Fear No More

I’ve already talked here about doing translations from other languages into English and how it can be a strikingly intimate way to get next to another poet’s creative choices. Performance, or even attentive reading, can also bring on this effect.

Let’s take Shakespeare as a mere lyricist today. Of course, he’s a big deal for our English language, a writer from the days when it was beginning to resemble the one we speak today. For many he’s the writer of plays, with characters of which generations of actors measure themselves by the facets they cut from them. For others he’s the writer of sonnets, many of which work by complex arguments and compressed thought, making them memorable from line to line, even if it’s hard to grasp the entirety of even one of them. But occasionally* within the plays he becomes a lyric poet in one or both of the senses of the word: a writer giving us a complex emotional matrix of someone’s experience in a moment of time, and as a writer who expects his words to be sung to music.

Songs meant to be performed inside other, larger works can be problematic. They may refer to particular characters and situations, which when the song is presented separately, become unfootnoted puzzlements. This song doesn’t have much of a problem there. “Fear No More”  is  sung as a funeral song in the play Cymbeline,  but it’s self-evidently that—a situation that is universal, just as the song admits.

So, as I do my task with this project, figuring out what sort of music to write and effect to try to present in performance, I need to read attentively. Though I have done this hundreds of times during the Parlando Project, I often find that no number of silent readings finds what route to take. This may be me, my wandering attention and self-centeredness, but for this one (as with many others I’ve presented here) the subtilties started to emerge as I come to grips with performing it.

On the surface one could say this song is making an argument: they’re dead—but you know life is suffering, so they are no longer suffering. It doesn’t take long to notice that surface is transparent and there are other things to see through this.

First off, many things here are bittersweet. The opening line, for a Minnesotan** “…the heat of the sun” isn’t something we fear or are even displeased by, even during an extraordinary hot spell. “Golden lads and girls” also, not exactly earthly suffering, and we’re given their end with the joke that they’ll come to dust like the occupationally dusty chimney-sweep. Yes, wages, clothing, eating, learning, loving (all referenced here) can have their struggles, their bad as well as good days, but on the whole we don’t wish to dispense with them.

As the lyric proceeds, Shakespeare slides into darker and darker territory though. Those that assume to be our social superiors are going to have opinions on us, and in some cases our rulers will be tyrants. We may be slandered and censured (apparently this could be done before Twitter). And given some storms in the upper Midwest this August, I’m reminded that summer lightning and thunder are not mere theatrical sturm and drang, but can be the light and sound tech-crew of destructive forces.

And the final stanza moves darker yet. Exorcists, vampires, zombies, and vengeful ghosts—but wait: these are all dangers to/from the dead. So, the whole argument of “At least they are now resting” is completely undercut. And it’s here that I started to notice that the singer who’s tasked with merging with the poet’s work is outlining an inconsistent but vivid life that’s not without agency. This vividness argues against its inconsequentiality.

Imortal Poems of the English LanguageMaster Poems of the English Language Cover

Oscar Williams’ poetry anthologies surprised the mid-century publishing world selling quite well. These two thick yet inexpensive books were part the paperback library of my youth. Maybe it was the titles: “Master” and “Immortal” would be catnip words to an inconsequential young writer. Williams was an ad-man besides being a poet and editor, so this may have been no accident.

 

Shakespeare’s songs attract composers, and this one has been made into lovely art song, but I like to roughen them up a bit, and do so here with this acoustic guitar and voice setting. The player gadget to hear my performance is below. But before I go, I want to tip the hat to the Stuff Jeff Reads blog which recently reminded me of this beautiful and enigmatic lyric. And it turns out he and I both read it first thanks to the same anthologist, Oscar Williams, who issued some surprisingly great-selling mid-20th century paperback poetry anthologies.

 

 

*Besides being a dramatist, he’s also an entrepreneurial content provider for a new form that needs to please nobles who might get their heads chopped off—and then too, folks who couldn’t get good seats for the bear baiting and so had to make do with a play. Given that Elizabethan song had many clever lyricists, it’s not sure if Shakespeare wrote all the songs in his plays. We also don’t know the music composers, or their tunes for the most part. This particular lyric seems “Shakespearean” however.

**And likely too for an Englishperson, with a temperate-climate, but one that’s not too-often sunny. Winter’s “rages” aren’t without joy in Shakespeare either, like this song from another play.

