Can we accept a little fall-off from Rilke last time to something I wrote?
As long-time readers here know, the Parlando Project is about “Other People’s Stories.” Dave and I both write words as well as music, but I find it interesting to examine how I experience other people’s words, other people’s outlooks and visions. This project’s focus for the past four years has been an exploration—often into writers I didn’t know, or writers that I, and perhaps you as well, think we know because of what we have been told about them.
I was able to run this piece past a fine poet Kevin FitzPatrick,* before it reached the form you’ll read/hear today. He noted that I was working in my Frank O’Hara mode, and he’s right. For me in my 20s, O’Hara helped me integrate the French Surrealists with the American mode of Carl Sandburg,** with a Modernist touch of exoticism I’d retained from love of the English Romantics.
I had to remind Kevin that a big influence on this poem was his own poetry, about which a reviewer once said included so many “poems with other people in them.” Why, oh why, is that so rare? How many poems are about the poet’s own head space or solitary meditation on nature? Of course, that landscape can’t be avoided. And yes, some very good poetry can be written in that less populated country. Readers here will know how much I’ve come to admire what Emily Dickinson did. Though we now know that her life was not entirely that cloistered myth that once was used to define her, does her extraordinary corpus of poetry ever include another human character speaking for themselves?
So, my poem starts out like a nature poem, albeit in an urban setting, and then another character breaks in and changes the poem. The music I composed and performed seeks to underline that. And a disease pandemic is, after all, a natural metaphor for our separation.***
A long poem for me these days. Some thought it could be shorter and some thought it could include even more detail . They’re both right, but that’d be another poem I decided.
In the text of the poem I use an epigraph from Frances Darwin Cornford’s“To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train.” Dave wondered if that might put off some readers. His concern has merit. Cornford’s poem (better known in Britain) is an earworm best known for being disliked. I have not seen anything from Cornford about what her intent was with the poem, and perhaps she had little conscious intent, thinking of it only as a catchy triolet. However, I think it’s a kind of pointed failed encounter and is written as such.
As I said above, the music here tries for contrast, with acoustic guitar and then drums and bass with a smattering of woozy strings and distant woodwinds. The composer in me isn’t sure the composition or the performer achieved all of his intent. The middle section may be taken at too fast a tempo. My late father who hated poetry read too fast would certainly think so. But I remind myself that plenty of modern spoken/chanted word is taken at a rapid pace, so maybe not.
The player gadget is below, so you can listen and decide for yourself. Stay well, valued readers and listeners!
*Alternative Parlando voice and keyboardist, Dave Moore had some helpful suggestions on it too.
**I don’t know what O’Hara thought of Sandburg, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t favorable. Sandburg might have seemed too straight, and too yokel. But Sandburg was working often in the mode of Whitman and Hart Crane which O’Hara also was (along with O’Hara’s French language influences).
How do we determine what a poem is on about? That this should be a question is a reason many flee poetry. Plainspoken poems still exist, and some poets manage to pull off the technique where there’s an easily accessible layer, and then on further consideration, deeper ones beckoning beneath. But the plainspoken poems are not always honored in the school anthologies that introduce growing minds to the art; and too many when introduced to deeper readings fall away from poetry thinking that either they “just don’t get it” or that those pointing out these subtleties are hallucinating angels and cows in cloud forms.
Even a poet like Robert Frost who was able to pull off that trick of relatable surface and deeper, more complicated undercurrents, must suffer from party boors like myself reminding trapped conversation subjects that “The Road Not Taken” is about the over-consideration of choice not the necessity of stalwart individualism. Damn, the listener thinks, looking for an out, “I thought I had a poem, my poem, and now this fellow is saying one or the other of us is an idiot or a fool.”
There’s another route, another signpost that may help, one couched in the informal phrase “Where are you coming from?” Given that literature in our age has been to a large degree taken over by memoir,* we may employ this tactic as readers or listeners. In this frame, poets are about their lives, and in an even more contained sense, about the important facts of their lives: a trauma, a struggle, a novel life story.
So, I promised I’d get to Rainer Maria Rilke. Last month I started to translate his poem “Before Summer Rain” from the original German. I sometimes do my translations before reading existing English ones. I’m not sure if that is a good idea, but I like the surprise of a poem coming into view for the first time as I work out the language. I finished a draft of it, and then found two or three other English translations in short order.
My “Before Summer Rain” that I could view when this draft was done was a fairly light, fairly clever nature poem about the onset of a thunderstorm. Summer, leaves are all green—then sunlight, perhaps even the chromatic range of the light’s color, takes on a new cast. A bird calls, but we sense it more as a warning omen or a call for others of its species as the storm brews. Inside the house, sunlight no longer illuminates things. Will it storm or will it not quite reach ignition and fade off? A few drops or a deluge? The poem ends.
Right away I doubted my translation in light of the others. I didn’t get the picture entirely wrong, but a couple of significant details diverged, ones that seemed to take the poem elsewhere. Here’s a link to the most common English translation I found. The translation is by Edward Snow, though almost none of the Internet sites that use his work credit him. Snow published his translation in 1991. He’s an award-winning translator who concentrates on Rilke’s poetry—plenty of reasons to respect Snow’s authority on the accuracy of his Rilke. Other than our differing attempts to make compelling English poetry from Rilke’s German, here are the two things that stuck out.
