I said last time that the Midwestern American poet Carl Sandburg is not often thought of as an Imagist when we recount the Modernist revolution in poetry. Indeed, I get the impression that his work as a whole is summarized as folksy/clumsy by academia, the efforts of a low-fi Modernist with middlebrow pretensions to real artistic innovation.
I wonder if some of this is an unexamined hold-over from the High Modernists who made a cult of academic culture and credentials in the mid-20th century. Sandburg certainly intended to be a Modernist and wrote thoroughgoing Imagist poems. And yes, he can present himself in a friendly, non-pretentious way in some of his poetry. T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound rarely seem to welcome in the casual reader, Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams may puzzle us on first encounter. Amy Lowell will let us know this is salon-worthy art. E. E. Cummings may charm us in a playful way while still remaining elusive. Marianne Moore likes the seemingly earnest statement, but when I try to absorb an entire poem I’m often at sixes and sevens.
Sandburg can seem a bit too straightforward. Which he’s not, or at least not always. Williams can have his red wheelbarrows and plums, Pound his wet petal Metro pedestrians, and we understand this is willful simplicity in the context of their more elaborated work. Poor Sandburg. He’s misunderstood for being thought understood. Understood too quickly perhaps.
Here’s an example of a poem that hardly seems like Sandburg at all. If I presented it, unattributed, as translated from the French it might seem Surrealist, but it was published in 1917 before Surrealism was a movement. Even at the time I was performing it, I had only been able to absorb it as a sensation, and I’m not sure yet if I could paraphrase it even now. Here’s the link to the poem’s text if you’d like to follow along. It seems to be a poem about violence and strife, about suffering and infliction of suffering. Is the poem’s gargoyle war, Moloch, capitalism, the demonized exploited, or the demon exploiter?
Is it possible that Sandburg intended this ambiguity? The sensation of this poem is so strong, yet it doesn’t seem easy to solve into a one-to-one allegory. One could use Orwell’s famous decades-later statement as a gloss on this poem:
If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
Two things ground this poem, and Imagism wanted to be grounded, not intellectually abstract. First is the gargoyle, which was a commonplace building ornament in Sandburg’s Chicago, secondary to the beau arts style popularized by the 1893 Worlds Fair there and to the widespread availability of immigrant stone carvers in the city. Gargoyles are ugly and often open-mouthed,* as this poem’s gargoyle is.
But Sandburg’s poem subject is metal, which is not impossible—there are cast metal gargoyles. I’m no expert on metalwork trades, but the actions described in the poem sound like hot metal riveting. Is the “gargoyle” some metal construction which is having red hot molten rivets being pounded into holes one after another?
A riveting video? Maybe not for everyone, but a few minutes of watching will show how a four-person team works together in hot metal riveting
Or is this poem’s subject a child’s nightmare? After all, twice Sandburg wants us to know a child could visualize this.
So, an elusive work, but the horror certainly comes through. My performance is straightforward, just acoustic guitar and bass. Sort of a folk song, if the kind of folks you hang around with like Michael Hurley. The player is below.
*They are sometimes functional downspouts, designed not just as ornament, but as a way to direct roof rain water away from the building and it’s foundation. Gargoyle as a word is derived from the French for gullet, or throat.
I started out this January trying to translate Rimbaud, and it’s only as the month is ending that I’ve finally got something to present. Why was this such a struggle?
Well, some of it’s me. I’m having a harder time this winter keeping up this project, and by focusing recently on translation I’ve only made it harder on myself. Why do I do these translations on top of composing, recording, and playing most of the instruments in the pieces? That’s more than a rhetorical question, I’ve sincerely asked myself that this month. I’m not a speaker of any of the native languages of the poets I’ve translated, so I work with the highly welcome online dictionaries and computer translators available—but I’m not a literary scholar or expert on any of these poets, and I’ve never lived as part of their culture. I worry about getting it wrong, doubly so in that I present them publicly.
I think I have three reasons. First is that it expands what I can present here. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s difficult to get permission to do what I do for work that’s not in the public domain, and I don’t want to use other people’s translations that are in copyright without permission. Second, I think this is a great practice to improve one’s own poetry. Do any creative writing programs these days require or assign translation of poetry?* I don’t know, but if not, I’d encourage that. The struggle to find the best English word, to not harm the strength of an image, and to shape the poem so that its word-music works are directly transferable to writing one’s own poems. And here’s the last reason: I think performing a poem illuminates it for the reader/performer, it makes it part of your breath. Translating it imbeds it even more so in one’s mind.
So why was Rimbaud a tougher task?
Unlike other poets, I’ve never been a Rimbaud fan, even though Modernist French poetry was an enthusiasm of my twenties. I think I bought a translation of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell at the same Savarns book store on the Minneapolis West Bank where I picked up poetry chap books by Patti Smith and collections of French language Surrealists. And Smith and Surrealists liked Rimbaud a lot. Smith has spoken reverently about how her copy of Rimbaud helped her through her own early twenties, but Rimbaud didn’t perform that service for me.**
Sentinel soul. Teenage poet Arthur Rimbaud
But even just as myth, Rimbaud has an inescapable pull. There’s no story like it: a bright teenager drops out of secondary school, flees to the Paris of the Paris Commune in 1871, takes up with celebrated poet Paul Verlaine. Disasters ensue, including taking the most famous non-fatal intra-author bullet from a disordered Verlaine. In the midst of this, he writes furious poetry, poetry capable of impressing the most avant garde writers of the 20th century to follow.
