Are Song Lyrics Poetry? Part One

Today, somewhere, someone probably asked this question for the first time, and yet I’ve been aware of this question for my entire adult life. So, before I try to address the question, let me ask first, how long have we been asking this?

The ancients didn’t ask it. It seems clear that if one goes far enough back in most cultures it was taken for granted that poetry would be sung or accompanied by music. It seemed to make little difference if it was an epic story or a condensed lyric expression, music was assumed as appropriate bordering on required.

Was there a progression away from music being expected with poetry in those times? I wish I could say I was scholar enough to answer that question here. As literacy became widespread, as the collecting of libraries increased, I assume more people may have read Homer or Sappho* on the page than heard their works performed. And similarly, when Confucius and his school collected The Book of Songs  they may not have assumed that each student would learn to sing and accompany each of them. Still it would have been absurd then for someone to judge that these works could not be poetry because musical accompaniment and performance had been associated with them.

Plectra and Sappho

Let’s see, one of these ought to work….And Sappho holding her plectrum in right hand

 

If we stay with English language and move on, we know that the Elizabethans recognized some poetry as destined for the printing press’s page, some for performance on the stage, and some for musical settings as songs. Poetry could be associated with music, but it wasn’t the default.

Continuing to sweep forward quickly, a few Romantics like Robert Burns wrote songs and Blake was reported to sing some of his work as well. Some of the prime British Isles romantics wrote literary ballads or the like, works that referred to song forms but without associated music, meant to be seen on the page.

Likewise, there seem to be only a scattered few in the late-Romantic/Victorian era and onto the early English language Modernists who were musical composers and poets or who assumed musical performance for their chief works. Long-time readers here will know that I like to point to Yeats as an exceptional example to this. For a time he pushed for poetry as performance with music and may even have composed or aided in the composition of some of the accompanying tunes. Little of his crusade survives, though it’s possible that one of the tunes to which his poem “The Song of the Wandering Aengus”  aka “The Golden Apples of the Sun”  is sometimes sung might be his, or personally approved by him.

That Yeats was closely associated with drama and theater may have something to do with this. Newly composed poetic drama is an uncommon form in the modern era, but drama normally presumes performance. Although readings by poets are common in the 20th and 21st century, the nature of the performances vary considerably, and it became common for poets to give dry readings that by the writer/reader’s nature or intent drained dramatic and performance elements from the reading.

Let’s stop for a moment and consider two unlike American poets who emerged in the early 20th century: Vachel Lindsay and T. S. Eliot. Lindsay, who came and went well before the first Beat poet stepped in front of a jazz combo can easily be seen as the original slam performance poet.

He wrote his poetry expecting to perform it. Associated with that expectation, his writing is designed to impact the back row of the auditorium immediately, and if he ever wrote a poem with layers of meaning or intentional ambiguity, I’ve never come upon it.

Eliot on the other hand, read somberly in public, but as much (or more) as Lindsay he seemed to inform his poetry with music. As I return to my serialized performance of his masterwork “The Waste Land”  this month I’m reminded of music’s considerable presence in it. He samples music in his great poem just as a modern hip hop composer might, dropping in scurrilous barracks ballads, pop songs, Wagner opera, and birdsong. He didn’t perform it as floridly as he wrote it, and so even if “The Waste Land”  bore an original working title of “He Do the Police in Different Voices”  Eliot does not do the voices when reading it, nor does he sing the music he’s decidedly referencing. It can  be performed however, and while the poem’s detailed layers and references won’t come through in one sitting, a performance like Fiona Shaw’s illuminates the emotional and character range in it better than anyone’s silent first (or probably tenth) reading of it will.

My performance of “The Waste Land,”  now about half complete, attempts to bring the abstracted music back to life in the poem, even if I reserve the right to select genres and modes of expression that Eliot might not expect.

When I perform a poem like Vachel Lindsay’s “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight”  I expect you’ll get as much, or perhaps even more, from hearing it once as you would reading it on a page.

One of the knocks on poetry with music, or performing poetry in general, has been that it doesn’t help subtle and complex thoughts in poetry come through the way that slow reading on a page where one can look up and down the page at will does. I’ll agree there’s a non-linearity in reading poetry on the page that is difficult to translate into performance. But does musical performance of words prevent “re-reading”?

