Today’s piece uses a very short poem I wrote in immediate reaction to some sad news I heard this weekend. Despite that news’ immediacy and particular sadness, the poem that resulted became something else, and I’m not sure why, even as I was writing it, revising it, and then figuring out today’s music and performing it. Being present throughout, shouldn’t I know?
Without stepping on anyone’s own living story, and my limited understanding and participation in it, let me just say that not one, but two poets that Dave Moore and I have known for many years have been dealing with potentially mortal illnesses this summer. I started intending to write a personal poem about considering their possible deaths, and some very tangled words started to emerge.
Why those words? I’ve already told you I don’t know for sure. Perhaps the words were tangled because I don’t feel I’ve been a supportive friend in their time of illness for complicated reasons which include my social awkwardness and not really knowing to what degree they would welcome that in their situation. The tangled words were awfully impersonal, even if the person wrestling with them was infused with emotions.
I decided to leave the tangled syntax of what came out, because I came to feel that their odd flow was a potentially striking effect, slowing the reader to consider them more closely. I made attempts to bring the personal in, but none of my considered words seemed to fit when I did. Could the impersonality too be part of the way the poem means? Yes, by this point I truly wondered what my poem — my own poem — meant.
Why Now, Vocalissimus
Why now, when it is already so
when I listen to people sing in the night,
that so many of them are dead?
And some of the words that comfort us,
or cause us to wonder at why we’re not,
were written by those who now never talk.
But if you go to silence for after all,
leaving just words, sundered breath,
will they be but husks, after seed has left?
When I completed the draft I used today, I thought it had become a poem that isn’t about particular people, but about us (you, I, anyone) wondering about what a poet leaves when their poems no longer have a choice but to remain silent on the page. I know that is a problematic mode. T. S. Eliot, who like many effective poets was right and wrong about why his poetry — much less poetry in general — worked, would approve of this poem’s impersonality; but in our century now we often expect poetry to include diaristic detail, and while the muse wouldn’t supply it, I myself expect that the poem should be specific about those that I’m thinking of — and yet to include explicit thoughts of that while they live seemed morbid and presumptuous. Even though I present this piece today, I’m not sure the poem is done with me yet.
Poetry. Seeds. Speak it!
What’s with the weird Latin word in the title? It’s to lead you away from me and my particular poets in my thoughts, and back to just about the only appearance you’ll find of that word used in an English language poem: Wallace Stevens’ “To the Roaring Wind.” In that poem “vocalissimus” is that voice of the muse that asks to become the voice of the poet; and by extension asks us to be the voice of the poet beyond their lifetime, which is what this project is about in our normal course of presenting other people’s words.
Let me leave you with one thought: you here who write, read, speak poetry are part of a continuum. Poet’s poems dream of being more than your poem — the ones with personal details, the ones without. Few will achieve that dream, but still they dream it, before and after the dreamer.
1 A High-Toned Old Christian Woman and First Fig by Wallace Stevens and Edna St. Vincent Millay It seemed like an odd pairing. So much so that I wondered why I thought it might work. Wallace Stevens, who looked like what he was, an insurance executive; and Edna St. Vincent Millay, the beautiful bohemian New Woman of the 1920s. Stevens’ poem “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” was awash in his characteristic play with esoteric words, luxuriating in its educated Modernism. Millay’s “First Fig” is epigramically brief and simply said. They were only about a dozen years apart in age a hundred years ago when these poems were written, but Stevens seemed older than his years, and Millay was famous as a distinctly young poet and as a poet who spoke for the new youth.
The subconscious forces that had me perform them together is still somewhat inexplicable. The rational connection I can see is that both of them are giving their Modernist defense against an older propriety, each in their own voices. Both are defiant in their ways, but they also somewhat reassure the older generation with an undercurrent in their poems. “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” is telling the titular old Christian (which may be based on Stevens’ mother) that he too is a devout believer, but his belief is in pagan art. Millay’s “Fig” self-admits the likely unsustainability of her devotion to an artistic life, yet her short poem has enough room to say that she’s aware of that. Both poets accept that their stubborn individual Modernism may make widows wince.
