Mark Twain Tonight in an Iowa Library

Reader Benjamin David Steele remarked this month that he didn’t know I was from Iowa. It’s true, I don’t talk often about being from somewhere, part of my goal of not talking directly about myself as much as many successful blogs do.

Perhaps that’s my contrary streak. Yet if one has that trait, it may be that it can change direction on itself and careen 180 miles an hour the other way. Here’s something I was going to include as an aside in one of the two Mark Twain pieces preceding this one, but it was too long to be that.

Twain’s books weren’t all I thought of when I performed those Twain pieces ribbing poetry and poets this month. I thought of Hal Holbrook, who liked to say that he played Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens did, and I also would think of a beautiful, silent library—but to get to those places I need to think first of my father.

My father had no straightforward vocational life, much like the one I later had. If one thinks of the midcentury male American life as the one-job man during those decades, you may be demographically informed, but wrong about him. He set out to be a Protestant minister, as his father and one of his brothers had been. He changed his mind, ran the third grocery store in a tiny town (didn’t work out), worked on a loading dock, and then took a job driving a bread-truck delivery route between the many little towns in my section of Iowa. The workday was long, the trucks leaving from a barn on the outskirts of the county seat 30 miles away at dawn, driving there on the tractor-putting two lanes and repurposed stagecoach routes. In the afternoon on his route, he’d come through my hometown supplying the two grocery stores that still remained on the one-block main street. In the summer, I could arrange to ride along with him, sitting on the bare treadplate step to the right of the only seat, the driver’s, in his bread van as we’d both leave off for another small town. Behind his driver’s seat and my sideways crouch, the entire back of the box truck was filled with sliding wire racks to be filled and then emptied of loaves, buns, dessert bread products, and doughnuts. Between us, a doghouse cover for the truck’s engine and the long shift lever. My dad had a small transistor radio on a ledge near the windshield which, if there wasn’t an afternoon baseball game, was tuned to a country and western station—but there was music in the truck too, a thrum from the engine between us and an ostinato chiming from all those metal racks behind us.

We talked some, but it was mostly these loud musics and the everyday weight of the afternoons.

I sometimes wonder now if I’m recalling that sound when I play a Telecaster with its bridge pickup that can chime and clangor moreso than any other electric guitar: that sound of 1960 country music combined with those metal racks, all jumping like yapping puppies on their ledges as we traveled over the rural roads.

In each town, a store or two, the bread from trays transferred onto shelves, a few commercial words and small talk with the store owner, and back to the truck and eventually back to the county seat and the bread company’s office and truck barn. There my dad would unload the retrieved old bread and do by hand a series of books on the day’s commerce, something that took about an hour.

I watched this once or twice from my adolescent what’s-this-got-to-do-with-me nonchalance. Most days I had a more desired way to spend this hour.

The county seat had two things our smaller town didn’t have, a hobby store that is another story, and a library multiple times the size of the small one in my hometown. I could be dropped off within walking distance of either while my father did his end-of-day business.

The Kendall Young Library had all the things you’d find in most larger libraries then: multiple levels with steep stairs, the Dewey Decimal System arrangement, a card catalog, newspapers threaded onto majestic wooden rods as if daily Torah scrolls, a quiet and light somehow better than any other quiet and light: a romantic, forest of books light, a quiet of words.

My mother had worked out how to get books by mail from a statewide library system, and that kept me largely supplied throughout my childhood, but there’s a something difference in being in the presence of books and their specific possibilities. History was my main passion then, so that if some of these books in the library were old,* that was no drawback.

On one day there, I may have collected some books more quickly than usual, and I wanted to see what else was in this place. At one side of the largest room there were a couple of record players, a selection of records, and headphones.  I don’t know if it was the records or the headphones that caught my eye first. That records could exist in library-sized collections was a marvel, but headphones signified exotic hi-fi technology, though they were more likely only an accommodation to the word-quiet of the library.