Music rejoices in repetition. Words used with music often take on refrains and repeated sections. I will sometimes create such refrains even if the original page poem doesn’t include them. Gospel and other ecstatic performance styles have been known to drill down to word or syllable level in repetition, again, somewhat compensating for that weakness of performed poetry vs. its non-linear presence on the page.

Particularly with recordings (although repeated performances have the same virtue) you can re-experience the poetic text for comprehension of different levels or different vectors of observation.

When I’m attending a poetry reading, I’m often worried that I will not be able to keep up the level of attention on the poet’s words as they read them throughout an entire night. This is irrespective of the value or quality of the poetry. A good poet is quite likely to cause my mind to explode with exploration engendered by a line, and I’ll find on my return that I have missed the rest of the poem! And a really good poem can blank out the next several poems.

On the other hand, a simple text like Otis Redding’s song “Respect”  as performed by Aretha Franklin and band can bear (for me) hundreds of listens. I will notice new things each time, or given the decades over which I’ve heard it, I may re-notice things I’ve forgotten I’ve noticed before. These revisits will also reach favorite moments where I wait for pleasures to return. A knottier text like Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman”  once seemed like a way to vicariously experience a certain kind of demimonde I was only peripherally experienced in. Listening to it over my life tested it against theories that it was about gender fluidity, or that it was a patriarchal endorsement of the male gaze and privilege, and now I usually hear it more as an expression of two addicts negotiating their other relationship besides the one to the chemicals and the situation that obtains them. It may be none of those things, or it may not always be one of those things. It may be something different the next time I listen to it.

Why shouldn’t Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is a thing with feathers”  or Wallace Stevens’ “To the Roaring Wind”  get the same chance? Of course we can re-read a page poem, or read it and double back to check some connection, but particularly with short poems, might not music encourage repeat play?

In this first part we’ve talked more about poetry and the perception that it has become increasingly separate from music. In the second part we’ll come from the other direction, and talk about song lyrics and that old, but not ageless, question about if they are poetry. I’ll leave you with my performance of Yeats’ “Wandering Aengus.” We don’t know exactly how Yeats would have wanted it performed, but his writing on poetry with music indicates he didn’t want the performer to sing it in an art-song manner. Perhaps I’m complying with his wishes, but then I can’t really pull off full-voiced art song.

 

 

 

*My favorite Sappho legend—as a guitar player that must have the right flat pick to approach the instrument—is that she invented the plectrum.

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The (Play with) Fire Sermon

We left “The Waste Land”  last time in certainty and doubt. For one of the few times the narrating voice of a part of “The Waste Land” has given its name. Yet despite the male pronoun I used throughout our last post, that narrator, Tiresias, is noted in mythology as having lived as both a man and a woman. Tiresias tells us as he? observes a loveless evening, a coupling between a typist and a clerk in a lower-middle class London apartment that “I Tiresias have foresuffered all enacted on this same divan or bed.” What does Tiresias mean by that line? That he knew the dreary outcome on account of his ability to foretell the future from listening to the sound of birds? Or does Tiresias mean Tiresias has lived as both a man and a woman, experiencing cold and selfish desires from both sides?

There’s a third possibility: Tiresias is both the typist and the clerk, the man and the woman—or at least as far as Tiresias second sight and bi-gendered history offers wider insight, Tiresias may be living and empathetically experiencing this section in a way that is almost that. In today’s section we stay with the woman (or Tiresias as the woman) and reflect on the aftermath of the tryst. That Eliot makes that choice bears noting.

I’m embarrassingly unfamiliar with most of Eliot’s later work after “The Waste Land,”  but by reputation and summary I’m unaware that gender fluidity features much in it, just as I’m unaware of any later works featuring a distinctly woman’s outlook. Eliot’s own romantic and inner emotional life has been subject to much conjecture, but at this point in time, influenced perhaps by his marriage and his wartime experiences teaching working-class women, he seems open to making an effort. Of course that doesn’t mean happy and fulfilled women, “The Waste Land”  features no creatures of any gender like that.

