After Apple Picking

Around America people are getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, a sort of remembered harvest festival, now a family get-together mostly celebrated by eating as most Americans are separated from farm work by some distance and decades. However, back in 1914, American poet Robert Frost was close enough to that work to write a masterful and closely observed poem about harvest time that I’m going to present for today: “After Apple Picking.”  While I hope you’ll listen to my audio performance with my original music below, here’s a link to the poem in case you’d like to follow along with the text.

This poem is full of sensuous detail. Encountering it — even if you don’t do farm work — you should feel the completion and weariness of the poem’s speaker who is falling asleep at the end of his harvest season. The poem’s farmer has been working in an orchard, and that place is full of the scent of apples. In a fall orchard such as this, much of this scent may be from fallen apples which, even as they start to rot, give off a sweet musk. And it’s frost time, not just the poet’s name on the poem, but the livestock water-trough has a frozen sheet on top, so the picker has been racing against a loss of the crop. In a piece of rural surrealism, the farmer has, that morning, picked up a plate of this surface ice —which would be thin, wavy, and fragile — and looks through it as if they are magic spectacles at the morning frost on the grass. This lasts but a moment, the magic glass will disintegrate in his hands, but that’s of no matter, there’s work to complete.

While falling asleep his body is still weary, his feet are sore from standing on the round ladder rungs, but as dreams approach his mind once more magnifies and intensifies reality like the view through the wavy ice sheet, and he’s haunted by apples, by his job of picking and inspecting, his rush against the end of season frost.

As the poem moves to its conclusion the farmer seems to imply that his work to gather the crop before it’s lost is like unto the work of salvation. We might remember and notice that the poem started with a ladder pointing “toward heaven.” And those apples that touch the earth are held by it and not offered heavenly worth.

Frost ends his poem whimsically, not with an angel or a prayer, but with a small rodent, the woodchuck, which hibernates (“his long sleep”) in the winter. As the farmer falls off to sleep, he wonders how long a rest he has earned.

How big a slice of apple pie do you want? Stand back, I’ll cut you a piece.

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When Frost wrote this poem about a third of Americans were farmers and farm workers. Now, most of us have other labors. Our harvests may not be food, we may not be tied to the cycle of seasons as exactly. My wife will be getting time off from working in a medical clinic, where she works to gather as many as she can, and Thursday she’ll be making a meal for us and her mother with dementia. I’m working past midnight to bring you a presentation of this poem. Our labors are many, they may make us weary, but perhaps, yet, we can be thankful for them.

My audio performance of Robert Frost’s harvest poem “After Apple Picking”  can be heard with the player gadget below, or with this highlighted hyperlink. My music today is percussion, piano, cello, two violins, horn, and harp.

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A Verb or a Title

Today was a not-too-old, but widely observed American holiday. Yesterday was Thanksgiving, a holiday initiated by some indigenous Americans and some illegal immigrants who celebrated a military alliance and an autumn harvest together in the 17th century. As one native wit put it: we did the giving, we got no thanks. Invasion and conquest, colonial crimes—there’s no American exceptionalism in that.

Still and all, Thanksgiving’s purpose is generally to recognize a day to be grateful for what one has, the sufficiency of family, friends, life, community.

The day that follows, now given the unlikely name of “Black Friday,” reflects another facet of American culture: it purports to be a day designated to try to purchase all those things one doesn’t have,  or those things one thinks friends and family don’t have yet and should get for Christmas. What an odd juxtaposition!

What did I buy for Black Friday? I watched a streamed Patti Smith concert. A minor expense with no crowds and no rush to get the last one before it’s out of stock—though with artists of my age, in our time, there’s always the chance that what performers once offered will soon go out of stock faster than big-screen TVs or whatever Apple Corp object is offered in our naked garden. Patti Smith has spent much of her life cultivating a vocation as an American artist, earnestly so. That earnestness is a strong spice in her presentation, not to all tastes, but I found it helpful as a young person. She once chanted “I am an American Artist, and I have no guilt!” I suspect that wasn’t a report of something achieved, but a maxim to goad herself toward a goal. She got further to her goals than I did, but for either of us—and for you—a question is brought forward: is artist a verb or a honorary title?

Shopping needs answered with my virtual ticket, I enjoyed the concert during which she reminded the audience that tomorrow is William Blake’s birthday. Ah Blake, another inspirational artist. When I was still a teenager the idea that someone could remove the scrim in front of reality and converse with what they found there was a romantic temptation, but also there was this other thing: Blake marshalled enough skills technical as well as artistic and creative to make his art books with only as much resources as he could obtain, often by being his own technical arm.

