Limited

Isn’t it odd that early 20th century Modernists used the locomotive as one of their talismans? After all the railroad train wasn’t particularly new at the time, though like buildings and the airplane it eventually became a fine armature upon which to sculpt the curved Streamline Moderne style—but that was later in the century, and before it arrived the train was already the nightingale of the make-it-new crowd.

Modernist Trains

“…Shining, just like gold. Don’tcha hear me cryin? Ah Wooo-Hooo,,,”

 

It probably comes down to speed and power. Much of America in the pre-1920 years was still held between walking and horse-saunter speed, trains were exceeding the magic mile-a-minute rate, a supersonic difference to then. The sight of a long train rolling through the countryside must have been a majestic contrast of speed, noise, and human-constructed momentum.

Even back in the 19th century, the father and the mother of modern American poetry each wrote a train poem. Walt Whitman with his somber “Locomotive in Winter”, and Emily Dickinson* at her most playful with “I like to see it lap the Miles.” The strength of the train ideal is such, that without motion or even presence its gravity is silently impressed onto two classics of early 20th century poetry: “In a Station of the Metro” and “Adlestrop.”

Even poets later in the century could have a train poem in them somewhere.

Pioneer Zephyr and Chicago 1933-34 World's Fair

Limited. Shortly before he died, my father told my son and I that he recalled one thing from his childhood visit to the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1933-34, the Zephyr streamlined train. That year we visited it, exhibited in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry and sent him a picture of us by the train.

 

But today I want to celebrate Carl Sandburg during America’s National Poetry Month, and to advocate once again for this forgotten Modernist, the son of an immigrant, born in the Middle West of our continent. The poem I use today isn’t particularly difficult or full of samples and beats from everywhere like “The Waste Land,”  or subtle in its questions like much of Emily Dickinson. Sandburg gets into it, drops its Imagist payload in a sentence, and then makes its point. As Harriet Monroe said in reviewing Sandburg’s Chicago Poems,  in which “Limited”  appears: “His book, whether you like it or not, whether you call it poetry or not, is fundamental in the…majestic sense.”

And a poem like “Limited” is  fundamental. What it says isn’t novel, but what it says is low enough down beneath our florid lives to be overlooked. We often ask great poetry to tell us something we don’t know, to surprise us, but there may be a place for it also to tell us something to which we can say, dismissively, “Well, yes, I know that!” and for the poem to remain, silent at its ending, saying “If you know that, why haven’t you acted like it’s something you know?”

20th Century musicians loved the train too and its rhythms, that rattling phrasing and doppler marcato. For this performance of “Limited”  I tried to touch on that and let some guitar tracks run out. You can hear it with the player gadget below. Not a long text today, but for those who like to see as well as hear the words, click here.

 

 

 

*One of the interesting side-lights I picked up in Genevieve Taggard’s Emily Dickinson biography, one of the first full-length treatments of her life and work, and written early enough that she could talk to people who overlapped Dickinson’s life in Amherst, was that her domineering father, who looks so stern and austere in his photograph was well known in the community for always wanting the fastest team of horses in for his buggy. I see Vin Diesel et al in a prequel Fast and Amherst, but Drift it Slant.  Hollywood, call me, I can put the blog aside….

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Adlestrop

Remember that “Reverse British Invasion” that happened 50 years before the Beatles landed in New York in 1964, when American modernist poets landed in London just before the outbreak of WWI?

One of those American poets was Robert Frost, and he soon struck up a friendship with an British writer Edward Thomas. Thomas was in his mid-30s by then, and he was writing this and that for whoever would pay, but he was not writing poetry. Frost and Thomas enjoyed walks about the Cotswolds together. Frost was encouraging Thomas to write poetry. On his part, on the walks Thomas would often puzzle at which country lane to take a crossroads, and Frost noted that.

Last summer I had the opportunity to take my own ramble about the Cotswolds with my wife. My itinerary was mixture of bicycling with some linkages between sections via train. During the biking part of the journey we often found ourselves lost. Just as with Thomas and Frost back in 1914, there seemed to be few straightforward crossroads and few road makers on the country lanes.  It was the hottest summer week in recent record in England that year, and at one train station stop the arrival of our train kept falling farther and farther back off-schedule as the trains were slowed and sometimes stopped by the fear that the heat would buckle the rails.

