A July Afternoon by the Pond

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.

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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.

You can hear my performance*** of “A July Afternoon by the Pond”  either of two ways. There’s a player gadget embedded below for some of you. But some ways of reading this blog will not show it, and so I also provide this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab window to play it.

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*One summarized view of Kerouac’s vision of Iowa is collected at this blog link.

**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.

Answer July

It’s time once more to perform the brilliance of Emily Dickinson. Today’s text, “Answer July”  is Dickinson in her seeming simple mode. Read quickly, it might strike one as almost a nursery rhyme or maybe as one of those playful listing or counting folk songs. Here’s a link to the full text of the poem.

But when I looked again, “Answer July”  appears to be a debate or interrogation between nature’s seasons and the consciousness of souls, a rather strange thing to put into such a brief and unfancy piece of poetry. Emily Dickinson loves strange, and if you’re a reader or listener who’s stuck around here, you’re comfortable with it too. What’s being debated here?

It starts with the poem’s speaker — let’s call them Dickinson, though obviously, it’s a creation of Emily Dickinson, and as its creator she knows more than this character — demands of nature’s mid-summer month of July just where certain summer things are. July, like a party in a legal dispute or sidestepping debater replies that the things that would allow it to produce those summer things are not in its control. There could be a supply chain issue, and maybe the real problem is with its supplier: the spring month of May.

Bee in Flower by Heidi Randen

Where is the Bee — Where is the Blush? Got it right here Emily.

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May is called in. “Nay,” says May. Tell me about supply chain issues! I’ve got suppliers too, like winter. Subpoena the jay, a winter bird.

The jay is sworn in. Look I need food in the winter they testify. Where’s the leftover autumn corn, the periods of hazy-thaw less-severe cold, and those burred seeds still in their protective casing? The implication here is that we could next look to question fall, though by now we suspect fall will blame summer. And round and round we would go.*

Dickinson gives us two lines that may be a break in the circle. When July, the first month/season to be questioned ends their reply, I think July suggests that May/spring is not a calendar month, but instead a creature of the questioner in the poem. The syntax is broken and unclear here, so who speaks each word is uncertain — but at the time I performed it, I went with this understanding (in paraphrase): July replies (answering to Dickinson’s opening line of questioning) “You’ve called on me to answer. Well, I’ve got one for you, ‘Where is May?’ Come on, you (thee) answer! Because I know what you should answer when asked about where things spring from: ‘It’s me.” That is, Dickinson, July questioner, is responsible.

I could be wrong on that somewhat convoluted reading. It could also be July saying “If May was here, they could answer your question for you (thee) and for me too.”

And then again, as the poem ends, the jay has a cryptic answer to where it can find its winter sustenance: “Here — said the Year.” Unlike summer, winter seems like a time of scarcity, but nature provides the jay what they need. There the implication is that Dickinson’s original complaint to July about where are the summer things she wants is being answered by the jay saying that nature will provide, if your soul seeks for things rather than asking for it to be summer ample and at every hand. This reading of the last line is what drew me to my more complicated reading of the earlier “Answer Thee — Me —” line. The poet Dickinson is telling the character of the questioner in her poem that it’s not the seasons that provide, it is the soul that seeks that finds. She is her own spring, summer, harvest and survival.

Musically I had some fun with this one. On one hand the harmony is simple, a I V progression, but I used some less-common voicings for the Ab (it’s an AbMaj13) and Db (a DbMaj7) and I played sitar.**  Why not! Emily loved strange, and if you’ve stuck around here this summer, you have to have some tolerance for that. The player gadget will appear below for some of you, but don’t ask July where it is if you don’t see the player. Instead, click this highlighted hyperlink, which will open an new tab-window and play my musical performance of “Answer July.”

 

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*Once again, I’m working on my theory that Emily Dickinson’s sharp intelligence was surrounded by a family that worked as lawyers, and that may have provided a frame for some of her poetry. As I write this there happen to be many supply chain issues ascribed to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and other causes, but neither legal precedents nor logistical savvy is the real subject for this poem, rather it’s about a Transcendentalist understanding of how the soul must partner with nature.

