I’m going to take a short break from our February celebration of 1926’s Fire!! Devoted to Younger Negro Artists* to celebrate old people — really old people. The audio piece today is also not as solemn as some of the issues we’ve dealt with in other posts: it’s about love, desire, lust — and those feelings are represented as Shakespeare or many of the Afro-American Blues artists of our last decade to be called “The Twenties” might present it, as “country matters.”
There’s a long poetic lyrical tradition of mixing rural metaphors with desire. We’ve done more than one piece here over the years in the bucolic poetic tradition of lusty shepherds and comely rural maids, but it has occurred to me in my present old age that they are almost always young and single. I, on the other hand, am an old, long-married man. Not to put a damper on the prurience factor, but when I say old, I mean old enough to think about not being around to promise love forever. I’ll repeat what I’ve said here before: that at my age when offered a lifetime guarantee on a product, I’ll ask now if there’s a better deal. Yet, oddly enough, that for me makes the desire to connect with my beloved no less ardent. Carpe Diem is no longer just a trope to be trotted out.
Does today’s rambunctious piece do a good job of communicating that? I’m not sure. I presented an earlier draft of this a decade ago to a writer’s group I was participating in — and they, in the springtime of their mid-60s, thought it was a persona poem about someone wooing a rural widow, while I thought the inescapable ribald joke in the piece was that the singer wanted to, ahem, get down with it, before they died making their wife a widow. That group was often right about such lack of clarity, but I sometimes wonder if they were too young — and now that half that group has died, that they might have a different understanding of this lusty Blues poem. And it occurs to me that’s an additional joke! The audience for poetry may be small, but am I expecting the audience for this one to be made up of dead people?
Here’s my Blues-poem lyric. We’ll be back with other peoples’ words soon.
I don’t know, but I wish all of the readers and listeners here, of whatever age, a happy Valentine’s Day. We may not understand love — after all, we barely understand lust — but let us fumble toward that understanding with chocolates and flowers in a cold February. You can hear me perform this Blues-poem with bottleneck-slide guitar using the graphical player gadget below, or with this alternative highlighted link.
I’ll promise you a love song at the end of this, but let’s look briefly at some other stuff that surrounds that song.
As I look in the Langston Hughes poetry collection I’m featuring this Black History Month for a Valentine’s Day piece, there is less to pick from than one might imagine. Even though his The Weary Blues is a first book by a young man, and it includes some of the Afro-American poet’s best-known poems — poems of love or passionate desire are conspicuous in their absence.
Even for 1926, the year The Weary Blues was published, this is somewhat unusual. You might think roughly a century ago the down and dirty lunge of love might be automatically missing, and to some degrees of physical explicitness you’d be correct, but poems on the emotional variety of love and desire were if anything the very fashion for the last decade called The Twenties. Popular and esteemed poets of that era Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sara Teasdale, and others were quite ready to talk frankly about desire. Nor were Afro-Americans silent on this subject. Jean Toomer wrote what I think is flat-out one of the best surrealist love poems of all time. Claude McKay wrote beautiful and passionate love sonnets, and the Blues singers performing and recording then were quite willing to serve in the lust and fond department of art.*
We’ve already said that Hughes was a pioneer in valuing those very Blues and Jazz singers. Early this month we performed Hughes’ “To Midnight Nan at Leroy’s,” a Blues poem presenting just such a singer and a condensed late-night view of a hook up. Was the man in this poem Hughes himself? Possible, but I think the preponderance of the evidence says not. I think he’s an observer of the tryst, and even given the value he puts on short poems in his collection, he somewhat stints on the details.
No, Langston Hughes, for all his night-life settings and ash-can-school observations in The Weary Blues is almost prudish about sex and love. If he feels desire himself, he’s loath to talk about it — while all around him poets and singers were talking and talking about that.
I’m not a scholar, just a person who actively seeks out poetry encounters and then gathers some information that helps me grasp what the poem may be on about. Hughes was guarded about his sexuality. I gather this was true for his entire life. Some believe he was gay or bi, but then other poets of his time were and that didn’t stop them from writing about desire even if their readers didn’t necessarily understand the gender object of their affections.** I read at least one piece that concluded Hughes was asexual. Frankly no one seems to know, and if you’re looking to date Langston Hughes, he’s dead, so it may not matter.
