is of course not universally true, some will awake to marvel at a Spring morning wherever their bed is, but Browning’s point is that some will not, and by implication that he himself often didn’t. Another telling line: in remembering the birdsong of the thrush** he says that the bird sings each song twice, seemingly to prove that the bird had fully absorbed and internalized the rapture of Spring, so that it can recall it at will. That opens the question of if Browning feels in his poem if he has been able to do the same, to recall what he is now separated from. Perhaps it’s more so than remembrance. It’s often said that nostalgia and memory increase the sense that what is gone was better and more intense than it was.

Which brings us to the third telling line, which is almost a throwaway in Browning’s version of his poem, but the one I’ve chosen to make a refrain that I think changes and reframes the poem: “In England now.”

Browning’s use of the line may have been largely a rhyming choice in the series of “bough,” “now,” “follows,” and “swallows” — but rhyme, like chance effects beloved by some Modernists, may cause the mind to go elsewhere or to bring out things it would not consciously choose. By making “In England now” a refrain, it sits beside and comments on nearly every part of Browning’s original poem. My intent is that this refrain will bring out different responses to different listeners, perhaps even different responses to a single listener as it reappears. To test that out, you can hear my performance with a player gadget if you see it below, or with this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab and play it.

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*Given its English subject matter it may be somewhat more remembered by our British readers. Back in 1995 it placed in the middle of the pack of the best loved poems in a British survey. And in an even more Parlando moment, the poem’s title and its enduring worth were both sung in 1973 by an English singer-songwriter Clifford T. Ward, who had a minor hit in the British Isles with it.

**In other April poetry, we’ve just finished our serialized performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  which features a thrush singing in its concluding section performed and presented here earlier this month. Eliot’s thrush singing in the pine trees he wrote in his notes to “The Waste Land,” was from his personal memories of camping in Canada as a youth.

April Rain Song

As we continue our celebration of National Poetry Month, I remind us all that not everything in poetry needs to be heavy business. For example, here’s a poem by American writer Langston Hughes, a man known largely for his poetry that deals frankly with the Afro-American experience, and this poem of his was published in a magazine founded by W. E. B. Du Bois during the famed Harlem Renaissance.

But wait, not only is this a poem about springtime, it’s a children’s poem written for Du Bois’ children’s magazine The Brownies’ Book.  I first learned about this pioneering publication for Afro-American children at the My Life 100 Years Ago  blog, which among other things often covers what was happening with magazines of that era.

Hughes himself wrote today’s poem when he was a teenager, and The Brownies’ Book  was the first publication to publish his poetry. “April Rain Song”  is a charming poem, and in rhythm and poetic tactics it reminds me of Carl Sandburg, a fellow Midwesterner whose writing influenced the young Hughes. Here’s a link to the text of Hughes’ poem if you want to follow along.

The Brownies Book

Check out the high school graduate in far right middle row. Yup, that’s Langston Hughes.

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It’s been April rainy the past two days in my city, so working on making “April Rain Song”  a Parlando Project piece had overcast and setting. Hughes here shows me a mode I sometimes aim for: it’s a nature poem, but specifically set in a city, not in some rural nature. The rain meets sidewalks and street-gutters, not some Eden.

Rain, specifically spring rain, has a strong memory element for me. Perhaps you share this? Outside in rain I’ll often recall other wet spring days, watching from the current distance my child-self walking beside miniature gutter rivers, observing for no particular reason their sweep around last years’ leaves and last winter’s final dusky ice clumps. Or perhaps you recall a particular roof on which fell our general rain? Was Langston Hughes too young yet to have that experience of memory when he wrote this poem? I cannot say, but I have that now, and so I add a bit of wistfulness to his words today.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Hughes’ “April Rain Song”  is below for many of you, but if you don’t have it, this highlighted hyperlink will also play the song I made of it.

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Musicians Wrestle Everywhere — Emily Dickinson hears songs as they are created

I’ve just spent much of a day with Emily Dickinson. I’ll tell you it was enjoyable, not the least because there is a factor in many of her poems: they grow when you spend time with them.

It started late last night. I noted that I had been looking at early examples of “jazz poetry,” poetry from the previous Twenties that celebrated jazz music and jazz musicians. A thought occurred to me: I’ve gone too far into #NationalPoetryMonth without a Dickinson poem. Which of her poems might deal with music?

