Here’s a poem written by a second-generation immigrant about immigrants, and about Chicago in 1916, or my present city neighborhood of immigrants, or summer, summer nights — and it’s about love and affection, and about the moon that we’re all immigrants from when we fall in love.
The child of an immigrant who wrote this was Carl Sandburg, a man highly identified with the city of Chicago because he broke-out as a poet there and called his first collection, where this poem appeared, Chicago Poems. Though Carl got around and had traveled before and after this time in his life, he’s settled here in this poem, happy in the poem that night in summer Chicago hearing the accordion, watching the courting, thinking of a neighbor thinking of cherries growing in their backyard.*
How much is different in my Minneapolis neighborhood now? It’s hard to say. I live a more separated life than Sandburg did then I suspect. Yet, I hear the Mexican music at night drifting down from a block north on summer weekends. A hajib-wearing African-born woman is shuffling her children into a minivan a few doors south as I ride by on my bicycle. A Central American refugee father would wait with me for the school bus to drop off our children when my teenager was in grade-school. The stuffed-muffled boom of car stereos has seemingly had its peak, but I still hear them occasionally. Sitting on my porch reading in the summer, the scattered parade on the sidewalks falls in with families, many accounting with babies in slings and front-packs, or strollers, and then they or their siblings go on to toddling, to walking, to scooting on bikes without pedals.
The moonlight though? Some of our silver lights now are downcast close-in little screens. Oh, we still see the moon — but streetlights and houselights, business lights and car lights, more-or-less wash out the moonlight.
But, but, we cannot wash away the moon.
How do we know love emigrates from the moon? Oh, because it’s above all of us, widely appreciated and sometimes almost touchable, other times slim and sliced and out of reach. Because it waxes and wanes yet is always there, even behind clouds. Because it speaks the language all of us speak when we’re speechless. Every person who falls in love is a new immigrant from the moon.
Even though I think this performance wants to slip away from 1916 Chicago, I couldn’t help but put a lot of period Chicago photos in the video.
We’re still in our April National Poetry Month mode, so three ways to listen to my performance and music for Carl Sandburg’s poem “Back Yard:” a player appears below for some, an alternative highlighted link is here for backup, and we have the new lyric video above. Oh, did Carl write all the words you’ll hear in my performance? Seems like a few others’ words crossed the border to join in the night. If you happen to have some headphones or earbuds handy, this song’s mix will make it worth getting those out.
*The poem’s cherry tree in the backyard gives me reason for a thought, not knowing much about immigrant communities in pre-WWI Chicago. I know the tenement neighborhood of New York’s Lower East Side, and there aren’t likely trees or backyards there. Minneapolis might well have had trees in poorer working-class neighborhoods, even if the housing in some areas would be ramshackle. When Sandburg lived in Milwaukee before coming to Chicago, his wife raised urban chickens, and it’s just possible that this poem is a Milwaukee poem bound in a book named for Chicago.
This Saturday is Shakespeare’s day: the day he died, and by counting roughly from his christening, the best estimate of his birthday — and so as I revisit the early years of the Parlando Project, it’s a good time to re-release my first performance of a work by Shakespeare. It’s one of his most famous sonnets, number 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
Short poems, and sonnets are short poems, can have a prismatic character: shifting light, new facets. As I wrote when I performed it back in 2017, I then mostly picked up on the boasting nature of it. While it starts off flattering the “fair youth,” all that lovely flash is really about Shakespeare the wordsmith and prolog to the final turn where the poet brags that he’s going to make the youth immortal with his “eternal lines.”
I concluded back then: “It’s not bragging if you can do it.” Immortal is a bit beyond guarantee, but a few centuries is practically close enough to settle that matter.
This morning as I thought again about Sonnet 18, I see another side. Since this is April Poetry Month, I’m perhaps led to think more distinctly about poetry’s evidence for the worth of poetry. Read in that frame, one can take the opening line as more than a rhetorical flourish. It’s asking a real question about the worth of metaphor, a prime component of poetry’s way of experiencing.
If it’s a real question, then it’s all but asking “What’s the worth of a poem?” The fancy language that completes the sonnet’s first 8 lines give some reasons just by being a word-music aria on beauty. Any IRL summer’s day varies, changes — often away from our desired day. It’s been a cold, dark April where I live. I look forward to May or better yet June, when it’s warm, when snow and ice isn’t plausible, when I can go with bare arms and legs into air without it carrying off my body’s warmth. But then comes a week or more of humid highs-in-the-90s weather, and I’ll want a crisp spring or fall day, even with some spitting rain.
