I Saw a Peacock

There’s not much to say about the author of today’s words, as they are anonymous and somewhat older than I am—“I Saw a Peacock”  dates to sometime before 1655. Somewhat like Emily Dickinson’s “May-Flower”  poem, this poem is on the face of it a chronicle of wonders and mystery, but it can also be read as a puzzle. Here’s the text of it:

I Saw a Peacock, with a fiery tail,
I saw a Blazing Comet, drop down hail,
I saw a Cloud, with Ivy circled round,
I saw a sturdy Oak, creep on the ground,
I saw a Pismire, swallow up a Whale,
I saw a raging Sea, brim full of Ale,
I saw a Venice Glass, Sixteen foot deep,
I saw a well, full of mens’ tears that weep,
I saw their eyes, all in a flame of fire,
I saw a House, as big as the Moon and higher,
I saw the Sun, even in the midst of night,
I saw the man, that saw this wondrous sight.

 

The key to the puzzle is to read the lines starting at the middle and continuing to the middle of the next line. Read this way the things connected seem more commonplace and less mysterious. Given it’s age, there not a lot of out-dated words in it. A “pismire” is an ant.

Coppa_decorata_con_scene_di_carnevale

A Venice glass, not actual size.

 

This is a fairly sophisticated play with the powers of enjambment in a line of poetry, where the stop of the line makes one pause and consider (if only for a moment) the thought contained within the line, even if the thought is not actually completed yet. But I’ve chosen (as I did with Dickinson’s “May-Flower”)  to not perform it as just a riddle or exercise. Emily Dickinson’s poetry for her flower riddle was too mysterious and sensuous for me not to play to the mystery. Similarly, “I Saw a Peacock’s”  surface of surreal combinations of the like/unlike is too strong to not go with that side of the Mobius strip.

Although I just ran into “I Saw a Peacock”  this month, the poem has collected its fans over the centuries. I saw it at the Interesting Literature blog (which is, by the way). Writer Margaret Atwood once wrote that it was “The first poem I can remember that opened up the possibility of poetry for me.”

There is at least one other setting of this poem to music, a choral setting where the composer, Caroline Mallonee, uses a double choir to present both ways of reading the lines. That’s another artistic solution, different from my decision to present it “unsolved.”

My musical setting uses double instrumentation too. There’s a standard rock trio, albeit playing quietly (drum-set, electric bass, and electric guitar) and a quintet of double-bass, two cellos, violin and tuba.

You may have noticed I’ve been away from this blog for an interval of a few days as I work on another project this spring. I’ve noticed that folks are looking at the nearly 350 audio pieces we have here in our archives more and more, which is a great way to get your fix of music and words combining. To hear today’s piece, “I Saw a Peacock,”  use the player gadget below.

 

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Parlando Project Winter 2017–the Most Popular Piece of the Last Season

The last few days I’ve been looking back over the past three months at the audio pieces that received the most listens and likes from visitors here, and we’ve now counted up to the post revealing the most popular piece.

But before I get to that, let me let newer visitors here know what the Parlando Project is. For the past few years I’ve been experimenting with the ways that words can be used along with music. Most of the words are going to be poetry, if only because I like shorter pieces for this, and poetry accommodates that desire most easily. The music? My goal is: as varied as we can make it. The “we” here are largely myself and Dave Moore, who I’ve played with as the LYL Band since the late 1970s. Dave also is the alternative voice of the Parlando Project, one that’s read or sung several popular pieces during the history of this project.

Dave and I have also been writers (Dave’s also a cartoonist) since our youth, but this project is not, in it’s greater part, about presenting our written work. Rather it’s about looking at a variety of other people’s experiences and expressions, reacting to them, and seeking to embody them in a way we hope you’ll find interesting.

Do we turn the poems into songs? Sometimes. Sometimes they were, or were meant to be, songs anyway (Tagore and Campion for example). But often we aim for something that is cast between spoken word and chant. As best as I can figure out, this is akin to what William Butler Yeats once aimed to do with poetry and poetic drama, and he thought William Blake, Sappho and the Celtic bards did the same. And for myself, in addition to those Yeats pointed to, it’s my spin on what Jack Kerouac, John Lee Hooker, Allen Ginsberg, and Patti Smith (along with others) did.