The end of Rilke’s German line “man denkt an einen Hieronymus” (literal: “one thinks of a Hieronymus”) is in Snow’s, and I think every other English translation I found, translated as “St. Jerome.” This indicates strongly that is how the word would be understood in German, and Hieronymus is the Greek version of the name Jerome. This may be problematic for the poem, however. Assuming that the more knowledgeable translators are correct, this leaves many readers in the dark. What the hell does St. Jerome have to do with this reasonably vivid and non-allusive description of an oncoming storm?** In my first complete draft I thought it better to leave it Greek, which would be mysterious in a more mysterious as opposed to a “what the…” way. My second choice, the one I used by the time of my performance, was to use the literal translation of the name from Greek: “sacred name.” This increases an immediate sense of the moment being described by Rilke. The bird’s call is so urgent, so important, that the sacred is invoked.
OK, if I’m going to worry about a single word, what next? The concluding two lines of Rilke’s poem in German are: “das ungewisse Licht von Nachmittagen, / in denen man sich fürchtete als Kind.” (literal: “the uncertain light of afternoons, / in which one was afraid as a child.” Snow renders these as “the chill, uncertain sunlight of those long / childhood hours when you were so afraid.” I had a completely different sense in my draft, that it was still the external object, the changing light of the summer afternoon threatening to storm, that was being depicted. In poetry the observer, the poem’s speaker, and the object may often be merged, but Snow says this is not just an oncoming storm, this is a trigger of something darker than even that. Snow seems to add “chill,” which I can’t find in Rilke’s German, to intensify that sense.
I had read the poems mood as mostly light, mostly clever. Snow had read it, I think, as darker, more chilling. A day or so later I started to think. Did Rilke suffer some kind of childhood abuse?
And so, just in trying to do a translation, trying to figure out what a poem was on about—so that I could bring you an audio performance of a piece that otherwise wouldn’t exist, I found myself thinking I had two roads: throw out my attempt at translation as a misleading embarrassment, or dig more into Rilke’s life.
Turns out I knew even less than I thought. I had this sense of a lean, sickly, aesthete melding art and spirituality, a purist willing to risk lyrical excess. In looking at the highlights of Rilke’s life, it’s stranger than that. I began to think Midwesterner Don Marquis would have made of Rilke something of his poet character Fothergil Finch in his Hermoine and Her Little Group of Serious Thinkers satire. But Rilke’s childhood did have elements that we, and he, might view as abusive.
Rilke age 4 dressed by a mom who missed a dead daughter, and Rilke age 11 sent off to military school to butch-up by his dad. Yes, 19th century children’s clothes are a different sensibility, and some kids respond to a disciplined and regimented life. Rilke didn’t seem to, and his teen years in the school were not good, clashing with the other students who were more into it.
And so I concluded, I needed to revise my translation or abandon it.
Then yesterday I had a chance to record with acoustic guitar, and I grabbed a few things that might work presented that way. I thought, “Before Summer Rain” needs revised words, but maybe I can compose the music while I’m at it, and I could record the revised words later.
The tune came fast. The chord progression has similarities to a strain used in Ray Davies Kinks’ song “Rainy Day in June” (another song about sudden summer rain), but given that I had access to a quiet room where I could record acoustically, I decided I’d go all the way and use an even quieter nylon-string guitar available there.
Nylon-string guitar might bring various things to mind: “classical guitar,” Willie Nelson, Latin American music. I’ll often associate it with two things: learning to play guitar on a J C Penny’s nylon string guitar in my youth, and the early albums of Leonard Cohen where Cohen would play his “one lick” effectively on nylon string guitar. Testing the melody against the existing words, I recorded a couple of takes, while trying to reacquaint myself with the different sound of nylon strings.
There, with live mics and the recorder running, I realized I had already written the translation that could bring out the personal darkness, the undercurrents of childhood abuse, with my version of Rilke’s words. It was simply a matter of performance.
You can hear the performance below with the player gadget.
*I don’t object to this except to the degree that as a contrarian by sensibility, I don’t want any mode or approach to become so predominant without at least asking what else could be done. This is part of the reason that this project has been focused on “Other People’s Stories” and isn’t as much about a personal journey (though those elements can’t be avoided).
**Wikipedia’s entry for St. Jerome, who I only knew as the man credited for translating the Bible into Latin (then the common language of educated Europeans) includes an anecdote about the guilt-ridden Jerry after a night of too much party trying to atone by visiting Rome’s dark catacombs to commune with the decaying bodies of apostles and martyrs. Major goth points, and possibly even a reason why he might be mentioned in Rilke’s poem. But how well is this known? I also find it odd that the German to English literal has it “a St. Jerome” if we remove the Greek. Was St. Jerome enough of a big deal meme-wise that you could refer to him as a type, like calling someone “a Judas?”
