As National Poetry Month continues, let me take a brief break from the personal history of Parlando inspirations to again do in the present what this Project does: explore a poem as I combine it with new music. A few weeks ago I found an early poetry collection by the Peruvian poet César Vallejo. Before looking into this collection Vallejo was just a name to me, a poet who is best known as being a favorite of other poets whose work I had read.
If I had time to write more tonight I could go into his troubled life, but I do not. Suffice to say he grew up poor in rural Peru, and by paths he traveled to Lima and studied some in Peruvian universities, but poverty and trouble with the authorities seems to have always followed him. He fled to Europe and had down-and-out adventures there, but eventually died there 85 years ago this April. In a brief interchange with another poet on Twitter this spring we agreed that from what we know Vallejo seemed to always be an expatriate, an exile — and unhappy from that. If so, unhappiness for a man, but poetry deals with diaspora often and well — perhaps because even when we are dealing with our native language, the dialect we spoke from childhood, we are seeking in poetry to find its real home. So often poets stand in the midst of other native speakers of their language and find this so.
My adventure with a poem in a foreign language forces by nature a greater travel. Even if I have another English translation, I try to find it in the original and start again with the awkward literalness of a machine translation of that. Other translators likely have smoothed over the troubles of a literal with their chosen solutions, and out of some pride and a desire to not appropriate the work of other living writers, I then try to make a vivid poem in English out of it. Besides recreating the poem’s images and music of thought* in English, I often drill down into individual words by looking at foreign language dictionaries and examples of usage to see what plausible other English words might convey the author’s intentions. Though I feel conflicted about this, the process of collaborating with a dead author engages me as if I am writing my own poem, and from that arises a danger that I may be tempted to extend the poem or add variations on the original’s theme. In this Vallejo poem, my translation has a couple of gray areas, which I’ll note for accuracy’s sake.
Here’s my translation of “Bajo Los Alamos” into “Beneath the Poplars:”
Jose Garrido was another young Peruvian writer that Vallejo knew before exile.
A few notes on my translation. In the first line “bardos” might well be translated into poets or bards. I made an eccentric choice, “scriptores,” trying to make the image more clear and mysterious at the same time. I thought of the poplars branches swayed over in the pasture wind would be like monks hunched and copying manuscripts, and that would be consistent with a poem that I feel is about labor and respite. I believe poets labor, but as a word poet doesn’t suggest it directly enough.
The 11th line was difficult for me, and I can’t right now recall all the struggles I went through to arrive at the line in my version. Given that the poem is about an old shepherd falling asleep in autumn, a clear image of the falling leaves being like sheared wool may have attracted me more strongly than a literal line translation.
I think the 12th line describes a sunset — and while Vallejo didn’t say sky, I decided to clarify the sense of “azul” here as the blue sky, as we mean it when we say “out of the blue.”
Lastly, did you notice that this poem mentions Easter, but is set in autumn? Peru is south of the equator and April is autumn there. All those easy connections we northerners feel about Easter and spring as a resurrection metaphor fall apart in the global south.
A gorgeous poem of work and rest, and I hope my rustic music helps set the mood for it. Given Vallejo’s life it seems he’s writing here of his locus solus, his essential place that he’s exiled from. Here’s how you can hear my performance of it: there’s an audio player displayed below for many of you. No player? This highlighted link will open a new tab with an alternate audio player.
*I give priority to transmitting what I think are the poet’s images to our eyes through our words. The word-music, such as rhymes and meter where present, I generally take as what is unfortunately lost in translation, though I like the resulting poem to have an attractive sound in English. The “music of thought” is my own term for the order and manner of repetitions in the presentation of the poem’s substance by its images and statements. This has its own musical structure and can more easily be transferred into a different language.
Poetry, musical speech, is so associated with symbols that it may be impossible to imagine it without metaphor as a rhetorical device. This both bugs and pleases readers and listeners. Symbols can add richness, a sense of novel connections, or they may vex the reader, taunting them with needs for esoteric knowledge or psychic investigations of the author’s mind.
For me at least, poems can work when they are clear as any condensed speech would be on first reading — and when they are nearly incomprehensible as anything other than collections of energetic words. So, along that continuum, a poem may succeed (or fail) — but it must compel. After all, we have so many other words that waft over us written, spoken, recorded, some enriched with music, video, some from those already near and dear to us. As a young person I was drawn more to the richness of images and cared less for the clarity of expression. Other poets tried to convince me that clarity showed respect for the readers busy lives, that incomprehensibility wasn’t a requirement for good poetry. I eventually listened to them and somewhat changed what I wrote and admired. In my newer but still ambiguous stance toward poetic obscurity, I believed that a poem needs to be no more complex that it has to be, and no fancier in its conceits than it needs to be to draw a reader’s or listener’s attention. I may have a bit more to say on these issues in another post, but let’s move on to a new musical piece today.
I’m largely unfamiliar with the poet whose words I’ll use for today’s audio piece, Anna Akhmatova.* She became known to me several years back when the unique American roots singer-songwriter Iris DeMent recorded an album of heartfelt intuitive settings of Akhmatova’s poems, “The Trackless Woods.” This record was released in 2015, around the time that I was formulating some ideas of how to do what became this Parlando Project. Many of my ideas were already set down, even some of the pieces you’ve heard here had already been recorded, but I felt then that DeMent’s record reinforced my intents to do this Project at a time of decision.
Now this month I saw Akhmatova’s poem “Like a White Stone” featured in poets.org’s Poem A Day — and it did that “compel” thing with me as I read it in the middle of an otherwise occupied day. I eventually set upon creating a musical setting for it, one which you’ll be able to hear below.
This whole project is so mysterious to me…. It’s just this weird thing that happened instantaneously upon the first reading of the very first poem of hers I ever read which was “Like a White Stone”. In that period of time, within an hour or so I’d set three or four of them to music.”