Rap/Hip Hop does this too, but as varied as those artists’ approaches are, most of their tactics I can’t make work for me. No disrespect, it’s just my limitations.

Well, here’s the Parlando Project’s most popular piece from the last three months: Tristan Tzara’s “The Death of Apollinaire.”  It was number 3 last September, so it’s been getting the listens since last summer, yet it’s not one I selected because it was well-known or sure to be popular.

Tristan Tzara by Robert Delaunay

Accessorizing with knitted wear was the most important artistic dictum of Dada

Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of Dada, is not that widely available in English, and even the subject of this elegy, the influential Polish-French writer and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, has a fame that doesn’t transfer with full brightness off the European continent. I did my own translation from Tzara’s French for this piece. And though I’ve attempted to do this, off and on, since my youth, translating Surrealist, much less Dada, poetry into English has it’s extra complications: to what degree is an image meant to be impenetrable and random, meaningless as a stance; and to what degree is it instead a shockingly fresh juxtaposition?

I have a prejudice for the later. When I am translating poetry I take it for a given that I will not be able to convey the auditory music of the original, though I try to retain the musical development of its statements, and above all, I try to find English words and idiom that will grab the English-speaking reader’s interest with vividness.  This approach has it’s dangers, as I’m not enough of a scholar of the lives of writers or of the their languages to make the most informed decisions, but in the case of “The Death of Apollinaire”  I feel this leads to a very effective and affecting statement about the death of an artist still suffering from his battle wounds just after the end of the WWI.

My limitations aside, I hope I was faithful to Tzara’s voice, and I hope you’ll find it moving too. You can listen to it with the player below.

New pieces will be coming soon, so come back and check, or hit that “Follow this Blog” button up near the top-right to get notices of new pieces.

Vegetable Swallow

As I started doing some translations of Tristan Tzara, the man who was most famous for being one of the “Presidents of Dada,” I was surprised in more than one way.

Like some writers I’ve presented here, Tzara was known to me only by reputation, as a name, and that reputation was not only as a founder of Dada, but of being the theorist of its most nihilist and avant-garde wing. Dada as Tzara spoke of it seemed to say: let’s destroy everything, and see what remains. Sounds like a pretty fearsome guy, and from my generation’s punk rebellion in music, his reputation reminded me of the those just past the first wave of punk that bought into a first principle of denigrating everything that came before. That could be a useful corrective, a way to clear the creative mind from everything you feel has come to a dead end, whether it was “Tales of Topographic Oceans”  or Tennyson; the horrors of WWI or the denigrations of Reagan and Thatcher. Such a stance, pure as it is, has dangers of discarding the baby with the bain-eau.

Tzara also provoked with ideas like his “How to Make a Dada Poem:”

Take a newspaper

Take some scissors.

Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.

Cut out the article.

Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.

Shake gently.

Next take out each cutting one after the other.

Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.

The poem will resemble you.

And there you are–an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

One can read this and miss the satire in it (particularly that last line); or one can read this laughing, and miss the value in this practice, variations of which were carried out throughout the rest of the 20th Century by Surrealists and Beats and unclassifiable modernists like John Cage. I, myself, independently discovered an analogous method as a teenager, and composing pieces by randomly opening a dictionary and blindly pointing with a finger at word after word. And Tzara did publish pieces that seemed to be just such an assemblage of words and phrases, for example Bilan.”

Bilan by Tzara

Never Mind the Boustrophedon, Here’s a Tzara Poem as published in Dada magazine


Not only is “Bilan”  typographically incoherent, the phrases are such things as “the bloody revenge of the liberated two-step” or “satanic horoscope dilates under your vigor.”

I believe this sort of thing can work: as a corrective, as a breaker of writer’s-block, as a reminder of the random and irrational component in creation, and as an insight into the dead and clichéd language which infests all societies. I think it works best in small doses when needed, and longer pieces based on it, or continued reliance on it, can be analogous to over-reliance on laxatives.

So that was the Tzara I assumed I would meet as looked for pieces to translate and use here with music: a man with little to say other than to point out with broken language that language is broken.

And to some degree that was reinforced as I looked at the few English translations available on the web of his work. Occasional beautiful lines, perhaps of accidental beauty, mixed with incoherent lines. Here is a link to an English translation of a Tzara poem “Vegetable Swallow,”  though its translator is never credited on the several sites which have it with identical wording. This is the same poem which I use in today’s piece, but with my own translation from the original French.