Adding Modernist poets to your electric guitar pedalboard.
The unusual music in this spring’s most popular audio piece may have attracted some. Earlier this year I was able to find a used example of a guitar effects pedal that I’ve looked at for some time: the Electro-Harmonix Attack Decay pedal. Its prime trick is to make an electric guitar’s notes burn at both ends. Most other similar effects work only with single notes, but with proper settings and playing, the Attack Decay can latch on to and do the reverse delay thing on overlapping notes, letting the featured guitar in this piece sound like a hurdy-gurdy.
This is the piece that you, our flexible Parlando audience, listened to and liked the most last season, and you can hear or re-hear it with the player gadget below, or through this highlighted hyperlink which will play it in a new tab window.
Sunday is World Poetry Day and I should do a piece about poetry and poets to mark it. The specific idea of World Poetry Day is to celebrate every nations’ poetry, something I try to do here with fresh translations sometimes, but for today I’ve decided to use works by two American poets. The United States is still a young nation, still used to using the cruder tools of youth to impress itself upon the world, but our poets have had their innings, so today I’ll sing them to the rest of the world. First up: Wallace Stevens.
It’s not uncommon for poets to write poems about art or the art of poetry itself, but Stevens did this often. So it’s no surprise that “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” starts off with an assertion about poetry, even though the rest of the poem seems to progress into an argument about religion and religious propriety. Here’s a link to the full text of Stevens’ poem in case you want to follow along.
Stevens’ poem slows down our understanding of what it means using two tactics. First, it gives us at best one-half of a conversation: a little like hearing a person talking on a phone in public where the other party is inaudible. It takes considerable effort in comprehension to settle on what issues and points are being addressed in the poem’s speaker’s argument. I’m not totally certain I grasp them myself despite several readings and going on to perform the piece. Our high-toned old Christian woman may be expressing outrage at some more pagan and unfettered artistic expression on Stevens’ part. Stevens’ response is to point out that art has its own religion of a sort, its own myths and beliefs. That unheard party, the HTOCW, seems to make an objection regarding Stevens’ or art’s outrageousness derived from its beliefs and theoretical constructions, and Stevens’ then parries with a short aria on the extremes of Christian asceticism bellowed over a tink-tank Vachel-Lindsay-ish Salvation Army band. In summary he’s claiming they are alike: that the HTOCW and her co-religious cohort and he the poet both have their own guiding constructions (supreme fictions), their own expectation of meaningful belief and actions that promise — well, what do they promise, or rather assuredly deliver?
He’s not sure. A poet’s masque (a play) performed on earth may aspire to cosmic importance, but we can be sure the planets will not be all that moved. And the most fervent displays of religious piety can’t move the heavenly spheres who would at most judge them as unserious “hullabaloo.”
The second way Stevens intentionally slows down our comprehension is with language, the stuff and lexicographic music of his poetry. Most any stanza of a Stevens’ poem is equal to a “Word-A-Day Calendar,” and this poem doesn’t disappoint: nave, citherns, peristyle, masque, epitaph, flagellants, muzzy, and hullabaloo are not common modern English language words, and I’ll wager that most readers, even the most educated among us, would be hard pressed on getting 100% on a definition test with that list.* I’ve always “read” Stevens as having fun with his use of these obscure words, and in many cases here he’s punning on their sound, so we think we understand something we hear in a performance from the sound, while on the silent page they remain stumpers. Making someone a nave/knave is to fool them. A peristyle projecting upwards sounds like a periscope from a WWI U-boat or trench. A masque might as well be a mask. Flagellants with muzzy bellies sounds like flatulence from fuzzy bellies.