There used to be a thing, back in the Seventies when “The Sixties” were being established as a retrospective era: “The Beatles or The Stones?” The idea was that this choice, which was supposed to be somehow exclusive, was an “opener,” a what’s your (astrological) sign query that would tell the questioner who you were—or at the least start a conversation.*
Among the smallish subset of 20th century young people who liked poetry in English and were inclined to the Romantic revolution launched by Wordsworth and Coleridge at the beginning of the 19th century, one could play a similar game: “Byron, Keats, or Shelley?”
Sarcastic Byron “Mad, bad and dangerous to know” was the bad boy. Shelley was the beautiful intellectual, the man whose genetic material you wanted to incorporate. And Keats was the misunderstood outsider, the garageman’s son who presumed words alone could elevate him.
English Romantic poetry’s boy band—choose your poster.
I was easily a Keats man in this forced choice. I’m not sure, but I think Parlando alternate voice and keyboardist Dave Moore was a Byron guy back then. Early supporter of this blog, Daze and Weekes, Shelley. There are no wrong choices there, and when it comes down to it, no necessarily exclusive choices there either.
Keats hasn’t played a lot here in the Parlando Project. I’ve expanded my interests much since my teenaged years, and I guess the English Romantics have fallen back into the pack of poetic schools as I moved on to other things. Coincidence can bring Keats back though.
Unheard music will Not Fade Away! John Keats and his “Chirping” Crickets.
Last weekend I hesitantly went to the newly reopened Minneapolis Institute of the Arts with my family. It was my wife’s idea, a way she hoped would be fairly safe in these Covid-19 times and still get us out of the house. She wanted to see a special exhibit on the immigrant experience. I thought I’d like to review their Chinese section.**
I may well write about the immigrant exhibit later, but the reason I wanted to do a bit of a wander in the Chinese wing was from my recent presentations of 8th century Tang dynasty poets here: Du Fu, Wang Wei, and Li Bai. As it turns out the holdings are a bit lacking in artifacts from that time. While this was a golden age for classical Chinese culture, that might not have carried over to the tastes or availabilities of objects to Western collectors.
But as I wandered the hall, I noticed something that had persisted in Chinese culture for centuries that I hadn’t encountered before. Beside a large, lacquered Chinese string instrument (the size of a pedal-steel guitar), there was a note that Chinese interest in music extended to modifying pet crickets vibrating wing edges with metallic powders and resins to increase the qualities of the cricket’s song. That grabbed this music-nerd’s interest! I started to examine other displays: there were cages and holders for pet crickets, tiny dishes in cricket-scale to feed them, and in one, two tiny wands, like fine detail paint brushes, only finer, the brush a single small hair. These, the note told us, were cricket ticklers designed to encourage the insects to start their music.***
Beatles or Stones? Qin, songbirds, or crickets? The sort of things that a Chinese scholar might have in China during the time of Keats.
I’d already been looking at Emma Lazarus’ summer sounds poem before this trip, with its pairing of cricket-chirp with far-off children’s laughter. And then I found this slight little sonnet by John Keats, another one with crickets. My favorite short Keats poem, “In the Drear-Nighted December” is a fine quasi-Buddhist meditation on suffering depicted as an appreciation of a frozen winter water-run. This one, “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket” doesn’t strike my heart as strongly, but it’s still charming in comparing warm days and winter. This one has almost a Midwestern tang to it. I could see James Whitcomb Riley or Paul Laurence Dunbar writing it. The humble man in nature noting the grasshopper’s**** song even in the hottest summer days, and the comparison of the like sound of a housebound cricket chirping behind a wood stove in darkest winter.
The player gadget to hear my performance of John Keats’ “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket” is below.
*Don’t ask a music-nerd like me this question. Yes, I understand the points it’s attempting to weigh, but I won’t be able to resist spilling out mini-improvised essays on The Animals, The Yardbirds, The Zombies, The Kinks and so on, and then I’ll interrogate the now exhausted and bored questioner about how these exotic British acts are viewed as “saving” us from Bobby Rydell et al, when Afro-American jazz and R&B artists—right on the other side of town in a lot of cases here in the U.S. —were doing vital work then that inspired these Brits. You can see I’m no fun at parties now, can’t you.
**Like some American museums that date from the late 19th century, Asian art was a significant part of the MiA collection. A significant number of wealthy collectors then were interested in the “exotic east.”
***There’s more I learned. Besides keeping them as pets and enjoying their music, cricket fights were a broad Chinese cultural thing as well, and because a full-formed cricket’s life span is but a few months even without visits to the Disabled List, an entire industry rose up in the capture of crickets for song and sport, with a hunting season in August and September gathering the most from the wild.
****Despite their somewhat similar appearance and sounds, the cricket makes its spiccato with its wing-edges, the grasshopper with its legs. I plucked a 12-string guitar and had double-basses provide some heavy late-summer air for this piece, but probably the most cricket-like sounds in the recording are from a marimba. The old saw says that if you take the number of cricket chirps in a quarter-hour and add 40 to it you’ll get the temperature in Fahrenheit. If so, this is a fairly cool bpm cricket.