Emily Dickinson herself was also a gardener and the Dickinson household raised a wide variety of food and feed crops. Any farmer or gardener knows that it’s not just the calendar page that brings in food and crops, but effort and seeking.

**Well, not exactly. I’ve never owned a real sitar. I have owned an electric sitar with a plastic rounded bridge that sought to emulate their buzzy sound. I’ve used MIDI “virtual instruments” that allow a guitar or keyboard to play sitar notes with attempts at following sitar articulations. Today’s piece uses a Line6 Variax guitar that has a sitar sound setting, and it tracks guitar string vibrato precisely, a necessity for this piece’s main sitar line motifs.

The Dragonfly

This summer, amid the seasonal lower traffic volumes for The Parlando Project, I’ve been featuring some uncharacteristic pieces where Dave Moore or I have written the words as well as the music. But today we’ll return to the proper mix, using a text by English Victorian poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson.

I saw today’s text first over at Kenne Turner’s blog, where it was included as a short stand-alone lyric poem entitled “The Dragonfly”  in the midst of a series of excellent  photos of varieties of this creature.  Here’s a link to that post which will also let you read the text I used. Other blogs have published the same text under this title, and I assumed it was a uncharacteristic very short nature poem by Tennyson. Let me thank Kenne for bringing this poem to my attention.

Long-time readers here will know I like concise poetry, and this one, so concentrated in its charged notice of this strange yet charismatic insect in a moment of transition captured my interest immediately. Earlier this month I performed “The Dragonfly”  along with Dave playing keyboards, and you’ll be able to hear how it came out below. Sure, it is a Victorian poem, though not excessively so. Just a few words might need 21st century explanation. That “sapphire mail” is the insect’s chitin exoskeleton portrayed as if armor, not a blue envelope delivered by some postman. “Crofts” is something of a Britishism and means a humble field. The moment Tennyson seems to be describing is the ending of the years-long nymph stage of the dragonfly, as the mature winged insect splits open its old hard exoskeleton emerging a moist new winged creature. In checking on the zoology of this, I read that dragonflies spend the majority of their life as immature, wingless, nymphs before becoming the strange fascination that we see, and only then think: dragonfly.

I’ve mentioned infirmities and transformations a good deal this summer, and I thought this transformation more clearly ecstatic in nature, and that it would be a good break from the more gothic material I’ve been working on recently.

So there I was, I had this text, cloaked in language and poetic diction that said “Victorian,” but also prophetically Imagist in its concise approach. I had music to perform it with, and then a decent recording that brought it into existence.

Dragon at the Door 1080

Summer, time to fly thro crofts wet with dew, and not just more screen time.

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Then today, I decided to see what else I could say about this poem when I present it here. It was then that I found that it may never have been intended as a short poem, but was instead part of a long, very philosophic poem by Alfred Tennyson called “The Two Voices.”   Here’s a link to that text. When I say philosophic, that might sound a bit bloodless, but Tennyson’s own working title was “The Thoughts of a Suicide”  — and no, that’s not a literary plot, like “The Lady of Shalott.”   It appears* that “The Two Voices”  is something of a less-favored and less fully-achieved early attempt at the matter that produced what is thought of as Tennyson’s masterpiece “In Memoriam AHH.”   So, “The Dragonfly”  a simple nature poem? No, nature isn’t simple, even if beautiful. The matter Tennyson was grappling with was the unexpected death of his friend, supporter, and literary compatriot, Arthur Hallam, at the age of 22.

It would be appropriate to insert your favored curse word here. I’m an old man. The death of folks I know, then knew, is a commonplace of age, and painful, though touched too by a strange partnering with an idea that death is closer to me — if only demographically at this moment. But young, brilliant, helpful, a man with whom, it is recalled, would fall and roll down in the grass with the similarly young Tennyson, overcome by paroxysms of laughter at some bit of passing humor — how can one express that kind of loss?

Imagism says that you can enclose that unexpected death of a vibrant and cherished youth inside a short poem, made up of a moment of exacting and clarifying observation; a poem that is furthermore modest in its emotional expression and that doesn’t say what something like that event feels — showing instead what one examines with our two, small, dark eyes, our meager allotment compared to the giant multitudes of eyes that make up most of the dragonflies’ head.

