Madame Sosostris

Look at a picture of T. S. Eliot. Chances are you’ll see a proper English gentleman looking back at you. You might suspect a teacher, or if not that, a bank officer. By the time he wrote “The Waste Land”  he’d been both, and the later job was considered by some in the Modernist circle a small scandal from which he needed to be rescued. Respectable, English, settled—you would trust him with your money or your child’s education.

T S Eliot looking very donish

T. S. Eliot in costume to play Harry Potter’s great-grandfather

 

Eventually Eliot became a British citizen, a confirmed Anglican Church believer, and a canonized poetic figure. So that man in the picture is what he intended to become. But the man who wrote “The Waste Land” wasn’t him yet, even if he could dress up as him for a portrait. What he was, was a thirtysomething American trying to engage a European culture that itself was now refugee after an unprecedented World War, a man also in a disastrous marriage and suffering from “doctor’s orders” depression.

Except for the World War part, one could, from some standpoints, look at this and file Eliot’s situation under “first-world problems, see also: middle-class white male.” And while WWI had profoundly changed Europe, Eliot seems to not have had any direct experience with the war, unlike many of the Modernist circle, so you could add to that “survivor’s guilt.” Let’s just center in on that depression part. That’s apropos, depressives are often told that their real situation is not as bad as all that.

I’ll blindly wager that many, probably most, reading this have suffered at some time from depression. Considered as a disease or syndrome, it’s a very common one, like aging or pregnancy—it’s not some rare, god-sent, lightning strike calamity. Yet, that’s not how it’s most often experienced. A depressed person feels trapped in themselves. One thing that is common to many in depression is the distrust of any judgement or decision. Whether it’s your own, or some outside others’, whether it’s a judgment of praise or damnation, you distrust that it’s true and fear that it is.

The Hanged Man

Is he being punished, or just looking at the world another way?

 

As we reach the “Madame Sosostris” section of “The Waste Land”  we meet a fortune teller, a line of work that should be helpful to one in this depressive trap. In Eliot’s intended scheme for the poem, she serves as a Deus ex Machina to introduce, as part of a pseudo Tarot card reading, some mythological themes of the poem. But if we are to understand the emotional core of “The Waste Land,”  which is the poetic expression of a person suffering from depression, the undercutting of her authority begins right away. If Madame Sosostris is some kind of enlightened and advanced being, she’s suffering from a mundane head cold. Her patter as she reads the cards is perfunctory, only occasionally rising to the level of oracular obscurantism, and she all to quickly jumps out of her clairvoyant trance to the details of delivering some work for the comically named “Mrs. Equitone.” There’s no relief, no reliable guidance here.

To hear my performance of  “Madame Sosostris”  from T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  use the player below. We’ll be returning to “The Waste Land”  as April, National Poetry Month (#npm2018) continues, but our next post will be celebrating a special milestone in the Parlando Project.

 

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Hyacinth Girl

Since April is National Poetry Month, let us return to that April epic of  High Modernism, T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”  Readers here will know that I’ve made great use of the works of the pioneering Modernists, that generation that formed itself on both sides of the Atlantic in the years before the outbreak of WWI.

We’ll continue to talk about them later, but for now I’ll point out that one thing they all shared was a commitment to shorter works with new imagery often drawn out of immediate contemporary experience. Given how I later encountered Modernism in Mid-20th Century American schools, I have been surprised at how simple, how commonplace, were the materials they used for their fresh imagery. Subtlety and ambiguity were not forgotten, but they were not belabored.

To “make it new” in this pre-WWI era, it was often to radically simplify. If traditional poetry was referred to, it was not the grand epics or the most serious verse of the past centuries, but the highly compressed Chinese and Japanese forms, Greek lyric fragments, or vernacular verse from folk traditions.

Modernism as it mutated after WWI had no such concentration. Grand themes and grand works were once more the best goal. Allusions to tradition abounded. As High Modernism marched forward toward my own Mid-Century youth, its poetry began to take an air of post-graduate knowledge as a pre-requisite to understanding or enjoyment.

Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  is a landmark for this change. I’m not an Eliot scholar. I won’t presume to psychoanalyze him accurately at the biographic point where he wrote this, with some key editorial re-shaping by Ezra Pound. As I said when I presented the opening section of “The Wasteland”  here last April, the poem is clearly informed by personal depression. Since a large percentage of contemporary people have experienced depression and grappled with it, parts of “The Waste Land”  communicate with us on an emotional, associative level even if we don’t understand it in a “pass the exam” way. This is good for the poem.

T S Eliot at the blackboard

I’ll show you fear in a handful of chalk dust! Evidence of T. S. Eliot trying to invent Sudoku.