Affliction

A dense occurrence of American political events has not quite stopped my reading of poetry and creation of music to combine with it, though there were hours this week when I could not help but wonder and rage at the sachems and attendents readings of the body politic and it’s befuddled head man.

Luckily, on days like these, one can reach into the corpus of poetry, and within little time find something someone wrote years ago that rings with the current day, like an old bell calling us for a current ceremony.

And it’s so that I came upon this poem written around 1650 by Welsh poet, physician, and mystic Henry Vaughn. It was written during the aftermath of the British Civil War (Vaughn’s family was on the Royalist/Anglican side, which had lost). When Vaughn writes of affliction, it’s from an intimate and substantial experience. Biographers tell us he was recently widowed, his family disinherited, his religion suppressed, and that he may have been suffering from some kind of illness as well. And of course, his country was broken, in ways that civil war and its divides make manifest.

This makes “Affliction”  an unusual poem, because it revels in this level of distress, makes of it a necessary part of his and his country’s spiritual maturation. Read with some attention to what I believe is Vaughn’s passion, I can compare it to the hymn “As an Eagle Stirreth in Her Nest”  based on a text from Deuteronomy chapter 32, “The Song of Moses,”  a text and hymn that have inspired many sermons given in Afro-American Christian churches, which also know, oh yes, something of affliction.*

Vaughn doesn’t use the Deuteronomy text, but he gets in his own licks here: “Crosses are but curbs/To check the mule, unruly man” for example. And “Kingdoms too have their physic, and for steel/Exchange their peace and furs.**”

silex cover

The Latin title of the book where this poem first appeared means “The Fiery Flint,” and the engraving shows the image it’s to portray: fire sparked from a heart of stone. And you in the back row who’ve just read the subtitle: stop snickering and read the later definition in the dictionary: “A short, sudden emotional utterance.”

 

Henry Vaughn has never been a big deal in English literature. Much of what I read checking on him goes on at length about Vaughn being Oasis to George Herbert’s Beatles. He gained a little given the interest on the Metaphysical poets engendered by the New Criticism guys like T. S. Eliot in the 20th century. One fan, who I wouldn’t have suspected: famed SF writer Phillip K. Dick.

Given the amount of time I wasted this week following our modern afflictions, I rushed this piece a bit, using a simple and repetitive bass and drum part I set up quickly,***  a “let’s give it a go” recording of the vocal, and a “live” one-pass guitar part: “Like strings stretch ev’ry part/Making the whole most musical” said Vaughn.

The text of “Affliction”  is here if you’d like to read along, and my performance of it is available with the player below. Will listening to it help one wax metaphysical within our current struggles? Felt good to me to do this one anyway.

 

 

 

 

*One preacher who famously delivered variations on this text was Aretha Franklin’s father, the Rev. C. L. Franklin, who had a popular recorded version on Chess Records in 1953, which would make him a label-mate of Harmonica Frank from last time.  Please don’t be disappointed if I don’t rise to Franklin’s level of transfixing declamation here.

** Physic is used as a medical metaphor in the poem, and of course, Vaughn later practiced as a physician. In the medical theories of the day, a cathartic drug, a physic, was often used to rebalance or reboot the humours of an ill human. Steel here stands for armor and swords, that is: warfare.

The Snow Man

I’m sure many readers here are enjoying spring or its imminent promise. In Minnesota, not so much. It was 4⁰ F. when I awoke this morning, and everyone is already flinching for another snow-storm due this weekend. So let’s have one more winter piece, this time by Wallace Stevens from his landmark collection Harmonium, “The Snow Man.”

Abandoned Winter Schwinn 1080

Not the first sign of spring.

 

Over at the Interesting Literature blog, Oliver Tearle reminded me that Stevens was influenced by John Keats as a younger man, and in his reading of “The Snow Man”  he has Stevens’ poem as a statement of his break from that youthful connection. Keats, and the romantics of his sort, were great fans of the pathetic fallacy and have no shame in ascribing to any landscape or natural object feelings and personality that the poet can address.

Even if we think that talking Keatsian nightingales bearing messages is an absurdly old-fashioned trope, we’ve never left the idea that weather or a landscape is supposed to mean  something. Book, movie, poem, song video—if we’re given a bleak winter picture we’re usually led to understand that death, suffering, despair, scarcity, loss, or the like is what’s being conveyed.