The poem says the fair youth it addresses isn’t like those inconsistent days: they’re always temperate and sunny. I call BS. It’s not possible to know if Shakespeare’s sonnets are poetry as memoir, real events from his life captured in verse, or if they are characters and situations created by a wide-ranging dramatist — but here, as in some other “fair youth” sonnets, I see inequalities of class and caste being exhibited. Do newly beloveds seem perfect, always compatible? I’ll grant that. I’ve been in relationships with some pretty good human beings over the years, but as a short speech in verse, this rhetorical portrayal of the perfect fair youth who in power analysis seems to be of a higher social standing than Shakespeare and his family, is (in character or reality) pandering to vanity, and I would consider it a wink and a nod to those who’d share Shakespeare’s aspiring-to-be-middle-class background that “we all know this.”
There’s a visual pun in my “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” lyric video’s first dissolve.*
Have I spoiled this poem for those who have read it, or shared it, as a sincere poem of love? I hope not. But that’s the facet I see today of this famous sonnet — but I said above I was seeing Sonnet 18 as being about poetry’s worth. How’s that? First off, it gives pleasure. If the opening 8 lines flatter too much to make me read them without context, they are word-music. Sing me silly love songs! I think the poem’s conclusion to the opening question is “Yes! You should compare. Do make metaphors. Do sing word-music.” Some of these poems will be close-enough to be immortal. Some will be about as short-lived as the shortest relationship; some will have a combined readership of 1.5. Even if those poems are not immortal, the desire to make poetry and the hope of reading poetry with pleasure is immortal as “long as men (editorial comment: and women too you gender-exclusionist-pig Billy) can breathe or eyes can see.”
You can hear my 2017 performance three ways. There’s a new lyric video above, and for some of you an audio player gadget below. Just want to hear the audio of the performance but don’t see the player? This highlighted link will do that. Listening again to that performance recorded from the feeling of the poet bragging on his words, I think it also works to portray my feelings about the poem today.
*I value the audience this Project has: people like you who are interested in some pretty odd corners in a variety of poetry and a variety of music are rare. That’s not flattery, just fact. So, I have faith someone out there will laugh. The rest, forgive me the indulgence.
If you’ve followed this Top Ten countdown series of the most liked and listened to audio pieces this summer at the Parlando Project you’ve taken a bit of a journey, and I thank you for coming along. The kind of music I create and present here varies, and lately I’ve been doing some louder stuff with electric instruments which may not be your cup of noise. Stick with Parlando, we’re like Minnesota weather — we’ve got four Seasons! and they play in repertory. Now on to the most played audio piece here this summer.
A Cradle Song by William Blake You can think of this honest lullaby as a Blake out-take. It sounds like it belongs in one of his pair of engraved books of short poems, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, but for whatever reason it was never engraved by this artist/printer/poet.
In the original post* I commented on why I chose to perform this piece of worry and comfort. I said then that lullabies are designed to comfort the parent and the child, and this piece still comforts me as transitions proceed around my life. Perhaps it’ll comfort you too. And as a bonus, here’s a chord sheet of my music for this text of Blake’s. I played this with a capo on the 4th fret, so the recording sounds in the key of C# minor, but the chords shown here have more open strings, and acoustic guitars love open strings.
Blake’s lullaby, with my music to suit.
Speaking of musical variation, I spent time yesterday in my studio space playing a Stratocaster electric guitar as part of my yearly September 18th commemoration of the death of Jimi Hendrix, and that squall delayed by a day this wrap-up of our summer Top Ten countdown. During this, a sixteen-minute torrent of notes was recorded yesterday, and being in the room with that sound too comforted me as much as this lullaby’s soft acoustic guitar. I’ve edited the live take down to six and a half minutes, and there are words too, a sort of found poem. Follow this blog or check back, it’ll be here in the coming week.
*Each bolded piece’s name listed in this countdown is a link to the original post and presentation of it, so if you like a piece or want to know more about my original encounter with it, clicking those bolded links will take you there.