Today’s piece uses Hughes’ “Song to the Dark Virgin.” It does show passion, and if not as Surrealist as Toomer’s great poem, it dips into almost a Robert Herrick style 17th century set of conceits*** Hughes’ use of the archaic pronoun “Thou” and a few other less current words in common speech show him code-switching to something a bit like the Bible’s “Song of Songs” in the King James translation.
And speaking of “Song of Songs,” it’s not even clear if this love poem is to some anonymous person or if in some sense it’s to Black people in general, just as “Song of Songs” melds what seem like individual lovers into Judaism. If you read this poem as Black is Beautiful breaking out 40 years before it’s more publicized instances, you could make a good case.**** The Weary Blues includes poems set in the various ports Hughes landed at around the world during his stint as a merchant sailor before assembling the book, and his father was living in Mexico. From this I wondered if the ”Dark Virgin” is a reference to the Black Madonna paintings and figures he might have encountered overseas. A possible clue to this not just being a young person’s love poem is that it’s titled “to the Dark Virgin” not “to a.”
A Greek Orthodox icon, one of the examples of the Black Madonna found in Eurasia and Latin America.
But Valentines Day is here, so let’s perform this as a romantic love song. In Robert Herrick style, just calling out a love object as a virgin isn’t unusual. In such a reading or performance this is how the poem may be described: the poem opens with the idea of being a scattered and shattered love offering to the beloved in Part I. Part II gets a little more intimate: the speaker wants to be the layer of clothes next to the beloved skin. Kinky, but Herrick and for that matter “If I Was Your Girlfriend” Prince would approve. Part III gets closer to consummation of desire as in the trope of consummation as consumed by fire. Yes, it’s a little bit of archaic dress up, but who knows, maybe a love whisper of “I want to annihilate your body” is still a working bedroom line?
The above are guitar chords as I fingered them, but the recording uses a capo on the 3rd fret, so it’s heard in the key of Bb today. Interesting progression, there’s no V chord in it!
If you follow the progress of the imagery Part I starts out with shining light, then the more obscured light inside folds of clothing, and finally in Part III it’s out in blazes of leaping flame.
I ardently performed this one today with guitar, chorused fretless bass, and a warped low string section. I let those bowed strings play what an electric bass would play so that the actual electric bass could do other things. Many of you can hear it with a graphical player below, but those whose way of reading this won’t show the player can use this highlighted link to play it.
When it comes to pieces for Valentine’s Day, there’s a great deal of love poetry to draw from. And it’s not uncommon for those love poems to be sonnets — after all, that form has been used from the times of Petrarch and Shakespeare for poems about passionate relationships. The course of love is often complex and unstraightforward, and fittingly most sonnets contain a volta, or turn, where the poem shifts from one aspect to another, a feature that is useful for portraying the alternating currents of passion.
For today’s piece I’ve used a distinctive winter love poem by Afro-American and Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay. In this poem, “The Snow Fairy,” McKay uses an unusual form, a double sonnet, a pair of 14-line poems that allows additional volta/turns. Here’s a link to McKay’s text if you’d like to follow along.
poet Claude McKay as a young man
“The Snow Fairy” opens with a fine sonnet about a winter snowfall. If one was to read it as a stand-alone poem it wouldn’t seem truncated or insufficient by itself, but McKay wants to present it as part of a pair, and as we’ll see it’s both foreshadowing — and in a time-twist, the actual conclusion of the poem chronologically. Sonnet I has the snow, as per the title, personified as fairies, a kind of otherworldly being that may have connotations of light-heartedness or simple wonder. But note a very subtle shift in the supernatural creatures fluttering down in the second quatrain: “As though in heaven there was revolt and riot.” The merely fantastic in the opening quatrain has taken a more consequential air. I’m not sure how many readers notice this, but to me this is an unmistakable reference to Milton and Satan falling after the war in heaven in Paradise Lost.
Third quatrain, and we’ve switched our attention to the poem’s speaker, who’s gone to bed without mention of any other person, and awakes to view the once individual fairies/fallen angels, now lying still, yet joined together after their night long whirling dance. In the concluding couplet, as often in a Shakespearean sonnet form like McKay uses, we have a turn. We’ve spent our focus up to now on these snowflakes, but in the couplet he tells us by the end of the day they’ve melted away.