In “The Snow Man”  Stevens describes a winter scene. Snow-trimmed trees in an icy wind which is carrying refracting snow crystals. Stevens’ conclusion from this is ironically—well there’s no other way to put it—cold. We’re not supposed to draw any meaning from it, other than meaning-free is-ness.

It just so happens, that Keats wrote his own short lyric poem about winter “In the Drear Nighted December.”  And yes, there’s immediately an emotion attributed to a bare-branched tree wind-whipped by sleet and then to a frozen brook in Keats’ poem.

What’s that emotion? Happy.

Woah—why happy? Because Keats has these landscape features also in a state of simple is-ness. They reckon no loss from summer, know no delay ‘till spring.

Keats Buddhist koan is “to feel and not to feel it.” Stevens, “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” These two poems approach in seeming opposition, but merge in agreement.

The Snow Man

A Modernist sculpture of American poet Wallace Stevens

 

One other thing in “The Snow Man”  to note: where’s the titular snow man? Perhaps including one in Stevens’ scene would add a connotation of jolly play, or the impermanence of artistic making—but if that’s so, why call the poem “The Snow Man?”  Could it be a mind trick, the equivalent of instructing “Imagine a winter scene, but I don’t want you to see a snow man in your imagination. Make very sure  you don’t even think a little bit about a jaunty snow man or an elaborately constructed one now melting…?” Tearle’s solution is that the snow man is the speaker of the poem, the “nothing that is” there, the cold observer that we don’t see because we’re looking from his cindered eyes.

My performance of Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man”  can be played with the gadget below. If you’d like to read along, the full text of the poem and Oliver Tearle’s short discussion of it is here. Want to hear Keats’ “In the Drear Nighted December?”  We presented it here a while back as part of the Parlando Project, and we have over 300 other audio pieces archived here ready to listen to.

 

Fire and Sleet and Candlelight

Today’s piece, like my recent setting of Margaret Widdemer’s “When I Was A Young Girl”  reframes a folk song from the British Isles. Widdemer took a song traditionally about a life cut down by youthful excess and reformed it into a poem about finding love outside the realm of adventurous, romantic fantasy. However, today’s words are from Elinor Wylie, whose poetry retains its allegiance to romantic excess, even if it’s frank about the cost of that.

“Fire and Sleet and Candlelight”  takes its title from a transcription of an old English song, collected in the 17th Century, but likely much older: the “Lyke Wake Dirge.”  The “Lyke Wake Dirge”  is a striking song, even though its antique dialect is nearly as hard to understand today as Summer Is Icumen In.”  As this blog post recalls, you’d be hard pressed to make out the lyrics to “Lyke Wake”  in present-day English from hearing it, but the simple yet stately melody grabs you anyway. That is an illustration of a Parlando Project idea: the presence of music allows one to defer decoding a text’s meaning, to appreciate something before you understand it. The line Wylie extracted for her title, in fact, is likely a common misunderstanding of the line in the old song. “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight” makes an easily available winter image, and so that’s what some heard. Scholars are now of the opinion that the middle item is actually “fleet,” not sleet; fleet being an old word meaning floor, and by extension, standing for home. The line’s word-music is beautiful with either word in it, and Wylie was very good at word-music.

To summarize “Lyke Wake,”  once you’ve died your soul will be tested on an arduous journey, which will be made easier if you’ve lived a life of charity. In the long-standing Christian debate between salvation from faith or works, “Lyke Wake”  favors the works side. The soul’s journey may still be strange and testing, but charitable goodness in life is rewarded as a way through.

This is not the poem that Wylie writes however. There’s a soul on a journey in her poem, yes, but salvation is nowhere achieved or even promised. “Lyke Wake”  is foreboding, but it may only recount two or three tests on the soul’s journey, and the refrain reminds us every verse the possibility that “Christe receive thy saule.” Christina Rossetti wrote a jauntier, more modern version of “Lyke Wake”  with her Up-Hill,”  to give one example of how this could  have been restated in modern English.

Wylie’s poem instead piles on the soul-struggles until you lose track of the number depicted. Nearly every pair of lines is a fresh torment or test, some of pain, some of discouragement.