I also found out, after composing and recording my performance of “Like a White Stone,” that Akhmatova was associated with a movement called Acmeism which reacted against the French Symbolists, a group of French poets that attracted me in my youth. The Symbolists were all about the effusive, exotic and elusive image. The Acmeists, in reaction, all about precision and clarity. The Symbolists were admired by Dada, Surrealism, and the hermetic strains of modern poetry in English. Acmeism could easily be related to other modern poets who want clarity and the power of easily discerned emotional messages.
“Someone looking closely into my eyes would see it” Anna Akhmatova
Knowing that, how does “Like a White Stone” stack up on the continuum from clear and direct to wild and elusive? Here’s a link to the poem’s text. I’m working from this translation (by Babette Deutsch and Avaham Yarmolinsky) and I know, as one who’s translated poems myself, that there are risks that I may be grabbing onto details that are the translator’s solution not the author’s own design in the original language. My judgement overall is that this poem is in the middle somewhere, even if closer to the clear and direct pole. The opening image, the one that first grabs the reader, is both clear and elusive for me, a combination that often works to compel. A “white stone**” deep in a well, yet it’s also “hard and clear.” It somehow doesn’t put us off that this is contradictory. How much might we be able to see anything clearly, even a light-colored stone, deep in a well? Yet the poem says we know it’s there, we know its hardness sensuously — it’s not only some indistinct imagination. Is it likely we know the stone, its color, its feel in the hand, because we’ve tossed it there? And the poem then launches into an extended consideration of memory, its dichotomy, how it’s both present and by definition, absent. It’s easy to explicate this poem as something addressed to a false, absent, exiled, or discarded lover, yet it refuses to choose details or say that directly. In the poem’s conclusion, the white stone deep in the well is an image like unto a human turned into a rock or statue, unable to move from or toward exile, as permanent as ended — a memory.
Would this poem be more powerful if it just straightforwardly told us the details? Would it be more artful if it was more elaborate and fanciful in its images? Well, some poem otherwise might be — but this poem compelled both Iris DeMent and me, and maybe it’ll compel you to listen too.
My performance isn’t like DeMent’s at all. I hadn’t even recalled that this poem was one that she had performed when I worked on it this month. Although DeMent uses the same translation as I used, she phrases it differently, and while I’m no stranger to some American roots style musical flavors my choice today was more toward electronic synth sounds. Hers has a Protestant hymn flavor, mine aims at the surging dance of the floating memory mind. You can hear my performance of Anna Akhmatova’s “Like a White Stone” with the player gadget below, or if you don’t see that player, with this alternative highlighted link.
*My ignorance isn’t Akhmatova’s fault. Although her work was suppressed by the Soviet Union’s cultural czars, and some of her associates killed, exiled, or imprisoned, she’s now generally recognized as an important 20th century Russian language poet.
**The white stone image, the specificity of which depends on translators’ choice, might possibly connect with another translator’s choice, in the Bible’s Revelations verse about a white stone. But remember, these are two translators, one going from Russian and the other from Greek to our English, each deciding exact words that we put in with our own connotations. Did this white stone have some connotation of translucency, perhaps even a diamond? Intuitively to me it’s a lover’s token, but I could be wrong.
Let me write today about two possibly useful incidents in this project’s working process. Let’s start with the process of translation or adaptation of 8th century master Chinese poet Li Bai’s words. Long-time readers here will know I rely on English language glosses. Here’s the one I used to start work on today’s piece:
High tower high hundred feet
Hand can pluck stars
Not dare high voice speak
Fear startle heaven on person
Unlike some other glosses I start with, this presents a fairly clear setting: there’s a high tower, from the title, part of a temple. It’s so high and the 8th century sky is so clear at night that one can imagine grasping the stars. The final two lines say there’s a compelling notion to not speak loudly, that heaven might be startled by a loud voice. The first two lines, clear, objective, the last two lines, in that they seem to be reflecting something subjective, open to interpretation.
Here’s an even-tempered and minimal translation into modern English:
This tower is a hundred feet high.
From its top one’s hand can pluck down stars.
I shouldn’t talk in a loud voice,
for I might startle the people in heaven.
I could leave it at that. One might consider the above an accurate translation of a modest thought. One might ask why the concluding fear/shouldn’t statement, and answer that matter by saying the poet is in awe in this high nighttime temple. I later saw at least one published translation that goes this way.
That could be what poet Li Bai was saying, or would say if he was speaking to us in modern English today, but I made another approach. My understanding, limited though it is, is that Li Bai was often not a respecter of conventional piety, and legends include stories of his early life as some kind of free-lance swordsman* and his lifelong habits of drinking and intoxication. Chinese scholars think Li Bai helped bring an individualized mode of expression to classical Chinese poetry and that’s part of what he’s revered for.
Audaciously thinking then that I know those things, I took almost the same English words, and even though classical Chinese writing has no equivalent of the question mark, made the phrases questions — impudent questions at that, aimed as replies to whoever might be hosting a boisterous poet. This is the result of that approach:
Later below I mention my persistence in composing music, despite my limitations. Why not? Am I afraid I’m going to bother the people in heaven?
I like that. I think it’s a better poem in English, though I could be wrong about Li Bai’s attitude. Do not trust me as a Chinese scholar! Furthermore, do not trust fully any translation. Even better scholars than I are making best guesses and practical choices while enclosed in their own mindsets while translating.
For a second chorus, here’s a short tale of how my music for this came to be. I’ve been dissatisfied with my musical efforts as of late. I call myself “a composer” because I don’t think I’m a competent musician most of the time.*** Yet a lot of the things I’ve been presenting lately are mostly to entirely live takes. Of course, instantaneous improvising is composition of a rapid kind. I enjoy that as a listener and player — yet I also didn’t think I was presenting enough music recently that was reflectively devised to my plans, making choices and re-choices before presentation. Even though I felt that, I couldn’t get started with that mode. And this was so, even as this spring I’d sprung for a yearly subscription to a larger set of orchestral virtual instruments. Weeks had passed by, and I hadn’t made use of them.
