Continuing on with our count-down of the most listened to and liked pieces here this past autumn. A reminder, each of these selections starts with a bold-faced hyperlink to the post where I first presented the author’s piece. There you may find a bit more about the writer and a link to the full text of the poem I used.
Musically this one combines electric guitar and electric piano, two instruments that don’t sound exactly like their acoustic siblings, but they mesh together just as well. There’s a player gadget below to hear Housman’s “Her Strong Enchantments Failing,” or you can use this highlighted hyperlink if you’re reading this in a reader that doesn’t show the player.
6. Truth Never Dies by Anonymous. After encountering this poem extolling the endurance of truth despite human disbelief and ridicule on Kenne Turner’s blog, I just had to try and find out where it came from. In the end I wasn’t able to come up with any likely author despite a day or two of searches, but it now looks likely that “Truth Never Dies” was written in the early part of the 20th century, and the author likely was connected to the Seventh Day Adventists, though a version of the poem appeared in early trade union and temperance publications as well as church bulletins of various denominations.
Now of course most Protestant churches, labor halls, or temperance meetings wouldn’t have a string ensemble at their disposal, but I set “Truth Never Dies” to one anyway. Once again, here’s a highlighted hyperlink to hear it, or you can use the player gadget below.
5. The Dream by Lola Ridge. I may be attracted to lesser-known authors here from time to time, but then in some cases their personal biographies are often as rich in detail and adventures as any better-known poet. Ridge is one example of this. Ridge, like Mina Loy touched scenes on more than one country and continent early in the 20th Century, but like Loy she ended up connected to New York City bohemian circles around the time of WWI. After decades of obscurity, 21st century scholarship is starting to show more interest in Ridge. This poem of hers is as resolutely Modernist as Loy, William Carlos Williams, or Marianne Moore—but in our year 2020 of wildfires, pandemic, political illusions, street demonstrations and disorder, Ridge, and her more than a hundred-year-old poem, seemed to fit our zeitgeist.
Music for this? More strings, though a smaller group of them. Maybe it’s somewhat incongruous to hear my bellowing yap chanting along with bowed instruments, but those are just conventional expectations, and I don’t go to conventions. This is the hyperlink to hear my performance of “The Dream” or you can use the player below.
This may have been one of the first poems I fell in love with: the richness of the language, some sense of strangeness, the exoticness of the depicted setting–all enough for a young teenager. I did not mind the often outdated language then—less then than I do now—as I expected poems then to be written in an old and alien adult literary language.
If you’d asked that teenager what it meant, I would have probably stumbled out something to defend my appreciation of it—but what I did know was that “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is just flat-out lovely word music.
One could go on about that, but no technical analysis will increase or decrease a listener’s appreciation for that element. Music has a structure, theorems and practices, but it remains subjective and it is not engineering. My performance of it today may not do it justice either, let your own ear or voice be the judge.
You don’t need biography to feel this element in the poem, but Keats wrote this in the spring of a year in which he had cared for his brother Tom as he died of tuberculosis that previous winter. In around a year, the medically trained John Keats would notice symptoms that he well knew were from his own infection. Another year from there he would be dead from the feared infectious respiratory disease of his time. So I read it differently today in our time of the pandemic Covid-19.
But “Ode to a Grecian Urn” isn’t poetry as memoir, a common genre in our time. Instead, despite its failure as an example of pared-back language avoiding words describing emotions, the concept of the poem is not unlike that of Imagists nearly a century later.* Keats looks at a thing, a decorated classical Greek vase,** and records that moment.
I’ve figured out why it’s hard to create this week—the muses are sheltering in place. And it ain’t mine.
I’ll resist the urge to go through this poem line by line, but as the poem’s speaker approaches the titular urn he wants to interrogate it. One could draw a cartoon where the vase is in a police station room and the poet-detective is trying to tease out the details of the caper, while we the audience look on. The vase ain’t talking. The detective says that you were seen with that couple at that musical party, would you like to tell us why she was running? OK, so who were the musicians at the gig? You don’t know! Whatd’ya mean?