Well there was nothing we could do about it. We spent the next hours just sitting in the Kingham railway station in the heat we were somewhat accustomed to, watching the wind play with the trees and foliage, listening to the birds.

Kingham rail station

A few hours listening to the trees, breeze and birds at Kingham

 

This month in 1914, Edward Thomas had a train ride that stopped “unwontedly” in at the small Cotswold village of Adlestrop. Despite being a beginner at poetry, Thomas seemed to immediately grasp the modernist concepts, perhaps because he had no outmoded Georgian and Victorian habits to break.  His June experience lead him to write today’s piece, named after this village rail stop: “Adlestrop.”

adlestrop station sign

No rail stop in Adlestrop today, just this sign and bench remain. The present stop in Kingham is 3 miles away.

 

 

Thomas’ “Adelstrop”  has most of the markers of a modernist poem as Frost was writing them. It’s metrical, but not so strictly as to call to much attention to that. It’s rhymed, but again, the rhymes are not showy. There are no “hey look at me, I’m a clever simile or metaphor for something” tropes. In the place of that is the clean presentation of an exactly observed moment in time, peaceful, off the clock, yet clearly set in a time when the countryside’s nature and the train were in equilibrium. Thomas didn’t know it, but the moment in the poem gathered context after he wrote it, his village train-stop happened only a few weeks before WWI broke out, and England and Europe would be changed forever.

Robert Frost had returned to America, but he sent his friend a poem he had just written, one that was inspired by their Cotswold walks together, The Road Not Taken.”   Frost’s poem famously ends with the lines:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

It’s been Frost’s fate that his irony and dry wit, as well as his uncompromising assessment of human nature, has often been missed by his readers. I first read “The Road Not Taken”  and thought, as do many to this day, that this was a simple homily— a boast that taking one’s own, perhaps less popular path, is the road to success and happiness. But read again, more closely, Frost was gently making fun of his friend’s indecision, Thomas’ puzzling at if there are meaningful differences between the two choices in their rambles.

Thomas, though himself a discerning poet, missed Frost’s intent as well. He thought it was reminder of the necessity of making correct decisions, and he warned his friend that readers would misunderstand it. At the same time, Thomas was mulling his decision regarding enlistment in the British army, which was grinding up men at a prodigious rate against the weapons of modernist war. He enlisted, and within a few weeks of deployment in France, he was killed by a bullet through the chest.

Sometimes when I compose music for one of these pieces, I find at the end that I have written something that reminds me of another piece of music, one I can’t quite place. Often when I solve this internal puzzle there is a mysterious connection revealed. The music I played and recorded for Edward Thomas’ “Adlestrop” reminds me a bit of the Edgar Broughton Band song Evening Over Rooftops”—and the hidden connection for all that (different but shared) flanged and phased melody over an insistent strum,  is that like Thomas’ fine poem, they both are hymns to the eternal moment.

To hear my performance of “Adelstrop,”  use the player below. And another reminder that you can use the social media share buttons here to let other people know what the LYL Band and myself are doing here at the Parlando Project.

 

To A Locomotive In Winter

A few years back there was a little Internet brouhaha about a woman who looked like she was talking on a cell phone as she was filmed walking down a street in 1928. “Proof of time travel?” asked the rhetorical askers “In 1928 there’d be no cell phones for 50 years, so she has to be from the future.”

time-traveler-cell-phone
About time we get cracking on Bluetooth don’t you think?

We’ve been talking here recently about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman, three 19th century Americans. As far as we know, none of them used cell phones, and their considerable accomplishments may have been easier insomuch as they didn’t have to worry about PokéStop locations. But maybe they were time-travelers none-the-less?

One of the remarkable things about Emily Dickinson was that she seemed to be writing 20th Century poetry in the middle of the 19th Century. Oh sure, skeptics will say, she was a genius, and through her genius became influential to later writers. Typical debunkers!

Walt Whitman too, often seems a prophet and precursor of a new age, but maybe he wasn’t a prophet? Maybe he was just reporting from the future, and he knew all his bets were sure things. How else can you explain Whitman’s podcast on gender equality streamed here?