Would I this week? I kept telling myself: no, you have too many distractions, your energy level is too low, your musical concepts are probably too simple-minded anyway.**** But I willed myself to sit down with them and my MIDI keyboard and guitar and….
Several of the new sample libraries, present on an external hard drive, wouldn’t load. Couldn’t be found. I’d told the software where they resided, but somehow it hadn’t understood. I thrashed about trying to figure this out for nearly an hour (I’m not quick witted) and then finally told them again where the sample libraries, all those gigabytes of notes and articulations of notes, were sitting.
And that worked! By this point I was a bit mad at myself or the software or fate. But mad is energy. Over the next day or so I worked on today’s music as I made myself familiar with some of the new software’s system. Some of that aggression found it’s way into the orchestral swells, and I think it fits well with my portrayal of Li Bai’s belligerence when told to be quiet.
*Obligatory explanation: how Chinese character names are presented in western alphabets is a fraught process. Li Bai has often had his Chinese name presented in the West as Li Po. Same guy, just a different system/approximation.
**Given that early history, I’m tempted to adapt a Charles Mingus phrase about the influential bop saxophonist: “If Charlie Parker was a gunslinger, there’d be a whole lot of dead copycats.” The story is that Li Bai was handy with a deadly weapon. If Li came to us out of a time-machine, Western authors of inessential haikus — or chancey translators like me — might want to up their armor class before meeting up with him.
***This is not humble-brag, but a clear-minded evaluation. I’ve never developed a goodly number of useful musician skills, and even those things I can do some days to my reasonable satisfaction escape me on other days. A musician has a baseline and a variety of dependable skills I don’t have.
****I sometimes call what I do with orchestral instruments “Punk Orchestral” in that it asks simple motifs and naïve playing abilities to carry the weight over greater elaboration and musical knowledge. Via that approach, what comes out sometimes sounds to others like that Mid-Century musical movement that was dubbed Minimalism. I was aware of that movement in the 70s and 80s, attending Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, and others’ performances and listening to eventual recordings. But I don’t have a theoretical basis for what I do, I just make music with what I can figure out to do, trusting that simple concepts sometimes produce equal effects to more elaborate ones.
I mentioned earlier this spring, that master classical Chinese poet Du Fu wrote in a troubled era that also troubled his life. Both he and his contemporary poet Li Po were exiled or forced to flee at times, and while I know no details of this poem, I get an exile sense from it somehow.
Have I mistaken this poem? It’s possible. To say I’m no expert on Chinese history, culture, and literature, is to greatly understate the concern one should have. On one level it seems to be a nature poem, set in spring with tree blossoms and flowers. The poem’s speaker walks out among them one morning and notes how extravagant their splendor is.
American nature poetry, such as Emily Dickinson’s, is often suffused with Transcendentalism and a sense that the book of nature presents truths to a close observer. It’s in that sense that I read this poem. The speaker (I’ll just call him Du Fu for the rest of this) is letting the wind (nature, fate) carry him on a path. He notes that the peach trees are blossoming, though no one owns them. No boss, no lord, no slave master, has sent the requirements for this work. Du Fu observing them wonders if he should prefer one shade of blossoms to another, and decides choice is beside the point.
Nor is there any need for an accounting and report of the number of petals that cover his path. They are not losses to be put on a balance sheet, for the trees simply have “more blossoms than they can hold.”
The concluding two lines have my greatest leap of faith or invention from the literal English gloss that I worked with. If, as I sense, this may be the poem of someone fleeing trouble or in exile, this beautiful morning presents a bittersweet scene. Should he simply stay and revel like the butterflies? I sense the final line’s “free and unrestrained” oriole bird is a contrast to that. That bird has choice. It, like Du Fu, can leave. That freedom, to flee beauty, is not a simple thing.
Here’s the text for today’s performance that I adapted from Du Fu’s Chinese poem using a literal gloss in English. All I had were two portions (#5 and #6) of what is apparently a longer poem or series:
Here’s what that gloss had:
Huang abbot pagoda before river water east Spring bright lazy sleepy rely on light wind Peach blossom one clump open without owner Lovely deep red love light red
Huangsi girl house flowers fill path Thousand blossom ten thousand blossom press branch low Reluctant to leave play butterfly constantly dance Free and unrestrained lovely oriole cry
The music today features an acoustic guitar that doesn’t harmonically move much with a root note of D. While an actual D minor chord is sounded at times, much of the music stays on suspended chords without a major or minor defining 3rd. At one point I’m fretting an F and F# at the same time which somehow works to my ear in this song’s mood. You can hear the performance with a player that appears below for many of you. Don’t see a player? This highlighted link is an alternative way to hear it.
Early this week, Poet Jose Hernandez Diaz on Twitter put out a call for people to respond with their go-to poets in our troubled times. I’m always uneasy when being put on the spot for short-lists, because I’m by nature a person of various moods and needs. The poet I need today is not always the one I need tomorrow. And then, it’s the same or even more so with music for me. Perhaps some of that comes through here in this project’s variety?
Two things seem to connect me to this master of classical Chinese poetry: Du Fu wrote his best work as an old man (such as I am) — and that productive period coincided with a great governmental rebellion and crisis in China. When Du Fu writes a lovely nature passage, I always read it as the work of someone who is also seeing great destruction and violence in the human part of nature.
Du Fu, not an Asian-American, but his poetry sometimes speaks to my country none-the-less.