The title of this section of “The Waste Land,” “The Fire Sermon”  references a key lecture of the Buddha where he lists and describes all sensory inputs as burning, by which he means they are contaminated by inconstant and misleading desires. But as Eliot continues in painting his grubby and lifeless London, his portrait is largely passionless—sex and sexual matters are most often at the level of a business exchange. Eliot’s is not a straightaway dramatization of Buddha’s sermon, nor of the state of superseded desire Buddha preached as The Way. It is, however, a portrait of how a depressed individual views the world. Buddhists believe attachments to things desired brings suffering. Depressives may have achieved their state in reverse: suffering, they believe that nothing desired will bring joy.

Only at the end of today’s segment does any beauty sneak in. The narrator recalls being outside a bar, hearing music, and seeing “inexplicable splendor” in the interior of an old church. Where does it go from here? We’ll return to “The Waste Land”  later this month and take things up from there.

A moment in the glass, a record on the gramophone.

 

 

Musically today, I couldn’t resist a connection between “The Fire Sermon”  and its air of unsatisfying sexual barter and one of the earliest successful songs written by Jagger and Richards of the Rolling Stones: “Play with Fire.”  I played off that song’s chorus riff somewhat, but my piece is so slowed down that it sounds like a 45 rpm single being played at 33 1/3 rpm. To hear my performance of the section of “The Fire Sermon”  I call “The (Play with) Fire Sermon,”  use the gadget below. To follow along with the text of the poem, it’s here.

Let me also mention that if the grim details of our exploration of “The Waste Land”  isn’t to your taste, we have well over 300 other pieces here where we combine other words with original music in various styles.

 

Tiresias

Each April, as part of National Poetry Month I’ve been recording a performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  and presenting it here in serial fashion. This year we’re performing the third section of the poem, “The Fire Sermon.”

When we last left “The Fire Sermon”  we were by the not-so-sweet Thames river where (as elsewhere in the poem) voices and diction were constantly changing. We don’t know who, or how many “whos,” were speaking in that segment, but the narrator in today’s section identifies himself as Tiresias. As we’ll soon see, Tiresias is as shape-shifting in body as the poem has been in voices.

Tiresias’ has many characteristics in the various mythological tales told of him. He’s able to predict the future, and he does this by studying birds (augury) and in particular by studying birdsong.*  He’s blind but is able to perceive things anyway through second sight and acute hearing. He’s said to have been given the gift (or curse) of an extra-long life. He also has the ability to talk to the dead, and in some stories talk to the living after his death. But perhaps the most remarkable part of the Tiresias story is that he was transformed from a man to a woman, and back again.

Tiresias_striking_the_snakes

Tiresias as he is transformed into a woman by Hera because he killed a female snake.

 

We open not with Tiresias introducing himself, but with his encounter with a merchant, who seeks some kind of meetup with the narrator. There are some who tell us the meetup locations suggested indicate that the narrator is being propositioned for a homosexual tryst. If so, this would be consistent with the closing song in the “Sweet Thames”  section, referring to heterosexual prostitutes and that section’s opening in some kind of any-affiliation “after the party” ennui by the river. And so the theme is set: “The Fire Sermon”  is going to talk about sex and what passes for love.

Now Tiresias introduces himself, and his sexual fluidity, as he begins to tell what seems at first a straightforward story: a typist has come home to her small  apartment. Hers is a low-paid job in the early 20th century business/bureaucracy, one often filled by the new “working woman.” She’s taking care of after-work household necessities, including collecting her drying laundry scattered across the room’s couch (which also serves as her bed), and fixing a meal.

Tiresias tells us he already knows what’s going to happen, and since mythologically he’s told the fortunes of kings and heroes, he’s sort-of over-qualified to tell this story.

And sure enough, Tiresias tells us a young man (carbuncular, i.e. covered with zits) arrives. He’s another wage slave, a clerk, who affects a silk hat that he thinks makes him look like a wealthier man. The typist and the clerk have a meal the typist has cooked and then he, hurriedly, unromantically, and with no real consent, jumps her bones.