 

Eliot’s complex, even maddening, use of distancing tactics in “The Waste Land:”   the rapid dislocation of location, time, speakers, and national language, along with a plan to make everything a possible reference to something else—usually something old and not mundanely immediate—is not at all like the pre-WWI Modernists. Still, that didn’t keep that sort of older Modernist style from breaking in every so often.

Today’s piece “Hyacinth Girl”  is one such part of “The Waste Land.”  If it had been presented as a standalone poem in one of the early Imagist anthologies it would have fit right in. There’s no post-graduate work necessary here, as was demonstrated by an 80s college-rock band who conceptionally used the same trope with no need for footnotes.

Not Eliot’s, nor my “Hyacinth Girl,” and not Winter Hours’ either. This is the original version by Ward 8, a predecessor band that make it sound more like the Velvet Underground.

Studied academically and considered as a part of the rest of the poem, Eliot’s “Hyacinth Girl” section needs not to be experienced this way, directly. One can consider any intended connection to the Greek myth of Apollo and Hyacinth and their tragic Frisbee accident with homoerotic overtones. I did so just yesterday, reading some papers and summaries of papers which if nothing else made me conscious of how often gender is unknown and shifting in “The Waste Land”—but I did this long after recording my performance of “Hyacinth Girl.”  I didn’t feel the need to revise it in the light of the papers or the classical reference, no more than I needed to know if it refers to Eliot’s girlfriend, or his wife, or a young man who was killed in WWI. Pound had once said that the image is “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”  Eliot seemed unsure that it should be only that, if that was enough, which lead him and Modernist poetry to some strange places and practices, but it didn’t stop such direct poetry from breaking into “The Waste Land’s”   manifesto of High Modernism.

To hear my performance of this part of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  use the player below. It starts out with just acoustic guitar and voice, but eventually some bass, strings and piano arrive. What would additional parts of “The Waste Land”  sound like if combined with eclectic original music? Stick around during #npm2018 as we’ll be letting you find out.

 

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

We’re about to begin April’s National Poetry Month in the U. S., but I’m going to begin celebrating #NPM2018 today with a piece that’s a good way to start things off, the opening two sections of Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

Large-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-Logo
We’re aiming to present even more audio pieces than usual this April
Use the Follow button to make sure you get a notice as they drop

 

National Poetry Month isn’t just for American poems or for American poets, but if it was, Whitman would be all the more inescapable. In the middle of the 19th Century, he and Emily Dickinson forged two original styles whose sounds and tactics can still be found in contemporary verse—Dickinson, with small lines in small poems that bind-up with puzzles immensities; Whitman with long lines and epic poems that offer a catalog of exultation. One sees a single, small thing and says it represents the universe, the other beholds the diversity of the world and says it’s really one thing. Complementary opposites.

Both were working at a prodigious pace during the 1860s, during America’s great Civil War. On April 14th of 1865 Abraham Lincoln, the US President during that war, was shot. The next day he died. Within weeks Whitman had produced the first published version of this poem along with other poems about Lincoln and the ending of the Civil War which he published as “Drum Taps.”  It would not be like Whitman to hold his thoughts on those great events inside. In contrast, Tennyson’s epic elegy on the death of a beloved friend, “In Memoriam”  took him more than 15 years before he published it.

At over 200 lines in its entirety, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,”  taken as a whole, would exceed my usual mode here. I prefer my audio pieces more the length of the 45 RPM single records of my youth. So today, I present only the first two sections of Whitman’s poem. Whitman’s voice changes over the course of this long poem, but in these opening sections Whitman (albeit in free verse) is sounding somewhat like the poets his modernism would break from. Save for the absence of rhyme, his language here would not sound out of place in Tennyson (or even the earlier Romantics, like the Shelley of “Adonais.”)

Whitman's Parent's House

Is this the dooryard? Whitman was visiting his mother’s house when he heard Lincoln had died.
He stepped outside and saw the spring lilacs in bloom.

 

I did the same thing, presenting only the intro section, last April for the poem I believe is most responsible for April being National Poetry Month, T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland,”  which begins memorably “April is the cruelest month…” Those that can finish that first sentence may recall it continues “Breeding lilacs out of the dead land.” So, Whitman’s elegy and Eliot’s poetic apotheosis of High-Modernism written over 50 years later, both begin in April, and with lilacs.

We’ll be revisiting territories in “The Wasteland”  later this April, but today you can start where Whitman started his poem, and from where Eliot got some of his inspiration for his. Musically, this one is fairly simple, but I hope effective: acoustic guitar and piano with a little low synthesizer groan eventually joining in. Use the player below to hear it.