In this troubled week I went looking for a poem I could get close to and perform, and I found this one of Du Fu’s. For practical reasons, I need to make my own translations of Du Fu from English language glosses (such as the ones found at Chinese-poems.com) and the difficulties of making a graceful poem in English out of an 8th century Chinese poem would seem daunting, but they attract me all the more. Obviously, there are great risks that I will misunderstand what Du Fu is trying to say — but not only do I accept those risks, I’ve been tempted more than once to transform key images from Du Fu’s time and place to contemporary America. For these reasons most of my Du Fu pieces should be understood as adaptations, the kind of thing that I’ve decided are best labeled as “After a poem by….”***
This is the gloss I worked from for today’s piece.
And here’s my “Rain on a Spring Night (after Du Fu)” version used for today’s performance:
I usually would work longer on one of these, but it’s been too long since I presented new work here.
I think of my opening section as a good faith attempt at an accurate translation into a working English poem. I used English syntax and conventions, added the poetic device of parallelism to substitute for the word-music losses inherent to translation, and tried, as I always do, to present vivid images.
The last section of Du Fu’s poem is where I likely diverge. I do sense a turn in the poem at this point, I think it’s possible Du Fu’s trying to contrast the peaceful rain following nature’s order in his opening. The (cooking? signal? lantern?) fire on the boat is the only human sign in the poem. Is that only coincidental decoration? The gloss’ final line is most difficult. A single image there comes through to me: that flowers, perhaps even fallen blossoms, are like the patterns on a brocade fabric. “Government city” puzzles. Like brocade on rich courtiers? Or is this spring morning near a capitol city?
So, my choice was to allude, somewhat obliquely as Du Fu seems to have done, and the final scene is designed to depict not peaceful spring and beneficent rain, but the aftermath of violence as we all to well know it now and here: the yellow crime scene tape, the flower memorials left. A rain of bullets is not a good rain.
My music and performance is very sparse for this, but I decided that’s starkness was effective. You can hear the performance with a player some will see below, or with this highlighted link.
*I wouldn’t even have known their names, much less their poetry or something of their lives before starting this Project six years ago.
**I have to note his name was often spelled in the western alphabet as Tu Fu. Du Fu is supposed to be the better approximation, even though there are as many or more references to him as Tu Fu online or in books.
World War I entered the worlds of both of our last two poems, and that war’s poetry was one theme we visited over the early years of this Project that coincided with the centennial of that conflict. The interaction between that war and the arts was complex, but here’s a simple question: did WWI cause Modernism?
One Modernist source-point that did owe something directly to the war was Dada, which emerged in neutral Switzerland among Europeans who had fled the conflict. Dada was all about experiment and tweaking tradition, and if I audaciously suggested that one can get something from the later High Modernism of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” by reading it as if it were Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” Dada was clearly willing to use outright random non-sense in service of breaking down old patterns.
One of Dada’s originators was a pan-European man Tristan Tzara. And if the young Tzara and European Modernism had an overall figurehead in the years before the end of WWI, it was another pan-European man Guillaume Apollinaire. Americans (who had an outsized influence on English-language poetic Modernism) may not fully credit how invaluable Apollinaire was in this era. He coined the terms “cubism” and “surrealism,” he wrote poetry in a freer and more freely-associative way,* and he began to lay his words out on the page to typographically break up the phrases, predating and serving as a model for E. E. Cummings.
Apollinaire’s war-time fate was to bookend Rupert Brooke’s. Still convalescing from a head-wound suffered in military service, Apollinaire became another victim of the great flu epidemic that swirled around the end-game and aftermath of the war.
And that story brings us to today’s National Poetry Month poetry prompt for those looking to do more than simply add to the solitary outcroppings on the mountain of poetry, another way to mesh and meld with our poetic ancestors. Why not translate a poem?
What, you don’t know a foreign language? Well, you know something about poetry (or wish to) if you write it. Poetry itself is a second language you either already speak or wish to speak fluently. Translation is the way to work hand in hand, eyeball to eyeball, with another poet, and I maintain that any poet can benefit from it, even monolinguals. The Internet offers increasingly adequate automatic translators and online dictionaries for some languages.** Mixing the two, some research, and your own knowledge of the dialect and tactics of poetry can produce worthwhile translations that can be shared — but here’s the main creative benefit: you’ll learn, intimately, the way a poem can be constructed under the skin. The exercise of trying to find the right sounding, feeling, and meaning English word for another poet’s vision is powerful. If I could make one request, one rule, for creative writing programs everywhere, it would be to make translation part of the curriculum.***
In was in that spirit that I chose to translate Tzara’s poem “The Death of Guillaume Apollinaire.” What would Dada’s young provocateur say about this death of this influence? I was surprised at the emotional depth of the piece — it’s an eulogy as a love poem — with opposites-imagery mirroring the opposites of the living considering the dead. I’m not sure how much better a translation of it I could do today, and I’m particularly proud of my rendering of the concluding two lines, a striking gothic image.
With Tzara’s “opposites-imagery” in his poem I couldn’t help but think of M. C. Escher’s later art used in this video.
You can hear my performance of my translation of Tzara’s “The Death of Guillaume Apollinaire” from the French “La mort de Guillaume Apollinaire” three ways. There’s a graphical player below for some, this highlighted link for others, and if you’d like to see the words and well as hear them performed, this brand-new lyric video.
**You shouldn’t use those automatic translations as anything more than guide and gloss. Your appropriate aim is to produce a poem in English rather than the literality of one-to-one words, to bring the images and the way they are arrayed over to our language. Dictionaries, particularly ones that provide examples of the word used in context, are important adjuncts to the online AI translations.
***Another benefit: this kind of crowd-sourcing of translation can increase the number of translated poems available, increasing the diversity of our culture. And then, like Wallace Stevens 13 lookings at blackbirds, having a spread of translations of the same poem may be a truer representation of the poem’s essence and spreading possibilities than any single one. Cubism activism!
Last time I said I looked through Arthur Rimbaud’s collected works in the middle of the nighttime looking for something to translate, combine with music, and perform. I guess I could have saved myself some time, because I eventually chose the first poem in the collection, The Orphans’ New Years’ Gifts, placed first because it was the first poem he ever published. When it appeared in print on January 2nd, 1870 Rimbaud was all of 15 years old.