Can it do that? I don’t know. Interesting to try. I sensed only this mysterious/glorious transformation when I first read “The Dragonfly”  excerpted from it’s longer setting in “The Two Voices.”   I really did intend for it to be a bit of a break here, but I’m left with informing you of my honest experience of this poem as I do regularly in this Project.

For some, the player gadget will appear below to hear The LYL Band perform Tennyson’s “The Dragonfly.”  Don’t see a player? Turns out a lot of ways to read this blog won’t show that, so I provide this highlighted hyperlink to open a new tab window and play it as well.

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*Given that I’ve only seen Tennyson’s “The Two Voices”  in its entirety this afternoon, I’m not able to tell you more about it other than what I’ve quickly gathered. Victorian poetry doesn’t generally attract my attention, even if most of the Modernists that do attract me grew up during the Victorian era, and, even in rebellion, would be impacted by it.

Hortensia

This has not been a month conducive to producing new content for this project, and I’m not sure about July and August either. At some point I’ll probably talk about some of the reasons for that, but I thought it’d be good to leave you with one more June piece, and it’s a fine summer song by a voice this project hasn’t heard from enough lately: Dave Moore.

Dave and I first performed as The LYL Band about 40 years ago, and we’ve kept at it over the years. Our typical encounters this century have been a sort of two-person song circle with each of us alternating in presenting a song, a piece most often completely new and unknown to the other. These first takes* get recorded, and one of them is today’s audio piece.

First takes with unknown material is not the way most bands work, and certainly not how they record. Bob Dylan worked with unknown, fresh material and new-to-it musicians in his classic years (and may still now, there’s just less documentation), often providing at best chord charts for assembled musicians or brief run-throughs. But Dylan would do multiple takes even trying different studios or musicians over time, trying get the right take.

It’s not uncommon for jazz musicians to do the same thing we do in their recording studio dates, though some feel that even with Jazz’s reverence for spontaneity that this is a practice brought forward for logistical and lowered recording-budget overhead reasons, not as a considered artistic choice. Miles Davis seemed to find this practice a considered choice though, and when one listens to a record such as Kind of Blue  we are likely to give some credit to that choice, which Bill Evans likened to spontaneous Japanese painting in the original LP liner notes. Later on, Davis took to the pentimento-practice of having everyone improvising on themes and then letting later audio editing assemble from the mass of recorded playing a post-recording compositional structure. A record like Davis’ A Tribute to Jack Johnson  assembled that way has a different vibe and timbre from Kind of Blue,  but it works for me in its different way.

Are Dave and I musicians like Davis and his band members? No. Nor are we musicians likely to be called to a Bob Dylan session (note to Bob: call us anyway). Most of what we record on any one day isn’t worth more than a self-critical listen on our own parts. And of the rest? There are usually rough spots that even a bit of focused audio editing can’t excise. And then, sometimes something like “Hortensia”  arrives.

If you accept (as I say often here) that all artists fail, then it can sometimes behoove one to make peace with failure. Do that, and then allow, then make possible, for the limited successes to arrive.

I often tend to overstate my guitar parts. I didn’t here. Dave’s keyboard skills at the time of the recording get some space, and while he’s not going to kick Bill Evans or Herbie Hancock to the curb, what he plays works. Dave’s vocals are usually more consistent than mine by a long shot, and his performance serves the song. I think Dave may have even improvised some of these lyrics during the performance — and this is the only performance of this song ever.  And that serves the song too.

You see, I hear this as a summer song, a song of long days, rich days, that are still days,  and must end in earth’s and fortune’s rota. “Now, sweet now” Dave sings. Yes.

Hortensia

I think I asked Dave what the song was about shortly after we recorded it. “The summer flower or the Roman woman?” I think he replied that it was more at something intuitive.

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You can hear it with the player gadget below. Don’t see a player? This highlighted hyperlink will also play it. “Hortensia” is longer than most of our pieces here, but sit back with a cool drink and listen. Thank you hearty listeners and readers for sticking with this project!