Wylie’s images for the soul’s tests are in general straightforward, nothing too esoteric. The only one that caused me pause was “trysted swords.” Tryst derives from a Middle English word for agreed hunting place. Imagery-wise I was reminded of the Tarot deck’s three of swords. What would be hunted, and injured, would be one’s heart here, and trysted puns to twisted, as in the intertwined piercing blades of the three of swords.

Three of Swords

Tired of clattering swords making a racket at your castle?
Use this easy idea to store them securely.

So, Elinor Wylie’s “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight,”  presents a more arduous and unrewarded journey than even the spooky “Lyke Wake Dirge.”  As a 20th Century poet steeped in the Romanticism of Shelley, Byron and Keats, Wylie would hold that suffering is not to be avoided if it’s a cost for a passionate rush toward truth and beauty. I said at the start, Wylie was honest about the cost of such a journey—and in words she is—but in putting it into such singing word-music she makes the sufferings easier to bear while her word-music undercuts the real pain and danger.

Lonelysoul

Wikipedia uses this picture to illustrate “Lyke Wake Dirge,” calling it “Lonely Soul.” I can only think of it as the back cover of “Songs of Leonard Cohen.”

 

I therefore tried to emphasize the sorrowful experiences of the words somewhat when performing this. For music I went with a fairly full-fledged orchestral-folk setting this time. The vocal and acoustic guitar is actually a “scratch part,” a quick recording used to lay the blueprints for later finished tracks, but due to recent events my voice has been out of commission for a few days, so I had to leave those parts in. To hear my performance of Elinor Wylie’s “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight,”  use the player below.

 

At a Window

I was ready to post this new piece, Carl Sandburg’s At A Window,”  early yesterday when I had one of those days that come to challenge artists. Artists less fortunate than I can perhaps point to a single thing that holds them back, but with myself it’s often several smaller things.

I’m a habitual early morning reader of the news, a rhythm that may have started in my earliest teens when I delivered newspapers before school and continued through night-shifts in hospitals where I’d read the papers as they came out in the predawn hours. Nowadays, it’s not the papers I turn to for news, but Internet newsfeeds, and the pre-dawn hour was filled with the reports of another mass shooting profaning music, this time in Las Vegas. These events hurt me because I often spend as spend as much of my day as I can carve out making the music here in combination with the words that I combine with it. One of art’s purposes in my mind is to allow us to set aside momentarily the real consequences and strictures of life. Not necessarily to escape them—in fact, many times art allows us to examine them so that we can treat them as the reality of what they really are, because those strictures, even things we fear most, have their limitations, just as we do. And art can be the “R&D Department” of the soul and the repair of the world.

Thus, the hurt when those borders are crossed. Thus, the feelings of one’s work in an inadequate field.

Of course, my feelings on this matter are a small and abstract hurt, compared to the suffering of those more directly impacted. Small things closer to my heart feel larger than great things farther away. This is one of the limitations of our perception. Then my day continued with another unrelated hurt, closer yet to my heart, and I was reminded again of my limitations and imperfections.

Real hurt seems so large, art seems so small, and I feel like a poor worker in a field of playful trivia.

Which may be so, the limits of my perception may not be able to tell. However, I believe this is a common feeling for artists to have, and so if you create art, you may also have felt this. We try to do so much, and all we can see is so little. This is part of why the Parlando Project principle: “Other People’s Stories” has value. Speaking the words of others helps me by adding what their eyes and hearts have seen.

SONY DSC

“He is an observer with sympathy but without fear”

This morning, it turns out that Carl Sandburg, in the very piece I was working on this previous weekend, “At a Window,”  was speaking to this experience, though in my down-heartedness, I couldn’t hear him for a while. This short poem, appearing first in 1914 in Poetry  magazine alongside his “Chicago, hog butcher for the world…” poem which will overshadow it, waited patiently to speak into my ear. What good could a more than a 100-year-old poem have for me?

Poetry Magazine March 1914

Eight poems of Sandburg’s Chicago Poems debuted in this issue.

“At a Window”  says that even in shame and failure you must hunger for even more of the same. In the context of the sampling of Sandburg’s Chicago poems, which spoke so frankly about the situation of poor and working-class Americans, I think that window in the title means so many things. Yes, it means there is an imperative to look outside oneself as an artist. The dusk and shadows out the window lets one see little, but one must still look.