And here Tiresias tells us he’s not just seen this all before (in both senses of the phrase, as someone who can predict the future, but also as a demi-immortal for whom this story only changes costumes and scenery as it repeats) but that he’s experienced it as both genders.

And then it gets weirder. That back-story of Tiresias’ own history with sexual exploitation is told in a long compound sentence in parenthesis. Today’s section then ends with an unstated someone who “bestows one final patronizing kiss, and gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit” out of the apartment. Is that the young man carbuncular, or Tiresias, or are they one in the same? And for that matter what of the woman, the typist?

As they used to say in serials, tune in tomorrow, as our story continues. To listen to my performance of this segment of “The Waste Land”  use the player below.

 

 

 

 

*And birdsong acts as a bridge between our first segment of “The Fire Sermon”  and this one.

**There are a great many interpretations of “The Waste Land”  and its sections. Mine is far from the most learned. I could use footnotes to try to explain every reference and connection in the poem—at least until my learning and research ran out—but I’m choosing to resist cataloging all the connections and references, so that we can appreciate the poem as an impressionistic, imagistic, musical suite of scenes, voices, and songs. If you’d like to read along, here the whole poem.

Poetry in Gray, Part 2

As we continue our accelerated exploration of poetry for National Poetry Month, let’s look at another way that poetry, and in particular T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  manifested itself in popular culture in the black & white TV era.

Yesterday’s post about a Twilight Zone  episode shouldn’t be all that shocking. Rod Serling made his bones as a screenwriter first, and many of his TZ episodes were adaptations of short-stories, albeit genre short-stories that might not pass muster in Western Lit classes. Burgess Meredith, who embodied the Prufrockian Harold Bemis had a long career in stage plays that were literary adaptions as well, including directing Ulysses in Nighttown  and a touring production titled James Joyce’s Women.

Still, in the unnamed straddle-decade of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, science fiction and fantasy were rarer than televised literary adaptations. What was extraordinarily common was “Westerns.” A plethora of cowboys, gunfighters, sheriffs, horse-soldiers and ranchers rode the gray sage range. Watching them now I’m struck buy some things. They are often surprisingly violent. The small fuzzy low-contrast home screens wouldn’t have portrayed the later exploding blood-squib aesthetic of Peckinpaugh and Tarantino well then, but the Westerns of this era intensified the meanness, meaninglessness, and sadism to Jacobean revenge play levels.*

Paladin-Dylan 1

The moving pencil moustache writes, and fashion notices. Richard Boone as Paladin and Bob “Marshall” Dylan who’s taken to wearing dark western gear in his later years. Not pictured: Johnny “The Man in Black” Cash.

 

Taken in general they are also shockingly racially ignorant and ahistorical. The lead roles, the protagonists and antagonists, are nearly always white men, and then if the Western is a way to examine the historic violence of white men that could have its value, but it’s often white man against white man that is the central focus on the small screen. The issue of the conquest, displacement and decimation of First Nations people is rarely dealt with in any searching or complex way, and so that fault has become a commonplace in comments on the 20th century Western. What’s even more obtuse is the lack of any significant ethnicity beyond WASP-white. African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and first generation immigrants in general are all highly under-represented and when present, most always stereotyped.** Latin-American characters exist to a greater degree, given that much of the settings for these dramas would make it impossible to white-out them from history.

So, black & white television Westerns of this era are largely white & white.

I can’t hold it up as an exemplar in these matters, but my favorite of the era was Have Gun Will Travel.  It wasn’t consistent in mitigating these massive blind spots, but it had its moments.*** And as a half-hour drama, many episodes present almost poetic compression: striking unusual characters that exist for a scene only, tales told in only a few stanzas, epigrams dropped in as dialog. Watching a good episode is so unlike modern season-arcing prestige TV. You’re left to fill in the life before and after of most any character, and conflict doesn’t brew and simmer over hours, but often is “An intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”

Will Travel LP collage

‘50s TV may have bleached the Old West, but that didn’t mean Afro-Americans and others had to go along with that.

 

So how am I going to stretch things to bring“The Waste Land”  into this six-gun waving post before I wind it up? Well, the Have Gun Will Travel  “Waste Land”  referencing episode “Everyman”  is so bold-faced that the writer certainly intended it, though I can’t say if anyone thought many viewers would catch the in-jokes in between the cigarette and laxative commercials.