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*First, and in most cases, the only take. Since we haven’t focused on live performance much in our old age, we aren’t working up material for performance or developing a repertoire for that. Dave has been as prolific with words and with songs with his own music as I have been with musical pieces over the past few years. This means that there was always new material to be tried out, to be brought into existence, even if briefly and for one take.

Parlando Summer 2020 Top Ten, numbers 4-2

4. A Mien to Move a Queen by Emily Dickinson. My teenager, who suspects my musical output as being less than relevant, taunted me gently by asking as I started writing this post if I was presenting Winnie the Pooh. By “Pooh” we may decode: something simultaneously old and immature.

“No I said. I’ve never done any A. A. Milne.”

“Who’s A. A. Milne?”

“He wrote Winnie the Pooh—oh wait, I have  put Milne in a post. I was comparing an Emily Dickinson poem to Sixties psychedelic rock lyrics. I compared a poem of hers to a Milne/Pooh poem that was used by Jefferson Airplane in a song: ‘If I was a bird and flew very high…”

“Bored already.” He playfully rejoindered.

I can’t quite give you the flavor of this, but there’s a quicker wit in my house than mine even when my wife is out of town.

Well that post just happens to be the one that introduced the 4th most liked and listened to piece here this summer: Dickinson’s “A Mien to move a Queen.”  And yes, it is a strange poem, though it draws me in none-the-less. It may be one of Dickinson’s riddle poems, like “May-Flower”   though I can’t solve its riddle. Dickenson may be looking at another flower, or a bird or insect.

Well sometimes one can just let the mystery be.

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3. Long Island Sound by Emma Lazarus. One of the least-famous poets with one of the most-famous poems ever presented here, Lazarus is the author of a sonnet associated with the Statue of Liberty: the “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” one. That was a poem of hope, and I’d say to, so is this one that she also wrote. Therefore, I made “Long Island Sound”  into a happy little summer song.

Did a carefree song seem out of place in our 2020 summer? Or was it something we wanted to visit, if only for the minute and 46 seconds the performance lasts? Well, in any season there is happiness. Seething anger, somber reflection, these may seem to be the noble emotions this summer, but joy is not an ignoble emotion.

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Black Joy Lives Here crop

The American Midwest loves lawn signs. I ride by many each morning in my neighborhood: election candidates, Justice for George Floyd, roofing contractors, high-school sports teams, and a couple of these too.

2. The Poet’s Voice from speeches by William Faulkner and Bob Dylan.  Our current American age is suffering much from insufficiency of empathy. What kills or mutes empathy? Fear is one thing. One sentence in William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech struck me so strongly when I read it this year. Not the one I was quoted so often by teachers then my age now, back when I was nearly 20, the one that went: “Man will not merely endure: he will prevail”—this, somehow, they seemed to be saying would come from literature, of all things, stuff written largely by dead men. Thanks pops. Now let me return to being worried about which of us is going to run out of tuition money or the will to continue this hidebound education, and get drafted. No, that one was Faulkner’s hopeful future, a future we haven’t yet made obsolete. Instead, it was this sentence, earlier in the speech, the one that should make you sit up and take notice:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it.”

Old man Faulkner, though he may be as imperfect as the brightest and most perceptive person today, is really saying something there. In the context of his entire speech he appears to be referring to the particular fear of a nuclear war, but then how strange that he calls this “so long sustained” when nuclear arms were around the age of our current Presidency’s term when he gave this speech in 1949.

So, if fear mutes empathy, let us acknowledge that carrying someone else’s song in your ear, your mind, your mouth, is the pathway through which it can infect your heart with empathy.

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I’ll return soon with the post revealing the most popular piece here this past summer. That’s going to be a somewhat complicated story.

Parlando Summer 2020 Top Ten, numbers 10-8

It’s time to look back over the summer and see which pieces you liked and listened to the most during this season. As always, I’m going to count up to the most popular in a series of posts here over the next few days. Each bold-face listing is a link to the original post, in case you’d like to read what I said when I first presented it.