Will there be any consolation? Sandburg apparently had such consolation in his spouse, who championed his work, who he speaks of in the “Leave me a little love…” section. Perhaps you have such a champion in your life, perhaps you don’t. We are called in “At a Window’s”  conclusion to look out the window anyway. Perhaps the one who comes walking out of the dusk is yourself, to champion someone else?

To hear the performance of Sandburg’s “At a Window”  use the player below, and thank you for listening.

In The Drear-Nighted December

200 years ago this month a 21 year old surgical resident decided to give up his studies to become a doctor and to instead concentrate on the writing of poetry. An interesting decision. He had already rolled up a considerable education debt, and while it’s possible that poetry’s earnings potential might have been greater in 1816 than today, greater than zero is not a high bar.

So how prudent was our young not-to-be surgeon? He had tried his hand at poetry and had published a couple of poems in magazines before his decision. Hmm. Not a great prospectus you might think. In a rough translation for our time, it’s as if the young student had ditched his studies and loan debt for a shot at touring as an indie-rocker, even though he’s only played in his dorm room and doesn’t have a band.

His friends thought he had promise. In the forthcoming year, and with their help, he would find a publisher for his first volume of poems, but his work was mostly unnoticed, and where noticed, the reviews were at best mixed. One reviewer had rich fun with this impudence:

“The spectacle of an able mind reduced to a state of insanity…. It is a better and easier thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; go back to the shop, Mr. John, back to `plasters, pills and ointment boxes.'”

Another reviewer offered this judgement

“We regret that a young man of vivid imagination and fine talents should have fallen into so bad hands as to have been flattered into the resolution to publish verses, of which a few years hence he will be glad to escape from the remembrance.”

We know how this turns out, more times than not: the young fool will be unable to sustain a long career in the arts—and yes, that was the case here. The young surgeon turned poet was to have a career of less than 5 years—but that was because of his early death at age 25. Yup, he dies two years too young to make the 27 club. Our surgeon turned poet was John Keats.

Besides talent, and desire that was the equivalent of foolishness, Keats worked very hard reading poetry, thinking about it, and writing it in those less than five years, producing some of the best lyric poetry in English.

In my own twenties, this encouraged and discouraged me. On one hand, it said I could write and read fearlessly as a young poet in the first half of my twenties; and on the other, as I measured what I had accomplished, I often admonished myself: John Keats died at 25.

Almost exactly one year after he broke from medicine for poetry, John Keats wrote the words for this piece In the Drear-Nighted December. He wrote it after struggling for much of the year to write his first long piece, Endymion, a neo-classical epic in heroic couplets that he never thought he got right.

This is something many writers experience. You struggle mightily to create something. Something big, something impressive. You bring all your craft to it, but it doesn’t quite work. You finish it, or otherwise set it aside, and in the aftermath out pops another smaller-seeming thing that is much more perfect. It’s like the muse says to you “You don’t control me and direct this, and here’s the proof.”

What has Keats done here? First off, those words cannot be read and not sung. This kind of silent melody is not easy to do in English, yet here is the young Keats doing it brilliantly. His images? I’m deep in a minus 17 degree F. Minnesota afternoon as I write this this. His trees with their “sleety whistle,” those branches glued with ice, once flowing water frozen like mineral crystals—I know these things, but Keats has said them well to remind me that we both know.

Keatslifemask

John Keats encased in Carbonite by Jabba the Bad Reviews

And then his sublime last verse, so beautiful I could not help but repeat it. In two verses Keats has setup an nice lyric that doesn’t stray far from convention. To paraphrase: “Hey, look at nature in winter. Doesn’t look like it does in spring or summer at all. Even though we conscious beings know (more than dumb water and trees) that these trees will bud and the brook water will flow again, nature doesn’t care.” Now the third verse: “How smart are we compared to non-conscious nature? We will ‘writhe’ in pain as things are taken from us (and though unspoken: since the image has been of a repeating natural cycle, this will happen again and again). This is not a poem that says “Suffering? Don’t worry, spring will come again.” This is poem that says suffering will come again, as surely as winter. “The feel and not to feel it, when there is none to heal it.” What a line: “The feel and not to feel it!”

A good song for winter solstice, so to hear the LYL Band perform In the Drear-Nighted December, click the play button the player gadget that will appear below.