But let’s return to that almostness, that never. The lover and the beloved are palpably close, yet they cannot touch. The musicians are playing, but it’s somewhere out of ear-reach. Are they all six-feet, a social distance apart? What’s avoided by this freeze, this lock-down? The sorrow with a “burning forehead, and a parching tongue.” Keats seems to intend this as an illness metaphor.***
The poem tells us this vase includes another scene, a cow being led to a ritual slaughter. A vegan, Hindu, or animal-rights advocate may cringe, but the scene is one of an entire town wishing for this consummation, and we may conclude the scene is “You will die so that we may live or prosper”—which after all is the belief of all such rituals. I’m not supposing that Keats was Joaquin Phoenix, however we may view this sort of thing; and most readers have historically taken the poem’s characterization of this as pious at face value. But Keats could have imagined his urn with another religious scene, and chose this one.
If he doesn’t want an element of dread in the sacrifice scene, why does he choose to add the detail that the pious morn has left a town with eerie deserted streets?
At the poem’s end, Keats places the famous couplet “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” As well-known as these lines are, they’re the source of some controversy. Some think them profound, some glib. They are meaningless babble or a concise summary of Keats’ aesthetic.
The urn, this mesmerizing object, has artistic impact, and that means it’s beautiful in an aesthetic sense. It doesn’t mean it’s clear in its message. It doesn’t mean it’s a simple comfort. Yes, Keats says near the end, the urn is “A friend to man.” But friends are friends partly because they will tell us things that mere sycophants or acquaintances won’t, and friends will be there when things are not all wonderful and happy. It’s true too in this sense: that it is not telling itself with ulterior motives or self-interest.
The experience of the two scenes that precede this summing up are not happy ones. Even the consolations of artistic immortality are slight: we know nothing about the end of the lover’s pursuit, the musician’s tune, the name of the village or if it prospered, or if the sacrificial cow had a soul that was reborn.
As I performed it I decided to downplay what that past teenager would have read as a ringing conclusion. After all, whatever Keats’ sweet unheard intent might have been, his object that we can see and puzzle over tells us that the urn is saying this to him, not some “deity or mortal, or both.” A piece of art says what it says in ways its creator cannot control, as the poem predicts it: “In midst of other woe than ours.”
So, I read it today as that weak voice that says, from when this poem was written, from this time when I performed it, in a time of contagious illness, in a time when caretakers were at risk, to a time when our streets are silent, at a time when some pious ready sacrifices instead of remedies, a time when music is silences and lovers parted—that there is somehow something beautiful to be discerned that is still as true as our living moments.
Speaking of musical engineering, I decided to keep the music silent or very minimal for the first part of this one, even though this project is all about combining music with words—the text’s “unheard music” was just to powerful to contradict. I also chose to keep everything in a major key/major chords, because that too is how I read the text: the urn’s subjects think they are in joy, though we see them, like re-viewing films and video of past happy social crowds today, in a different frame. To read the full text of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” go here. The player gadget to hear my performance of it awaits you clicking on the player gadget below. Stay well. Take care.
*The idea of poetry expressing the experience of another piece of art, particularly visual art, ekphrastic poetry, long predates Modernism and Imagism. By using this approach to the everyday encounter with the world, the Imagists extended this technique.
**There is wide agreement that there is no singular vase/subject to discover that Keats actually encountered in a moment. Britain had recently absconded with “The Elgin Marbles” from Athens, a series of marble sculptures that Keats viewed in London, and he had seen period vases, even making his own drawing of one.
***In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag spent a good deal of time on the historical ascribing of tuberculosis to a dissipated or too passionate life-style in pre-germ-theory times. Currently, lovers may be close but separated precisely by our knowledge of microbes.
Many things have sideways value. Poetry for example. Its mnemonic features give us poems to remember things, like the number of days in a month. And words have their own music, so much so that even verse in a language we don’t know can sound beautiful in an abstract way.
Politics too and public events, for all we toil in or tire of it, has sideways virtues. I’m not much of a philosopher, but a poet like Wallace Stevens still pulls me into philosophic thoughts with his word music and his choral structures. And it seems to me that our current political world, even without intent, is calling us to think about belief. Not just what we believe (a question we sometimes do not pause to ask), but what are the consequences of our beliefs for ourselves and others.
Since the Parlando Project is about poetry meeting up with music, I’m not going to attempt a grand 500 word summary that lays out a philosophic framework for answering such questions today—I’m probably not capable of it—but I am going to offer a new Dave Moore song that makes a useful list to remember, has some nice music to it, and could lead you to ask a few questions.