A visionary depiction of Black Friday shopping? “The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan” by William Blake. Note that Admiral Nelson is wearing his mask way too low for these Covid-19 times.

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This project is about to present its 500th audio piece. It’s been a stout 4 years and a few odd months work. I often think of how much better it would be if I had additional musicians and singers who can do more than I can muster. I listen to work of other recordists whose audio quality surpasses mine, but for William Blake’s birthday this highlighted section is a link to a post from way back at the beginning of this project that talks not of Blake’s birth, but of the day he died. It discloses an unusual connection and possible inspiration to another set of poets who came by that place much later.

Longfellow’s Harvest Moon

What value is mystery and strangeness to gratitude, to a sense of thanks? Let me try an experiment with you here.

American Thanksgiving still retains a degree of its nature as a harvest festival, and so when looking for a text to use today I came upon this one by highly unfashionable poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Looking at the poem on the page one can see why modern poetic esteem may have passed Mr. Longfellow by. It’s a sonnet, intricately rhymed (ABBAABBA CDECDE), an antique skill that we no longer appreciate as much. Its imagery is both pat and removed from most of our daily lives, a rural landscape at night before the coming of electric lights, where moonlight can illuminate reflective objects and cast discernable if low-contrast shadows. Harvest signs include loaded wagons (“wains” is the charming old word for wagons chosen perhaps for rhyming needs), bundled sheaves of grain after reaping by hand, the changing of the bird population, falling leaves. In summary, we have imagery that is largely meaningless or lacking impact to us today in our modern America. It looks like stuff that is, and justly is, filed away in dusty poetry collections.

Harvest Moon

An illustration for “The Harvest Moon” from an 1880 edition of Longfellow poems

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But what if we were to experiment a bit with Longfellow, and make him stranger and more mysterious? After all, this past rural world is now alien to most of us as some far-off land. And Longfellow, who we mistake as a rote poet here, has a subtle point to make, one that cultured British people might excavate and polish if this were a poem by Shelley or Keats, but which Americans may be too willing to overlook due to the old modes of Longfellow’s poetry.

In today’s performance of Longfellow’s “The Harvest Moon”  I attempt that act of mysteriousation. It started with breaking up the lines and underemphasizing the end-rhyme. This lets it act as an occult undercurrent, rather than a regular chime we know is coming. I sing the words as if this is new and not fully understood to the singer or listener. And as I often do here, I make the music I wrote and performed carry a lot of the load. The main harmony is carried by a 12-string acoustic guitar, which is playing primarily suspended chords, chords that remove the 3rd of the scale that makes a chord major or minor, and replaces that significant note instead with a not fully discordant but unexpected 2nd or 4th. The bass plays a busy but similarly unsettled melody line under this. And as a final signal that we are to regard this old American landscape with a time-tourists’ eye, and not as an old poem full of discarded conventions, I play a higher melody line and drone on a sitar,*  an instrument from another continent.

All that distancing effect is to force the listener to hear this poem as if it may have some meaning other than a decorative picture of a quaint and therefore meaningless scene. Longfellow outright begs us to do this in the text when he writes “All things are symbols.” This poem is late Longfellow, he’s nearly 70 when he wrote this, his America has passed through a horrible civil war, his life has passed through multiple family sorrows, and he is now an old man. The songbirds gone here are but counters perhaps, but his life of poetry is nearing its close. He’s spent his life helping establish that there can and should be an American poetry, that there can be American poets. We are them. Our grandparents and great-grandparents are the children asleep in those strange and now far-off curtained rooms. We are the piping quails, grounded birds gorging on the grain-seeds fallen to the under-shadows of the harvested sheaves.

Let us be grateful, let us be thankful, for those before us. Wrong and right they labored for us. Enslaved and wrongful masters they planted and harvested on lands that cannot forget the exiled feet of those before us. How strange, that it was exiles and the tempest-tossed that appropriated this place. Exiles creating exiles. There is a mystery in that.

The player gadget for my performance of “The Harvest Moon”  should be below. If you don’t see the player gadget, you can try to use this highlighted hyperlink to hear it instead.

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*If you visualize me sitting cross-legged on a damask pillow with incense wafting in paisley curlicues while plucking on that elaborate musical device, it may be good for the effect of the piece—but in the spirit of full disclosure I’m playing a MIDI guitar here which allows my plucking to be translated into the notes and sounds of that difficult to maintain and master South Asian instrument.

Fire Dreams, or Carl Sandburg’s Come On, Pilgrim

Emily Dickinson isn’t the only one of this project’s favorite American poets to write a Thanksgiving poem. Carl Sandburg did so too.