On first reading, it’s not representative of the poems Rimbaud would be writing in little more than a year or so. While the entire poem is a gothic story, it’s also quite sentimental and largely conventional. For reasons of time and preferring shorter works, I decided to only perform the first part, but spoiler alert: it’s soon revealed that the children are recently orphaned and they are dreaming of their family still being intact and how they will give their now dead mother they expect to find in their dreams a pair of “for mother” plaques from each of them as a New Year’s gift.
But for us, the performer and listeners today of this first section only, this is no matter, because it’s the last day of 2021 and tomorrow is a new year. We know nothing of 2022 save for dreams pleasant or frightening. The coming year is a more mysterious ghost to us than our past years.
It might seem odd to say, but I’m an orphan — that’s not unusual, at my age most everyone is. It’s a different matter to write this as a 15-year-old, as an adolescent, as Rimbaud was. Those are the years that children learn how to gradually break away from their parents in whatever manner they fall into. Rimbaud instead would do this early and abruptly, leaving his mother — and for Paris, and unrest, and rebellion of all sorts in that “about a year” timeframe. Poetically and emotionally, this poem hardly seems to be a rehearsal for the Rimbaud of 1871 and after.
As I worked on translating this poem, I saw a little window into that other Rimbaud in this short first section. Those intimations were unlikely put there by conscious choice. Maybe they were slipped in by Rimbaud’s future ghost?
A few notes on how I translate. I generally don’t try to bring over the word-music (too tough, too damaging to other elements of the translated poem). I start attempting to be as faithful as I can, but then while in process I am often tempted to sharpen or expand on the images I’m trying to bring forward into contemporary English; because those images expand in my mind as I consider them, and because I want them to remain vivid. I’m of two minds about doing that, and I try to make clear here when I’ve really inserted something altogether invented. If you’d like to read the whole poem in it’s original French, here’s a link.
My local forecast says –11 F (-24 C) for New Year’s dawn. I think of a blues song Leo Kottke used to sing with the line “So cold in China, the birds don’t even sing.” Maybe that’s why I choose the guzheng today?
Here are a few examples in this one, in ascending order of significance. I suspect the curtain Rimbaud has blowing in the winter drafts is a bed canopy, a largely unfamiliar antique item, and instead I’m leading you to see a window curtain. Leading you to the window lets me transition to an image I sharpened. Rimbaud doesn’t explicitly say the cold winter birds are walking, but I think he did intend to tell us they aren’t able to fly in this moment, and I thought I’d underline that. And the final image, the one of New Year arriving as a woman in a dress of snow, I wanted us to see a tipsy celebrant whose party gown is no longer arranged neatly. Did the 15-year-old Rimbaud intend that image? I don’t know, but his future ghost might well have chosen it!
Yesterday I revealed that I wanted to do this piece to honor ardent Rimbaud admirer Patti Smith. Obligation completed, though you may notice this is nothing like how Patti Smith or her band would characteristically perform this. The first instrument you hear is a Chinese guzheng,* a sophisticated zither family instrument, then eventually a variety of drums and percussive sounds arrive along with electric bass, and finally a low synth moan. But did I make clear in talking about Smith yesterday: one of the things she demonstrated was that untapped possibilities of presentation styles are the point, not just duplication of one’s heroes.
*With expensive and exotic instruments like this I usually use what are called “virtual instruments” that sample the notes and sounds of the entire range of the instrument; and as in today’s piece allow you to articulate some of the instrument’s particular attacks and variations, like the guzheng’s vibrato. I select and play the notes with a little plastic keyboard or my guitar with a MIDI interface.
Happy Birthday poet, performer and rock band leader Patti Smith! We’ll get to her, girls basketball, Arthur Rimbaud, and studying French in Iowa before we’re through today’s post.
There’s a lot of things that go into this Parlando Project existing. One thread of that origin begins: I came to admire poetry as a teenager and a couple of years later I started to write it. I did those things sensuously, without deep understanding of connotation or denotation. I loved poetry and I wrote poetry as music: organized sounds that attracted and pleased me.
Let’s follow that thread, barely woven. I took French in high school in my little Iowa town. The teacher was an interesting man, full of iconoclastic thoughts and some experience in France itself that I don’t recall the particulars of. He seemed rather bold in my little farm town mostly settled by Swedish immigrants some 80 years before, and I suspected then he felt immune to criticism because he was a fairly successful girls basketball coach.* French was the only foreign language offered in my small high school, but I was both aware of Iowa’s history as a French colony** and with bilingual French and English labels and signs from fishing trips deep into Ontario Canada. I was not even a middling student in the class. I did fine with vocabulary, reasonably well with the language rules and syntax, but I was bad at conversational French, both being slow to pick up the knack for spontaneous expression using the words and grammar, and abysmal in pronunciation. I was entirely incapable of making the mouth sounds required. I suspect this is neurological, I have a general problem with mimesis in music or speaking. People are often shocked at how bad I am at that kind of thing.
I did even more poorly in my freshman French class in my attempt at college. This was so even though by then I had an additional motivation: I had learned that French poetry was an important influence on Modernist English poetry. And then, after the Bob Dylan revolution in popular songwriting, French poetry was often cited as an influence on Dylan, and so then by one remove from Dylan, a reflected influence on others who sought to write unusual lyrics using expanded forms of expression.
Let’s skip forward to the fall of 1975. I’m living in a trailer in the middle of Newburgh New York, a small descending city beset with racism and mid-70s industrial ennui, working in the busy E.R. that served as the last resort of the uninsured sick and wounded of the area. I eagerly snag the first LP by a poet who has formed a rock band, and who has been performing 68.2 miles away down the Hudson river in Manhattan. A bootstrap magazine down there would put a label for her band and the bands that were performing around the same time and place: “Punk.***” Like most genre labels, that’s too reductionist, but there you are.