 

March 2018 Parlando Top 10 Part 3

We return with the next three in the count-down of the most listened to and liked audio pieces of last Winter. Like last time, all poets who worked in the 19th Century, but in this group, all men.

Two out of the three today are from the British Isles. In may be no surprise, given its head start in English literature, that Britain is an outsized contributor both in words to be used and the Parlando Project’s reader/listenership.

I’ll be taking my second, short low-budget trip to London this month, and I’m frankly not sure what I will find this time, other than planning a side-trip to Margate to see the Turner art museum there and its small exhibition commemorating Eliot’s “The Wasteland” which was partially written in Margate. I’ll no doubt re-visit the Blake room at the V&A, and who knows, maybe I should try to find that alley beside the Savoy Hotel?

JMW Turner Waves Breaking on a Lee Shore at Margate

The London forecast calls for rain, hopefully not JMW Turner stormy though!

4. Ring out Wild Bells

When I posted this for New Year’s I noted Tennyson’s level of fame when alive, something that even the most popular Instagram poet cannot reach now. What I found out afterward was even more intriguing, that this section of his long poem “In Memoriam A.H. H.”  has become a tradition in Sweden to be read at the turn of the year, sort of how the Times Square ball-drop is ceremoniously repeated in New York, or how Guy Lombardo would once appear with his Royal Canadians near the top of the hour on TV to play a Scottish tune.

As evidence of Tennyson’s fame, I noted that my little Iowa hometown had a major street named for him when it was platted back in the 19th Century. Eventually the town and it surrounding farms were settled largely by Swedish immigrants. The Tennyson and bell-ringing tradition in Sweden started in 1927, long after the town was founded and settled, but wouldn’t it have been good in the town’s heyday if the farmers, shopkeepers, and schoolchildren had gathered on the sides of the street on New Years Eve to hear a poem?

Instagram poets get knocked for the shortness of their verse and it’s focus more on remediation than demonstrating literary skill. Tennyson built “In Memoriam”  into a book length series of poems, but his focus too was on remediation, in his case, of grief.

 

3. The Wild Swans at Coole

Yeats was Irish, and for decades I’ve met monthly with a group of poets the majority of whom were Irish-Americans. Yeats seems to have seamlessly transported himself between the 19th and 20th Centuries, changing so smoothly that he could not be observed changing. Somewhere around the turn of those centuries he decided that poetry should be chanted (not sung) to music, and yet we seem to know little about how exactly that sounded. Contemporary reports (and that’s what we have, there are no recordings I’m aware of) were decidedly mixed, even derisive, and Yeats eventually set that quest aside. The recordings of Yeats reading that we do have are from decades later, and in them there may still be traces of that concept audible in his, by then unaccompanied, reading style.

Yeats warns listeners that his chant may not necessarily enchant.

Reports also tell us that Yeats suffered from a difficulty carrying a tune, much as I do. His chanted, not sung, idea did not come from that he tells us, rather it came because conventional art song had too much ornament and melodic elaboration, deducting from the inherent music in the words.

In the course of the Parlando Project I take various stabs at what Yeats was trying to do, recreation in the literal sense, trying to create from the ancient and natural connection between music and poetry some combination that doesn’t privilege one over the other. Sometimes it’s spoken word, sometimes it’s “talk-singing,” and sometimes I think it necessary to sing.

I avoid apologizing for my musical shortcomings. It never mitigates anything anyway, and I’ve always found the humble-brag distasteful. I’ve hesitated at—and decided against—releasing performances most often because of failures of my singing voice. This performance came close to staying in the can. At times it works, not from my skills, but because there’s a certain match in the failings in the voice and the meaning of the poem.

 

2. My Childhood Home I See Again

One last 19th Century poet, an American. Long-time readers here will know that US President George Washington’s teenage love poem “Frances”  has been a surprisingly persistent “hit” with listeners here. It didn’t make the Top 10 this season, but we now have another Presidential/Poetical contender in Abraham Lincoln. If Washington was all youthful alt-rock persistence, Lincoln is more goth, with a downcast you-can’t-go-home-again tale of all he finds missing when he re-visits his hometown in his thirties.

Lincoln’s “My Childhood Home I See Again”  was very close to the popularity of the Number 1 this season. If didn’t count the substantial Spotify plays the Number 1 received, Lincoln would have topped this season’s list.

I posted this for what was once a common U.S. holiday, Lincoln’s Birthday. Also on this season’s Top 10 are the Tennyson New Year’s post and Rossetti’s Christmas song posted on Christmas Eve. Not sure if this is a trend, but listeners did like the holiday poems this winter.

 

Tomorrow, the most popular audio piece.