One of the LPs that was there was the 1959 “original cast recording” of Mark Twain Tonight,  a one-man Broadway show in which the young actor Hal Holbrook in aged makeup played the 70 year old Mark Twain giving one of his turn of the century stage talks.

Holbrook continued to ride that act’s horse until he was playing a man more than a decade younger than he had become.**  I was about to find out why it worked so well. I put on the record and enclosed my head in the ‘phones.

Holbrook’s script (such as it was, he always worked from a surplus of Twain material, not a fixed text) was a master of the seamless excerpt. His Twain at first seemed for a moment frail, you wondered if he was going to falter, but the dry jokes were moistened as he worked the timing with an invisible stage cigar on the recording.***  Twain may have been a historical or literary figure, but the first 20 minutes had as much funny skewering of various hypocrisies for me as a contemporary issue of Mad  magazine. But along about the middle of the record, things got quite a bit darker. I’d gotten to the second side and a withering compression of the situation of Jim, the escaped slave thrown together with the runaway Huck, each escaping exploitation, when the hour or so expired and I needed to join my father for the ride home. My head came out from between the cups of the headphones, but I’d been inside part of Twain’s book. Huck and Jim couldn’t go home. I had to, and could.

That was my mother’s and father’s doing—both that I could take this journey that could stop at this library, but also that I had a home to return to. I rode home with my father, he was wearing his checkerboard shirt woven to match the printing on the wraps around the loaves of bread.

Kendall Young Library views

Period and 21st century views of the Kendall Young Library. How could I not have seen that skylight?

 

I did two things to check against this memory today. I re-listened to what may be the same recording I heard that day in the library, this time on Spotify. I found it much as I remembered it, which compliments the impressiveness of Holbrook’s performance. And I looked online for pictures of the Kendall Young Library. Here my memory got an adjustment. I recall, yes, that it was a fancy building, but the pictures reveal a beau-arts building more exquisite than I remembered. I was most shocked to see that it has a domed stained-glass skylight, something that no doubt helped with that light I recalled, but that I’d never noticed then with my head in books and sound.

No audio piece today, but thanks for reading.

 

*The old books were likely less old that I am today. I know I enjoyed books there from the 1920s through the 40s, which seemed like centuries ago then. Perhaps a teenager today with a City Lights chapbook or a Beatles LP considers those too archaeological finds from a stratum nearer the pyramids than their weekly life.

**I wonder, how did the makeup have to change from the 34 year old portraying Twain at 70 to the 80 plus old Holbrook doing the same.

***In preparing for what would be his most durable role, Holbrook wanted to know about how Twain himself performed. He has said that he had access to a recording made by an actor-impressionist friend of Twain doing his imitation of Twain in 1934 which is the only recorded clue extant. For visual business, there was also a silent Thomas Edison film of the 70-year-old Twain. Though Twain died in 1910, it’s not far-fetched that we might have had recordings of him. He was fascinated by technology and was known to have used recording devices, as well as having known men like Edison who made them.

An Old Man on Record Store Day

The Parlando Project is mostly about presenting other people’s words. I like that. It adds variety and it lets me write about what encounters with those words bring forth. We’ve done that over 400 times since this thing kicked off publicly in 2016

So, we’re always ready to celebrate National Poetry Month. Any month is poetry month here! But every once in awhile I slip in one of my own poems. Sometimes it’s just because I have something I want to say to this adventuresome audience, but it’s often because I’ve read something someone else wrote and I think of something I wrote (or should write, and then write) that relates to it.