Long time readers here will know how much I like Sandburg and how often I like to speak toward the canon-keepers to point out that early Sandburg was a devoted Modernist with a strong American democratic take on Imagism, one that kept to Imagism’s unfussy and concise mode of expression without dressing itself up with any unnecessary scholastic references. Of course, I’m no opinion-shaper, and even if William Carlos Williams has undergone a reassessment as a domestic Modernist of the same era, Sandburg doesn’t seem to have benefited from the same second look.

Sandburg and David Byrne seperated at birth

My title may reference the Pixies and Larry Norman, but I think this Edward Steichen image of Sandburg looks a little like David Byrne.

 

I think this is a great pity. A poem like Sandburg’s “Clark Street Bridge”  is as perfect an Imagist poem as any written in London or Paris, and Sandburg’s subject matter and life-experience is broader than most of his fellow Modernists, because he traveled across America with his Imagist eye and working-class soul.

That said, I have to say that today’s Sandburg text is a partial example of why this might be so. This is the kind of Sandburg poem that people think  he wrote. It’s somewhat sentimental, unquestioningly patriotic, and there are almost no strong, immediate Imagist images in it. Although it’s not that long-winded, it seems to me longer than it is—and if it had broken into a Whitmanesque catalog of a hundred things at least it would have the courage of its convictions.

So, it’s a Thanksgiving poem, but it’s not great Sandburg. Why bother?

Its central Pilgrim history myth may not be entirely accurate, but it is a good story—one that children were told in his time and mine, and perhaps even sometimes now: tempest-tossed dissenting religious immigrants undergoing tremendous trials. For good or bad, Sandburg leaves out the native Americans who helped them survive,* and who were rewarded with a few decades of peace before the wars of conquest ignited in the Pilgrims’ region.

Historians like to point out that the Pilgrim Thanksgiving didn’t include most of the foods that we’ve come to expect for the modern American holiday harvest meal. Sandburg reduces it to “soup and a little less than a hobo handout today,” which is also inaccurate but makes the connection he’s trying to make. America always has pilgrims like these somewhat mythologized Pilgrims. Sandburg, the child of working-class immigrants knew this completely, the ones who worship the God of broken hearts and empty hands.

And though he doesn’t show it here, Sandburg also fully knows the imperfection of America, and yet still wishes to say yes to gratitude, to thanks “if so be” for himself and his child.**  He wishes to say yes before perfection—and continue yes “Till the finish is come and gone.”

So, while this is not the poem to restore Sandburg’s rightful place in Modernism, I think it’s still worth hearing on this holiday. The full text of the poem is here, and the player to hear the LYL Band perform it live*** is below.

 

 

 

 

*In hearing the story of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving as a child I never absorbed the full story of Squanto (Tisquantum,) which deserves to be better explored. There is a long and detailed Wikipedia entry on the context of this American.

**And before we leave that, let me point out that Sandburg is the rare Modernist who deals with children wholeheartedly.

***LYL principals Dave Moore and myself are both dealing with the inability for our hands to follow what musical precepts we hold, and this has reduced the appearance here of the more spontaneous LYL Band recordings. I’ve been missing that element and we’re trying to do what we can.

One day there is of the series: Emily Dickinson’s Thanksgiving, sort of

Did you know that Emily Dickinson wrote a Thanksgiving poem? It’s not one of her “Greatest Hits” or anything, but it does represent a couple of Dickinsonian traits: skeptical humor and puzzling philosophical concision. You can read the text of it here as I discuss my encounter with it.

Dickinson didn’t use titles, and the first line, our entry into the poem, starts off with a strange tentativeness. What’s the series? All the days of our lives, of history? Or a series of holidays? I suspect the last, in that the next line throws up the American holiday inside quotes. It’s hard not to read “Thanksgiving Day” in Dickinson’s text without intonating the words with “air quotes,” that at least slightly dismissive way of saying “Well, you can call it that  if you want.”

I’m not a Dickinson scholar but I get the impression that Dickinson uses quotes literally—that is, when she’s quoting someone*—but there is a sense here of our modern manner in the poems first half. And as the poem continues, its opening comments could be written this week by someone musing on the holiday. Yup, Thanksgiving is a strange mix: part a big meal, a gluttonous celebration; and part memories of worshiping dissenter pilgrims and family. And Dickinson, in her thirties as she wrote her poem, notes she’s not sitting at the kids table nor is she some honored elder closer to the pilgrims than the present. So, outsider in a middle place, she says she’ll post a review, from her “Hooded thinking.”