Continuing our countdown of the most listened to and liked pieces here this past summer we move today to the numbers 4 through 2 on our list. I’ve mentioned that blog traffic and listens have dropped off a bit this summer, which from looking at past years stats follows a yearly trend. Things are picking up this month, which is encouraging — and even before autumn has begun, we’ve already rolled up our most page views and visitors for a year ever. Most of the blog visits come from those using search engines stumbling onto a particular page, and there are some perennially popular Parlando blog posts that draw visitors month after month and year after year. Maybe sometime this fall I’ll talk about those, but when it comes to listens to the audio pieces this summer, the list is all recent work, so let’s move on to them.
4. I, Too by Langston Hughes I did a double post for American Independence Day, using texts from Walt Whitman (“I Hear America Singing”) and this answer piece by Langston Hughes. Hughes’ piece easily outdrew the Whitman in listens, perhaps because it’s fresher to some listeners (Whitman’s piece has already had at least one widely-sung setting). Then too, the music I wrote for “I, Too” was a catchy little cycle of chords that I played in full strums on acoustic guitar. To my ears, and apparently many of yours, it was simply effective.
Hughes wrote his poem as an individual Afro-American’s story, one paralleling his own biography, but it’s easy to see he intends it as a fully-earned addition to Whitman’s catalog of Unum’s in the E Pluribus. I decided to add onto Mr. Hughes’ lyric one short phrase at the ending, “If not us, who else,” in part to double-down the Independence Day point being made. Questions of cultural appropriation may prick us, their needling will establish these concerns have small if sharp and painful points, but the overall issue of who tells, who sings is long past decision. Story tellers will tell. Singers will sing. Poets can do both at the same time.
If you haven’t heard this one, or want to hear it again, there may be a player gadget below, and if not, this highlighted hyperlinkcan also play the piece.
3. Sappho’s Old Age by Sappho Speaking of cultural appropriation, yesterday in this Top Ten countdown we had a piece written by pioneering Canadian poet Bliss Carman presenting himself as if a reincarnated Sappho. Is that ridiculous? I guess it can’t help but be, but I honestly enjoyed his poem and performing it. However, this piece in today’s part of the countdown was somewhat more popular this summer and was actually largely written by Sappho.
Now it’s my turn to respectfully appropriate her work and twist it my way. Ancient Greek being — oh what’s a saying for this? Oh yes: “It’s Greek to me.” — I worked from literal glosses of the text and tried to turn it into singable modern English idiom. Then I got to the poem’s conclusion, and enchanted by the parallels with a poem by 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud that I presented here this spring, I decided to replace Sappho’s metaphor with one drawn from Rimbaud and his life.
Bliss, I guess you and I are in the same boat, probably on one of the lakes between my state and yours.
To hear the performance in my old age of Sappho’s song of her old age a lot of ages ago, you can use the gadget below or this highlighted hyperlink which will open a new tab window and play it.
Bee busy! Hearts! Summer photos by Heidi Randen.
2. The Poem ‘The Wild Iris’ by Heidi Randen Heidi wrote the text I used here at the end of a post at her blog this summer, though I added the music and additional repetitions and pauses of my device to the piece you’ll hear. In turn Heidi was resonating with something she had read in a poem by Louise Glück. So, in the end, I appropriated her work appropriating Glück’s. This process by which I appropriated the text as well as the musical repetition give it a rondeau effect if not that exact form.
Oddly, all this repetition was to present a thought about transitions, which Heidi and I are both going through this summer. Things cycle, things repeat, and then they don’t. Every day for months a parent picks up an infant and carries it somewhere. Then the toddler asks, and the parent lifts their toddling body to hip or shoulder and carries them bidden. One day they no longer ask, the parent no longer lifts, and never lifts again. And then sometimes, with time and age, the parent, will be carried by the child.
That and more. We can be so nearsighted with doorways, they sometime appear only when we are on the threshold.
It’s time for our quarterly look back at the pieces here the got the most listens and likes. We start today with the numbers 10 through 8. Each bolded listing as we count down from 10 to 1 is a link to the original post where I first discussed my encounter with the text used, and those original posts will also include the text of the poem used or a link to it.
10. I Am Laughing in the Dark Underground by Frank Hudson The Parlando Project has from the beginning aimed to put other folks words to music we compose and play. Dave and I are both writers, so I could predominantly present work we wrote the words for here — but I find the encounter with other people’s words interesting for myself, and I hope it adds variety for you the reader and listener. Therefore, it was with some hesitation that I posted this self-written piece for the blog’s 5th Anniversary last month.