And while not an obscure word, “palm” is repeated several times in the poem with different meanings pressed onto it by context. It first seems to be Christian praise, as in the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, a moment of triumph to be followed by Good Friday (and then, yes, for believers, Easter). In its second mention, the poet might earn laurels, palms of honor for their work, but like the praise of the crowd it may be fleeting, pace what I call Donald Hall’s Law. And lastly, the palm plants become hands I think, the two seemingly opposed, the two sides — the prim believer and the pagan poet that the poem has satirized — I believe, palm to palm, a pair making a prayer.**
Let’s look at the poem’s end at last: Stevens seems to be saying that salvation by faith in art or religion is unclear. Widows wince when doubt says they may not meet their husband in heavenly reward or when that doubt (or belief) is sung impiously by some poet who calls his art, his mythology, the “Supreme Fiction.” God and the muses are both winking at us, telling us that we only half have an understanding, flirting with us on that unknown stage of our best fictions.
Stevens was a famous late-starter, publishing his first poetry collection Harmonium where AHTOCW first appeared at age 44. Millay was already on to her second collection featuring First Fig at age 28.
What then to make of the poem I combine with it, a short poem with plain words that many feel they understand at first sight: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “First Fig,” the one that begins, as so many have memorized, “My candle burns at both ends.”*** Is this not also a poem of faith in poetry? Yes, with the same limits and lack of assuredness. Is it also one half a debate with another point of view? Yes too, though it be a short epitaph “unpurged from bawdiness.”
In effect, “First Fig,” the opening poem in Millay’s A Few Figs from Thistles, is the title poem, the dedication of that short collection that set out the Millay outlook on youth, freedom, and autonomy sexual and otherwise. It made her famous for a while, and unlike Stevens’ knotty poems, hers (and herself) seemed understandable. Here’s its full text.
We understand this poem quickly to say: that one may, from our passions artistically — or otherwise in that mere and yet larger life — expend or risk so much that we allow it to be foreshortened, but that we believe that intensity is illuminating, possibly worth the sacrifice. Note, there’s no explicit conclusion. Millay’s poem doesn’t say outright it’ll be worth it, and other poems in A Few Figs from Thistles are not sure either. Its illumination is brief, a night in length it says. Yet a poem we think we understand, that we might memorize and carry in our muzzy brains may change as we project its light on different walls.****
Given Stevens’ satiric and philosophic wordiness, I came to think pairing it with Millay’s short heart-song would be a worthwhile contrast, each stronger with their lights against the ground of the other. You can listen to the performance and see if that’s valid — but before I go, is there one thing we don’t understand about Millay’s short poem?
Well, there’s the title. It’s such a short poem, yet we forget that there’s this added pair of words. I’d guess that many that know or have even memorized the poem forget the title. One thought was that it might be referencing an idiomatic English expression: “I don’t give a fig about…” which could easily be given an intensifying modifier “I don’t give a single (or the first) fig about…” I had assumed that fig, like the euphemistic interjections sugar or darn, was just a word used to replace a ruder word that started with the same letter-sound. I even wondered: was that idiom around when Millay wrote her poem in 1920? Well, just as I wouldn’t know muzzy or cithern fully when I read Stevens, it turns out I was off a bit. The idiom seems to date back to Shakespeare’s time or even more, which is odd in that the fig isn’t even a native fruit in England. It comes from Spanish and Italian; and it’s not only a word but it has a Mediterranean hand gesture to illustrate the thought, involving the thumb placed between two raised fingers. The intent in gesture or word in this idiom is to refer to low pink-toned lady parts, and in the patriarchal context then it’s an expression of contempt.
Did Millay know the derivation of the idiom? I don’t know — but she likely knew the non-etymological meaning of the phrase. In the context of the one-side of the debate that “First Fig” is presenting, that indicates that the speaker doesn’t give a single fig for the off-screen speaker who disapproves of the possible costs of passion.
*Ones I’d miss or get half-credit for? I knew citherns were an instrument from my interest in unusual instruments, but I wouldn’t be able to describe one definitively. I probably once knew peristyle from an early interest in classical theater, but had forgotten its meaning. Muzzy was dark to me and would have been a clear miss. A good dictionary then or the Internet now allows us to decode the original denotative meanings, but these still keep us from understanding Stevens too soon. And they can just be fun to come upon in a poem!