Maybe you’re visualizing The Handmaids Tale  when you read “Hooded.” I think Dickinson is taking a bit of a religious acolyte’s stance in her review, even if playfully. Her two-word review: “Reflex Holiday.” You’re just going through the motions she seems to be saying.

Emily Dickinson family portrait

One won’t get a turkey drumstick: Emily Dickinson on the left with her siblings.

 

The poem could end there, but Dickinson takes off in the second half in gnomic concision. This is often beautiful as word music, but it’s hard to follow her mind.

What’s the sharp subtraction for the early sum? A falling away from religious immediacy? Mankind’s fall from grace? Forgetting the history or piety of the holiday? The next two lines are even more weird. What the heck does “Not an acre or a Caption/Where was once a Room” mean? This is Dickinson the hermetic riddler. I’ve rolled that couplet around in my head for a week and it always slips from my grasp.

The tossed pebble wrinkling the sea lines have a Blakean tone. Here the mystic Dickinson is plain as any mystic can be in words: our lives, our actions, are small against creation—just visible, just for so long. Her final couplet seems to say that our thanks, our Reflex Holiday, is insufficient to the gift. This realization combined with the reflex action is, in a way, a more sublime and awe-some thanks.

What an odd poem! It starts out witty and lightly skeptical and (as best as I can figure it) closes on a humble mysticism.

Musically, I tried to hew to the mystery, if a strange resonant piano and wavery synth can portray that. The player is below. Thanks for reading and listening!

 

 

 

 

*If she is quoting a person, it may well be Sarah Hale, a New England journalist who campaigned for the importance of a Thanksgiving holiday during Dickinson’s day.

Thanks Owing

A holiday for it, so this is due.

yard turkeys

Have you changed out your summer flamingos for autumn yard turkeys yet?

“The Parlando Project,” my 2015 dream to present over a hundred audio pieces combining various words (mostly poetry) with various music, has now reached 155 officially published pieces. For those who’ve taken some of your attention and spent it listening to me present my take on the words of others, primary thanks is due to you. Despite the amount and variety of material I present here, I respect that your attention is precious. Thank you!

Thanks even to the unintended. The strange movements of technology and trade have allowed highly flexible musical instruments to become available at low prices. Most of what I use to make this did not exist one hundred years ago, and in the past few decades, the cost of these instruments, software and recording technology has declined into broad affordability.

Similarly, the Internet, so easy to dismiss for its mundane temptations, has made the availability of artistic materials “ubiquitous everywhere” that tautologies are sold.

Both of these things, the music technology and the Internet, are so enabling of creative work that it seems almost sinful to me to not apply my human imagination to them. But, as with many things, avoiding one sin leads to the commission of others. So, thanks also to my family for the forbearance that has allowed this project to get the amount of time and attention it asks for.

Thanks to Dave Moore, who lets me take a break from presenting my voice uninterrupted , and whose words are presented in some of the most listened-to pieces presented here.

Thanks to the Modernists of  100 to 150 years ago, who showed us fresh ways to use language, and shared their complicated hearts, heart’s beats, and apprehending eyes. Thanks also to their foresight to publish their work before 1924, so that we’re free to demonstrate to the still living what they did. Alas, the leading sadness in this project for me has been the large number of works by no longer living writers whose work you and I cannot speak publicly, because our copyright laws forbid it.

No new audio piece today, instead, here’s one of the first officially released pieces of the Parlando Project, words adapted from Dave Moore. I view it as being about the people left even farther behind than the signed artists of famous paintings. It’s called “Netherlands.”

I’ll let it be a reminder that there is a whole lot of material available here now, so using the Search… box or just click-wandering through the Archives months on the right will allow you to listen to more of the variety that Dave and I do.

Subscribing to the blog either through the “Follow” button near the top, or on the WordPress Reader, will let you know about new posts as they occur, or if you just want an easy way to get the new audio pieces for listening to them off-line, you can do that by subscribing to the “Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet”  podcast on  iTunes, Google Play Music, Player.FM, Stitcher, or wherever you get podcasts. The “Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet”   podcast is free of course. [note: I’d previously mentioned using the little orange RSS buttons to subscribe to the blog, and for those who have an RSS-aware app they will  still work, but the Follow button I’ve just added today makes this easier for most.]

Here’s the player to listen to “Netherlands”

Merry Autumn

Over the years I’ve developed a tough-enough way to be cheerful and productive, my own “grant heart” to myself. Though on the face of it, it sounds glum, I’ve learned it by reading about artists or from artists talking about their work, and it goes by this cheerful motto: “All artists fail.”