“Situations have ended sad/Relationships have all been bad…” Plaque marks were Verlaine shot Rimbaud.
All this as a teenager. As his teen years end, he stops writing and moves to Africa to work as a commercial trader, never returning to the writing life and by accounts actively distaining it. He dies of cancer at the age of 37.
As we’ve seen recently here, there are other teenaged poets who’ve produced work we still read today. But very few of them produced their greatest work at that age—and arguably none of their youthful work was as influential as Arthur Rimbaud’s.
I’ve dealt with the trouble that hard-to-grasp, obscure, and Surrealist poets present to translations. Rimbaud was as tough as Mallarmé in that regard. In one Rimbaud poem I finished a complete translation draft, but was left with an “is that all there is” feeling that the result wasn’t all that compelling. I started another and then another, but again the early results didn’t seem like I’d grasped them or that they’d work here.
Then it hit me, at least with his poem “Eternity,” part of its power is incantatory, it’s in the metrical and rhyming effects in the original French! This shouldn’t have surprised me. While there are other ways to achieve similar effects: parallelism, repetition, old-English alliteration, even a certain kind of intellectual rhyme in imagery itself, rhyme is still used in most songs and hip-hop rap flows, not because there’s some kind of rule about it, but because the expectation of return to the rhyme gives a certain fatalistic drive to the verse. And “Eternity’s” meter is also unusual, it’s a very short line, just five beats.
Do you remember me saying that I almost never try to bring over the sound of the original verse into my translations, that I’d rather focus on making the images vivid and for the poem to have whatever good word-music in English? That’s still a practical rule, which may go double when translating from a language like French which has the benefit of so many more rhyming words; but in this short poem I decided to move over to respecting the syllable count of the original line and to a ABCB rhyming scheme.
For good or ill, this did cause me to play more fast-and-loose with some of the more difficult images and phrases in Rimbaud’s poem, ones where other translators had other readings. If it sounded good, if it kept to the scheme, if it seemed to advance some overall flow to the poem’s meaning from image to image, I judged it “close enough for rock’n’roll.”
In the end, my main diversion from other translations of “Eternity” I’ve seen is that many other translations make this poem more of a brag that Rimbaud has absorbed the infinity of the titular eternity and is now it’s master. My version has a more elusive eternity and a sense that others are seeking to apprehend it, much like a search for an underground partisan. Because the other translators may be Rimbaud scholars with a greater mastery of French, there’s a good chance they’re more correct—but if there’s a possibility that the “I is another” in Rimbaud’s poem, there may be an element I’m bringing out that was always there. Here’s a link to the poem in the original French for those who’d like to check.
Musically, this is rock in the ragged sense that rock’n’roll is a loose and inclusive form. There’s no tight backbeat, the bass is a bowed contrabass with some filtering, and the guitar won’t really play the blues—but the overall guitar timbres are from the rock palette. For the chord cadence I made a nod to some of those who did help me get through my 20s. The line in Rimbaud’s poem that ended up being translated (loosely in this instance) as “I see no escape” brought to mind “All Along the Watchtower” sideways to me, and the chord cadence I use is also somewhat similar to Patti Smith/Bruce Springsteen’s “Because the Night.” The lines in my translation “Murmur our desire/Night that is nothing/A day that’s on fire” could well fit into that sort of expression. You know the drill to hear it: the player gadget’s below.
*I know in the past students were assigned translations from classical Greek and Latin poets as part of general studies. While this came from the idea that classical grammar and vocabulary were the basis for mastery of English (a suspect notion) I think it must have helped many a budding poet.
**It was poet/musicians did that for me: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Smith herself. All of these are controversial figures in purely literary circles. I can tell you that none of them helped my standing in those 1970s years when I should have been establishing the peripatetic poetry career that I didn’t have. It would have been better for me, influences-wise, if I could have said Rimbaud instead.
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.
Man Ray was sort of Man Ray’s real name. His family immigrated to the U. S. in the 19th Century and like many families they changed their name along with their country, and so Radnitzky became Ray. His birth first-name was Emmanuel, which would be conventionally shortened to Manny, and with just a bit more compression you arrive at Man.
I think I’ve mentioned in passing that in my 20s I developed an interest in Dada and Surrealism. I’d never pass myself off as a scholar of these subjects, it was more a matter of feeling that some of their ideas resonated with ones I had already been using. As evidence of my lack of scholarship, I’ll mention that I had always assumed Man Ray was French. Well, no. He grew up and began his career in Brooklyn and moved to Paris in his early 30s, before he could speak any French, That must have increased the Dada potential of the move!