In sonnet II, the poem’s speaker flashes backwards in time, connecting via the memory of the first sonnet’s night of winter snow. He’s reminded of a “you who came to me upon a winter’s night” as did our snowflake/fairy/fallen angel creatures did in sonnet I. In sonnet II’s second quatrain this couple are like our snowflakes of the first sonnet, tossed and dancing in what he tells us is passion. In an echo of the third quatrain of the sonnet I, in the same quatrain of sonnet II, they are tenderly joined and bedded.
And then the turn, the volta: faster even than the by midday melting snow of sonnet I, at the break of dawn the partner is gone, leaving the poem’s speaker alone to be the writer of sonnet I, watching the snow fairies fall in winter.
Read with modest care, the story told in the most minimal of sonnet sequences is plain. Love is wonderous. Love joins us, un-times us for a time — and then, whether parting by the single night or death, it is “stol’n away.” But are there additional undercurrents?
I sense there’s a question in the last row of readers out there, and over the Internet I can’t tell if it’s snarky, sincere, or asked hesitantly: “The title is ‘The Snow Fairy.’ Is this two guys hooking up? Is McKay gay?”
Even today when the acronym for non-heteronormative affections and gender extends ever outward, such answers aren’t always simple binary switches, but yes, it seems generally assumed that Claude McKay had erotic connections with other men. McKay never “came out” in a way that folks in our lifetimes do. In the context of this poem, the question may be focused to a subsidiary question, is “The Snow Fairy” a coded statement of his sexuality, written so that that those who know would know, and the others would not?
One could write an essay longer than this post, but on balance my reading is that, like his equally lovely summer-day-long love poem “Memory of June” this feels as if McKay is describing the difficulties of gay people being able to form lasting relationships when that was desired in his time. The subtle turn from fairies to Miltonic fallen angels in sonnet I also seems to be signaling outsider status. There’s also a possible significance in the title snow fairy being singular while the snow fairies/snowflakes are multitudinous. But was “fairy” a clear signaling word? It seemed like that to me when I first read this poem, but upon research that’s ambiguous. Terms used for gay people have a history of emerging and shifting over time, both inside and outside the community. Fairy as a slang word for an effeminate man seems to have emerged in the mid-to-later 1920s,* and was in common understanding by 1940 or so, but this poem was published in 1922. That means that it might be too early for it to be understood by other gay people generally, or even McKay, as signaling. On the other hand, it seems likely that a general reader in 1922 would not read fairy = gay when seeing this poem on the page then.
But in another way, is that the only thing that matters about this poem? No. Love and desire is both complex and unitary. Passing love, passing sweetness, unrequited desires, loneliness for absent lovers — put all the genders, nationalities, races and practices together in one snowbank and you can’t separate out the unique snowflakes. We love and we are gone is one whole part of humanity. Perhaps that’s why Valentine’s Day is but a day?
I performed Claude McKay’s “The Snow Fairy” in this simple arrangement to get it done in time. I had another version with basic tracks of a more full-band arrangement, but this one with just 12-string acoustic guitar and bass was easier for me to complete. To hear my performance, use the player gadget below — or if you don’t see the player this highlighted hyperlink will do the job too.
This week I met with a small group of poets that have been sharing their work with each other for a few decades. At the end of the night one of us said that, despite the date, that love poems had been rare.
I said that I do try to look for love poems to present here as part of this project, but when I do I’m often waylaid by something gloomier—“But then, love poems can be as complicated as any other, and there’s always Lorca where the poem is ‘I love and desire you even while we’re between one foot and our whole body and soul in the grave.”
Did I mention the group is all old poets? Young poets can choose to be poète maudit types, and to mine the tropes of love, separation from all, and death—but past a certain age, us old poets have an organic attachment to that role that we’d have to actively deny to escape.
So, for Valentine’s Day, here’s a free-verse sonnet of mine that speaks about a kind of love that old partners may have. I think some readers could miss that aspect in “These Phones in our Hands (are so Magical),” working as the poem does to contrast the little glowing palm-shrines that are now common to most of us with other kinds of connection.
Long time readers here know that we’ll be back soon with performances of poems I didn’t write.