“Musicians Wrestle Everywhere”  came up in searches, though it was not a Dickinson poem I’d seen before.*  Here’s a link to the full text, and here’s another to a manuscript of it in Dickinson’s own hand. After my first reading of it, my reaction was, “I don’t know if I can fit this with the jazz poetry. While ‘Musicians’ is the first word, the musicians largely go away and we’re off into Dickinson’s headspace.” Well, my second thought was, “This could work some other way and time, disconnected from the Jazz poetry stuff. Let me see what I can do about making it a song for later use.”

Dickinson attracts composers. She often uses a folk-music meter adopted also by many Protestant hymns,** and the compression of her poetry leads to short texts ideal for art-song. “Musicians Wrestle Everywhere”  has already been set by eminent American Modernist composer Elliott Carter.

I didn’t want to go toe to toe with Carter. My mood today was to make this somewhat foggy poem more immediately understandable on first listen, while Carter emphasized the poem’s more abstract thought-music. Wrestling with Dickinson’s words and my desire today as I tried singing it and working out my music, I decided to make some minor changes to the words*** and to add a refraining line. The former tactic is generally frowned upon, and many a living author will forbid it. The later, repeating a line or section, is generally allowed. One of the reasons that page poetry often seems less effective as song is that we have a strong desire for repetition in song. I think if even when silently listening we are “singing along,” and we desire to know when some part is recognized as coming around again. Refrains bring us into the song, even on first listen.

So, what is the poem’s point that I hope to make clearer in my song and performance? I believe that Dickinson is saying that musicians, and herself, extract from the time and vibrations of crowded reality our new tunes, rhythms, timbres, and harmonies. Those composing ears aren’t merely transcribing. They might refine melodies within the strife of conflicting environmental sounds, but to some larger degree they are hearing the unheard music that does not exist, though founded or surrounded, in observable reality or philosophy. In the final verse she mentions some think what inspires composers is the pagan “music of the spheres” or some choir of angels, or the departed in heaven — the later a place the skeptical Dickinson is not sure of.

So where does new music come from, if not just imitation, transcription, a cosmic mechanism or ancestral angels? This is the reason for my refrain, to make more adamant what I think Dickinson may be saying. Why are our April trees budding? Why is there new life in our spring without our trying or thought — and in notion of our stewardship of the Earth, despite our neglect? “I think it’s that new life” the now refraining line repeats. Life, creation, poetry, music, it wants to happen.

Elmo Hope is a thing with feathers

I would be ahistorical to suspect that Emily Dickinson’s piano improvisations were anything like Elmo Hope. On the other hand, if my lame joke tempts you to listen to some of Hope’s recordings…

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By the time I’d worked out a meaning to Dickinson’s poem I’ve come to think that it is a compliment to the Jazz poetry I was looking at before after all. The Jazz poems of the previous Twenties I’d seen mostly observed the musicians and provided a listener’s appreciation of what they were putting down. In Dickinson’s poem, she’s the musician, the composer themselves.

By late this afternoon I’d completed the music and recorded the acoustic guitar, bass guitar, cello and violin parts for my song setting of “Musicians Wrestle Everywhere.”  The player gadget to hear my performance is below for many of you, but if you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab to play it too.

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*She wrote over 1800 poems, so another fine thing about exploring Dickinson is that there can easily be a new poem to experience. Which reminds me to point out that this project has over 500 pieces to experience here too.

**Yes, I know the bit about how you can sing many Dickinson poems to the “Gilligan’s Island Theme,”  or “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” or as this post reminds us, many hymn tunes. The post also has a short summary of what’s known about Dickinson’s musical involvement. The author notes that Dickinson was familiar with mid-19th century string-based dance music as well as having some ability to improvise on piano. I wonder at the Celtic and African strains that might have crept into Amherst by the 1860s. The only instrument Dickinson mentions in her poem is the tamborin, which appears to be an African derived hand-held drum instrument.

***I wanted to modernize the syntax and usage a bit to add to the clarity for the contemporary listener. A line in the third verse uses one of the few archaic terms in this poem “Dames” which has largely fallen out of American usage even as a faux-genteel slang term for women. By expanding the following term from “Men” to gentlemen I echo a somewhat outdated formality and may have helped make clearer that the “bright Majority” of “vanished Dames and Gentlemen” are the dead of the past.