Man Ray always felt free to range about in media and approaches. He was creating Dada assemblages and “ready-mades” by 1920 and Andre Breton called him one of the “pre-Surrealists” who had been creating art in harmony with that movement before it was officially a movement. Man Ray pioneered the idea that photography could be non-representational, made short experimental films, but also shot portrait photographs. And, luckily for this Project, he also wrote poetry. Ray once said that his artistic credo was seeking pleasure and liberty. “I simply try to be as free as possible, in my manner of working and in my choice of subject. No one can dictate to me or guide me.”
His short poem “Three Dimensions” was published in Alfred Kreymborg’s NYC-based Modernist magazine Others in 1915. As I understand Ray’s poem he’s looking at houses at night, not a city but outer borough or suburban scene. They’re lit up, representing the lives within. I suspect he’s punning when he says the luminous houses, walled off and oh so separate, should not be viewed “as masses.” They seem weightless, but in their separations the are as well not “The Masses.” The dark spaces between the houses, the hedges and walls, are then compared to shawl-covered heads as would’ve been worn by old women in his day. Ray concludes, still recognizing the separateness of the houses and the lives within, but perhaps with a hint of their potential. Mystery and curiosity are separated when we know that if they were to be combined they would combust!
So, what can I do with Man Ray’s poem?
Glover, Ray and Ray. Tony Glover on blues harp, Dave Ray on 12-string guitar, and a Man Ray self portrait
Dave Ray* was a singer and guitar player. In the early ‘60s he was part of Koerner Ray and Glover. I guess you could call Koerner Ray and Glover a group, though they themselves didn’t.** Dave Ray was 20 years old when KR&G released their first LP***, half-a-decade younger than when Robert Johnson first recorded a side, and much, much younger than Leadbelly was by the time John and Alan Lomax recorded him. Ray kept up playing his whole life until it ended while he was still too young in 2002.
KR&G formed in Minneapolis and were part of the early days of the West Bank and other folk music scenes here. I can’t say for sure (I’m a late arrival), but Dave Ray was probably one of the reasons that the Twin Cities area has a higher percentage of 12-string guitar players than anywhere else.**** Shortly after I moved to the Twin Cities in the ‘70s I bought a cheap 12-string at a record store on Hennepin Ave. It seemed mandatory, like learning the snow-emergency parking rules.
Why yes I can prove I’m a Twin Cities guitarist: here’s my 12-string.
Today I made a Dada assemblage. I’ve recast Man Ray’s “Three Dimensions” as “3D Blues” and I played it on that still surviving 12-string—not as well as Dave Ray could have done it, but then it wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t done it. The old 12-string has a soundhole pickup which I played through a little combo amp. KR&G started all acoustic, but Dave Ray often played plugged in later in his career. I rearranged some lines and phrases in Man Ray’s poem to fit it into a blues form. You can read Man Ray’s original here. You can hear my revision with the player gadget below.
*As far as I know, Man and Dave aren’t related. Dave Ray’s youngest brother, the equally well-named Max Ray, played the saxophone with the Wallets and still plays around town. If I was to Kevin-Bacon-game Man Ray and Dave Ray, Max Ray and the Wallets would be my move.
**Koerner Ray and Glover never broke up because they never joined up, performing solo or in various combinations from the first to the last. Dave Ray claimed they should have been truthfully billed as “Koerner and/or Ray and/or Glover.” Koerner made a record with Willie Murphy back in the 60s. Tony Glover wrote an important early instructional book on how to play blues harmonica as well as writing about the new Rock music that emerged later in the 60s.
***That first LP was called Blues, Rags and Hollers and just like it says on the cover, they played a wider-range of material than what was labeled “Blues” as time went on.
****Both Koerner and Ray played 12-string guitar, in the tradition of Leadbelly and Blind Willie McTell. As time passed, the blues 12-string tradition became forgotten in many places, and I’d encounter people online who thought acoustic-guitar blues must be played on small-bodied 6-strings or resonator guitars.
I’m reading another critic/minor poet’s book about the early 20th century British literary scene, Edward Shanks’ First Essays on Literature. He’s in general more backward looking than Herbert Monro’s 1920 Some Contemporary Poets where I discovered Charlotte Mew (Shanks’ book has essays on Keats and Shelley) but I was interested what he had to say in his chapter “The Later Poetry of Mr. W. B. Yeats.” Shanks seems ambivalent about Yeats, and this is one of the pleasures of reading contemporary assessments of still active artists. He notes with approval that Yeats’ language has with the 20th century become less formal and fusty, though Shanks feels that gain comes at a loss of a singing quality.* Another conclusion he reaches is that Yeats’ is best when he’s describing the fantastical: “It is not Mr. Yeats’s business to describe the actual world, but to make beautiful pictures out of his dreams.” Though giving Yeats his due, Shanks doesn’t seem to think this is a good thing.