The magical incident it describes, of a phone that can display a picture of a couple seven years in the future is not entirely fantasy. As the poem jokes, there are processes that can age a photo to show how a person might look at an older age. For someone older, the assurance that one might see proof that one will be around for seven more years is magical in a more above and below-ground earthy sense. Young lovers can wonder if their partner will stay partnered with them. Old lovers know that they will part.
The final couplet may be tricky. The empty hands are not just empty of their magical smart phones.
I almost presented this with just the drums, but in the past week or two I’ve spent composing time blowing on the guitar because my fingers have been up to it, and maybe I can recover a little of the few chops I once had. Yet, in the back of my mind I’ve reminded myself that it’s been awhile since I composed an orchestra piece for this project, and that led to the strings today. The player to hear it should be below. If you’re reading this in the WordPress reader on an iPad or iPhone the player gadget may be missing. Why? I don’t know, as the player shows up fine in Safari—but you can subscribe to the audio pieces by themselves in the Apple Podcast app or many other podcast places as “Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet.”
“If music be the food of love, then play on…” So said Shakespeare and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. Here at the Parlando Project we explore music and words (mostly poetry) crushing on each other, and some of our most listened-to audio pieces feature aspects of love. So, for Valentine’s Day here’s a countdown of our most popular pieces that feature love.
As it happens this “Top 10” also does a good job of showing the variety of music and ways we integrate the words with the music. I often think I spend the majority of the posts here talking about the words we use, but love, like music, often prefers “to speak without having anything to say,” the thing that music does.
10. Vegetable Swallow words by Tristan Tzara. When I translated this Dada poem I wasn’t expecting it to form the recognizable poem of desire that appeared. Musically I set this to something that is unorthodox rock. The keyboard parts don’t really work the way rock keyboards usually work, but the second half features an electric guitar solo that while it’s not rock, meets it at least half-way.
9. Love is Enough words by William Morris. More plainspoken than Tzara about the value of love in a world that doesn’t seem to want to contain it. Here the LYL Band is in garage band mode, with the usual keening combo organ of that Sixties’ genre along with two guitars, bass and drums.
8. The Heart of the Woman words by William Butler Yeats. One of the limitations I need to deal with in this project is that I’m not a very good singer, so it was particularly audacious here for me to perform Yeats’ poem of tender devotion acapella. One of the things I love about traditional folk music field recordings is that they often capture singers who are not perfect in pitch or in other qualities that make one say “what a singer!” That quality brings a different reflection on humanity and the words being sung.
7. Sonnet 130 My Mistresses Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun words by William Shakespeare. I loved the episode of Upstart Crow where everyone and Shakespeare’s wife takes the bard to task for this too honest love poem that deconstructs every phony and limiting idea of beauty in his era’s poetry. Bonus Black History Month points to the possibility that the poem’s famous “Dark Lady” might have African ancestors. Musically, we leave rock’n’roll behind for 12-string acoustic guitar, bass, recorder and a string quartet.
6. Rosemary words by Edna St. Vincent Millay. One of my personal favorite musical performances from the more than 300 I’ve presented here in the last three years. I was trying to recreate the sound of the acoustic band The Pentangle, and I’m still shocked and pleased at how close I could get. Millay’s poem has a new broom sweeping out the old, failed love to make ready for a new one.
5. Sonnet 43 What Lips My Lips Have Kissed words by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Our first repeat appearance by a poet in this list, and there’s a tinge of romantic regret in this one, but also there’s some satisfaction in a life of romantic independence. A massively underrated poem! Another small string group arrangement here with some spare piano, but also electric bass and drums.
Actual photo of my anima recording another Parlando Project piece. “Yeah, it needs more theorbo.”
4. Let Us Live and Love words by Thomas Campion. Another variation on the carpe diem poem that starts as Campion’s Elizabethan English translation of Roman poet Catullus, and then branches off to his own take. The music here is blues: acoustic guitar and slide guitar with harmonica. I don’t play bottleneck slide guitar much with the Parlando Project, but listeners for some reason seem to like the pieces where I do.
3. Tender Buttons words by Gertrude Stein. Another one where I outright tried to cop the style of another band, this time Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. I remain surprised at the number of listens this one has accumulated, and even when I posted this I wondered how many are out there that appreciate both Gertrude Stein and Captain Beefheart. More than I expected you brave souls!