***If HTOCW may be Wallace Stevens’ mother, one of those that had memorized Millay’s “First Fig” was my father, who once or twice recited it to me. What caused him to memorize it, or to read Millay? I never knew. He never lived a bohemian life, and as far as I know he lived a modest, constant, and long life. I can guess however why he recited it to me, who did have my bohemian modes and times: to say that he knew something of that, or that I could have faith that something worthwhile could come from that.
****I’m increasingly seeing readings that see coded (intentionally or unconsciously) in this poem an expression of Millay’s bisexual/polyamorous autonomy.
American poet Wallace Stevens constantly spoke in his poetry about the creation of art. This sort of “art looking at itself” move has a danger of being too self-referential and one might fear that it would sit with the reader as unresolved as being between two mirrors. I think today’s subtle poem works, despite those risks, and we’ll see if my performance of it brings out something that you may not have noticed in it.
Stevens, though wordier than Emily Dickinson*, often has his poetry seem like a riddle or puzzle, and though his poems have a surface beauty one can see right off, they also sometimes work like a lawyerly contract with the reader, full of obscure words and fine-print sub-clauses that you may not fully understand.
Let’s listen to Stevens read his poem himself.
One can hear background noises outside the room in this recording, so Stevens’ voice is heard here “Out of all the indifferences.”
He’s not a bad reader, he does an acceptable job of bringing out the structure and word-music of this poem—but it’s emotionally flat, a default setting for many poet-readers. I think the theory is: if his words are good, well selected and ordered they should be able to convey all. If I listen carefully, I hear just a tiny touch of ruefulness in his voice as his poem nears its end, but it’s just a touch.
There’s an overall image in this poem laid out in the somewhat fussy title: that thing that causes us to create art—in Stevens’ case, poetry—is like a paramour. That is, it’s like a desired lover (and “paramour,” that somewhat unusual word he chooses, has strong associations with an illicit or secret lover). But wait, it’s an “Interior Paramour.” It’s something within ourselves. That internal duality will be dealt with in his poem.
At times he seems confident in speaking of this cause to create art, but look closely at the shading, the little codicils in his statements. “For small reason” we think our imagination is good. We are “poor,” not particularly perceptive or wise, we only choose out of the richness of all things some single thing that we’ll prize over all those things we are indifferent to. We do this to impose or create this intimacy we feel with our art, this imagined, chosen, second self, this internal paramour his title speaks of.
But, but…“God and the imagination are one!” Surely, this is praise.
Look carefully, “We say,” Stevens says: it’s but our claim. A God in actuality is some higher candle. What we feel we have, in our separate imaginations selected into art, that art that may cohere out of shared human centrality—is a smaller, lower light, shedding on a smaller circle: us perhaps and our work in the moment of imagination choosing creation, or that resulting work and a reader or listener.
That’s the internal paramour, the shame-feared, secret love inside us when we create. It’s a small lit space we make in darkness, where occasional readers or listeners see something like what we saw. Being together with little creation is enough. Being together with some audience out of all the indifferences is enough.
Today’s music is based obliquely on the Velvet Underground, a pioneering indie rock group that explored areas that later groups also chose to explore. On one level they seemed to be like unto a rock band: two guitars, drums, and a further musician who might play keyboards, electric bass or bowed strings–but their genius was to put those things together differently, to use those voices in uncharacteristic ways. How will listeners react when you do that? Well, for a lot of them it will be to reject it as worthwhile music, though some may see a new possibility. Some art comforts. Some art unsettles. Being together with some audience out of all the indifferences is enough.
I should note that I was reminded of this poem when the Fourteen Lines blog included it last month. I immediately thought I’d like to perform it, but it sounded like it was later Wallace Stevens. I did a quick web search to see when it was first published and the return said in Harmonium, Stevens’ first book-length collection which is in the public domain. I let out a shout and began work on the composition and performance I present today. It was only this morning as I started writing this post that I found that it was, just as I suspected from the title, from late in Stevens’ career when he was as old as I am now, and is therefore likely to still be in copyright, even though Stevens himself has been dead for 65 years. I feel conflicted about going ahead and presenting what I worked on and came up with, but have decided to take this route: if whoever holds the rights to Stevens work objects to this non-commercial use, let me know, I’ll gladly remove it.