I’ll talk more about what I found as I translated Tristan Tzara in my next post here, but I’ll summarize by saying that I found problems in the translation I linked to, surprising problems that sometimes feel to me a bit like reading the “bad quarto” of Shakespeare. I could be wrong in my interpretation of Tzara’s “Vegetable Swallow (Hirondelle Végétale)”— I am neither a scholar of Dada nor anything even close to a fluent French speaker—but I don’t even like the translation of the title, though I have kept it, because it may be what an English speaker is likely to know the poem as.  “Hirondelle” is French for the species of bird, the swallow. I might have my own inevitable and anachronistic “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”  connection with the swallow, but in the title’s context along with the English word “vegetable,” one thinks of that scary and prescriptive phrase from childhood: “Eat your vegetables”—not how it’d be understood in French.

Tristan Tzara photograph by Man RayYoung Bill Gates grayscale

Steve Jobs would have told the young Bill Gates (on the right) to try a black sweater
Tristan Tzara (on the left, photo by Man Ray) would have suggested a monocle.

In my translation, Tristan Tzara is providing something more like a Surrealist’s Lover’s Rock lyric—more Paul Éluard than Dan Bern hilariously parodying Bob Dylan. Musically, I’m not attempting reggae though. I’m not even sure what genre to call my composition on this one, but it is,  like Tzara proclaims, “Swimming in disparate arpeggios.”

To hear it, use the player below.

L’Amoureuse

I promise you, we will end up today very close to the love song of the last episode, though we will travel a ways before we get there.

I’ve not featured any French writers yet with the Parlando Project, but as this summer has used the words of many 20th Century English poets, we may be overdue for that, as the start of that century found some of them looking to the French for some new ways to write.

French poets started to go “modern” before the British poets, around the same time that Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were making their own breaks with past practice in America, so they had a head start, and their avant-garde was way past the supply lines of conventional narrative and sentiment by the time the 20th Century really got rolling.  The absurd casualties of WWI, largely fought in France and its neighboring countries, and so deadly to some of the generation of men doomed to fight in it, only accelerated the modernist direction away from the kind of meaning you might find in a political speech or battle plans.

This summer, 50 years ago, the Polish-French writer Guillaume Apollinaire coined a new word to describe a new way to approach the world in words: “Surrealism.” A few years later, his term was taken up by a group of artists who went about trying to practice a new idea, presented in 1924 as if it was a political manifesto, to write and create from:

“…The actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”

  The Surrealists went on from there, going in various directions, becoming less an idea and more of a brand—but stop and think for a moment, that original idea, isn’t it powerful? The idea that there is a reality that we agree not to apprehend, not to speak of, that we constantly reframe our thoughts to, isn’t that idea political as well as aesthetic?
 
You take the idea of Surrealism, add music to it, and later that century you get Bob Dylan. You take the idea of Surrealism, apply it to the current reality, and you are woke, not from the dream, but to the dream that should not be denied.

Today’s piece uses the words of one of the French Surrealists, Paul Éluard. Éluard, like many of the British poets of this era, was another veteran of WWI. One story of his war service was that, since he was a writer, his military superiors assigned him to the office tasked with writing the official letters to the relatives of the casualties, and such was the efficiency of modern war that he sometimes needed to write 150 of them a day. After a year of this, he asked to be sent to the frontline trenches.

Alphaville Capital of Pain book

Jean-Luc Godard’s film “Alphaville.”  “I love you” could be the ending.

 
I have exposed you several times this month to pieces about the horrors of war and slavery, but I also told you we must travel a ways to get to today’s piece. After the war, as a founding Surrealist, Éluard produced verse with strange images and seemingly arbitrary combinations—Surrealist tactics to break the conventions—but his great subject, against the night, pain, and suffering, was love. Perhaps after those 150-letters-a-day forced march, he too wanted to look to war’s opposite.

Paul Eluard and Gala 2

Paul Éluard and the beloved, Gala. Eyelids not visible in this picture.

“L’Amoureuse”  (The  Beloved) is one of Éluard’s most famous early works, and uses my English translation of his words. The LYL Band performance of it was recorded live several years ago. To hear it, use the player below.