Some poets, like some musicians, suffer from the “one hit wonder” syndrome, and Emma Lazarus is surely one of them. Lazarus is forever tied to a sonnet “The New Colossus,” the one that includes the line “Give me your tired, your poor…” which has not only been made part of The Statue of Liberty, but has become an unofficial idealized civic document of America’s relationship to immigrants and refugees.
Which might make you think that Lazarus’ family was part of that great American immigration wave of the 19th and early 20th century. Not so. Her family were 17th century immigrants to New York State, via a bank shot from Portugal to Brazil, as Jewish heritage peoples fleeing the aftermath of the Inquisition.
That someone had to have written this well-known poem is self-evident, but it hasn’t really made Lazarus’s work beyond “The New Colossus” subject to much study or readership.* Today’s piece “Long Island Sound,” another sonnet by Lazarus, has been passed around on blogs and poetry sites a bit though, so let’s see what we have. Here’s a link to the full text of “Long Island Sound” if you’d like to read along.
It’s a nature poem, a somewhat ecstatic one without resort to explicit words labeling emotion. I note one or two darker notes in the catalog of images of an August day that add shade to this summer ease: a “grave sky” appears here, and unless that’s a foreshortened “engraved” for meter’s sake, a summer storm may be forthcoming. The imagery raises to a superior level at times for me. The far-off sail “white as a crescent moon” is good, the tide’s sound on sand rendered as a “lisp” and the children linked with crickets is even better, and the “clouds fantastical as sleep” sticks with me even after several readings. Did Lazarus intend the pun on the word “sound?” I hope so.
I also like the ending. As I’ve learned, Lazarus’ family was well-off, but the persona in the poem is not specifically of any class or wealth. I can recall a summer working at a small factory in Mamaroneck, and a weekend afternoon watching a friend of a friend’s father sail his one-man boat out in the lower part of the Long Island Sound while we on the shore had the free talk and association of those without money for much of anything else. This poem’s Winslow Homer-ish landscape requires only the poet’s ownership of attention to claim it.
Since this is a painting by Winslow Homer, you won’t be able to hear the water lisping on the sand or crickets chirping amid the sound of distant children.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Emma Lazarus’ “Long Island Sound” is below. A short and jaunty one today.
*No worse than any other 19th century American woman poet who isn’t Emily Dickinson I guess. Lazarus is not the poetic innovator that Dickinson was, but she shares a few traits with Dickinson: her family was well-off, allowing her some privileged resources, she never married, she was something of a follower and admirer of Emerson (for at least awhile), and like Dickinson she knew Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
Before I reveal the most listened to piece during this just past summer, indulge me in a little “shop talk” as I report a few things about how the listenership for the audio pieces and readership for this blog have been going this summer.
Listenership on the audio continues to be somewhat volatile. June’s listenership was pretty good, July’s was excellent, and then August’s listenership fell to average at best, and early September followed that August trend.
This could just be “noise in the signal.” Or it could say something about seasonal variations in listenership. Spotify Parlando audio piece listenership (which I get broken out separate from those that listen on the player in the blog posts and those who catch the audio pieces on podcast services like Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Player.fm etc.) didn’t follow the pattern, rising throughout the summer. Spotify has just started allowing their podcast audio to be added to playlists with the newest version of it’s mobile app, and this could help in the future, as it’s a convenient way to collect favorites (or to be honest, skip the ones you don’t care for).
And that last factor could be part of it too. It could be that folks just liked the July audio pieces more. My series on Spoon River Anthology, performed particularly poorly in numbers of audio listeners, something I wouldn’t have predicted. I’m comfortable with the thought that the deliberate eclecticism of genres I use will lead to differing responses. Still, the abject listenership failure of what I think of personally as one of my best pieces: August’s “Fiddler Jones” from that Spoon River series kind of bummed me out. Oh well, pieces sometimes get a second wind once they enter the long tail of our archives. Maybe that one will.
For a guy who likes data, the readership of this blog has a completely different trendline. That’s been on an upward slope ever since the launch of the blog, and then last April we had a huge readership jump during our U.S. National Poetry Month celebration, nearly doubling our best previous month’s readership. Readership held up all summer, and August, the same month that disappointed for listenership, set a new highest readership. There’s a week to go yet in September, and it’s already second only to that new readership high, and on track to surpass it before the month ends. Go figure…
So what was the most popular piece this past summer?
Back Yard by Carl Sandburg. Well this piece does sound pretty good too, and Sandburg is deserving of this level of attention. Not only does Sandburg not get enough credit for the Imagist integrity of his early 20th century verse, but this poem is lovely sounding. Sandburg’s “Back Yard” is ready to take the fixative of the silver moon rain and change into a moment, which then changes into another moment—always still, always changing. Always still, always changing. Ah, life….
Americana artist looks to break through with his hip voicing of the Fsus chord
Things I find odd about how Sandburg has been judged: first there’s the judgement that he’s just not subtle enough, when I say those critics can’t see the subtleties—which if I’m right, proves my point; and secondly, the evaluation that his poetry is just broken up prose mislabeled as verse. That would be odd, Sandburg has an important secondary career as a popularizer of what we came to call “folk music” in the U. S. and was serious enough about developing his guitar chops that he asked Andres Segovia for a lesson. There’s music behind many a Sandburg poem, like this one, and composers more accomplished than I find it.