The album “Horses” by the Patti Smith Group presented something important to me, then, and from the uncoiled, frayed thread that unravels from there to now. It’s highly audacious and retains a considerable level of originality even today. I’ll allow that audacious may be the friendly way to say pretentious — the difference may be how much the results work for a listener. I can somewhat understand those that down-rate or even dislike the record, for even though some reject it for ignorant or stupid prejudices, others have valid reasons from their experience and ways of looking and doing. This is the nature of art, and it is almost required of art that breaks new ground. One must go on one’s nerve to be different — and nerve is another way to say that you fully risk pretending to validity and worth.
Horses is halfway a rock song record, and the other half is something else. Yes, Smith sings on the record, but often words are chanted, spoken, prayed, reduced to sound collages halfway between puns and scat singing. If one was to compare it to the singer-songwriter records of it’s day or to a hip hop record closer to now, it’s closer to the later but still its own thing. In the context of then and now, Horses is less likely than records of either the 1975 or 2021 poles to represent itself as a first-person narration of the singer. For much of the record’s running time Smith speaks as fuzzily defined protagonists that however lacking in biographic detail don’t seem to be herself. Rappers may like to put on exaggerated and boasting personas, and lately gender fluidity has found its way into hip hop, but Smith is male or of indeterminate gender for almost the entirety of her first record. Sexualized violence and unilateral lust occurs in a state between fantasy and reality. Visionary states of consciousness are entered into extravagantly, yet this never seems much like a psychedelic record of a few years before. Is it more gothic than many of those? Perhaps — but too Horses seems more consequential, and less a novel pipe dream.
Around this time, following my own thread, I began reading in translation and slowly translating to English a handful of French poems. I still “understood” little of that poetry, and didn’t even like all of it. I gravitated to the Surrealists mostly, but I had paperback volumes of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations and A Season in Hell, and I knew that the Surrealists thought him a Surrealist before their time. Yet to this day, I’ve not really come to grips with Rimbaud. Translation is one way to deeply understand, and that’s a route I’ve taken in the past couple of years with him.
From left to right: the most well-known photo of Rimbaud while he was still writing poetry, Patti Smith’s iconic Horses cover photo taken by Robert Mapplethorpe and a photo from the time of the Paris Commune in 1871 that has been identified as likely of Rimbaud.
Even superficially one can see the linkage between Smith and Rimbaud in the most hermetic piece on Smith’s record, “Land.” A protagonist character that may persist throughout this more than nine-and-a-half-minute piece, Johnny, seems to be a melding of one of William Burroughs’s Wild Boys**** and Chuck Berry’s persona of Afro-American guitar-playing crossover success, Johnny B. Goode. In place of Berry’s refrain of “Go go, go Johnny, go go” Smith substitutes “Go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud.” But Smith’s Rimbaud influence seems to be even deeper, merging somewhat too with her partnership with the young Robert Mapplethorpe. If decades of exposure to Rimbaud hasn’t greatly increased my understanding and/or appreciation for Rimbaud, I’ve oddly been able to appreciate Patti Smith from the first words I read of hers on the page, and from the first words on Horses.***** It was famously said about the first Velvet Underground record that few bought it, but everyone who did started a band. Horses sold a bit better, despite its originality and outsider stance. A lot of Horses’ listeners started bands too, and more than a few of us found it more than a demonstration of how to express unusual things within the context of an irregular rock band — we remember it helped us survive and find meaning in that survival. Does that sound sappy to say? Sound like late-adolescent hero worship? Examining myself I don’t think it’s as much of that as it sounds like. Maybe I’m wrong? I’m beyond caring this late in my life what that was, or why — I’m more at grateful I survived and can do this Project now.
Those who know Rimbaud’s biography or work from its appearances here or elsewhere will know how unique and audacious he was too. The most famous single fact about him is that he stopped writing poetry as a teenager, so his entire collected works are the works of a minor. Some of it conforms formally and shows a careful versifier, and some of it out-Whitmans Whitman in free expression of physicality and sexuality.
I awoke at 3 AM this morning, deciding I had to do something today for Patti Smith’s 75th birthday. My sleepless mind half-dreamed and solved that it needed to be something by Rimbaud. Despite reduced higher brain functions, I downloaded a collected works and began searching. Life situations will not allow me to complete any piece started as late as today by end of the day. So, this is Part One, all I can complete. Below there’s an audio piece containing my translation of one of Rimbaud’s best short, rhymed lyrics performed with a little Patti Smith Group feel to the music. The piece is Rimbaud’s “Eternity,” and it’s been one of the most popular ones the Parlando Project has presented. If you’d like to read my translation of the lyric or my original thoughts on the process of creating it, you can find that here. To hear it, you can use the player below, or this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.
*Girls basketball was a big thing in Iowa outside of its largest cities who were uninterested in girls sports at that time. In those days it was played with special rules using 3 on 3 teams separated in each half of the court. This meant that girls that didn’t have shooting talent could play only defense and rebound, and girls whose talent was shooting could be very effective and dominate without having to be quite the all-around athletes that modern women basketball players are asked to be. This allowed good coaching and gritty players from small towns to beat many larger schools in the single-class annual state championship tournament which was broadcast live and covered extensively in the newspapers.
**Like snooty Parisians, even rural un-degreed Iowans of my time would know to discretely sneer “out-lander!” at anyone who pronounced our state capitol with un-French final “s” sounds. Beside that historical French connection, my aunt and associated pair of cousins had been posted with her husband in France with the Army, and those cousins were bilingual as they learned speech. She herself spoke French with a decided American southern accent, a little like American Creole. I loved that aunt so much, this might have also been a factor.