You can click on the bolded title above to read what I wrote about writing the words then, but in summary, this text came largely from my interrogating one of those vivid dreams that happen around dawn when you’re half waking and half still asleep. To hear the musical piece, you can use this highlighted hyperlink, or a player gadget that will appear below for some of you.
There’s a player device that some of you will see to hear Dave’s song as I performed it, and if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlink is another way.
“By Moonlight A Goose Can Be a Swan” a late summer photo by Heidi Randen
8. August by Helen Hunt Jackson Speaking of deceased musicians, recent new member of the choir invisible Michael Chapman had a musical life that ran with some marvelously miscellaneous combinations. Early in his career a singer/keyboard player wanted him to join his backing band. Chapman would recount that he figured his own front-man career was launching just fine, and said no thanks. The keyboard guy? Elton John. Chapman was based out of Leeds in England then, and he wanted another electric guitar in his band. He picked up just such a fellow from Hull who had to be lured away from his band for Chapman’s. That guy’s name was Mick Ronson. Having been pried away from one band, Ronson soon left Chapman’s group for another, becoming the notable guitarist and arranger for David Bowie’s breakthrough Spiders From Mars band.
Musicians love those kind of stories, because it’s assumed that many will have “close, but missed it” tales of successful opportunities slipping from their grasp. How about writers? I give you Helen Hunt Jackson. Jackson was a grade school classmate of one Emily Dickinson. Like Dickinson she connected with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the late-period Transcendentalist critic, activist, and editor. Higginson, you may remember, later gets his knocks from history for not fully recognizing and promoting Dickinson’s unorthodox verse, though after Dickinson’s death he arranged and helped edit the publication of collections of Dickinson’s work that started Dickinson’s career posthumously.
Jackson on the other hand ardently pushed Dickinson to publish while she lived, and for that effort she got little support from the living Emily.
I first ran into Jackson around the same time I watched the often satirical Wild Nights with Emily movie a few years ago. That mixed-bag film portrayed Higginson as a nincompoop and Jackson as a simpering all-to-Victorian fustian. I’ve read a lot of bad 19th century verse looking for stuff to use here** so I figured it worth the risk to look at some of Jackson’s own poetry.
No, it’s not Modernist before it’s time in the same way that Dickinson’s can sometimes strike you, but it can be more vivid and effective than many of her contemporaries with higher surviving profiles, and this sonnet “August” is a fine example of that. Here’s the highlighted hyperlink to play my performance, and some will see a player below that can do that too.
*Dave, a keyboard player, led off his song with Nicky Hopkins, who’s one of the lesser-knowns in the grouping. As a bass player I couldn’t let that role in the song’s “catacosmic” band go unfilled, and so I added the Jaco Pastorius verse.
**My general read on the later 19th century was that the Modernists were correct in rejecting what poetry had come to by the beginning of the 20th century. Stale metaphor, simple messages, perfunctory expression, hard-walled gotta make my rhyme and meter exact verse — there was good reason to make it new.
The Parlando Project has been featuring a few more self-written pieces this summer, and here’s another sonnet continuing the story from last time about a daughter who’s caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s disease.
Every Day Is A Moving Day
Each afternoon she takes the pictures down,
stacks them neatly against the wall.
Less neatly, she gathers up her clothes
And stuffs them overflowing in a small basket.
When her daughter arrives, she’s ready
to move. “I put most everything together.”
Daughter answers, “No. We moved you to
Memory Care last month. You stay here now.”
“Here? Is this where I stay until they take me
out in a wooden box?” She says between
puzzled and stern. The daughter explains again —
though it may well be what her mother says.
And then they take their walk in August flowers —
hot, colorful, bee-busied, fruitful, short-lived, flowers.
– Frank Hudson
Last time I wrote how I composed a sonnet beginning with images I collected while obliquely considering the story. In this one, the nature image comes at the end, and the process of composition was different. This sonnet was composed through a more journalistic method.
Maybe 50 years ago I once considered a career as a journalist. I had, probably still have, some traits useful for that: curiosity, some research skills that can be applied to most anything, a commitment even then to “Other People’s Stories,” and an ability to write faster than some writers.* But then I had some weaknesses that more than outweighed those skills: shyness combined with the inability to appropriately shut up sometimes chief among them. Journalism requires a lot of meeting new people, and when I do that I’m not only shy, but self-conscious that I may just start blurting out way too much self-blather. Awkward.
The story inside this sonnet was told to me, including most of the telling details. Good story, I thought. In my experience of daily journalism, one learns the inverted pyramid, good lede writing, and what should follow, and then pours the information and events to be covered into that form.