Interesting comment that, though I was already aware of Yeats’ appreciation of Irish myths and his dabbling in his era’s contemporary occultism. It caused me to stop and connect Yeats, and the two lesser known poets I’ve presented this month: Charlotte Mew and Yeats’ associate Walter Turner. Both have aspects of fantasy in their poetry too. And even our staid prelate of High Modernism, T. S. Eliot, while seeking his correlates within the whole timeline of culture, picks out elements of unreal gothic horror to weave into “The Waste Land.” Elements so broad as to make me compare a section of “The Waste Land” to Metal bands.
Did the horrors of WWI and the shifting ground of artistic Modernism impel some poets of the time to retreat (or advance) into fantasy? With the war poets, many of which had been “reporting” from the front-lines, no longer lining-out contemporary events while those events’ questions of outcome and action were pressing on all, was there now after the war a countervailing mode to step away from the pressing real?
If so, it’s no simple thing, and not just a matter of “give me some beautiful art to not let me think about hard questions.” Fantasy is just metaphor presented on another layer of art. Eliot, who unlike many of his contemporaries did not serve in WWI, would have trouble writing about the war as the veterans did after all. And the Surrealists—well their whole point was those “pictures out of…dreams” might reflect something essential.
Fantasy. Escapism? Surrealism? Metaphor presented in another layer of art?
Mew’s “Changeling” from my last post? Yes, it’s a fairy story, as is Yeats’ great “The Song of the Wandering Aengus,” but either connects first on an emotional level deeper than any amazement at the fantastic. Talking fish or fairies knocking at windows are mundane compared to the loneliness of old age or the alienation of being an unlike youth.
Well, let’s end for now with an audio piece, an old one of my own. I wrote “China Mouth, A Changeling” over 40 years ago, after listening to a conversation where someone else was bemoaning their alienation. During the conversation the main talker paused to reapply some very red lipstick, its deep red the China in the mouth of the title. Unlike Mew’s changeling—who will run off, who cannot be stopped—there seemed to me to be an element of stasis in that overheard conversation. They seemed resigned that they would have their art and their alienation in a frozen balance. That brought to mind a story in Robert W. Chambers’ “The Mask” from his 1895 collection The King in Yellow in which a liquid turns living things into statuary. That idea informed the last verse. Depending on one’s taste for mystery, it either saves or ruins the song. Use the player below to hear it and decide for yourself.
*I don’t think I agree, Yeats never stops being musical to me. Shanks himself has an interesting connection between poetry and music, as another chapter in his book “Folk-Song as Poetry” deals with Cecil Sharp and other contemporary attempts to conserve British Isles folk music. Shanks’ first book was a collection of poetry called Songs, one of which lifts the floating verse that found its way into many folk songs, the one that starts “The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she sings as she flies.”
Another short break in the Dave Moore series to present an unabashedly ecstatic poem by E. E. Cummings.
The kind of Modernist poetry we often use here rarely presents itself like this, as the early 20th Century pioneers tended to be a downbeat and skeptical lot, even before the great tribulation of the First World War. Cummings isn’t the only exception, but a poem like this is so extraordinary in its exuberance that it will always stand out.
Lipping flowers…the ecstatic poet’s self-portrait in pencil
As a page poem, “Crepuscule” is laid out on the page in staggered lines sans punctuation, something Cummings may have picked up from Apollinaire, but the syntax isn’t as jumbled as some E. E. Cummings poems. It actually reads fairly easily once I lined-out the dismembered sentences. The images are surreal, though written before official Surrealism, and paradoxical sensations and states come one after another. Can one gather what is happening in the poem beyond the welcoming of sensation and exploration?
Cummings’ “Crepuscule” as a page-poem.
The title is “Crepuscule,” an antique word for twilight, and so the poem is set in that proverbial border time. The poem goes on to either explore sleeplessly and fearlessly in the unknown darkness, or launch itself into the imagination of dreams, which surreally complete and supersede the “mystery of my flesh”—at night exploration, or dreams, at once, indistinguishable.
I didn’t see this until after I finished performing it, but I suspect the poem may have bookended images near the start and at the end, the twilight beginning with the swallowing of the sun, the ending with the moon setting the teeth (on edge) with the metallic bite-taste of the moon.
As sometimes happens when I compose the music for these pieces I find out or remember that others have done this before me. As soon as I saw the title I thought immediately of Thelonious Monk’s instrumental composition “Crepuscule with Nellie” and the idea was planted to use piano in my music for this. I did end up with some piano, but I reverted to guitar, my home instrument, to express the unrelenting long line of this poem that leaps into the bothness moment of twilight.
Embarrassingly, I had forgotten that Björk had performed all but the last part of Cummings’ poem as “Sun in my Mouth” on her album Vespertine. Björk brings big time sensuality to Cummings’ words, bringing out the eroticism that was always there, not just by her commitment to the performance, but by ending on and repeating the “Will I complete the mystery of my flesh” line, bringing fleshiness to the mystery. But this is a poem of the borderline, and the flesh is also hymned to complete a change to something else.
My fearless borderline tonight is presenting this music which would have difficulty reaching the level of originality of Monk or Björk. To hear my performance of E. E. Cummings’ “Crepuscule,” leap into the ripe air by clicking on the player below.