My performance of “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” seeks to be unsettling. The two guitars don’t work like rock band guitars are supposed to work. The drums and their beat are strange, not tying things down as the instrument’s rhythms slide instead of lock. The organ plays low, driving somewhere you can’t see. And I chant Stevens’ words as if I know where they’re going, and yet I can’t yet say where that is yet. That’s what I feel when I create music or poetry. The player to hear it is below. Like some early Velvet Underground tunes, it may sound better around the third time you listen to it. But if you don’t like it, remember I promise various words and various music here, there are other selections available in our archives.
Thanks for sharing this little light by reading or listening tonight.
*Stevens was an actual lawyer. Dickinson came from a family of lawyers and I suspect either absorbed this manner of written discourse or may have inherited it along with her mental firmware.
Today we continue on with our look at the most listened to and liked pieces last spring. It’s a mixed bag, because that’s what this project has done: one 19th century poem recast, one Modernist classic, and a song by Parlando Project alternate voice Dave Moore. Music? A keyboard heavy arrangement, an LYL Band performance with Dave on keys and my guitar accompanying, and a bit of power-chord rock. Birds, nightgowns, and multitudes. Just as before, the bold-face titles are links to the original post if you’d like to see what I said back then.
7. Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock by Wallace Stevens. This disrupted spring has brought a lot of odd dreams, sleepless and activist nights. Stevens’ poem is a dream of order and routine vs. imagination and dissipation. He, like I, may be a little bit of both. Stevens: an insurance company lawyer vs. a poet with a weakness for alcohol. I: a ragged musician, poet, and presenter of no particular style vs. the kind of guy who still got up at dawn and worked on the pieces you have seen here 2 or 3 times a week over the past four years.
I’m still not sure what’s up with Stevens’ negligee kink, but it’s a lovely poem isn’t it, and I hope I’ve done it justice.
6. Murmuration by Dave Moore. It might seem odd given that I write nearly all of these posts, the great majority of the music, and perform and record most of the musical parts myself, but I didn’t design this project to be all about me. In fact I once pitched an idea similar to this project where I’d play none of the music, but the musicians, like this project, would by necessity confront a variety of words and produce pieces on short notice reacting to them. I’d still like to hear how that would work.
“Murmuration” is more of a continuation of the LYL Band, a group that Dave Moore and I have been the core of for 40 some years. Dave’s a braver poet than I am and a fine songwriter. “Murmuration” is a meditation in song about the flock behavior of starlings which present a magical beauty. I, the stubborn reality-is-strange-enough guy, wanted to explain the mechanics of that beauty in my original post.
Later, as I monitored the non-congruous mix of crowds on the second night of street reaction to the George Floyd killing in my neighborhood, I once more fell back on murmuration as a metaphor in a later post here. On that night there seemed no discernable wisdom in crowds—yet by the next night, there was some wisdom, and much heart and soul force on the streets. Humans, we create our beauty too.
“A swallow will tell you without using misleading, heartrending, words: when we are inhuman, we’re one with the birds” Will Oldham and Eighth Blackbird do what I try to do, only better.
5. I Contain Multitudes from Song of Myself by Walt Whitman. I haven’t heard all of the Bob Dylan record due out this Friday, but if I wasn’t so modest for good reasons, I’d say Bob was trying to follow some of this project’s musical forms. The talk-singing. The cello lines. The spare keyboards and guitar. The eclectic references. Maybe to throw Bob off my tail, to celebrate Walt Whitman this spring I went the other way. Not a string quartet, but a rock band. And not a fancy one with sophisticated licks—my guiding light for this was “Walt Whitman as done by Iggy and the Stooges.”
As we continue our April celebration of National Poetry Month, here’s a poem by Wallace Stevens. Like Keats, Stevens was another poet I liked as a teenager, and like Keats I read him for his language without having a substantial grasp on what exactly he was getting at yet.
“Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” is however fairly straightforward, even if it also exhibits several tactics of early 20th century Modernist verse. For example, it’s crazy for color adjectives. The poem has 66 words, and 10 of them are colors. I don’t know how many other readers* of this poetic era notice this like I do, but that sort of thing was widespread. The Imagists who helped initiate English language Modernism often favored visual images, and color is one way to add vividness without resorting to worn-out metaphors. And painters in England and France had already been using a brighter and more colorful palette for some time, probably influencing the poets.
It’s a subtle point I noticed today after working with this poem, but when Stevens launches into his litany of colors that he imagines would make a more exciting gown, he moves like a color wheel. He starts with green and ends with a robe of yellow and blue—pigments that if mixed, would make green again. Is this an inside painter’s joke?
Re-justifying my teenage love of Stevens, I found this poem, though free verse, does have its word-music. Besides that circling riff on gown-colors, there’s the near rhyme of the litany’s end-word “rings” with the concluding “strange” at the end of the list, and the lovely chime of “old sailor” with “here and there.”
It wouldn’t be a Stevens poem without an odd word or two. “Ceintures,” a French based fashion word which I may have mangled a bit in performance** is a beaded belt. “Periwinkles” does at least double-duty besides being an unusual word choice. In the context of the “old sailor” it may be referring to a small sea-snail, but it’s also a violet-hued flower that has given its name to a color.
Couture, rings, ceintures, strange. Wallace Stevens waits to slip into something more comfortable. The long gray trousers could conceal lace socks.
The point of Stevens’ poem is the better necessity of imagination and of fancy, set against a fixed early bedtime and bland nightwear. I do think that original color litany is something of a forced march, as if the poems speaker may be trying to break out of that mundane scene in a rote manner, as if reciting colors would bring imaginative dreams as counting sheep might bring slumber. Then we meet up with the drunken sailor who can’t be bothered changing into nightwear: sleeping, dreaming with his boots on of that any-sorts snails and great apes, and chasing, and even more, catching tigers, unafraid.
I wrote this on guitar but decided to play this as a piano trio with drums and bass. The piano is mostly a Fender Rhodes, an early successful electric piano that used amplified tuned-tines rather than strings. It was common back in my youth for these instruments to be run through guitar amplifiers, picking up some grit from an overloaded circuit, and often reverb and tremolo from the amp too. If you listen carefully in the minor chord part of the piece, the pianist is doubling the piano part with another electric piano, which brings in a bit of an amplified string sound to the more bell-like Rhodes. That was my idea to make the major chord and minor chord sections contrast just a bit more.
You can hear my performance of Wallace Stevens’ “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” with the player gadget below. The text of the poem is here if you’d like to read along.
*It was something that the Spectra hoaxers of 1916 picked up on when they sought to parody poetic Modernists, speckling their verse with lots of color adjectives. The name of their hoax movement could even be read as referencing that color fixation.
**I often have trouble with pronunciation of French words, something that I sometimes wonder is similar to those with stuttering or other speech impediments. Well, assuming you don’t know the word, it may be enough for its effect in the poem to just sound exotic!
One of the issues with being half-learned is that one can fall into traps and tasks that are more difficult than you expected. This week I thought, why don’t I translate some Mallarmé? Alternate voice here Dave Moore had given me a book on him for my birthday (which I haven’t had time to read yet, too busy with this project…) but having recently translated and performed another poem by Apollinaire, I was reminded how often the English language Modernists looked to the preceding French Symbolists for inspiration.
So, I look. I see lots of sonnets, which is good. I like short poems personally and I aim for shorter pieces here for performance too. And short should make for a shorter translation task. On one hand, I have my unfamiliarity with French other than my il y a longtemps high school. On the other hand, I’ve tackled French Dada and Surrealist work, so a 19th century Symbolist should be no harder.
The hard to translate word here would be: “Oops.”
Turns out Mallarmé focused on esoteric philosophical ideas and the ideal in his art and manner. Maybe the rough English language analog would be Wallace Stevens, but with Stevens I can lay back and enjoy the color and sound of his English language words without having to worry about translating them into another language, and Mallarmé is very compressed and obscure in his tropes. There’s a reason that 20th century Dadaists found him congenial despite his dour and spiritual outlook: in French he may be interesting without one needing to understand what he’s intent about.