Even more than the Tristan Tzara poem, this one abstracts desire and love; but particularly in its closing section, that’s what I read was there expressed in Stein’s cubist language. It’s possible that, though the language is different, Stein is making something of the same point as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 does, that desire starts at skin deep and cares little how it’s attired or to what it’s compared to. Beefheart did much the same thing lyrically as Stein—but also musically, reassembling shards of blues music and visual emotions.
2. Sonnet 18 Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day words by William Shakespeare. More rock band instrumentation used in a different way than usual. The tolling piano sure ain’t doing no boogie-woogie, for this poem is yet another carpe diem argument, presented only slightly differently. As always in carpe diem, “we’re all going to die” is the unlikely come-on, and Shakespeare isn’t making the “mistake” of his Sonnet 130, opening this one by saying his beloved is better than, rather than lesser than, a common poetic trope; but as the poem continues he makes the ego-drenched claim that he’s the better love partner because he’ll put you in a poem that’ll make you immortal.
How’d that work out for the love object? Lots of conjecture as to who might be the “fair youth” or the “dark lady” in those sonnets (or if Shakespeare is, well, capable of just making the whole thing up) but in fact, we’re more concerned with Shakespeare than his romantic partners. We treasure the valentines, not the fleshy and independent lovers that they may have been addressed to, and we hold them while their erstwhile subjects are dust without names.
Doesn’t seem fair does it? Maybe for Valentine’s today the best thing is to skip the questions of appropriate metaphor and honor that partner, and to return to poetry and song tomorrow?
I can’t be serious, can I? This project needs more listeners and readers!
1. Love and Money words by Dave Moore. Can this be? An original song by Dave, who has contributed words, music, vocals, inspiration and keyboards to this project from the start is more popular than Shakespeare? How could this be?
Could it be the elemental and essential nature of the pairing in the title and the rest of the lyrics? I was considering some slavery stories as I first considered Dave’s lyrics, that added some weight for me, but Dave’s words are free-floating as far as time and place. So, I’m not going to knock the words, but maybe it’s the funky way his electric clavinet and the rest of the LYL Band jells on this one.
Happy Valentine’s Day to every reader and listener here!
Here’s the plot of a story. It’s a difficult one to tell without it sounding like a romance novel—yet as best as history knows, it’s what happened.
There was this woman who grew up in a rich family whose wealth came from exploiting slave labor in colonial Jamaica. Shortly after she reaches adulthood the family fortunes take a severe blow as Britain outlaws slavery. The men of the family might think this the work of do-gooders with their onerous regulations ruining their business, but our woman aligns with the do-gooders, holding for the abolition of slavery and writing poems for that cause. In fact, she’s a very prolific writer, and has been writing since she was near Hilda Conklin’s age. In 1840 when William Wordsworth dies, she’s even considered a British poet laureate candidate. Well no, that didn’t happen. Woman and all I suppose.
Now let’s add some more difficulties for our heroine. She’s got a long-standing opiate addiction based on a hard to diagnose and painful chronic illness. And there’s some domestic tyranny to go with all this. Her father has forbidden his children from marrying.
That stipulation seems odd. There’s one theory, one that our heroine had some belief in: she may have been creole, that is, mixed-race.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who believed she had “African blood”
None the less, as a woman of letters, her writing was free, and circulated widely. Her poetry found an admirer in another poet, Robert Browning, though he was at that point less successful than our heroine. They began to correspond and fell in love. Eventually there was a dramatic elopement. Her family condemned her and disowned her, but the love match seems to have sustained her for the rest of her life.
Other than her thought that she might have an African ancestor mixed in with the atrocity of slavery*, this story, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s story, was once very well-known.
As romantic as the Elizabeth Barrett Browning/Robert Browning story was considered in its day, I can’t help but think how a supermarket tabloid or Internet gossip site would treat this today. I can see the blurb:
“Unable to shake drugs, Liz escapes abusive home with stranger!”
Shortly after her marriage, she wrote a series of sonnets to the love of her life. In 1850 the love sonnets were published as Sonnets from the Portuguese**, and today’s piece is the most well-known of them. Indeed, it’s likely the most loved Victorian love poem, and no matter the excess of old-fashioned sounding “Thees” in it, it’s still hanging around as one of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits” as we approach Valentine’s Day.