You can see the entire episode here. It’ll take you about 25 minutes to view.

This attempt to incorporate elements of “The Waste Land”  fails to succeed overall, but some things about it are still striking. The mysterious Danceman character (a Summoning of Everyman/Seventh Seal  dance of death reference?) could appear in a Bob Dylan song and not be out of place. The strange and sketchy dynamics in the shopkeeper and his daughter might subtly be riffing off “The Waste Land’s”  sexual anxiety.

Once more, let me leave you with a Parlando audio piece featuring the LYL Band using the words of Carl Sandburg, this time his “Long Guns”   which I mix with a little Howlin’ Wolf. The player is below. The full text of Sandburg’s poem is here. And as to Howlin’ Wolf, well you just need to seek him out, but the man learned at the feat of rural mixed-race early-20th century Modernist Charley Patton.

 

 

*Alternate reader and keyboardist here, Dave Moore wrote a chapbook about he and his brother watching these shows as kids and making a game of totaling up the dead. It’s certainly math of higher numbers. Even in the half-hour dramas, one can be fairly certain there will be death along with threats of death—often multiple deaths, often murders, along with executions, duels, and battle deaths.

**Historically, the “Old West” was demographically diverse, just as most frontiers are.

***Two examples: “The Hanging of Aaron Gibbs”  featuring singer/guitarist Odetta, and a flawed episode with some strong elements written by Gene Roddenberry “The Yuma Treasure.”

Poetry in Gray, Part 1

Continuing our exploration of National Poetry Month, let’s open another door. You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension—a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas…

Yes, I’m speaking of mid-20th century TV, and specifically The Twilight Zone.  Once more there is a revival of this series, helmed this time by the talented Jordon Peele. I think there’s something difficult in his task, one that may not matter in terms of audience or financial success, but one that I notice when I look at the old gray-screen stuff from 60 years ago. It’s two of those qualities I look for in poetry: compressed expression and memorability.

If older people remember some of those shows like poems, it’s because they were much more like poetry than prestigious television is today. For one thing the 30 minute drama was a thing. Isn’t this odd? We talk today about ever-shorter attention spans incessantly, as if we ourselves have forgotten that we’ve already talked about that subject—but the predominant television format today is the video equivalent of the serialized novel. Even the basest form of “reality TV’ shows are season-long arcs of hour-long episodes, and most of the prestige shows intelligent critics like to write about unwind over multi-season plots. That’s a valid concept, but it isn’t the only possible one. Those old 30 minute shows had to express the experience and clash of ideas fast, they weren’t about long-form character dynamics, they were about epiphanies.

Do folks feel they remember 21st century television episodes, in a sense they possess them completely as recollections of sensations and apprehensions; in the way that one possesses a poem, even one not completely memorized, where one may hold and carry a key stanza or final couplet in our mind?

There are several Twilight Zone  episodes that seem to have the quality of memorability shared with poetry. For the literary sort, the 1959 first season episode “Time Enough at Last”  starring Burgess Meredith as a man who so loves to read books would be one. The gist of the story is so memorable I’m not going to summarize the plot, because you’ll remember it if you saw it. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth the 25 minutes of your time, and there will be no spoilers here. Only the final (spoilers!) scene is available on YouTube, so don’t go there, but I expect some streaming services will have it.

Instead I’m here to note two small things you may have forgotten, though I have no idea if Twilight Zone’s  creator, producer, and screenwriter of this episode Rod Serling intended these details.*

TS Eliot and Harold Bemis

T. S. Eliot and Harold Bemis played by Burgess Meredith. Two bank clerks who’d rather be reading.

 

First off, Burgess Meredith’s character, Harold Bemis, works in a bank and his marriage is spectacularly dysfunctional. I found it odd that I hadn’t remembered the key scene between the married couple, which is so intentionally cruel and specific as to equal or exceed the empty-hearted offhand cruelty between men and women in “The Waste Land.”  Even if the wife’s character is stereotypically shrewish, the ending of their scene is so heartbreaking that I can’t say why it isn’t more remembered. Of course, the whole sexual politics of this echt-’50s trope of the controlling female denying the freedom of the male should be bothersome, but did the TV show intend to reference the scholarly T. S. Eliot circa the writing of “The Waste Land”  then working in a bank, famously hamstrung by his own dysfunctional marriage?