It may well be that the word-music of poetry and the music—of well, music—are two separate fields to be judged differently with different instrumentation, rules, and aesthetics. But until this is shown to be surely so, I tend to trust the judgement and tastes of musicians and composers over the judgement and tastes of literary critics and theorists on these matters.
Give a listen to Sandburg’s “Back Yard” with the player below. If you’d like to follow along with the text, you can read it here. And really, thanks for listening and reading along as we encountered music and words here this summer in order to see what we find!
Is everyone aligning themselves with autumn already? Here we’re looking back at summer and the audio pieces that the audience made their most liked and listened to, and we’re getting near the top of the countdown, moving toward the most popular single piece of the past three months. Today we look at numbers 4, 3, and 2.
4. Summer Silence by E. E. Cummings. Another one from our “Before They Were Modernists” series, “Summer Silence” is an early E. E. Cummings poem published when Cummings was a college sophomore at Harvard. One doesn’t usually associate Cummings with constrained poetic forms, but “Summer Silence” was written in 1913 in the Spencerian Stanza form, long before he could have learned from Hawk or Susan.
I try to do the best work I can with recording the music compositions here within the rapid pace I’ve accustomed myself to with this project. My equipment is modest, and my recording engineer’s skills are too, but I make the effort. That said, this one was recorded on a cell phone sitting in a cabin on the North Shore of Lake Superior: just me, an acoustic guitar, and a few summer birds that you can hear at the very end that wanted to enjoy July there too. The text of Cummings’ poem is available in the original post linked in bold above.
3. Higginson’s June by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. From another series, one that started before this summer but carried over into it: “The Roots of Emily Dickinson.” Higginson is essential to the Emily Dickinson story, the literary insider who Dickinson sought out in what I think was an attempt on her part to verify the worth of her unprecedented poetry. They met at least once, but the rest of the relationship was carried on via letters, of which we have only Dickinson’s side of the correspondence.
From Dickinson’s replies and Higginson’s later recounting, it’s been summarized that Higginson “didn’t get it,” thinking that her work needed some further polish to appeal to the mid-19th century public. Here in the 21st century we feel pretty smug about Higginson, thinking him like the infamous record exec who passed on the Beatles.*
Higginson had a highly eventful life outside of the Dickinson connection, as I’ve talked about in another post, but one thing I discovered this year was that Higginson at least dabbled in poetry himself. I can find no context for the poem of his I used here, but I speculated that it could be something he wrote in his youth. Whenever and for whatever reasons he wrote it, it is a good short summer lyric. And coincidentally it’s opening two lines could stand as the better judgment of Dickinson’s genius as it does in his poem for summer.
The music for this one is as electronic as “Summer Silence’s” is acoustic. The text of Higginson’s poem to June is also in it’s original post bolded above.
Higginson wrote the preface and helped edit and promote the publication of the first collection of Dickinson’s poems two years after her death. The flowers on its cover are usually called Indian Pipes and they were said to be a favorite of Dickinson’s. It’s a truly odd summer plant, which my living wife found and photographed in Northern Minnesota this year. The other common name for this translucent apparition: the ghost plant.
2. For You by Carl Sandburg. I kept going back to Sandburg this summer, and you the readers and listeners came along with me. Why? I frankly find him healing.
That either of those Sandburg poems could be used as memorials does not make them passive elegies, and “For You” is future-focused—just as it is full of ghosts. I’m not familiar enough to say how English speakers in the British Isles, in South Asia, the Antipodes, or elsewhere feel of the current times and challenges; but in Sandburg’s America when I read or listen to “For You,” I too feel our ghosts and feel our future—close—even if each are unreal as we stand before the great door of a year with great hinges.
*”Guitar groups are on their way out” is the famous rejection phrase, attributed to Dick Rowe of Decca Records. In Rowe’s defense, Beatles producer George Martin has been quoted that the Decca audition performance was not very good and that he wouldn’t have signed them on the basis of it either. A few months later, Rowe took a tip from George Harrison and signed another of those guitar groups, The Rolling Stones. Sometimes you get a second chance.
Long time readers will know the Parlando Project is generally about the encounter with, and performance with music, of other people’s words. But I have mixed in words I’ve written here from time to time.
Today’s piece combines both threads. I wrote it, but it was engendered by reading another poet who publishes online as well as on paper.
I actually don’t read many poet’s blogs. This is likely because I’m searching through and reading a lot of other poetry that is in the public domain and free for this project to use. So when it comes time to take a break and catch up with other folks in the blogging community, I may be reading about music, history, politics, or visual art. I do follow one blog almost entirely devoted to the blogger’s own poetry: Robert Okaji’s “O at the Edges.”
Okaji posts often, and I’d describe his poetry as solidly in the post-WWII Surrealist tradition. A typical* Okaji poem will have strong lines with images often formed from opposites or unlikely combinations. In many of his poems you may not recognize exactly what he’s getting at, as he often approaches his poems “meaning” in the Surrealist tradition of surrounding it with miscellaneous statements.