Today we return to the early 20th Century Modernists with a piece using words by Mina Loy. Last post we had a poet taking a political stand: Longfellow aligning himself with the movement to abolish slavery. Decades later, the Modernists joined political movements too.
One might suppose that since Modernism sought to overthrow the old cultural order and revolutionize artistic expression that many Modernists would be attracted to political radicalism—and to a large degree that’s so.
You might also assume that these artistic radicals would be leftists, aligned with the growing Socialist movements in England and the United States, or attracted after 1917 to the as then untested promise of the new Communist government in Russia. Or perhaps they’d make common cause with anarchism. Or maybe they’d create their own playlist mixing all of the above.
And yes, you can find that. Carl Sandburg in the U. S. Midwest, most of the Surrealists, bohemians in New York’s Greenwich Village, Herbert Read and some other British Modernists.
However, one can also find Modernists who aligned with the right wing in this era—and not only garden-variety Tories, or even those who allied themselves with the “respectable” racist strains of U. S. politics. Even in the years before WWI, the social theories that would coalesce into Fascism found adherents in the new literary avant garde. As to Americans, the most famous case is the indispensable Modernist poet, editor and promotor, Ezra Pound, eventually charged with treason at the end of WWII.
Modernists seemed something like stem cells as their artistic revolution kicked off—they could develop into followers of any kind of political radicalism. At a time when political engagement for artists was common, there must have been a feeling in the air that a side must be chosen if one was to be a thorough-going cultural Modernist.
So, much as the French Surrealists once sought to make Communism a dictate for membership in the Surrealist movement, the slightly earlier Italian Futurists eventually made Fascism a core value of their artistic circle.
It’s now we get to Mina Loy. No, not the delightful Hollywood actress—that’s Myrna Loy (Myrna Loy was the stage name for the woman born Myrna Williams, and it’s just possible that Loy could have been chosen to refer to Mina).
It’s 1905. Modernism is kicking off first in the visual art world, followed just behind by the poets. Loy, in her 20s, has already done the visual art thing in London and Paris, but her marriage is failing, and she’s just had an infant child die. To change her life, she moves to Italy. She befriends Futurist artist Carlo Carra, and if you follow along on your Futurist score-card she had love-affairs there with two principals of Italian Futurism: F. T. Marinetti and Giovanni Papini.
Let’s re-set our scene. Here’s a young woman in a foreign country going through life stress events. The art-world is shifting under everyone’s feet. As a movement that will eventually fancy itself outright as the cultural well-spring of Italian Fascism, the circle she’s fallen in with isn’t just about making it new, it’s militaristic, paternalistic, nationalistic, and it worships violence. That isn’t what jealous opponents say about Futurism, it’s what its own manifestos brag about.
Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto declared “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene”
As preparing actors say, all that would be part of the work to figure out what Mina Loy is experiencing. Here’s another bit of business you might grab onto: young, ambitious, male artists. I doubt some not-uncommon tropes have changed in that field.
Mina becomes a poet. A fierce poet. Artistically she uses some of the new ideas that the Futurists are thinking about. Her poetry moves between time and tenses, voices and outlooks, in machine gun bursts. Conventional expression and sentiment? Blow them up, run them over with a locomotive. Sixty years later Harlan Ellison would write “Love is just sex misspelled” and be thought provocative. Mina had already been there in the horse-and-buggy era. How can a woman keep her selfhood (or for that matter, how can any human being do so) in the minefield of desire and relationships? What is deep and inherent in motherhood that society will not express openly?
Though she used some of the artistic ideas of Futurism as effectively as any writer, Loy seemed to resist most of its political ideas and she satirized the pretentions of the “Flabergasts” while writing about her Italian time as being in the “Lion’s Jaws.” Leaving Italy, she next moved to New York, where she joined the Greenwich Village circle.
Today’s piece uses selections I took from a 34-poem sequence called “Songs to Johannes,” inspired by the relationship with Giovanni Papini (Johannes and Giovanni are variations of the same root name). Loy published these in 1914, near the end of her Italian time. Within the little-magazine world of Modernism she made an immediate impact. Eliot, Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Gertrude Stein said good things about her work. Legendary founder of Poetry magazine Harriet Monroe seems to have been scared by Loy’s frankness. Amy Lowell, poet and influential anthologist, was so put off she is supposed to have said that she would not publish in any magazine that printed Loy.
If the patriarchy may have lost the battle with Mina Loy, for a long time they seem to have won the peace. It was only in the last few years of the 20th Century that Loy’s poems of the first part of that century began to be looked at again. Now, Loy has become a key poetic Modernist for literary scholars tired of the usual sausage-fest, but that opens up the danger that work like “Songs to Johannes” may be introduced, academically, like this: “Loy in effect diagnoses an end to love poetry in the light of historical circumstance, anticipating that poststructuralist line of inquiry which urges a rereading of ‘lyric’ as a culturally responsive construct. Instead, her poetry constitutes a critique of the very demand that lyric expression be viewed apart from the social world.”