***I keep reminding my contemporary teenager that “punk” at its American inception didn’t mean a single style. It was more at the “irregulars” —those whose lives had not necessarily been as musicians — being pressed into service as the more exclusively musical Sixties predecessors died, became depleted from drugs (cocaine in particular gave too many a “best consumed by” date), or just became regimented in a new record industry that understood how to constrain musical artists into commercial money-makers. Speaking in the context of Rimbaud, I could note that “punk” originated as slang for a less successful/powerful criminals and by extension into less-powerful young men in homosexual relations.
****I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of those labeled “Beats,” but for some reason I’ve never really wanted to read Burroughs. I have no idea if that’s my loss. All I know about him is what others have said, but Smith has spoken of Burroughs’ influence, so I don’t need to draw the connection myself. “Land” itself was the hardest song on Horses for me to appreciate and enjoy. I’d been through some incidents of sexualized violence in my teen years and Smith’s use of that motif, while not exactly “triggering” in the modern parlance, wasn’t easy to appreciate.
*****I do own a copy of the indie single that preceded the LP, but I bought it after the LP came out. I first ran across Patti Smith on the page as a writer, before Horses. One early example I recall was a prose-poemish piece of hers called “Dylan’s Dog.” And I knew from notices that she and Lenny Kaye (another person I knew as a “rock critic” before I heard a note of his music) had been mixing electric guitar with poetry. By 1974-75 in Newburgh I was far enough away and far enough poor that I was disconnected from New York City, and so I missed out on the NYC CBGB’s scene.
Life events are conspiring again to keep me out of my studio space to record new pieces — but it just so happens that I have this rocking Blues recorded back in 2007 with the LYL Band that’ll contrast with our pensive Frost meditation on work from last time. Today’s audio piece was made from Frost’s short poem titled “Fragmentary Blue,” now recast as “Fragmentary Blues.”
Unlike Carl Sandburg or Langston Hughes, I have no idea if the 1914 vintage Robert Frost had any experience or appreciation of this Afro-American musical form. A quick search found nothing, even though Frost’s lifetime overrode The Jazz Age, The Swing Era, and even early rock’n’roll.
But as poet Langston Hughes soon discovered, the lyrical expression of the Blues was a vital format worth picking up. A first draft of this post included a long aside about the importance of this Afro-American Modernist form, but on second thought I’m going to take less of our time today so that we can focus on how Frost’s poem can be expressed through that form.
JFK: When you wrote “Come on mama, to the edge of town/I know where there’s a bird nest, built down on the ground” were you talking about what I think you were talking about? (wink wink). Frost: No, you’ve got me confused with another bucolic poet, that’s Charlie Patton — but I believe that’s a philosophic statement about how erotic desire is both natural and elusive. Patton was tuned in open Spanish for that one.”
Blues lyrics often used a stanza format of three lines: one a statement, the second a restatement that may be the same, nearly the same, or subtly varied while still gathering intensity via repetition; and then a third line which can go in any direction the writer/poet/singer wants to take it, though it usually rhymes with the ending of the first two lines. It’s a variation of that ancient and simple poetic scheme the rhyming couplet, but with that repetition allowing for something extra in the balance. And there’s often an element of call and response in the lines: that choral rock, and roll back that Sophocles, Skip James, and Pops Staples could share.
So, let’s go back to our 1914 Robert Frost poem “Fragmentary Blue.”
Why make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,
When heaven presents in sheets the solid hue?
Since earth is earth, perhaps, not heaven (as yet) —
Though some savants make earth include the sky;
And blue so far above us comes so high,
It only gives our wish for blue a whet.
Not in Blues stanza form. Instead, ABBA, and I don’t mean the Swedish pop group.* But Frost has made the center two lines in each stanza a sort of parenthetical, so that lines one and four are natural couplets and the middle two lines are already couplets that can stand by themselves. This means it was easy to turn “Fragmentary Blue” into “Fragmentary Blues.”
Why make so much of those fragmentary blues?
Why make so much of those fragmentary blues —
When heaven presents us sheets of a solid hue.
Here and there a bird, or a butterfly.
Here and there’s a bird, or a butterfly,
Or a flower, or a wearing stone, or an open eye.
There’s some savants say the earth includes the sky.
Some say, some say, that the earth includes the sky —
And the blues so far above us, it comes on so high.
Since earth is earth, it isn’t heaven yet.
Earth is earth. It ain’t heaven yet.
It only gives a wish for blues a whet.
So there you go, via show not tell, we rock up Robert Frost in the Blues form. If you read the two sets of words closely, you’ll see something has changed. Frost’s “blue” on first reading seems a stand-in for beauty, while the Blues treats its namesake emotional dissatisfaction as something less than beauty. But, consider again. Frost’s poem says we miss the immensity of natural beauty in our all too earthward human act of trying to possess its emulations. That difference, that dissatisfaction — that’s the Blues. My adaptation only brings out that subtext more overtly. You can hear the LYL Band express Frost most blues-wailingly with the player gadget below, or with this highlighted hyperlink that will play the performance. Most of the better guitar notes here were played by Andy Schultz who played with the LYL Band for a few times, and Dave Moore will once more hear himself back when he could pound and roll on the (plastic) ivories.
*Is it too late in their career to suggest that they produce a trans-Atlantic Carl Sandburg tribute record? I’m available, and you need my audience of dozens to hundreds of listeners.
The poet and writer Robert Bly was unavoidable here in Minnesota, and to some degree that may be true elsewhere. Today would be the day this week I would have to record something new, but I’m going to write this instead on the week of his death.
I moved to Minnesota from New York in the mid-1970s, and Robert Bly was unavoidable even then, at least within poetry circles. Minnesota is used to single degrees, and it soon became clear to me that one didn’t need to reach a balmy high of 6 degrees of separation to connect a lot of the poets here to Bly.