Probable? I can’t go that far, but it’s more of an outside possibility than you might think. T. S. Eliot was never Tennyson or Longfellow famous, but in the 1950s he was as well-known as a poet could be then**, and poetry was still considered something of a co-equal branch of literature, a substantial part of culture.

And that was the other detail that stood out watching “Time Enough at Last”  again. The couple’s scene revolves around Harold Bemis wanting to sneak a read of a book. A classic novel? A bit of science fiction or fantasy? Hemingway on bullfights and fly fishing? The Second Sex  in French? A hard-boiled detective yarn? Philosophy? History? A collection of “Can This Marriage Be Saved”  columns?

No, it’s A Book of Modern Poetry.  Bemis’ character says of it “This has lovely things in it, really. There’s one or two from T. S Eliot. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Robert Frost. Carl Sandburg.” My ears perked up. That’s the kind of stuff you find here!

Now Harold Bemis is also a stereotype, the nebbish, maybe the idea that the thing his domestic bank clerk life most wants is modern poetry is meant to underline that caricature—that he’s too bookish. It’s not like he wants to anachronistically read The Art of the Deal.  Despite the sadness of the scene, it cheered me, it could also mean to say, even a little, that that is what he needs.  And in any case, Serling at least thought that an audience in 1960 would know these poets in some way, even superficially. If Jordon Peele or someone would rewrite that scene today and his modern Bemis was to speak of Frank Bidart, Tychimba Jess, Peter Balakian, and Gregory Pardlo*** as the lovely things he most wished to read, would the audience read anything in those names?

Well those four poets could well have as much or more to say to us. Why wouldn’t they? On the other hand, I can perform the older poems I use here freely as I encounter them, and it would be a chore to try to get unencumbered use of current poets for my small project. So, here’s my performance of Carl Sandburg’s “At A Window,”  available with the player below, and full text to read along here. All four of the poets he mentions in his scene would have difficult messages that still might console Bemis, all four could write a lovely line, even about harrowing things. But I’d choose this one from Sandburg for him to read aloud.

 

*Serling’s screenplay was based on a 1953 If magazine short story by Lynn Venable. Venable also has Harold Bemis as henpecked and working in a bank, but her story has Harold’s spouse so dead-set against him reading that it’s said he hasn’t ever been able to finish a book, and the only book author name-checked in the entire story is Spinoza. Her scene between Bemis and his wife is told in a much blander flashback.

**Before there was a national poetry month, on April 30th 1956 T. S. Eliot spoke in the Twin Cities, filling one of the largest capacity basketball arenas in the country (somewhere between 14,000 and 18,000 capacity)—not for a mythic men’s Final Four between Eliot, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and Carl Sandburg, but for a solo lecture sure to pack’em in today: “The Frontiers of Criticism.”

***Those are the last four winners of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Unfair! Bemis’ book was an anthology of modern poetry, those poets he longs for all had been publishing for 40 years. But just for contrast, here are the poets who won the Pulitzer in the ‘50s, “recent years” to the 1959 TV screenplay: Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg, Marianne Moore, Archibald MacLeish, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, Robert Penn Warren, and Stanley Kunitz. Of course, poets in your rear-view mirror may appear larger/greater than they are to contemporaries, and it does look like the Pulitzer committee was more likely to give “lifetime achievement” awards in the ‘50s than they have been in our century.

Sweet Thames

Was I being audacious when I compared Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  to a modern hip hop/rap production sampling various parts and levels of the world’s culture? I don’t think so (though maybe I should be worried). I’m not going to get into a rap battle between T. S. Eliot vs. Missy Elliot, or a discussion about “Kendrick Lamar, is he a ‘real poet?” like my generation used to discuss Bob Dylan. My aging generational knowledge isn’t deep enough to discuss Lamar or Elliot as intelligently as I should. I’m more comfortable discussing folks who were born long before I was, but someone like Charley Patton is too O. G. to bring up here often. After all, T. S. Eliot and Charley Patton are my grandfather’s generation, born in the 19th century. People like me can be pretty good in figuring out what lessons our grandparent’s completed lives impart, not so good at what lessons our children should learn from us, and terrible at what lessons our children could teach us.