There’s nothing wrong with that view, but I find Loy’s pre-WWI writing here a lot more immediate assuming one has some applicable life experience to bring to it. Her diction sometimes reminds me of Emily Dickinson, and like Dickinson figuring out what is ironic, and what is earnest, and what is both, can sometimes be a challenge. In performance, any of those three choices seem to work for most phrases here. The greatest error would be to make them all of the same tenor. Also, like Dickinson, Loy will move from speaking concise abstraction to vivid metaphor using very few words. Thus, the high minded and the sensual nitty-gritty are juxtaposed.
My appreciation for this sequence grew tremendously as I constructed this performance. There are strong images, richly ambiguous expressions, and yes, lines that one could deconstruct at thesis length. I didn’t even have room to include the phrase from “Songs to Johannes” that I’ve chosen to title today’s selection, but I can never look at a plump rococo cherub again without recalling it. But the real gift I got, the unique gift of art, is that I could experience some of Loy’s moments in the hot-house nexus of Fascism and Modernism. “Pig Cupid” would probably be more authentic if this was performed in a woman’s voice, but alas my voice is what I have available today. To hear my performance, use the player below.
Longtime readers will know that one of the principles for the Parlando Project is “Other People’s Stories.” I partly do this out of a contrarian streak, as the Internet is full of folks telling their own stories. Yet, obviously, I do not take my path due to a condemnation of personal stories. After all, without other’s stories, I would not have the ones I present and react to here.
I believe something additional happens in my process of presenting my encounters with other people’s stories. You, the valued readers and listeners here, add a third part to this. Do you see, what I see, as I am looking at, speaking someone else’s silent words; while you remain off to the side, with your ears at each side of your own mind and memory, your eyes parallel to your own mouth? No, you will see something slightly different.
Yet, this morning, let me violate my self-imposed principle, and write, as if this were a conventional blog, about myself.
I awoke today after a week that finally found promised 50 degree Fahrenheit temperatures to an utter snowstorm that had itself awakened from a night sky that fitfully dreamed rain, sleet, hail, and freezing rain. The wind outside had someplace to go in a hurry.
As a contrarian, I dressed and took to my marvelous Minnesota invention, the fat bike fitted with 4 inch wide studded and knobbed tires. A morning with few moving, yet full of noise. Snow crunching under the tires, wind restating its case more insistently over again, the typewriter of snow against my goggles.
Parked at the curbs, even the most fearsome cars were growing a white carapace, their windshield wipers stretched out, insect arms, quivering in the wind.
“Insect arms, quivering in the wind” wipers left out to keep them from being encased in ice
To be an old man on a bicycle is to know gratitude. Does a fierce April snowstorm tell a story? Perhaps it does. Is it beautiful, or a false and comfortable frightening that leaves others inside, deciding that internal pleasures are best this morning. But I wished to hear its story today, to see it. As I rode, the wind said yes and no in its one direction. The snow said music is frozen yet moving. The whiteness says color can only exist if you make it.
In the middle of the week I had driven two friends to the airport. They saw this sign “If you see something, say something.” I thought, isn’t that the fourth Imagist rule, one unstated by F. S. Flint and Ezra Pound? Yes, you must honor the thing and your reaction to it, using no word just because you believe you must use that word, and remember you are making music, not marching. But the first rule, which I understand now in the multitude of a blizzard: if you see something, say something.
Once more I’m going with a fresh translation for today’s words. And once more, they’re from the French, as I take on Pierre Reverdy’s “Clair Hiver” in English as “Clear Winter.” Unlike my last French translation, Apollinaire’s “Mirabeau Bridge,” this one hasn’t already been translated a dozen times, though the one translation I could find was by no less than John Ashbery, so I’m still a bit audacious in taking my swing at this.
Like Apollinaire or Tristan Tzara, Reverdy’s work isn’t well-known in English, but even more than those two Paris contemporaries of his, he’s been acknowledged as a substantial influence on post-WWII American poetry. Reverdy’s been studied, cited as an influence, and translated by Ashbery, Kenneth Rexroth, and Rod Padgett. Others connected with the 20th Century “New York School” of poetry were inspired by his work too.
Indeed, it’s through Frank O’Hara that Reverdy’s name may be best known in English, for as O’Hara took his famous summer stroll in Manhattan in the lines of his poem “A Step Away from Them,” he takes care to mention that “My heart is in my pocket, it is / ”Poems by Pierre Reverdy.”
My Heart is in my pocket, it is
“Poems by Pierre Reverdy”
When Pierre Reverdy died in 1960, Ashbery asked O’Hara if he had any poems to contribute to a memorial issue of a magazine he was curating. O’Hara replied, deferring, “I just couldn’t stand the amount of work it would seem to take, since the minute you mentioned it I decided that everything I’ve written…has been under his influence.”
I used that O’Hara connection as my entry point into Reverdy and to my translation of “Clear Winter.” Unlike Ashbery, I’m not a French speaker, and my high school French classes have long worn off—but O’Hara’s voice in English is somewhat ingrained in me, and so I used that as a guide as I completed my Reverdy translation.