Sculpture of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning’s clasped hands
Even if you feel too modern for it, or are concerned that the level of devotion expressed in it doesn’t seem consistent with a healthy independent self-image*** one should still be grateful for Elizabeth Barrett Browning, if only because she and the Bronte sisters were the chief models for Emily Dickinson.
To hear my performance of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee,” use the player below.
**The collection’s title was first chosen because there were Victorian-era worries that the book, with its somewhat scandalous subject of a woman expressing agency in love, might need to be presented as a translation of an anonymous foreign author. It also referred to Robert Browning’s pet name for Elizabeth, “My little Portuguese,” likely based on her darker coloration.
***By the way, I do not recommend footnotes for any of you who may send someone a Valentine-poem.
Today’s piece brings the Parlando Project to 300 published audio pieces since we officially launched in August 2016. Is that a small or large number? Both. Certainly, a great deal of effort has gone into it, including effort to not use the same kind of poem throughout, and to vary the music that meets up with the words; but I can viscerally feel the smallness of that number when I come upon another poem, yet another author, I was not aware of, and I am struck by that encounter.
John Keats’ sonnet said this was like seeing an unknown Pacific Ocean for the first time. Emily Dickinson famously said it was that “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold that no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I still get those moments. This project has presented a good number of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits;” and like my last post, even there I’m often surprised at how unfamiliar those “well-known” poems can be when looked at anew. But I so enjoy this when I’m working with a poem I don’t know, one I’ve never seen, one that seems as new as it is new to me.
John Keats’ sonnet said this was like seeing an unknown Pacific Ocean for the first time. Emily Dickinson famously said it was that “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold that no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I still get those moments.
And so it was last month when I first saw Jean Toomer’s “Her Lips are Copper Wire.” This is not a poem that sneaks up on you, it starts right-out with its audacious title, and then every stanza of it draws you deeper in, until you reach the end and the poem’s tongue is in your mouth, and you are, like it, incandescent.
I knew the name Jean Toomer, but only as a name. I’d filed him away in the mental-drawer “Harlem Renaissance,” and that’s a place that’s difficult to go to with this project because most of the work of this between-the-world-wars blossoming of Afro-American culture is not yet in the public domain. Still, I was drawn in, I had to start looking.
Huzzah! this is another of the works from the year 1923, now freed for other artists to respond to. I then spent some time this month getting at least a shallow grasp of Toomer’s life and outlook, enough effort to say that there’s a great deal more there to apprehend. Toomer himself had an ambiguous relationship with being classified as part of the Harlem Renaissance, or even with being an Afro-American artist, and he may have gone even beyond Robert Hayden’s insistence that he was an artist who was Afro-American, not an Afro-American artist. Modern scholarship has unearthed paperwork where he was classed as white, possibly by his own doing.
Like most Afro-Americans, Toomer was mixed-race. He was light-skinned enough to “pass.” His first wife was white, and after he was widowed, so was his second—and least we forget, many U. S. states held those marriages as a criminal act in his time. And since the first duty of an artist is to survive, I’m not going to rush to second-guess his motives from my ignorance. And after all, a lighter skin tone didn’t immunize Toomer from racism—no American, whatever their ethnic background or genetic mix can escape it.
American writer Jean Toomer. The typewriter is manual, the poem is electric.
For now, let me leave the artist’s life, and those great and momentous social issues, and return to his work.
How does this poem capture you, stop you in your tracks? It starts out in an intermittent state. Is the opening stanza paraphrasing a lover’s soft conversation about lights along a street, or is it a metaphor that the lights in fog have been diffused to be in a synthesic vision like the sound of whispers? I think it’s both. We’re already moving down the dual and parallel lines of a circuit. And the sound! Whisper itself is an onomatopoeic word, the long O sounds of globes and posts sound a misty near-rhyme, and the next line’s march of short E sounds sways away.
Then Toomer adds another strain to the music and duality, the touch of the breath of the close whisperer. We’ve fallen in closer.
The “telephone the power-house” stanza seems to me to be like unto a blues interjection that I love in classic pre-war blues recordings, were the singer tells the audience, breaking aside from his melodic form, something that he wants his audience to know that he’s wise to, before returning to the melody.