Charley Patton and T. S. Eliot

Charlie Patton and T. S. Eliot: two young swells put their best foot forward beside different rivers in the 1920s.

 

Eliot may have thought he was copying cubist paintings or cinema montage or some French poetry, but he chose this sampling tactic or he would have done something else. Who was Charlie Patton copying? I don’t know exactly. Maybe he made it up. Maybe some griot or indigenous shaman whispered it in his ear.

T. S. Eliot was his own kind of odd guy, odd to his contemporaries, even if he eventually became enormously influential in the Modernist literary movement that had taken over poetry education by the time I was a student. When I first introduced “The Waste Land”  here I said there’s two things you need to know to approach it, and they aren’t esoteric at all: first that it’s musical and intended to be, and second that it’s written by a person suffering from depression, a common human malady that colors and filters perception profoundly. Now, following my grappling with it in the past few years, I’ll add two more things, neither of which require reading about Grail legends or From Ritual to Romance  either: it’s written by a man writing for a culture coming out of a tremendous wartime trauma and it’s written by a man struggling to come to terms with human sexuality, it’s sins, pleasures, and disappointments.

On the war issues, Eliot is guiltily living, not dead, in a world where many others weren’t so lucky. Estimates vary, but somewhere between 15 and 19 million people were killed in WWI, the majority from the European theater that had become Eliot’s home. Given this level of death, it’s not surprising that Eliot personally knew people killed in the war. Most of his British literary contemporaries served in the war, he didn’t. Indeed, while WWI raged, he tried to disengage from the war, to continue to focus only on scholarly issues and his literary writing.*

Eliot’s an American from St. Louis in a foreign country and he’s gotta figure out how to trans-Atlantic code-switch. He goes in full-force, becoming so completely English that he eventually was able to style himself as an authority on what was appropriately British. After the conclusion of the war, as a literary critic he can write about “objective corelative” and all that, but he can no longer ignore the trauma his adopted country and the rest of Europe has suffered.

Last year’s segment “A Game of Chess”  rolled-up into one audio file in our last post, portrays marriage darkly and introduces rape and sexual coercion as one of the underlying themes in “The Waste Land.”  Here we know little about Eliot’s own experience, other than his marriage to an English woman was dysfunctional. As we move further into our section for this year, “The Fire Sermon,”  sexuality is further brought forward in an unflattering light.

As the section begins in the segment I call “Sweet Thames”  we’re back in a ruined landscape, the titular “Waste Land.”  The scene seems post a debauched party season, missing even the messy vitality of that. Eliot, a man who grew up near the banks of the southern Mississippi is now on the banks of London’s Thames river.

And then he, or some incarnation of the poem’s speaker, the many voices in Eliot’s head, is fishing. Following the literary and critical references, this is the Fisher King, and we could look to a trail of ancient myths, but I chose to keep it immediate and funky in performance. This is a dirty, river-rat frequented urban river. He wants us to know that he’s fishing next to a gashouse, which I take to be one of those now obsolete processing furnaces that turned coal into coal gas, a smelly and polluting process usually relegated to the worst part of town. The anachronistic pendant in me found this amusing, as a decade after ex-St. Louis boy Eliot wrote “The Waste Land”  his home-town Cardinals baseball team used to intimidate their opponents by wearing stinky unwashed uniforms and were given the nickname “The Gashouse Gang”  for their smell and general lack of decorum. There’s no known connection for this coincidence, but it’s good that they didn’t wait until later in “The Fire Sermon”  and to then become the World Series winners dubbed “The Young Men Carbuncular.”

As the section nears an end point another song-sample break is dropped,** the Mrs. Porter section. Eliot noted that it was an Australian army folk song, and further research indicates that the Mrs. Porter may have been a Cairo brothel keeper known to the ANZAC troops heading for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, where a dear friend of Eliot, Jean Verdenal was killed in battle. Depending on how salty the soldier-singer may have felt, the body parts being reported as washed varied.