A blog I read regularly by Paul Deaton has ranged over various subjects in the past couple of years, but lately he’s been writing some about the past, including lives that range back into his parents and grandparents generations. I’m not going to go back that far, I’m only going to go back to when I was a young man. Given my age, this is “Boomer” territory that’s been already over-farmed—but bear with me. This isn’t really a poem about the past, it’s about someone in my generation who has a past, but presently. For those Gen X and Millennials who find this insufferable, I remind you that I’ve been priming my High Schooler who isn’t a Millennial to blame Gen X and Millennials for ruining things for the current and subsequent generation. I urge other geezers, crones and wise-ass elders to do the same. As our aged, but still very stable emperor demonstrates, the best thing to do to deflect blame is be proactive in shoveling it elsewhere. I don’t know why that should work, but it does!

Anyway, I’ve presented quite a few poems this year by younger-than-mid-life poets whose poems speak as if they are aged.

Besides National Poetry Month, April is supposed to bring us Record Store Day. It would have been last Saturday, an annual celebration of those venerable little stores that once again were selling dark flat petroleum circles that sing when you poke them with a needle. Our current crisis has canceled that.

Now back in my day…Oh man, having a past and dragging it around does make one insufferable doesn’t it…this sort of thing was serious business for me. I had little spending money, but I would hope to have it in order to buy one of those foot-square pieces of art with the circles inside. Something cool. Something that represented my generation.

I can remember a particular spring afternoon. Somehow my girlfriend and I had caged a ride in a keyboard player’s new AMC Javelin to travel to Iowa’s capital city where there was a “head shop” (which is where the best new records were sold, along with, well, “smoking accessories.”) On the way we listened to an 8 Track tape of the Moody Blues To our Children’s Children’s Children.  When we got there, I could merely marvel, as I had barely enough for one record album, and couldn’t decide which one to get or if I might need the money for something else. So, the only thing I bought was a pinned badge: a smaller, paler circle, containing a bit of the cover art to the Cream’s Wheels of Fire  record.

Badge
A circle from “The Sixties.”

 

Recalling this day 50 years ago or so, says paradoxically to me what music and recordings meant to me then. A record was a precious clue to take me through days or weeks. Foolishness? It’s always been partly that.

But of course something else was on my mind, and the mind of some of my generation on that non-official, just another record store day. War. Justice. The cutting edge of the then gap between generations and elders that had been through WWI, WWII and the Korean War, and were often sure we were ducking our war turn. Our best thoughts of ourselves were that there were more important battles, and of course some of us didn’t succeed in avoiding the war they wanted us to fight. And some of us went off looking for Eden, a place you can sort of find, and then lose track of again.

What else does that memory mean? What does it mean presently? That’s what today’s short piece is about. The player gadget is below to hear it.

 

The Entire “The Fire Sermon” from T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

Part of the ongoing adventure of doing this project over the years has been the performance of a section of the English Modernist poetic landmark “The Waste Land”  each April as part of our celebration of National Poetry Month. So far I’ve done three large sections, one each year.

My first preference in this has been to separate these larger “Waste Land”  sections into smaller pieces, lasting 2 to 6 minutes to match the usual length of other audio pieces here, but then each year as a “previously, on ‘The Waste Land”  recap I also present a combined audio file of the whole section that I’d done the previous April.

That means it’s time to present the third and longest section of Eliot’s poem, “The Fire Sermon.”  That’s a sizeable chunk of stuff just from the weighty nature of Eliot’s long poetic threnody on the disillusionment of post-WWI western civilization, his own experience of depression, and search for spiritual and cultural consolation—but I also wanted to fully combine my experience of it with the entire range of musical expression that I’ve used here over the years, which means that I haven’t tried to hurry things along in order to stuff “The Waste Land”  squirming and squealing into a smaller sack.

So, today’s rollup of the whole Fire Sermon section is about the length and experience of an entire vinyl LP record’s side, just a bit less than 21 minutes long. What kind of LP would it be then? Perhaps it’s the second side of a “Progressive Rock” album where the band is going to stretch out in a linked suite. At one time that seemed a fresh thing for the popular music consumer from The Sixties, who had been primed by a few years of short 3-minute singles that were masterpieces of varied kinds of expression. Could one group weave that variety themselves? Could these shorter pop music forms become movements like longer orchestral music made use of?