I too can stay puzzled by the elusive “meaning”, even though I’ve read a good deal of Surrealist poetry and spent a fair amount of my 20s focused on writing in this manner, and then cautioned readers here that the lyric poetry I most enjoy is not so much about ideas, but the experience of ideas.
In most human writing we’re tasked with being clear, and even in poetry, poets often choose to puzzle us as readers only a little bit, asking readers to focus on only a small set of questions around the meaning in a poem. I happen to believe that the arts work best in multiplicities. Writers that ask readers to puzzle more make the poems that ask readers to puzzle less work better—and vice versa; just as music that avoids expectations and common methods of loveliness makes simpler and more consonant music stronger—and the converse of that too.
And remember, Okaji is a writer of striking images. Outside of the stand-and-deliver classrooms where we are asked to tremble out the “real meaning” of poems, one can simply take pleasure in the thought-music of an image.
You do not have to write Surrealist poetry to treasure the infusion an unexpected, even inexplicable, image can give you. Trying to write poetry without reading poetry is like trying to write music without listening to music. How many times when I’m listening to music do I hear something and suddenly realize: you can do that in music! Okaji’s work may inspire you, even if you do not write in his style.
Magritte had his apples, but Texans go for bigger fruit
Other than Okaji’s image of a herd of watermelon able to bolt, what else did I take from him for inspiration? Well, his scene and scenery has been to some degree Texas-based and I’ve been thinking a little more of Texas myself because my father’s family spent time in that state, and one of his brothers, an uncle of mine who was born in Texas, had just died this summer.
And so my watermelon herd is Texian.
I wrote my first few lines fairly quickly, and the rest of the poem developed over a month or so to full 14-line free-verse sonnet length. The final couplet seemed almost another voice coming in over the air as I composed it. Here I was, happily in Surrealist Texas free-verse land, when all of a sudden an Alexandrine pair of lines breaks in at the end! Did the spirit of Mallarmé know I was coming for him next?
Here’s the text of my poem “Do Not Frighten the Garden:”
I’ve been playing more guitar lately, trying to maintain what I call, in my more pretentious moments, “my technique.” So, surreally, today’s music is orchestral. However, the top line melody was actually played on guitar, which—via the magic of a MIDI pickup—played the violin you hear. I also was able to make effective use of a timpani virtual instrument that’s new to my collection of orchestral colors. Give a listen to it with the player below.
*Okaji is more eclectic in his style than I can briefly outline here. Nor is all of his poetry elusive with its denotative meaning. Among other things I like that he does: English translations of classical Chinese poetry.
I almost feel like I need to place a warning label on today’s piece: Rated RE Strong Romantic Emotional Content. Thanatopsic material. May not be suitable for those who have not sufficiently worked through issues with self-harm or the experience of self-dissolution.
Modernism had a strong tendency toward a critique and reaction to romanticism and its characteristic expression of emotional content. A man viewed as the founder of its English-language poetic wing, T. E. Hulme, wished to set it on a course of completely overturning Romanticism. But those bylaws didn’t always filter down to every chapter and member of the Modernist International. Readers here know I love some of the early Imagist works which are parsimonious with overt emotional words, even while seeking to charge their images with a fresh immediacy. These poems aren’t necessarily devoid of emotion if the reader has it to supply themselves—but then some Modernists, such as E. E. Cummings, were perfectly fine with frank emotional outpourings.
Sara Teasdale, in addition to being largely forgotten for the better part of the last 100 years, was never officially a Modernist, so there’s no movement membership to endanger and no expectations for her to fulfill anymore. She wrote intensely lyrical and musical verse in plainspoken and non-archaic language. That’s a surface shiny enough, devoid of hermetic imagery, and with sweet word-music that makes it too easy to miss what she’s saying.
Sara Teasdale is sick’n’tired of you mentioning how pretty her poems are
I knew this already, having presented Teasdale regularly here. Still, I had to go through a journey to inhabit and grasp this poem for this project. I collected it earlier this summer, seeking to stockpile a few seasonal poems ahead of time to have some on-the-shelf ideas for possible use.
Here’s the full text of the poem. If you skim through it, it looks like a fairly common poem subject: summer night. It might seem to hit the expected points too: hey, summer, it’s nice at night (maybe even better than the heat of afternoon). Plants, trees green and full, explicit birds. A Moon one can linger with long enough that you feel that if you stay the night you could watch it change its phase.
Teasdale can write a poem that seems like that. That’s a problem. It’s too easy to miss what she’s communicating if you leave it at “That’s pretty.” You could use her writing as a case-study in why some of the Modernist tactics that frustrate (or delay) understanding might not be counterproductive. Teasdale gets misunderstood quickly as one passes over the words, while someone like Mina Loy, Tristan Tzara, or Gertrude Stein causes those who won’t care to read carefully and empathetically to not stop in at all.
As I began to read, really read, “August Moonrise,” to figure out how I might perform the words, the last section seemed dark—and not in the pretty moonlight way. Here are some of the words that hit the notes in her word-music after the poem’s midpoint: bitterness, sorrow, death, wavering, blind, fearful, fire, cold, vanish.