Sonnets don’t work exactly that way, but they are (however loosely their forms are treated by American poets) structures. You know you’re going to tell your story or chapter in 14 lines. Every poet, like every writer, has to decide how much story are you going to relate and how much are you going to go on about it. It just so happens that 14 lines is somewhat of a perfect length with poetic compression. Then, though you probably want something enticing in the first line or two, you aren’t going to use the lede/inverted pyramid narrative order — you’re going to reverse that. Particularly in the English/Shakespearean sonnet, “burying the lede” with a concluding couplet is your task. Somewhere in the sonnet you will probably want to present a turn, a twist, or as Petrarch would have had it, a volta.
I myself love to play with factoring the 14 sonnet lines every which way. This one decides that instead of an eight and then six lines Italian Sonnet organization or the three quatrains and couplet English sonnet, to do it with a six then six ending with a couplet. The poem’s first turn happens at line seven as the daughter tries to reorient the mother with dementia, but then the final couplet nature image is in effect another turn, another volta, as I attempt to leave the mundane journey of Every Day and move it to another level.
My talented spouse created her own daily calendar for the year using some miscellaneous quotes and her own photography. Here are two days from August.
The player to hear my musical performance of “Every Day Is A Moving Day” is below for some of you. Not seeing it? Some ways of reading this blog won’t display that, so I’ll give you this highlighted hyperlink that can also play it. Do you like the audio files of the musical performances and want a handy way to listen to those other than inside this blog? Did you know that the Parlando Project has been available as a podcast** since it began in 2016? You can subscribe to it by searching for our tag line “Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet” on most any podcast service, including Apple podcasts.
*I write faster than most “creative writers.” On the other hand, if you think my posts here contain awkward writing (I do) you wouldn’t want to see my first drafts. Good work-a-day journalists I’ve been around can produce reasonably good copy a lot faster than I can.
**No, you won’t hear me reading this post on our current podcast episodes. The existing Parlando Project podcasts are just the audio file of the performance. Which brings me to a question: would you like to listen to a podcast with the text of the entire post read and with the musical performance at the end? This might reduce the number of episodes I could issue each month, but if my voice holds out, I could offer that. What do you think?
Traffic for the blog has picked up again a bit after its summer slump, but I’m still going to be presenting a few more of my own poems before returning to our usual presentation of other authors’ words. One thing that this does is allow me direct access to the poet’s intent, so today let me pull back the curtain and discuss what choices I made and what I was trying to convey in this sonnet that is part of a series I’ve done this year about a family dealing with one of their members with Alzheimer’s disease. The main characters so far are the older woman with dementia and her middle-aged daughter. The mother has transitioned to a Memory Care Unit as her dementia has increased.
Here’s the text of today’s poem, “Smells,” so that we can follow along line by line as I discuss what I was trying to do and how I chose to do it. For today, for length reasons, I won’t talk as much about sound-music choices. Maybe another time for that.
The August after-rain smelled of rot and growth
where it dropped drought leaves on the lawn.
And by the garage door a bug had left its
solar-boat sarcophagus molt on the door frame,
implacable as any statue. Then down the block
the young dog walker looks at their phone
while the dog sniffs longingly at the weeds
tufting a stop sign. On to the MCU.
It smells today of urine just in the door;
and the mother asks again if she can leave —
which they do only for a walk. They pass
a bee garden, which has a sign “bee safe.”
The mother laughs. The daughter smiles.
She can still recognize a pun — its
Even though the poem follows the consciousness of the daughter character, the first three images of the poem were taken from things I observed myself on August mornings this summer. It can be chancy imbuing personal thoughts on a character when the character may jump across gender, age, or other boundaries from the author — but the alternative of not making that leap and to attempt to invent outside of the body and consciousness the author lives in risks as much if not more.
The first two lines discuss a dichotomy or dialectic: in this summer’s drought, when we had a short rain, it actually stripped the just hanging-on leaves off of some trees rather than greening their canopies up. Oddly, there was an autumn/spring smell from this, that, as the poem says, included a bit of decay and a bit of fertility in the air. The poet here hopes the reader can feel this moment of loss and change from these images, and as the poem develops remember how they may reflect on the other events.
It’s remarkable how the winged cicada can emerge and yet leave this detailed casing behind so intact and empty.