Dave’s song is called “Five Kinds of Truth.” In my introduction of it today I’ll ask you to consider what the lyrics speak of as “truth” instead as “belief.” Philosophically, or in any strict sense, those two terms: belief and truth aren’t the same thing. But informally and humanly we equate and relate these two things all the time.
Could one fit Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” into dialog balloons? Nite Owl #1, art by Joe and Andy Kubert, written by J. Michael Straczynski
Here’s what Dave said about how he came to be inspired to write “Five Kinds of Truth:”
After loyally refusing to read the prequels written by others for Alan Moore’s Watchmen series for years, I finally broke down when they showed up at the library.
Copyright loyalty aside, they were really very good.
J. Michael Strazinski did a particularly great job with the Nite Owl character, and during one of the soliloquies in search for identity was the concept of 5 Kinds of Truth.
Which I lifted and rephrased because it was too good not to.
Concepts his, words mine.”
So, what did Dave do with this, and what did the LYL Band do to accompany it? Use the player below to find out.
What was Emily Dickinson’s personality like? Biographers have tried to line that question out from the available evidence filled in with supposition; but then none of us present exactly the same face, the same sensibility to all people and at all times. And any of us who are writers may also know that what we write and how we live can differ, even if only in expression.
This is partly why we have so many Emily Dickinsons, not just over time since her emergence on the page in 1890, but now in the present days, depending on reader’s framing. Today’s piece, “Tell All the Truth, but Tell it Slant” can be read as a playful and humorous observation, as a serious artistic credo, as a secret diary of non-conformity, or as a dark observation of human fearfulness. How many Emily Dickinsons had how many intents as she worked out this little poem?
Her dark materials. A silhouette of the teenaged Emily Dickinson.
As I often do with Dickinson performances, I leaned a bit more to a serious mode of expression, which doesn’t preclude the thought that Dickinson would be internally chuckling. I tell myself I’m just trying to channel something I feel as I experience the poem, but I may be also trying to overcompensate for the Dickinson widely assessed in my youth as an eccentric dealer in homilies, a naïve artist without the depth of metaphysical thought that mid-20th Century High Modernism adored. It seemed then to have been an unspoken assumption that Emily suffered from “lady brain,” that imagined biologically-stunted inferior organ with sentiment where exploratory thought would be. Sure, her syntax and imagery had some originality, so we’ll allow her into the anthologies with the serious poets.
My model of humanity is more androgynous than most, but let us allow female associated elements in her artistry, just as we should be sure that there are experiences from gender and class roles in her time and place. But let’s not overdetermine what she did, what she can still do, when we read, perform or listen to her poetry.
As I said, “Tell All the Truth but Tell it Slant” can be read as a light-hearted jape. I even remembered the first line taken for the title on publication as “Tell the truth but tell it slant,” forgetting the “all.” Is that “all” there just for metrical reasons? Because, if that “all” is meant, it changes things doesn’t it. It goes from a reading of “Well, it’s not polite or advisable to go around spouting the whole truth at every occasion” to a more general statement, that the truth is never told directly. And then the second line and its “lies”—surely one of the most punned-on words in English. It that just an easy rhyme? The next line, “Too bright for our infirm Delight” could have been in a William Blake poem.
The second stanza* starts with some inverted order poetic diction, but it may be forgiven, as we finally get to a physical image: lightning and frightened children. Dickinson appears to be siding with the filters, the myths, the accepted consolations of fibs and filigree we buffer the truth with. And perhaps she is. It may come down to how much or how often Dickinson, or you yourself, look away from the truth, how often the wisdom of your fears can help you survive.
In the end in this performance, I thought it might be key to consider who is charged with—or to—“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Is it society, or those who speechify to us as if we’re frightened children, who slant the truth? Or is it us, who should tell all the truth, even if we need to put it indirectly so that our audience can discover it, as the world gradually discovered further Emily Dickinsons, for ourselves, in our own time?
Musically, I return to my weird folk-rock sound and I choose to make Dickinson’s first line into a refrain to stress its ambiguity and centralness to the poem. Hear it with the player below.
*One joy of the poem comes in the end of this stanza’s third line: “dazzle gradually” where the meter and consonance of the chiming d and l sounds enchants.