The 16 line poem I picked to translate, “Saint” is an earlier one, one reckoned to be less obscure than later Mallarmé. I’m not sure how much that helped.
I read one report “Mallarmé was…widely considered incomprehensible—the standard joke was to request a translation of his work into French…” I read that several hours into my translation. I laughed pretty hard.
You go for the cheap pun Frank. Look here: I wrote “phalange.” Is that not singular? My friend Manet’s painting of me will enlarge on this point!
Mallarmé’s “Saint” isn’t incomprehensible. It’s even an admirable poem with something to portray about the ideal nature of music. It probably helps if one has some background in Roman Catholic liturgy as one reads it, but imagery requiring a bit of understanding of other cultures can be a feature not a bug.
Here it is in French, in one of three slightly different versions I eventually came upon:
A la fenêtre recélant
Le santal vieux qui se dédore
De la viole étincelant
Jadis selon flûte ou mandore,
Est la sainte pale, étalant
Le livre vieux qui se déplie
Du Magnificat ruisselant
Jadis selon vêpre ou complie:
A ce vitrage d’ostensoir
Que frôle une harpe par l’Ange
Formée avec son vol du soir
Pour la délicate phalange
Du doigt que, sans le santal
Ni le vieux livre, elle balance
Sur le plumage instrumental,
Musicienne du silence.
Native French speakers: feel free to mock my audacity to render this. For those interested in translation, I’m going to allow you to look over my shoulder as I worked on this. Note: I almost never try to render rhyme schemes or meter from one language to another. Like Stevens in English, this poem sounds lovely in French even if you can’t figure it out. In English I tried to instead vividly render the images, which is my preference in translation, even if it can lead to approximations and out and out bad guesses. And then to put that to some English word-music that may not reference the other language’s “tune.”
Here’s what I came up with:
The window frames
The worn fretboard
Of the splendid viola—
Once played music with flute or mandolin.
There’s the pale saint, opening,
Spreading the old book.
Mary’s Magnificat falls out—
Once for vesper or compline.
This window is a monstrance.
She holds her harp, an angel’s
Customary evening wing,
Played by the delicate phalanx
Of fingers. Without a fretboard,
Without the old book, she strums
On the instrumental plumage,
A musician of silence.
First Stanza. This is an extraordinarily difficult image to figure out, and some of the guesses others have made are not a concrete image, which could even be Mallarmé’s intent. There’s clearly an instrument mentioned, a viol (a larger predecessor to our modern viola, and I imagined a viola da gamba, a wonderful “early-music” instrument for which the viol name was used). I rendered it as viola so that moderns might have a more common instrument in their minds eye. I did the same for “mandore” an ancestor of the now more familiar mandolin. Mallarmé may have meant to add an ancient music air to this, and I could have gone the other way with the instrument names (Stevens would have).
One of the chief problems is some read this description as an instrument that’s out of sight (“recélant” can mean to harbor or to conceal—and a window concealing?). Idealist Mallarmé could have intended it out of the frame. But I wasn’t sure, and I’d rather the reader know about it clearly, particularly as it opens the poem. And his description is puzzling—a point made of it being personified as sandalwood for one thing. Sandalwood is a hardwood. You probably wouldn’t use it to make the soundboard of an instrument, which functionally and surface-area-wise would be the main part. But it can be used for necks and particularly for finger/fretboards. Even though Mallarmé repeats sandalwood later in the poem, and there are fragrance and ceremonial connections with the wood and word, I decided to call it a fretboard, to help us see the instrument. There’s another issue with Mallarmé’s description: the instrument is “étincelant” and yet also “dédore.” I decided that the instrument is “splendid” but also “worn” in the area of that hardwood fretboard: i.e. this is a fine instrument that has been well and often played.