Lines 3-5 include the second image, another dichotomy, an inert and lifeless thing left from an insect’s life-cycle and change. I sort of piled on here with the Egyptian allusions in line 4, and I questioned that. First off, not everyone has any interest and knowledge of those historical myths, and I’m calling them in without deep expertise in that. My hope here is that neither does the reader need more than superficial knowledge. As an inconsistently educated American I see these leftover bug shells, so lifelike and yet empty, and marvel as they often call to mind the Egyptian use of insects in their iconography. Once more this is nature’s change, even growth, though with evidence of loss intentionally invoked. I think too that subconsciously I was referring to the Jewish tradition of mezuzah devices on doorposts. The traditional mezuzah contains verses from Deuteronomy invoking the supremacy of the godhead, meant to remind all that pass through doors that we may come and go, but that something else is eternal.
As an author I often find that images like these present themselves to me as images first, and I need to ask myself what they mean or potentially mean. I collect the image, and the poem to use them in follows. My expectation here is that such images are richer than ones simply ginned up to decorate or explain by simile something in a poem, but the risk here is that they may not seem similarly meaningful to a reader. How many notice something as odd as leaves falling in August instead of later Autumn, or intact cicada shells except empty of their insect, or recalls particulars of old Egyptian or Hebrew iconography?
A casual, quick reader will just see these things as time-wasters, dawdling until the poem says something. I’m putting some trust in my readers here.
The final image of the sonnet’s octet is perhaps more universal. I could see it as a New Yorker cartoon or cover, and it’s common enough that I suspect that someone has drawn a cartoon meant to make us smile at this combination: a dog smelling for scent markings left by other dogs’ urine while the human at the other end of the leash is checking something else for connections to others of their species. The opening two images are ambiguous, growth and loss. I’m hoping the reader smiles a bit at the third, assuming they pause a bit to consider this combination of the dog and human.
The octet ends with the information that the daughter is seeing this while getting into her car and then driving to the MCU, the Memory Care Unit. I worried that by itself the abbreviation will be puzzling but saw no way out inside the structure of this sonnet. In the series,* the MCU acronym should become familiar.
At line 9 we link from the comic scene before it to a more concerning one regarding the message that the MCU smells of incontinent folks further along in their dementia. Line 10 introduces what will be a re-occurring motif in the sonnet collection: the mother wants to leave the MCU, but her increasing confusion while still being active and mobile makes it necessary that she be in a constantly supervised, structured, place for her safety. The daughter and mother get a walk and make yet another nature observation: a garden intentionally meant to attract pollinators with a whimsical sign. When the mother laughs, the daughter is reassured that at least for now, the mother still understands the concept of a pun, and once more the tension of the situation is sweetened with humor.
Just as I was making the version of the sonnet shown above I decided to leave the poem’s final word on an indented line continuation. My intent here was to make the reader stop and consider why the poem ends with “accident.”
What does this poem mean by that or mean in its entirety? I occasionally get asked that and I’m embarrassed to find myself tongue-tied, unable to do anything more but burble something inane. I am somewhat aware and can articulate (as I did above) what each image or event in the poem is intending to convey, but the whole thing? Ah, err, well, a….
A confident artist would say that if I could convey the combined intent of a poem, even a short poem —perhaps even more so with a short poem — what the combination of words and their sounds and sequence means with a prose paragraph or three, that I wouldn’t have written it as a poem. I’m not being coy or secretive when I say that — it’s just that a poems indirection and sound music undercurrent means differently than a prose explication means. The foreshadowing nature images here should mesh with the events of the last six lines, and the juxtaposition allow each to illuminate each other and the reader.
“Accident” is the end word to make us consider that just as a pun makes us laugh at the coincidental double meaning of a word-sound, that the infliction of the indignity of Alzheimer’s and our accommodations as sufferers or caretakers to deal with it are not punishments or acts of evil.
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.
Let’s start another roundabout Parlando story. We’ll move from one less-famous poet to another lesser known one through a third one. You’ve heard of the third one.
When I was a teenager and started writing poetry I was quite surprised that I did that. Surprised, and impressed with myself. Writing poetry wasn’t something anyone else I knew did; that meant that the nature of my achievement was clouded, obscured. That singleness added to my sense of achievement with those first poems. I recall sending off a poem to something that presented itself as an Iowa poetry contest. My expectations with that weren’t clear either, but eventually I noted that I wasn’t contacted as the winner.