I like to think that Charley Patton, further down the Mississippi river, might have known that tune, but since neither he nor T. S. Eliot are here to sing this, you can hear my performance using the gadget below. If you’d like to look at the text of “The Waste Land”  while you listen, the full text is here.

 

 

*Like Ezra Pound his overseas American citizenship status complicated things, and like Pound there are some stories that he made an effort to serve. Eliot did teach night-school literature classes to working-class English women during the war however, and it’s easy to speculate that he may have picked up things later incorporated into “The Waste Land”  from that experience.

**And for all you carpe diem fans, did you note the sample from Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress”  here, when just before Mrs. Porter soda-washing-song he says “But at my back from time to time I hear…” and instead of a winged chariot, it’s motorcar horns. If given the choice of grave or sex, I think Eliot would have held out for a third choice.

A Game of Chess, presenting T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” for National Poetry Month

Each April, as part of our celebration of National Poetry Month, the Parlando Project has been presenting in serial form T. S. Eliot’s High Modernist masterpiece “The Waste Land.”  This year, we’re up to the third section of the poem “The Fire Sermon,”  but before we present new material, I want to give our newer listeners/readers a chance to catch up.

It’s possible to read the entire “Waste Land”  aloud as a dramatic monolog in less than 40 minutes total time. Fiona Shaw has done this, and her performances of it cannot be praised or recommended enough. But for me personally (and this goes back to my first readings of the poem) I’ve always been struck by “The Waste Land’s”  intense musicality. The collage process of various voices is musical, and “The Waste Land’s”  constant changes in tone and insertion of quotes from other poetry eerily predict hip hop mix tapes in a 78 rpm world. Themes emerge and fall back and are then repeated later on, just as they do in long-form musical composition. Eliot even quotes song lyrics multiple times in the poem.

The Waste Land cover

He got $2,000 for service to letters, but our aim is to demonstrate the music in it

 

So, I’ve long dreamed of performing “The Waste Land”  with music—and now, as part of this project I’m realizing that dream on the installment plan. While I think the music can help bring some solace and additional shadings to Eliot’s unstinting look at human failure and limitations, the resulting performance is lengthy. It’s not the kind of thing I can take on creating and performing lightly—and to listen to it, even casually, is not light entertainment either. The Parlando Project normally focuses on shorter poetry, the lyric impulse. Almost all of our pieces are under 5 minutes, and we have hundreds of them available here. So, don’t feel obligated to listen to these longer “Waste Land”  pieces. They are not for everybody, and I believe they are consistent with Eliot’s design to write only for those willing to look at dark impulses and feelings, to weigh and consider them within your mind and heart.

Here’s “I. The Burial of the Dead,”  the first section that famously opens with “April is the cruellest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land…” which is likely a reason that April is U. S. National Poetry month (and may already be referring to another poem, Walt Whitman’s Lincoln elegy, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”)

 

 

 

And here’s last year’s contributions, the section “II. A Game of Chess”  rolled up into one piece for the first time here. I start out this one by making an ex-post-facto connection of Eliot’s lavish and dissipated opening of “A Game of Chess”  with the late-night, dragged out, “Ain’t it just like the night” style of Blonde on Blonde era Bob Dylan, and it ends with an appearance of a guest reader Heidi Randen for the monolog about Lil and Albert and their just-discharged-from-the war marriage.

 

 

This month we’ll continue our serial presentation of “The Waste Land”  with one of its longest sections, “III. The Fire Sermon.”  If you’d like to read along with the text of the poem while listening, the full poem is here. With these musical presentations I maintain that you can listen to them and not feel that you need to understand what the poem means in the essay-question sense, and instead only require the poem’s words to strike you with scattered connotations and impacts. There are a great many resources for those who would like to delve into deeper meanings of “The Waste Land,”  all the things that Eliot intended to put there—and also the things he only inherently and accidentally included. For those that enjoy that, there’s much there at that level, but I remind you of the concept I laid down a couple of posts back regarding Emily Dickinson’s much shorter poem: a poem isn’t so much about ideas, it’s about the experience of ideas.