10. Before Summer Rain by Rainer Maria Rilke.  Long time readers here will know that I like to take a crack at original translations, and I even wrote a post this summer about how I, a person with only a little French in high school over 50 years ago, goes about this—and why you might want to try this too. Regardless of your level of language mastery and your obligations to the original writer, a public translator must also take up an obligation to produce an impactful, living poem. It may be unavoidable that you bring your own gifts as a poet to this task—or even up your game to be able to do that while using another poet’s inspiration as your matter.

Rilke currently has a reputation as a poet of spiritual uplift, a man whose lines get Pinterested over photos, quoted in journal entries, and immortalized on refrigerator magnets. In short: the self-help poet of spiritual self-improvement. I’m not going to knock that. There’s a hell of a lot of lesser things that a work of art can do than to make someone feel better, less lonely in their thoughts, or to help them think that they can better themselves. Sure aesthetes, that’s not all poetry can do, and while I’m no Rilke scholar, I think that isn’t all Rilke can do either.

My translation focused on Rilke’s images in his poem, trying my best to make them understandable or at least striking, and to give the poem a working English word-music.

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9. Huazi Ridge after a poem by Wang Wei. More translation. The cultural and linguistic audacity to translate classical Chinese poetry has to be a few orders of magnitude greater than translating 20th century German (a language I don’t speak, but I had grandparents who did).

I decided to term what I derived from the sparse literal translation I had of this poem “after Wang Wei,” which is likely more accurate than calling it a translation. But if you are going to use what is more frankly your impression of a poem, the charge remains the same: give us something vivid and give it some word-music that works in English.

The music music here includes my simple approach to the Chinese lute, the pipa. While guitarists might think they have some grounding with this not unrelated string instrument, the pipa, like the western lute, has almost no sustain compared to the modern guitar. Great players can wring a wide range of sophisticated effects from the pipa, but a naïve player like myself just hopes to add a little bit of a different timbre that reflects the culture that produced such distinctive and highly compressed lyric poetry.

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If you like to hear what the pipa is capable of, Gao Hong demonstrates it’s range while performing her composition “Flying Dragon” in this video.

 

8. Government by Carl Sandburg. Carl, whose parents spoke Swedish, makes things easy for me by already writing his poem in informal modern English. Sandburg worked for the Socialist* mayor of Milwaukee before he started his career as a poet in Chicago and published his first collection, Chicago Poems, where this one appears. His day job in Chicago was working as a newspaper journalist in the era made famous by the play and movie The Front Page. These things mean that when Sandburg writes this poem and says repeatedly “I saw…” it’s not just some poetic trope.

His final stanza is a fairly sophisticated analysis of politics. Interestingly it’s not—in this poem—a ringing call for change. The statement here that government is made up of humans, and that it therefore inherits human characteristics, is on the face of it an explanation of the political failures this poem testifies to. But nested in this also is the idea the government can change as people change (and change it). No, it won’t be perfect, but it can be better.

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*Midwestern Socialists of Sandburg’s time reached the highest level of Government administrative responsibility in US history.

Breakfast in a Pandemic

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.***

Breakfast in a Pandemic

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).

And did you know that Whitman’s oh so American ‘barbaric yawp” was a formative influence on French Vers Libre? I didn’t either until this project’s exploration.

***At least the existence of this poem means that this pandemic of our age won’t be as little covered by poets as the big 1918-1919 flu pandemic that poetry ignored.

Before Summer Rain, or we get to Rilke eventually

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.

In this view, to consider “The Road Not Taken”  in the context of the tragic friendship between Robert Frost and Edward Thomas walking in the wandering lanes and paths of the Cotswolds may help us understand that that poem isn’t just a self-contained piece of art, though it can be that, but also an artifact of something complicated as lives are.

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.

 

Before Summer Rain

 

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 and Rilke age 11

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?”

On the Grasshopper and the Cricket

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.

John Keats and the Chirping Crickets 3

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.***

Chinese Qin and Cricket Note

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.

Long Island Sound

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.

Winslow_Homer_-_Moonlight

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 for most, but if you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink is an alternative way to play it.  A short and jaunty one today.

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*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.