And then we return to the ghosts of electricity,* softly howling or humming, in the bones of her face, and the circuit is completed, closed, and we’re there in mouth’s embrace.
What a love poem! I suppose one can step back from that and note that the lover is objectified, that there is a loss of power in that. But the poem’s very conceit seems to answer that objection, with its jolt of that closed and illuminated circuit. In Toomer’s poem, like in Paul Eluard’s great Surrealist love poem, in the end we may be seeking the state where we may speak without having a thing to say.
What a poem for the 300th audio piece here, for Black History Month, and for the month of Valentine’s Day! And so, to hear my performance and musical combination of Jean Toomer’s “Her Lips are Copper Wire,” use the player below. If you can’t see the player gadget, this highlighted hyperlink is an alternative way to hear it.
Residents of crackling-dry winter Minnesota may wonder if Toomer could have had a more direct inspiration. As my wife and I say to each other when our lips touch and a static charge jumps the gap with a cupid-tiny bow-string snap: “Still got that spark.”
I can’t remember exactly when I first encountered Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” but it was far enough back that I earnestly identified with the poem’s narrator and his desires to find or convince a romantic partner.
That poem I read then is not the poem I read today, but even back in my misty youth I probably appreciated the wit of it along with the point of its argument. When I took a quick look at how “To His Coy Mistress” is currently viewed, I see that appreciation for the poem’s wit and artifice has increased in the past few decades. It may not be possible to determine just how invested Marvell was in convincing the lady in question versus showing off his poetic chops, or even how sincere he was in his variation on the classic “carpe diem” argument that if you don’t go to bed with me, now!, that you (currently comely love object) clearly don’t realize that you’ll be a rotting corpse soon.
How romantic that! Here’s a box of candy too—by the way, do you know that such foods high in sugar and fat will likely lead to cardiovascular and other diseases—not to mention tooth decay and gum disease? No? Well, let me tell you….
I’m not sure how often throughout history that real and actionable knickers came flying off at this idea—but poets love it. If love, death, and beauty are the poetic stuff, any chance to mix all three is impossible to resist.
I normally feel I have to come up with some supposition to perform one of these pieces, and what I decided here was that as a polemic, Marvell’s poetic swain means it. Which doesn’t mean he isn’t going to have some fun talking about it. Even my teenager/reader could smile at that exaggeration of the delay of traveling to India to look for jewels first,* but did I appreciate then the auction-like absurdity bidding up the hotness of his sweetie? Do I hear a hundred years? Two-thousand! Do I hear a-three…a-three…a-three—thirty-thousand,sold!!
Random blokes from Hull: Andrew Marvell and Mick Ronson. Ronson looks like he just saw the cartoon below; Marvell, like he just burped.
But I think he’s serious with the unforgettable and oddly accented “At my back I always hear/Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near.” And deflowering worms and cremated dusty lust may be over the top, but he’s not beneath crypt-keeper humor in this.
Carpe Diem! I think this is taken from a Dick Guindon cartoon. There are those who think that Dick Guindon was one of the greatest one-panel newspaper cartoonists ever. We call some of them Minnesotans.
As the poem rushes to its conclusion, I think some of the urgency passes beyond the bar of exaggeration for humorous effect. The poem’s last two couplets, which I think sincere, are as strong in my estimation as the more famous and remembered ones earlier in the poem.
For all of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” “poetry’s greatest hits” status, isn’t it odd that we don’t remember what I think are the poem’s four strongest lines, the ones that the poem ends with? Is it all about the chase and not what happens when we catch?
Here’s the player to hear my performance of Marvell’s poem with the LYL Band:
*It wasn’t until this month as I worked on this that I found out what the poem’s companion to the Indian Ganges trip, “by the tide of Humber,” was on about. Turns out that the Humber is an estuary/river near Hull in northeastern England. It happens to be where Andrew Marvell was from, as well as (a few centuries later) Mick Ronson, the guitarist/arranger for David Bowie.
As I’ve all but promised, here’s a piece using another poem by the deserving-greater-notice early 20th Century poet Anne Spencer. It may even be appropriate for Valentine’s Day—though if so, it’s a somewhat complicated valentine. If we think of Spencer’s poem as a valentine, “Lines to a Nasturtium” is a fancy one, but the doily lace on this valentine has strange knots in it.