I considered that result. I thought I was writing poetry and was therefore in the cohort of the greats in poetry anthologies and textbooks. Yet, apparently, I wasn’t even the best poet in my small lightly populated state in a random year. Puzzling.
Well, I was in the cohort of those that wrote poetry, I just didn’t grasp then how large the numbers that unusual choice would total up cast against the population of the world. I have the same blank opportunities to solve when writing a poem — then as well as now — as prize-winning poets, or those who have reached the minor levels of success poetry is allowed in our culture. What achievement the result reaches — or the different, more quantifiable, question of what level of recognized achievement it reaches, that’s what differs. Still, I’m their equal before I begin.
Emily Dickinson may have had similar questions. When she reached out to Thomas Higginson, the Atlantic magazine contributor, with her packet of verses, she presented herself as wondering about the level of achievement she had reached. Many wonder now if she was being coy, but do we know what she knew, or what she suspected about her poetry? Dickinson’s situation was different from mine* in that though she lived in a smallish town, it was a college town, and so we know that some others in her circle had literary interests, even if her immediate family apparently didn’t. Her friend, eventual sister-in-law, neighbor, and increasingly suggested love interest Susan Gilbert wrote poetry and read Dickinson’s verses. Dickinson also made a habit of sending some of her verses in letters and with gifts to others, though I don’t know enough about how they reacted to that verse. Higginson testifies that she tended to wear people out.
But Emily Dickinson was not the most successful poet from her small town during her lifetime. Another woman, almost exactly the same age, eventually became a well-known writer and poet in her time.
That writer, born Helen Fiske, was a grade school classmate of Emily. Unlike Dickinson she fell into the usual path of marriage and motherhood, marrying at 22. Her first husband Edward Bissell Hunt may have been a remarkable person himself. Dickinson herself thought so. Dickinson wrote in a letter after meeting her friend’s husband that he “Intrigued her more than any man she had ever met.” Edward Hunt was a military engineer, and when the Civil War came, Edward Hunt set to developing some sort of self-propelled torpedo. It was while working on that secret weapon he was killed in an explosion at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Eventually she remarried, adding the second married name as Helen Hunt Jackson, and became a successful writer. Among those that spoke well of her poetry was Ralph Waldo Emerson and that same Thomas Higginson who Emily Dickinson reached out to.
Wikipedia says that Louisa May Alcott, Sidney Lanier, James Russell Lowell, and Christina Rossetti all had poems anonymously included in this collection too.
In 1876 while visiting Amherst Fiske sought to encourage her childhood friend to submit a poem to an anthology she was working on that was to be called “A Masque of Poets.” This anthology had a gimmick: none of the included poems was to have an identified author. The reader was going to have to encounter the poems each without the authors reputation or a preconceived notion of what that author would be on about. As it turned out, Helen Hunt Jackson had to work hard at convincing Dickinson to allow one of her poems to be included. In the end, Dickinson’s poem was given a special place in the order of this book, as the last poem in the collection (other than a long verse novel that makes up the last half of the book).
We leave this part of our story with an oddity: Emily Dickinson almost never saw her poems in print while living. Perhaps the most widely seen exception to this was her poem that appeared without her name in The Masque of Poets, and this happened because of the efforts of her friend and successful poet who we now have forgotten. What Emily Dickinson poem was it? The one that begins “Success is counted sweetest/By those who ne’er succeed…”
Here is Emily Dickinson in print. But no name.
So now let us return to Helen Hunt Jackson and her poetry, now little known and even littler read. Today’s audio piece, “August” is from her sonnet sequence containing a poem for each calendar month. Here’s a link to the text of the sonnet.
Jackson’s view of August is distinctive, and it’s far from upbeat for this last month of summer splendor. She starts by calling it silent** (save for the somewhat sinister connotation of insect hums). She calls what color August has “pathetic,” “vain,” and “artifice.” And loss of summer is at hand. Besides being widowed at a young age, Jackson had more than the usual 19th century history of young death of siblings and children. Perhaps that undercurrent of loss informed this cold pastoral of a warm month.
Content aside, this poem’s sound is exquisite, with assonance and internal rhymes richening it. Many lines break, or can break, in the middle, which I decided to accentuate in my performance. I found it a better poem than its forgotten status and elements of 19th century poetic diction would have it be.