But now I’m not so sure that was the right choice. Reading a trenchant analysis of Reverdy by Kenneth Rexroth, I may have overdetermined the images in my first translation of Reverdy—but for better or worse, this is my tendency as a translator. I try to sense in the foreign language the experience the poem speaks of, and then to vivify those sensations and thoughts I find in that examination into English. That often takes the form of using clear idiomatic, contemporary English to sharpen those images. Often in this process, I’ll take imaginative leaps into the poet’s intent—and, well, sometimes when one steps boldly into what one thinks is a pool of light in the darkness, it turns out to be a large pothole filled with ditch-water instead.
If my suppositions are mistakes, perhaps they are at least vivid mistakes.
Post-It Notes™ go Cubist? Juan Gris’ “Still Life with Poem.”
And that poem is by his friend and collaborator, Pierre Reverdy.
Reverdy, like Apollinaire, has been called a cubist poet, and like Apollinaire he knew many of the painters who formed that faceted multi-perspective style in the Paris of the first part of the 20th Century. As the style developed, found objects such as newspaper, tickets, and wallpaper were pasted into the paintings. To reflect this musically this piece uses some various audio loops for melodic elements—something I don’t usually do. This is my attempt to make the sound of the cubist ethos of juxtaposed perspectives. That the loops should be unlike, yet somehow hang together, was the aim, and their repetitive nature is the analog to the cubist geometric forms.
That description makes my music for “Clear Winter” sound all high art, and I guess it would be in the early 20th Century, but some current popular music forms commonly do this. Electronic Dance Music and Hip Hop tracks love the unexpected intrusion of unusual sounds. So, though my performance of Reverdy’s “Clear Winter” (player below) is a short piece, I’d be glad to do an extended dance mix if the demand is there.
As I promised last month, there’s going to be a few more posts here without new audio pieces, discussing some side issues and ideas I’ve run into during the last year or so of the Parlando Project. Some of these are going to be lengthier, and they may not be as interesting to those who come here just hear surprising combinations of music and words. I’m using the tag “About” on this sort of post, so that you can easily filter the audio containing posts (Podcasts) from these.
Today’s post is about what I found as I looked at Tristan Tzara’s poem “Vegetable Swallow.”
Why was I looking at Tzara poetry? I have a long-standing interest in the Surrealists, a movement that followed Dada, and with whom Tzara sometimes made common cause. And my first translation of Tzara for use in an audio piece, his elegy to proto-Surrealist Apollinaire, was unexpectedly popular here, the third most listened-to piece of last summer. So, time to look into some more Tzara I thought.
I own books that I could have searched, but they are poorly stored and arranged, and so I relied on our modern vade mecum, The Internet, to see what else might be out there to compose music with. A familiar search engine found 122,000 results for Tzara poems, but of course all is relative. One of my favorite French Surrealist poets, Paul Éluard, still obscure to many English speakers, had 222,000 results, and Carl Sandburg turned up 448,000. Emily Dickinson? 23,000,000! So Tzara’s poetry is not as widely available as some. I did not look at all 122,000 results, but of the poems I found translated into English, a handful seemed to repeat, and looking through them, I eventually thought one titled “Vegetable Swallow” had the most potential for use along with music. Here is how it appeared on several web sites, in an unattributed English translation.
two smiles meet towards
the child-wheel of my zeal
the bloody baggage of creatures
made flesh in physical legends-lives
the nimble stags storms cloud over
rain falls under the scissors of
the dark hairdresser-furiously
swimming under the clashing arpeggios
in the machine’s sap grass
grows around with sharp eyes
here the share of our caresses
dead and departed with the waves
gives itself up to the judgment of time
parted by the meridian of hairs
non strikes in our hands
the spices of human pleasures
Why did I select “Vegetable Swallow?” It was a good, short length. It seemed to have some musical qualities. I liked how it concluded. Some of it was incomprehensible at first take—but it’s Dada isn’t it. This is, after all, a poet who taunted the art-world with the idea that randomly arranged words could be compared to the value of recognized literary art.
I found I had preferred my own translation of Tzara’s “The Death of Apollinaire,” and so I aimed to do my own translation of “Vegetable Swallow” too.
As I started work on “Vegetable Swallow,” I first had to find it in the original French. After some searching, I found an edition of Tzara’s “Poésies Complètes” to work from. Right from the top, at the title, I started to dissent from the English translation used elsewhere. Perhaps you read “Vegetable Swallow” as Dada: two unrelated words jammed together for the effect of absurdity, but one could also read it in English as a compression of the phrase “Eat your vegetables,” which can be a parent’s command, or a commonplace for feeling obligated to do the unpleasant but necessary thing. But in French, swallow as a verb is not the same word as swallow the bird. Tzara used: “Hirondelle,” and as Minnesota’s own Dada bards The Trashmen once proclaimed: “The Bird is the Word.” I would have chosen “Vegetable Martin” or “Vegetable Bird” as the title, because I clearly think I’m conveying Tzara’s presentation more accurately there—even though, in this case, I’m making the title more hermetic.