Lets listen to some LPs

Long ago people playing long playing records. The merman in the lower left mixes expansive rock with Blonde on Blonde and Lenny Bruce’s caustic spoken word take on sex and the culture, which may not be to far off today’s slab of vinyl.

 

Of course these cycles were, are, cyclical. Less than a decade later the short sharp stab of 3 minutes of squall in a singular mode was back in hip style again. And now? Perhaps we’re progressive suite makers clicking in Spotify or Apple Music, or consumers of Peel-ing playlists in our each streaming perfumed garden of earbuds.

In these we lose this once particular 20-minute-magic. For today’s piece “The Entire Fire Sermon”  was created in one period of time, and not just by one group of musicians, but by one person. I wrote the music, played all the instruments, and recorded it myself to create this. I don’t say this to brag*—it was more a matter of practicality—but to call your attention to an essential part of this, as it’s an essential part of “The Waste Land.”  All the voices, all the modes of expression in that poem are played by T. S. Eliot. The men. The women. Tiresias, the at-least-sometimes narrator who is both genders. Yes, there are elements of memoir as poetry in this; yes, there are places where Eliot’s representing himself, his particular culture, the early 20th century man who went from growing up white upper middle class in St Louis to Harvard to France to London before he was 30. If Tiresias is a prophet, he is also blind and cursed by error. Eliot has all these things in him too, just as you or I do.

“The Waste Land”  is a harrowing work. If Keats hopes art, as his urn, is a “friend to man,” this friend Eliot made is telling you about the parts of life where hope has to struggle to come out. This section, like other parts of “The Waste Land”  has a reputation for misogyny. In my current reading of it, I’m relieved to not have to figure out a way around that, because I don’t share that reading, even if it may be part of the artist. What it is, particularly here and in the previous section, is the complete opposite of sex-positive. There is absolutely no joy or consolation in desire. Sex acts are referenced, but there’s no love made or even pleasure, only bad deals on unequal terms.

Since I’m asking to take up 20 minutes of your time to listen to “The Entire Fire Sermon”  I’m not going to say more about “The Waste Land”  today. If you’ve come here for homework help or because you have a nagging question about “what’s that thing on about” these sites will help with notes on the many, many references in this poem that is in effect sampling and collaging dozens of myths and other works: here, here, here, and here. And last spring, in March and April, I wrote about the individual sections as I presented them anyway.

Another way to experience it is to just let it wash over you as the dirty water of an urban river. Relax between your speakers, put your headphones/ear buds on and let it flow until the side ends. You drop the needle by clicking on the player gadget below. I’ll be back soon with some shorter work by another poet from St. Louis.

 

 

*Listening back to it as I made this combined file today, I am reasonably proud of what I did with the music, though I the composer wish I the performer was a more skilled singer.

Memo from (W. J.) Turner ‘There Came a Lion into the Capitol’

One thing I loved doing to stretch my culture and entertainment dollar back in the 20th century was to go to a used record shop and look for unusual records. The more disorganized and undiscerning the shop, the better for my purposes then—since the lowest price was important, and whatever the time spent, it was enjoyable.

It felt so good to come home back then, less a dollar or two, but with a record by someone I’d barely heard of, or never  heard of. What would it sound like? What would they be trying to express? There’s a universe of art out there, commercial and not, music, words, every art. What hides itself, unlooked at, unheard, while our summarized cultural attention is elsewhere?

This project has allowed me to do the same thing with the poets of the early 20th century.

One way to find the overlooked is to read contemporary journalistic accounts of an era. They are unfiltered by later consensus, and focused on the day to day of their day, not overly informed by the judgements of history (which aren’t complete, much less unerring). And so, I’ve spent time this week reading Harold Monro’s* 1920 book Some Contemporary Poets.  Monro is himself a poet I thought might be an interesting minor writer to examine. Instead, his book led me to at least two other writers that I found immediately interesting. Today you get to hear something from the first of them.