The player gadget to play my musical performance of Helen Hunt Jackson’s “August” is below for some of you. If you don’t see that player, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to play the performance. I’ve been working with some larger arrangements and noisier stuff in the past week, so it was a nice change for me to perform this piece with only acoustic guitar and a little subdued bass. Besides my music, I added one extra line of my own at the end of Jackson’s sonnet, my small exchange writ in water from one unknown poet to another.
*Oh, there’s those little matters of differences in talent and level of innovation. But let’s leave that off for now.
**I am noticing much less birdsong in this dry August from the dawn choirs of let’s say June.
I’m much enamored of this clip where Jack Kerouac appears on Steve Allen’s show on network television. This happened in 1959 when there was only triune TV culture in America —and less than that, there were often only two sides to things. Allen is going to open here by taking the side that Kerouac was an authentic writer of merit. The other side? Kerouac was a tiresome imposter best able to fool young people, who of course didn’t know any better.
Nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old. I think of Walt Whitman. I even think of old Walt Whitman the father we never found. I think of Walt. Whitman.
At around two and a half minutes into the clip, Allen and Kerouac have this interchange:
Allen starts it by asking “Who else writes poetic type prose, Thomas Wolfe I guess…”
“Walt Whitman” Kerouac quickly responds.
“Uh, huh.” Allen laughs, perhaps thinking Kerouac was making ironic reference to the criticism that free verse was really prose not deserving of being called poetry.
“His Specimen Days…” Kerouac then repeats this for emphasis. He really wants to get a plug in — not for his book, but for this lesser-known Whitman book.
“Oh, I thought you were putting me on there. All right, we’ll look into that.” Allen says.
This is all prelude, what follows is Kerouac reading to a jazz combo backing with Allen apparently playing live on piano and meshing well. You may or may not like that sort of thing, but if you’ve stuck around here, you probably at least tolerate it. Me? It gets me, every time I view it, when Kerouac comes to the part where he reads “In Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out…” Kerouac, the East Coast guy who traveled back and forth to the West Coast, had some notice, some feelings of that state in-between* that was not either/or. It’s a coincidence, but Iowa is where I would have been in 1959, not necessarily crying — or not, for sure, not. I’d be looking then at those night stars from Iowa ground, the sky that Kerouac says he can see in New Jersey, remembering his Iowa nights.
So, as that filmed interchange left off promising to do in 1959, let’s look into Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days. Today’s piece is Whitman, looking at his ground, his water, his skies, on a hot summer day in a section of his book titled “A July Afternoon by the Pond.” Here’s a link to the full text on which I based my performance. One can easily see what Kerouac drew from Specimen Days. Whitman’s consciousness is free-flowing** and seems informal, off the cuff. Yet it takes care to catalog a lot of the moment it’s describing at length. There’s no legendary telegraph paper roll, but Whitman does roll on without pause or paragraph. Spontaneous Bop Prosody before its time? Close enough.
I’ll leave you with one more light by which you can read or listen to this piece. Whitman wrote and collected Specimen Days while he was dealing with the aftereffects of a stroke. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been working on a theme of infirmities recently. That infirmity is not indicated in “A July Afternoon by the Pond,” but Whitman, in his convalescence, prescribed for himself a heavy dosage of nature observation. A young person could have seen this pond, but the man who included this piece in his late-career book, was an older man. The eternity the Whitman here sees in the natural world is not the eternity of innumerable afternoons to come as it might be for a young person, but instead the observation of age and infirmity, that of an ongoing nature that will be there after he’s gone, mysterious and as yet unsolved. I love Whitman’s final two words here: “Who knows?” He doesn’t expect you to solve it either, only to share the mystery with him.
**More so than my performance includes, for reasons of length and production schedules. I had one musical track down when I recorded my performance of Whitman’s words, and found that I had to rush the text too much to get it all in. Rather than re-record the musical foundation or damage the groove of the words, I ended up editing Whitman’s text on the fly, leaving out some of the digressions.
***As it happens, in the end I didn’t use the musical track that caused me to trim back some of Whitman’s digressions. What you will hear is a two-part improvisation (based on the chord structure of the excluded track) that I recorded to respond to my reading of the words, much as Steve Allen needed to respond to Kerouac in the video clip above. The two instruments are a hollow-body electric guitar and the distinctive voice of my Fender Squier Bass VI, an electric bass that includes two higher pitched strings above the usual four for a bass, giving it access to a baritone guitar range here. Using that facility, there are some high F notes in this piece, played on this bass, that are not available (other than as harmonics) on a conventional bass.