I was going to present it first, before “Dunbar,” but I felt I didn’t understand it well enough, and after living with it for a couple of weeks, I’m still not sure I’ve found its bottom. It’s beautiful and more than a bit mysterious. My son caught me laughing today as I read an account of James Weldon Johnson, who helped bring Spencer’s poems to publication in the 1920s, sharing a selection of them with the acerbic critic H. L. Mencken. Mencken’s reply? “Tell that woman to put beginnings and ends to her poems. I can’t make head or tails of them, but they’re good.” Yes, I had to laugh, but that’s sort of how I feel right now in regards to this set of words. It’s as gorgeous as the flowers it uses as images, but there’s a puzzling pair of lines “But I know one other to whom you are in beauty/Born in vain;” I feel I should be able to suss out who the “one other” and the “you” are, and I just can’t be sure.
A sensual but philosophical ode to beauty? An early claim to the beauty of women of color against Euro-centric ideals? A Robert Browning-like soliloquy regarding a potential love rival? For awhile this morning, trying to follow the antecedents to that “one” and “you” in the text, I was leaning on that later, but then I was reminded that Spencer thought the entire last part of her poem, under it’s published sub-title “A Lover Muses,” was decorative enough to have it painted on a cabinet door in her kitchen.
Come on, in my kitchen—Spencer’s poem on the door
I don’t want mysteries of meaning to get in the way of enjoying Spencer’s work any longer, so let’s just listen to it today. Use the player below.
We’ve already met Irish poet William Butler Yeats with a brief poem earlier this month. Now his words return with a piece suitable for the aftermath of Valentine’s Day, for “A Cold Heaven” is the tale of a rejected valentine. It’s also fitting, because Valentine’s Day comes in the midst of late-winter. February, as Margaret Atwood put it, is a “month of despair, with a skewered heart in the centre.”
Here in the northern Midwest it was a “seasonable” 19 degrees F. this morning, and hardy ice has outlived any soft covering snow. There is a promise of a thaw this weekend, but that will only recall mud and the detritus of what the snow once remembered inside it.
Critics from more temperate climes praise Yeats for his oxymoron here of “ice burned,” but up north we know that’s just what happens to skin in the cold, with no need for poetic intercession. And my back yard, my cities’ parks, and our central greenway have been home to that “rook-delighting heaven” he speaks of as well. Strange isn’t it, that the bird of death is so smart, so intentional, so sure, and yet inscrutable.
In “A Cold Heaven,” Yeats’ winter and his death-omen birds lead to a missed and misunderstood, “crossed” love; and he takes the blame: if not for the season, for the failed love. Like so many, and without the succor of chocolate or flowers, he is left in the rejected lovers worshipful, davening stance, “rocking to and fro.”
But he is a poet still! “A Cold Heaven” breaks itself in two with an image that is also a pun: “Riddled with light.” Yes, we Northerners know that winter light. Brighter than summer, and paradoxically the sign of a piercingly cold day. He knows his love’s in vain, and yet no amount of blame that he can assign himself—even if he exhausts “all sense and reason” to catalog that blame—can account for the failure of his love. What can solve this “riddle?”
Yeats begins again, with a majestic “Ah!” only to take us on a short ghost story, the spirit of his love in purgatory, in bardo, naked as a corpse or as a lover, wandering and asking why clear skies, clear answers, seem like punishment.
So to all those whose valentines were not accepted yesterday: peace. Such riddling has no end to its depths. I know this: that hole is too deep to be plumbed, just know that it’s deep. The correct prayer for such things is unknown.
Look, maybe she’s just not that into you…
As a performance, “A Cold Heaven” had some challenges because Yeats makes use of enjambment, where lines break in the middle of sentences; and where the meaning too, often forks, seeming to mean one thing before the line break and another afterward. Since I like to let the lines “breathe,” so that the music can interject, and so that the words’ impact can sit a little bit before the next line, I resorted to repeating a few words. There are also a couple of other audio tricks in the piece. The string parts, particularly at the beginning have a “backwards tape” articulation where the sound swells from louder to silence, in the reverse of the normal decay of strings, which I hope signifies the drop into the past in Yeats’ text.
To hear “A Cold Heaven” use the player gadget you should see just below this.