Seeing that, I reexamined the opening half for portents. The swallows are rushing, willfully, together and departing from each other. And is their willful act truly willful? Maybe not, it’s like the movement of dark tree leaves. If that was a spare Imagist poem, or a work of classical Chinese poetry, we’d be confronted with that image, asked on no uncertain terms to deal with it. Here you may think it’s so much minor scene-painting.
The scene-painting gets even more painterly next. Sunset, moonrise. The final palette: “a deeper blue than a flower could hold.” Is that merely a beautiful picture or a statement of more blue than can be sustained?
Teasdale’s singer in the poem is drawn in (note, she goes “down,” descends to it, even though the preceding birds, trees, sunset, moonrise are all things normally above the horizon) because it’s her, or because it will become her. The poem reaches—if only briefly—a quasi-orgasmic happiness. One line here: “I forgot the ways of men” is so rich in ambiguity. I could read it three or four ways easily.
This happiness, this intoxicated leaving of all but the senses (however brief) is portrayed as a consolation. Consolation for what?
And then we enter that section that is so full of darkness, loss, imperfection. Is this section spiritually sublime or just harrowing? I think you can play it either way, though I suspect it works best if the other choice is kept as an undertone. Compare this to Laurie Anderson’s childhood account of Buddhist Midwest night skies and the non-necessity of self, the archaic trials of the Lyke Wake Dirge, or to a searing inventory of imperfection, almost a suicide note.*
Teasdale’s concluding couplet is so searing I think it must be performed understated. The crucial word in it, “theft,” says she doesn’t feel in control of this loss of control. Isn’t that frightening? Spending several hours with this text this week, fitting it to music, performing it, thinking about it was a journey, from “Oh, a summer night poem” to a consideration of the sameness and the difference of exceeding the self and end of the self.
So, am I out on a limb here, thinking this a major poem by a too overlooked poet? Has the seeming conventionality of its setting (subverted as it may be), the gender of its author, the musicality of its expression, the unabashed romanticism of its sensibility obscured our view? If this was Rilke translated from the German would we read it differently? If this was Yeats with swans instead of swallows would it matter? If a Cubist ran it through a copier a few times and then cut up all the lines and reassembled it, would we stop long enough to think about it? The issue of Teasdale’s membership or non-membership in Modernism might have seemed germane in the mid-20th century, but to a significant degree it’s immaterial now.
Well, I’ve done it again. Talked about the words so long that there’s no time to dance about the architecture of the music. Thinking about what I said above, I could have cut up and obscured Teasdale’s words rather than a straight recitation I recorded, but the choice I made has its strengths too. I did try to undersell the sensuousness of the lyric in hope it would cause the listener to consider it differently, but the opposite choice works too, for I’ve discovered this gorgeous and emotionally effecting choir setting of “August Moonrise” by Blake Henson that had me in tears this morning. See my comments last post about how my limitations as a singer and no access to alternative skilled singers focuses my composition into other modes.
I intentionally avoid apologizing for my work. I think that’s a good practice. If you think you should do better, do better or do different, instead of talking about it. My approach to “August Moonlight” with a skip-footed motorik beat and an ominous and fateful tone in the reading and music certainly contrasts with Henson. I could even imagine that hearing Henson’s work after considering Teasdale’s darker undercurrents intensifies it, as it did for me today. You can hear my version with the player below.
*There was a point in the production of this piece that I seriously considered abandoning my presentation of “August Moonlight” because of this. Once I could see that element was present in the work (as it is in Teasdale’s life), I felt it shouldn’t be denied if I was to perform it. Many artists deal with feelings of self-harm and because “All artists fail” in the sense of imperfection and producing things farther, rather than “Something nearer your desire.” I hesitate to present work that might feed into that, particularly with a beautiful and romantic sheen to it all. In the end I decided that Teasdale is illuminating that, and if I presented it so that you can consider its danger, it could have value. Henson’s setting makes a choice to emphasize the perception of beauty, the singular hour of atonement, which also would have answered this concern.
I’m trying to get back into the swing of production of audio pieces here, so maybe the best way to get around that is to not “produce” an audio piece. Here’s a field recording I made just south of the Canadian border this month while working out music for E. E. Cummings’ early poem “Summer Silence.”
In normal times I’d probably have added a bass guitar part and perhaps some more instruments. Even the acoustic guitar and vocal that’s present would sound better for not being recorded on a cell phone—but it’s a fair representation of what I was aiming for in the piece and it doesn’t sound terrible or anything. If you listen carefully as the last note fades out you can hear some bird song in the background.
I can’t find out if they’re related: E. E. Cummings and Johnny Ramone (born John W. Cummings). Down sagging air with shimmering bars of sullen silver vs. relentless down-strokes of sullen barre chords.
On the printed page “Summer Silence” looks awfully conventional for an E. E. Cummings poem. It was published when Cummings was a Harvard sophomore in 1913 in a college publication. And as printed there, it contains the sub-title “(Spenserian Stanza)” as if this was possibly an academic exercise in trying Edmund Spenser’s old form. The poem reflects 19th century poetic language somewhat. Though the rhymed and metered lines follow the form, there’s a lot of enjambment and phrases beginning in the middle of the printed line, a hint of Cummings later more scattered pages. The imagery shows tendencies toward the Modernist/Imagist ideal. This might be the experience of a real night. The images in the poem aren’t presented as stock-photo stand-ins for what the poet wants to say even though there’s a bit of emotional adjective-overload here and there which the pure Imagist would excise: “Eruptive” and “sullen” for example.