Monro didn’t much like Walter J. Turner, who he refers to as W. J. Turner.** He leads off his book’s short notice on Turner by saying that Turner was “Rumoured in literary circles” as “a genius.” Monro then wastes little time getting on to disputing that, saying that Turner has only learned “the ‘tricks of the trade’ in the neo-Georgian school.” So facile but vapid? No, Monro, extends his critique to Turner’s technique too: “Simple monosyllabic epithets like cold, dim, dark, pale, wan, bright, grey, still, occur in all he has written to such excess that they cloy the reader’s memory like some unwanted tune.”

I happen to think that one of the common faults of poetry is its resort to too many and too uselessly fancy a set of adjectives, so I looked at a few Walter J.Turner poems. I didn’t have to go far to see one that called to this reader’s memory for some—who knows?—unwanted tune.

I haven’t found out much yet about Turner’s life, but those rumors of greatness back in 1920 largely came from William Butler Yeats—a blurb any lyric poet would be glad to get. Turner isn’t as fluid a poet/word-musician as Yeats is (is anyone?) but he seems to have been struck by the fanciful, exotic and even occult aspects that are one thread in Yeats. Today’s piece “’There Came a Lion into the Capitol’”  shows this.

Walter_James_Redfern_Turner_bust_by_Lady_Ottoline_Morrell

Besides poetry, Turner wrote music criticism.

 

Turner published that title in quote marks, but I can’t find the literal phrase he might be quoting exactly. Lions and rulers and rulers’ seats are a rich trope of metaphor in general, but he may be referring to Cassius speaking about Julius Caesar in dialog from Shakespeare’s play. If so, his poem is very impressionistic, mentioning nothing that links it to Caesar, to Shakespeare, or any particular time or place.

The poem is entirely fantastic, in the strict sense of the word. The title lion somehow materializes from the page of a book (Shakespeare’s plays? The Bible***  or some equivalent? A spell-book? Some other book of lore?) and an apocalypse occurs. By the last stanza, planet Earth is gone and cold space is left.

Musically, I may have unintentionally copped a bit of the sound of one of my favorite used record store finds, the masterpiece of one of the great overlooked Afro-American-led bands of “The Sixties,” Love’s “Forever Changes.”****  My playing and arrangements don’t reach that level, but the orchestration of “Forever Changes” is what comes to my mind when I think of acoustic guitar mixed with a horn section, so maybe one of those dark-horse used records from long ago did become a muse here.

loveforeverchangesLion Cover

Hey, what happened to the rest of the band? A classic LP cover and my W. J. Turner parody of it.

 

To hear my performance of Walter J. Turner’s “’There Came a Lion into the Capitol’”  use the player gadget below.

 

 

*H. Monro is not to be confused with H. H. Munro, the other writer whose penname was “Saki.” Monro and Munro were contemporaries. This might have been embarrassing at literary get-togethers!

**Not to be confused with J. M. W. Turner. He’s the painter.

***Lions appear in the Bible from the Old Testament to Revelation, but though the title phrase sounds like it could be in Revelation, I haven’t found an English translation that has it.

****The group Love was led by Arthur Lee, not to be confused with ace guitarist Albert Lee, who in turn is not to be confused with Albert Lea, the county seat of Freeborn County in south-east Minnesota. If you haven’t heard Love’s “Forever Changes,”  you should. “Forever Changes”  sold next to nothing—and the lyrics and some of the melody lines are unusual enough to explain that I suppose—but the LP’s arrangements are so rich and attractive that it’s difficult to imagine the real-world timeline that we actually lived through, the one where this wasn’t one of the biggest records of 1967. In our still ongoing time continuum, maybe Flying Lotus or Frank Ocean ought to do a tribute mixtape.