Today’s piece, Whitman’s To a Locomotive In Winter, was written sometime between 1874 and 1876, but it reads like a “Futurist” poem written 40 years later. The early 20th Century Futurists embraced technology and sought to bring it into the arts. Poems, paintings, sculpture and musical works celebrating bicycles, airplanes, motor cars and trains were their stock in trade. Was Whitman a time traveler from 1914 who had read the Futurist Manifesto?

futurism_meccanica_pannaggi_speeding_train

Thee for my recitative!

Another American who paid attention to the Futurists (besides time-traveler Walt Whitman) was George Antheil, a composer, who by the 1920’s was trying to engineer machines to make music. He had this idea that he could realize a musical composition by syncing more than one player piano together so that an even greater mechanized noise could be exactly made. By the 1940s, perhaps after hearing Whitman’s podcast on women’s strength, he was in Hollywood and hooked up with actress Hedy Lamarr—no, that kind of hook up. You see Hedy had this idea for a radio-guided torpedo. One problem: if you used radio to guide it, you could use radio to jam it. What if the control signals could use random radio frequencies Lamarr wondered? How would the controller and torpedo stay in sync? Antheil had the solution, the same thing you used to control player pianos: a roll of punched tape. The tape would tell the radios to switch frequencies in perfect time with each other. You couldn’t jam that jam because the radio frequency could hop at some sick number of beats per minute.

George Antheil with machines

Maybe I should have just developed MIDI instead?

 

Antheil and Lamarr tried to interest the US War Department on this. Those square faces listened to this idea of randomization and said “No dice!”

hedy lamarr

Not interested in my remote-controlled, frequency hoping torpedo? Can I tell you I invented Fizzies too?

 

Antheil and Lamarr patented their idea, but after rejection no one cared. Then decades later folks are trying to setup CDMA, the core technology for cell phone transmission. The engineers dig up that patent in a pre-existing-art search—or were Lamarr and Antheil time travelers who had been reading the cell phone engineers’ PowerPoint decks? Maybe that woman in the 1928 street scene is the elderly Hedy talking on a cell phone with Walt Whitman?

So back to Whitman then, and To A Locomotive in Winter, and to time travel. In this piece, Whitman time travels forward to 1956, to Chess studios in Chicago. Earl Phillips kicks off the loping beat. Hubert Sumlin, Willie Dixon and Hosea Lee Kennard fall in. The band is playing a drone their bandleader had heard Charlie Patton play back around World War I, but the bandleader is letting this strange traveler, this gray bearded old white man who says he’s from the over-soul, from the Emersonian universal mind. The bandleader has had to deal with racism for almost half the 20th Century, has had to figure that out as a practical matter, he’s seen enough to not ever be surprised. Walt Whitman steps to the mic…

Walt-Whitman-001

No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine

 

You’ll need to click on the gadget below to hear the LYL Band portray that that event.

 

Phil Dacey and Trains

I knew Minnesota poet Philip Dacey through my late wife, who was a writing student of his back in the 70s. I had the good fortune to hear him read his poetry several times, as he was an excellent performer of his work.

One indelible memory I have is Phil reading a poem in which Marlene Dietrich was mentioned, and rather imperceptibly he transformed into Marlene Dietrich, leaving the lectern and slowing reclining on a desk chair in the Blue Angel pose.

Sound hokey to you? Sound like some kind of Am-Dram over-reaching to make poetry more palatable? Nope. I was there, and it was riveting. Phil was so damn generous and genuine, and the actions so integrated into the open and honest poetry he wrote, that there was not a bit of disingenuousness about it. His being illuminated that poem.

Another Phil Dacey reading I’ll remember was a performance of several of his poems backed by a rock band his sons had formed. While that was not the origin of this Parlando project, it was one of the several threads that helped form this thing.

I was saddened to hear that Phil died last month. I suspect that Phil the performer of his poems now will only exist in our memories. Of course we can still read the poems ourselves, and we can be happy for that. Luckily for us, his poetry is full of his irreplaceable personality.

The story in this poem is more or less true. I was visiting his house with my wife, and he was talking with me as if I was some kind of peer as a writer, which was so welcome to me. I should have left the moment be, taken a good long pause to listen, or perhaps I should have just given him a big hug of thanks. Instead I just rattled on about things I sort of knew, an unfortunate personality trait I often inflict on others. Oh well.

You should see a player gadget below which will let you listen to my poem about that afternoon I talked over Phil and my current thoughts on trains.