All artists fail more than they succeed. Every. One. No artist is so broadly popular that everyone likes their work. Even those that might gain a plurality of some kind, for some time, that likes their work, will find most of that group “ignoring” them most of their lives, because our attention is so precious and limited as audiences. One’s privilege as an artist is to get to fail again. If you don’t like how you’re failing, fail better, or fail differently, fail more often.

And even those artists we think of as succeeding sometimes, sometime find themselves succeeding in misunderstanding or misapprehension.

How can this knowledge help us, grant us heart, and not crush us? Anyone who makes things should carry in themselves the conviction that the world needs more of what they do, even if they or the world don’t know it yet. We are making more of what needs to exist, though that may fail when the world doesn’t know what to make of it. It may fail because we are wrong about its necessity. And it can fail because of how we choose to manifest our art.

Are we good enough to manifest our art so that it will not fail all the time? If our desire, our artistic conviction, is somewhere around helping heal the world and cleanse it’s perceptions, you may take that as beside the point. Decades ago, in the early days of the modern emergency medical system, I once helped receive a patient in cardiac arrest as they arrived at an ER, delivered by a volunteer ambulance corps. The man in the back of the rig, still in the human heat and confusion of the moment, said that he would have performed CPR, but that his certification for CPR had expired.

Well, you have to try, even though CPR then, as I suspect it does now, mostly fails. Art, even good art, usually changes our perceptions for only moments, leaving us nearly as deaf, blind and numb afterward. If art can heal the world, it’s a long course of treatment, and its healing is imperceptibly slow.

So, if you want to make art, want to write or make music, take heart and make sure your goal is to cleanse perception or heal the world. Add to your goals one more precept, to try to not bore the audience when it grants you it’s precious attention. If you want to create art because you want to succeed, consider a lottery ticket instead.

What a roundabout way to get to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Thanksgiving poem “Merry Autumn.”  How did the poet Dunbar “fail?” The child of two enslaved African-Americans, raised by a mother who learned to read to help educate her son, Dunbar was able by the age of 21 to gather some appreciation for his poetry, which spoke in three voices. Voice one was that of an accomplished 19th century poet who spoke like the East Coast “Fireside Poets” such as Longfellow, using a middle-Atlantic diction that may sound slightly old fashioned to us, but was the established voice of poetry in America at the time. We in the 21st Century may hear the peculiarities of that voice from our vantage point in time, but it would probably have not seemed like a dialect at all to his contemporaries. He also wrote in two other American dialects, and dialects were a great American literary fad of the late 19th Century. We might rarely encounter the remnants of this fad in Mark Twain or some other regionalist writers nowadays, but the idea of using written English to represent the different pronunciation and syntax of a big country before broadcast media was an artistic and commercial success of the time. Dunbar’s poems, then, also “spoke” in an informal, less-educated Midwestern dialect, and in what was considered as the southern black dialect of the time.

Dunbar Live!

Ich bin nur einer meiner vielen Munde und jener, welcher sich am frühesten schliesst.”

 

It’s hard to say how accurate this black dialect was. Dunbar’s mother likely would have spoken in it. Even though we’re speaking about speaking of just a bit more than a century ago, it may come down to the same informed guessing that allows actors to perform Shakespeare in “original pronunciation” productions. And Dunbar’s transcribed accuracy aside, how it would be read by fellow African-Americans and how it would be read by Americans of European extraction would likely have differed greatly. On the page, his Afro-American dialect poems can look/sound like the black-face makeup minstrel-show dialect performed by successful white entertainers who perfected cultural appropriation for laughing audiences. The humble-brag of the Afro-American dialect poems may be abstractly similar to the tropes of the his Midwestern regionalist dialect language, but in the end, it was not “read” as similar by the predominate culture.

What did a young Dunbar think of all this as he wrote his poems in either of these languages? I do not know, but his dialect pieces were something he was praised for by the cultural critics of the time, and they no doubt aided his marketability. He eventually expressed despair at the concentration of the attention on the Afro-American dialect poems. Perhaps he had wanted to say that he’s all of these things: a black man, a Midwesterner, and a man who could sing a middle-Atlantic song as sweet as Longfellow or Whittier, and instead he was seen as the man to represent only the borough of his race in the eyes of those who did not share his experience. He had to try. He “failed.” Today we may be grateful for his failure.

Today’s piece “Merry Autumn,”  doesn’t show Dunbar’s later despair. It’s largely in the “Fireside Poets” mode, though he drops into informal Midwestern idiom once or twice. And following the precept to not bore the listener who lends their attention, he takes a contrarian stance toward the old poetic trope of Autumn symbolizing death and a fall to winter.

I sing it here with a folk-music type melody, an acoustic guitar, and some strings for accompaniment. Use the player below to hear it. Thanks for taking the time to listen!