Now as a younger man I was a big again’er, and so I was often moved to do by what I was in opposition to. Bly was this too, and he retained this spirit well into his middle age. I recall the first time I saw him read and then speak on more general cultural topics at a writers event. The reading was intriguing. I recall he spoke his poems in a Yeatsian* sing-song chant and I believe he may have strummed a mountain dulcimer haphazardly while intoning his poems. That sort of thing is not universally attractive, then or now, but I admired the attempt. The poetry held my attention while not bowling me over. I’m not entirely sure (memories of other Bly readings blur into my memory of my first) but he may have spent time in his reading speaking about the matters the following poem would be a distillation of. In effect a Bly reading sometimes seemed to be roughly in haibun form, prose talk containing associations and context, to be followed by a shorter lyric poem. In the mid-20th century this reading style was an again’er move, for the predominate public literary reading was flatter, trusting the words alone, or the persistence of memory from studying them on the page before or after, to bring forth the impact. The Beat poetry** with jazz thing still existed then, but this wasn’t quite that, and the Beats were still assayed plausibly as a faded popularizing fad with inferior poetry by many. Over the years my fondness/acceptance of Bly’s reading style continued, though I never wanted to sound like Bly reading.
Part of what might seem too much at a Bly reading, perhaps part of why he chose to explain the human connections not always overt in the poetry which followed, was that he really seemed to want us to treasure the words. That could seem vain or self-important — but of course he, or any of us poets, are only borrowing the words.
The video looks like it may be Bly reading around the same time I first heard him.
Later in the event series where I had heard him read, I heard him talk about culture. I recall the core of his talk that day was about how young people (he may have been restricting his subject to young men, even though this was years before Iron John) had this narcissistic irresponsibility and lack of order. He called those suffering from this syndrome “Boy Gods” and he said these two words so close together that I wondered if this was a new word I hadn’t heard before: “buoygaadz.” Anyway, I wasn’t having this. Yes, nearly all writers, and more nearly all poets, have a sliver of un-endorsed self-regard for their thoughts and work.*** And we don’t generally know what to do with what skills we have, but at a young age drawing on our own lives isn’t just narcissistic, it’s also largely what we have any grasp on so far in our short years.
So, my again’er back was up. Maybe it wasn’t me he was talking about? Didn’t occur to me. I’d been working full time since I was 20 first in nursing homes taking care of folks Bly’s parents’ age, then in urban Emergency Rooms where people had no where else or no choice but to come. I didn’t need some writer with writing prizes giving me tough love, it was my day job to provide some pretty tough love to some needy people.
That’s often what happens when two again’ers meet. How much did I misunderstand? How much was Bly wrong? As an old man I’m not sure. That again’er part of me still arises, even in old age; but now I’m prone to doubt that there’s one way and one understanding — which was always part of my being against stuff that claims there was. Similarly, I was never attracted to Bly’s denomination of a men’s movement, though some others who seem a decent sort of person in my estimate were. I have no understanding of that part of Bly’s lifework, and so look elsewhere if that’s what you’re looking for. Also missing in my accounting today will be that there was, even more so in the older Bly, a sense of general good humor about our less than murderous follies.
Skip forward some decades and into a new century. Partly from examining closely the early Modernists (who wrote differently than most Modernism that followed) and partly from a renewed interest in how the classical Chinese poets expressed poetry, my poetry became more like Bly’s without any direct intent on my part to write like him (remember, my first impressions of Bly’s poetry were: nice enough, but not impressive or something I needed to copy.) If you’ve listened to some of the hundreds of examples of various performance styles I’ve used here combining poetry and music, I don’t think you’ll find me sounding much like Bly reading — but he is one of several whose courage in trying different ways to make verse work aloud inspired me.
And then, as readers here will know, I started to do more translations. I did this to expand what I presented here, and also because I think it’s a great way to get inside other ways poetry can express itself for my own writerly benefit. In the course of doing that, I would run across works that Bly had translated. My first thoughts? “He put stuff in there that wasn’t in the poem. And he makes them all sound like Bly poems.” Well, there’s my again’er again! I told myself that I want to honor the poet I’m translating — and sure, I can’t move the exact word-music over, but it should remain their poem, not mine. Oh, I still think I’m trying to do that, but I’m failing into doing what I see in Bly’s translations more and more. I’m not sure how I’ll eventually feel about this failure on my part. I’ll say only this (in example) if you think you’re reading Rumi by reading Bly, you’re not. You’re looking over the shoulder or between the ears of Robert Bly reading Rumi. That may be a fine location, just don’t hang the wrong sign on it. Ah, but as with the poetry we write, we’re only borrowing the words.
Have I been too dismissive or hard on the man who has just died, and who earned his honors and esteem and perhaps deserved even more? And who am I to cast this as if Bly and I are peers in any estimation! I worry that I might give some readers those impressions, but no, my intent is to say this in gratitude to Bly; and then to say this to you: if you, even partially, progress by opposition know that opposition may be like a pair of powerful magnets with poles repelling — they may snap around in your intending hands, together.
**While in New York I’d heard Ginsberg sing poetry; and though his pitch sense had issues, he was singing in full voice. Though I left New York before the hip-hop explosion, Gil Scott-Heron was a thing, and again, the cool, sly Beat infused (in both senses of the word) Scott-Heron thing wasn’t what Bly was doing. Bly then was always slowing the flow down, sometimes elongating the words almost like a stage hypnotist. The Last Poets sounded more like drill sergeant chants compared to Bly. Ken Nordine’s“Word Jazz” had moments of that slow, hypno-suggestion groove, but it also had rhythmic variety. Later Bly chopped with a raised hand while reading, chopping also the words off at their feet with more variety in tempo.
***Often fighting with a stubborn bit of self-destruction or outright self-hate. Many artists think they know what they’re doing maybe 51% of the time, and then “I don’t have any idea about how to do it” fills the remainder 49%. The former pride lets us work, maybe even impress the results on others, the later portion calls us self-deluded. Some self-medicate trying to dampen down one portion or the other, but the drugs, drink, etc are not accurate enough.