The next major puzzle I have is with the second line “l’enfant—une roue de ma ferveur.” In the online text the em dash has changed to a hypen, and we are pressed to visualize a compound noun “child-wheel,” rather than to break the thought after child/l’enfant. I made a more speculative translation of roue/wheel, when I saw that the same French word is used for the gymnastic “cartwheel”. Cartwheel is a very specific, vivid image. It’s also an inside joke relating to the story that Paul Éluard met his wife when she literally cartwheeled down the street. It does the job of making a hyphenated “child-wheel” comprehensible, even if child-wheel’s presence in the Internet version may be a typographical misunderstanding.
In summary, the first stanza is two lovers together, embracing (or at least realizing/admitting) their carnal physicality.
The second stanza to me describes a rain storm above our two lovers. I can’t tell if stags are the storm clouds, or creatures caught in the storm. I chose caught in the storm. Next up I probably make my own mistake, which I’m catching only now. I translated “coiffeur” as simply hair because one of my computer translators had it as hair and I didn’t double-check that, when it now looks like “barber” or “hairdresser,” as in the Internet version, is more likely correct. I love the image of the rain falling down like hair cut by the barber’s scissors. Maybe the image works better if the focus is on the dark hair as heavy rain instead of the immaterial hairdresser, but still, I’m likely wrong on what Tzara wrote.
I make the syntax of the third stanza more English, and I make the most substantial and speculative change in the last line there. I understand “mordues” to not mean dead, as the Internet version has it. It can mean bitten as a verb or a fan/fanatic as a noun from what I find. I chose to go with the fanatic choice. And “parties” can mean part, but it can also be used for a political or other faction. From my choice of “fanatic” I could have then gone with “faction” for the French “parties,” but instead I chose the image of the swirling waves as a convention of fans or fanatics. I liked that image in as a presentation of two ardent lovers sharing caresses within the stanza, but now I’m thinking maybe I should have gone with the ideas of bitten and apart, as it would foreshadow the final stanza to a degree.
In the final stanza, I change around some syntax a bit too, but, in the next to last line, I confront a typo, repeated over and over as the other translation is duplicated on the Internet: “non strikes in our hands.” This is surely Dada! Is this a crossword-puzzle clue for baseball fans with a naughty testicular subtext (but what does Tzara know of baseball?) Or is it a cry against our complicity in the suppression of organized labor’s rights? A clumsy bowler approaching the lane, about to roll another gutter-ball? Such rich poetry!
No. It’s a missing “o.”
Here again, accessing the original French helps, though I should have distrusted one of my machine translators more in other matters after it insisted on translating “midi”, the common French term for noon, as MIDI. Perhaps it knew that I would be using MIDI to play synthesizers from my guitar and little plastic keyboard?
Fixing the typo allows the poem to close strongly. The last stanza’s first line works in either the Internet translations more active voice (though I would have chosen the stronger “surrenders” to “gives up” if I went that way). My choice is more passive: “The hours’ judgement is offered.” I think the third stanza is something of a time-lagged aubade, were the lovers have reached a time (noon instead of the traditional dawn) when they must part. The Internet version of the next-to-last line, with the typo fixed: “noon strikes in our hands” is fine. My version, “gone noon in our hands” means to clarify what I feel is the image here, the reclining lovers atop each other, hands clasped together above their heads, like the hands of clock at noon, knowing they must part as the day reaches the border of PM (Post-Meridian); but typo fixed, the Internet version may be more accurate to what Tzara wrote. I’m afraid that by this point, I had been letting my poet half overtake my translator half, and I wanted the poem to end as well as it could by my lights, even if I was recasting what Tzara wrote to a sense of what I think he was getting at.
In the end, the Tristan Tzara poem “Vegetable Swallow” I found on the Internet in English is less of a Dada exercise in scourging language, and more of a sensuous love poem, albeit one with fresh images. And even if you are not an expert in the foreign language being translated, checking English translations against the original is revealing. Furthermore, just as in performing the work does, doing one’s own translations helps one see deeper into the choices the poet made.
So yesterday, proud of my work, I was disparaging the unknown translator of the “Internet Version” of “Vegetable Swallow.” Reviewing and double-checking my work after the deadlines of performance and recording were finished, his work comes off better upon further review. In the second and fourth stanzas, his work is more accurate than mine, and arguably better than mine (even if I’m doing the scoring). And with the hilarious “non strikes” typo, he’s blameless.
And from further research last night, I think I can identify the translator of the Internet version: it’s Lee Harwood. I was even able to find an audio link on the web where he reads “Vegetable Swallow.” Even just hearing the modesty in his voice at midnight, him reading “Vegetable Swallow” across the network as I stayed up too late tracking this down, I wished I could sit down with him and ask him more about his own work and that of Tristan Tzara. Alas, he died two years ago this summer.
Several Internet sites use Lee Harwood’s translations of Tzara, yet do not credit him.
For easy reference, here are links to the players of my translations and performances of Tristan Tzara’s “Vegetable Swallow” and “The Death of Apollinaire.”