The most popular Parlando Project piece for Summer 2019 is…

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….

Carl Sandburg in living black and white

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!

 

Parlando Project Summer 2019 Top Ten part 3

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.

 

Indian Pipes and 1st Edition of Dickinsons Poems

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.

I started off this project in 2016 with a Sandburg-based audio piece which also served as a memorial for David Bowie; and for the 3rd anniversary of that launch I used this Sandburg poem as a memorial to my late wife who died near the beginning of this century.

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.

The text of “For You” is here if you’d like to read along.

 

 

 

 

*”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.

Do Not Frighten the Garden

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.

So a little over a month ago I’m reading this August post and poem of his, “A Herd of Watermelon,”  and one couplet attracted me so much, I started writing my own poem immediately, which now has become this post and piece: “Don’t Frighten the Garden.”

Melon Cattle and the Infinate Surrealist

 

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:”

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.

August Moonrise

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 Teasdale2

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.*

NY Times Teasdale Death Story

Teasdale: not waving, but drowning

 

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.

Summer Silence

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.

E E and John W Cummings

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.

Summer Silence as originally published

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 Fly

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.

Songs_of_Innocence_and_of_Experience_THE_FLY

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.

London In July

This is another time where I present a piece by a lesser-known writer, though one who seemed to be on her way to overcoming artistic and social obstacles in the 1880s. Amy Levy was something of a prodigy, publishing work in her teenage years, achieving admission to Cambridge (only the second person of Jewish heritage to do so), and then while in her 20s carving out a career in journalism, fiction, and poetry. A feminist*, she had made connections with the cadre of those that would soon be called “New Women,” and Oscar Wilde was impressed by her keen powers of social observation and sharp concise prose.** In quick succession she wrote and published two novels and two books of poetry that seemed well enough received.

Of course, she had obstacles, not just the universal ones of art, but the additional burdens of anti-Semitism, misogyny, and what appears to be a lesbian orientation, which only makes her achievement as she reached the age of 27 seem just that much more impressive.

Amy Levy

Amy Levy “Talkative, good-looking in a way, and full of the restlessness of the unhappy.”

 

At that point she had completed another novel, and in the summer of 1889 she was working on reviewing the proofs of her third book of poetry “A London Plane Tree.”  The poems, if not exactly avant-garde, were spare and modern enough that they wouldn’t sound outdated in the coming century.

A London Plane Tree

The front piece of the original 1889 edition of this book of Levy’s poems. Does anyone know what structure is pictured?

 

Today’s piece, “London In July,”  is from that collection. It’s a love poem, a common enough subject, and its language is plain and unshowy, but consider what is being described. It starts by saying that the poet thinks her senses are “cheating,” that they cannot be relied on to represent reality. “All the people” she sees in London (presumably men and  women) appear to her as having one person’s face.

The second stanza/verse hints at what face she’s seeing on everyone. It’s just a dirty-patina urban London summer day, but against this background, among the millions in the metropolis, she sees only what she must see: her beloved. She reminds us, her beloved is a London resident, she doesn’t leave for a country stay even in the heat of July.

In the third stanza, this situation has become a puzzle, a maze, and the size of the city a “waste,” as she only wishes to be were her beloved is.

And the city’s crowds, wearing the beloved’s face, are mocking the poet. Crying out to others in the crowd and market, yakking on about perhaps where they’d like to be rather than in the hot city this July: beside some rural stream, or at the seaside. The poet concludes: I’m not leaving, this city contains her. Hidden somewhere in its essence and hot summer, there is my beloved.

Perhaps the most striking thing, beyond the hallucinatory picture that is being painted here***, particularly to audiences in 1889, would be the same-sex desire that seems plainly part of this poem.**** That’s masked by having me perform it.

So how did audiences respond to that? How did Amy Levy deal with that response? Alas, that’s masked too. After completing her review of the proofs, but before the book was printed, she died by intentionally inhaling coal-gas in her room as the coroner judged it: “Under the influence of a disordered mind.”

I once again remind you that the first duty of an artist is to survive.

For a fairly simple musical concept I had trouble realizing the performance of this one. A pair of violas and three violins establish the cadence of the piece, playing unison lines in various registers, but then the electric bass plays a line that doesn’t consistently relate to the bowed strings key-center or root notes. I was trying for an unsettled rub between the bass and the strings. At one point I had an acoustic guitar part that tried to tie those two parts together, but I couldn’t execute it well enough, and conceptually I think it may work better to leave the contrast between the bass and strings unresolved. I’m past the point of deciding now, you decide. To hear it, click the player below. The text of the poem, is here.

 

 

 

*Her first major work was a poem presented in the voice of Xantippe, the wife of Socrates who appears there to have founded mansplaining alongside philosophy.

**Among her crew: Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl) and Beatrice Webb, a founder of the Fabian society and the London School of Economics. She met Thomas Hardy and during the summer of 1889 she met Yeats who wrote later that Amy Levy was “Talkative, good-looking in a way, and full of the restlessness of the unhappy.”

***Part of what drew me to “A London Plane Tree”  was a description of the poetry within as being an early example of Symbolist poetry in English. In terms of poetic language, I can’t quite see that yet, but some of the mood and sensibility in the pieces connects.

****Other than a frankly lesbian reading (which seems supported by biographical info) the only other reading I can see would be an esoteric one, similar to those that see a level in “The Song of Solomon”  where the beloved is an incarnation of Israel or a state of union with the divine.