Today’s poem when first published in the Harvard Advocate in spring 1913 by the 19-year-old E. E. Cummings.
I don’t know that Cummings ever really abandoned those overt romantic and emotional expressions, a tendency to unabashed overstatement rather than pure Modernist show not tell. That’s part of why many like him while others down-rate him. In the end a set of words either work for you or they don’t. Aesthetic theories may give you a different way to look at them, but why should they take away any pleasure they give you?*
I had collected this poem in search of some summer poems to compose music with last month, but then particularly I was able to work on the music after a night with distant heat lightning over Lake Superior in July. This led me to interrogate the night with Cummings’ poem. Out on the edge of the lake the thunder in my night was distant, muffled by windows and walls, a broadcast on the edge of reception. Its intermittent bark highlighted the “panting silence” in-between lit by the avant garde of the heat lightning. My night had no stars, translated or not. Perhaps Cummings’ night had a storm front approaching a less cloudy night on his lake shore?
So, as tardy as I am with more complex productions recorded more formally, the drill for you my valued listener is the same: use the player gadget below to hear my performance of E. E. Cummings’ “Summer Silence.”
*There are answers to that question. I used to know some of them, but I’m old now and have forgotten them. Theories and suggested other ways and contexts to look at poems are still fine with me though, adding another soul’s experience to the artistic transfer may enrich it.
The state I live in, Minnesota, has a reasonable list under “claims to fame.” Lots of lakes, a funny accent, Prince, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis* and Bob Dylan. And bugs.
It may be all that water, Some of the Twin Cities sits on what was once marshland, and even when it forgets that, the bugs have longer memories such that the oldest joke in the state is that the Minnesota State Bird is the mosquito. Farther upstate to our northern forests the most feared animal isn’t the bear or wolf, but the tiny biting gnats and other larger and blood-hungry black fly species. All and all, it’s likely there are no vampires in Minnesota. Too much competition.
I’ll go to English romantic poet, political radical and mystic William Blake for today’s piece “The Fly” from his collection Songs of Experience. Blake’s short poems can be shockingly brief in a way that Emily Dickinson’s sometimes are too. For a simple looking poem with only small and common words, there are numerous commentaries explicating the mystic or philosophic meanings of “The Fly.” It opens with an uncomplicated setup: a fly bugs Blake one summer day, he brushes it away, something a hundredfold mundane. In an impossible way, he says he did this thoughtlessly, as he’s got four more short stanzas packed with thought and meditation.
Here’s the text of the poem as Blake the artist presented it. Toddler Robert Frost in front right is telling the woman that Allen Ginsberg (pretty in pink) is playing badminton without a net again.
For a mere 30 words in two stanzas Blake speaks on the similarities between the insect and himself. In a typical explication of this poem, the first stanza’s shoe-fly act, self-labeled by the poet as thoughtless, is read by those as a swat, killing the fly. But Blake doesn’t describe that as I read it. Instead I read it as a mutual act of interruption. Blake has interrupted the fly who has interrupted him.
The fourth stanza in my reading sums up a value Blake sees in this interaction, a stanza which would be quite obscure if this was indeed a meditation on a sudden death of the fly. The fly’s interruption wasn’t thoughtless after all, it caused thought in Blake.
The “Dance and drink and sing” line is not, or at least not only, a paean to the joys of living. It’s a remark on the superficialities of life for a fly and human, in the Buddhist sense, maya. “Thought is life…and the want of thought is death” is Blake’s precept here. It was good that he and the fly engaged in a momentary summer dialectic. The final stanza is mysteriously balanced. If to think is to live, the unconsidered life is death. The human choice should be then to think, to interrupt thoughtlessness. In the final stanza, is Blake saying that the fly’s insect’s brain cannot choose, and that humans who don’t make their possible choice for thought may be happy flies, but they are not exercising their human potential?
I wonder if Blake was knowledgeable of Socrates and his claim that he must be a gadfly to society, the presenter of bothersome ideas, the interrupter of the thoughtless, or if this was an independent realization. Others certainly borrowed it. Gandhi liked Socrates’ fly thought. Martin Luther King used that gadfly line of Socrates in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” too, and it even inspired the periodical that alternate Parlando reader Dave Moore started up that he called The Gadfly a half-century ago.
Minnesota also had a reputation for political progressivism. Maybe it was the bugs?
I won’t interrupt you long for today’s audio piece, my performance of Blake’s “The Fly.” There’s a player gadget below.
*Literarily, a step down in fame, we also have Robert Pirsig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance living over a shoe-store a couple of blocks away from where I’m typing this, and Robert Bly, he of the deep image and a revised-standard-version of masculinity. Some would even claim John Berryman, an interstate grump who was teaching here when he took a faith or faithless leap off the Mississippi bridge that I once traveled over between my job at a hospital and my last few dollars of college education. I kept walking, and encourage you to do so too.