Second Stanza. This one is more straightforward. Cecilia is the “sainte pale” (named specifically in early versions of the poem) and she’s opened a book which seems to contain the score of a setting to Mary the mother of Jesus’ famous passage called the Magnificat in Roman Catholicism. I decided to add the “Mary’s” to the Magnificat just to help listeners hear the word as a proper noun. And something happens regarding the Magnificat: “ruisselant.” This word, best as I can figure has a sense of streaming or trickling. At first I thought the image is that the music represented by the score is magically sounding itself as Cecilia the patron saint of music opens the old book. But I don’t think we are to hear music as the poem develops, and so I wondered if the meanings of ruisselant infer running downhill. I decided that the score of the Magnificat falls out of the book, making itself known, but not making a sound or allowing it to be used to aid the music making, just as in stanza one Cecilia is not availing herself of a fine and once oft-used viola.
Third Stanza. Tougher again. This stanza contains the strongest image of the poem, the fusing of an angel’s bird-like wing with the somewhat-like shape of a harp—and Mallarmé wants to stuff other ideas into the four lines too. I decided that the specific and technical term “monstrance” cannot be replaced: it’s a glass altarpiece holder of a sacred object. Wallace Stevens would have loved to have used that word! The obscurity of the word adds some mystery I think, and no simply understandable single word replaces it. With the stanza’s last word I fell into thinking Mallarmé intended to pun on “phalange” (phalanx) which is from the Greek, meaning a massed formation (usually of soldiers or police)—but also fingers, similarly grouped together in disciplined order when playing an instrument. I decided to use phalanx because either words’ use for fingers is somewhat obscure in English (outside of medical usage) but I liked the idea of the delicate phalanx of soldiers or riot troops. But I think phalange may be singular in French, and if so, I may have misunderstood Mallarmé’s intent. My sin is falling in love with the image.
Fourth Stanza. Home stretch! Easier again, and choices already made set it up. In my reading Mallarmé is saying Cecilia has her spiritual intent on ideal music, the impossible music made with the mythical wings of angels and the impossible music made by strumming a bird’s feathers—such a fine image because it works bidirectionally! Actual music has been left behind as once, and not now (“jadis,” twice in the poem). She no longer needs the viola or the score.
She’s become the unheard melodies that idealist Keats says are sweeter than heard ones.
CeCe, you’re messing up the form again! It’s a 12 bar minor blues with a 4 bar tag I’m going to modulate counter-clockwise on the cycle of 5ths each second chorus, and then—what you do mean, “Wing it?”
In performance, I had to resort to heard music so that the estate of John Cage didn’t sue me for plagiarism. I thought I might try to reference the Velvet Underground when it featured the pale saint John Cale on keyboards and viola. But neither the drum part nor the rhythm guitars I settled on had that VU feel. None-the-less I went ahead and created a top line using viola and a keening combo organ.
Last time I repeated the short poem several times so that I could show the different ways it could be expressed. Today’s short musical piece gathers a sort of meditative power if played on repeat. The player is below.
Let’s just name the winner right off, and kill the suspense: Wallace Stevens’ “To the Roaring Wind.”
There was a time in my teens and twenties when Wallace Stevens grabbed ahold of me. I think back at that young man and try to wonder why. Well there was the accident of a very affordable collection of his best work that I mentioned when I first posted “To the Roaring Wind” back in early January. I think that I also liked the way his poems looked. Free verse looked right on the page to me as well to my ear—I was not writing metrical, rhymed poetry when I started—but the poems also looked ordered, focused, a tightly built thing. E. E. Cummings or Marianne Moore with their ragged lines and strange fragmentation looked like that they were confused about how to put things into words, where Stevens looked sure. Other favorites that came to me later in life, like Frost and Dickinson, seemed to my younger self all too pat and superficial then, and there was Stevens, his poems with majestic numerabled sections that seemed to be laying out a lawyerish or legislative structure filled in with an exact poet’s eye.
Poet Wallace Stevens. Gromit not pictured.
That I didn’t understand all that he was getting at in his poems wasn’t a problem. No, that was a benefit. For my paperback edition $1.45 I got work that one could re-read without knowing already how it would come out! I recall writing poems that I didn’t know how they would come out either, something I will still do. There was one longer one from that era, the first one of mine ever to be published. It had Stevens’ influence all over it, copying his Blackbirds-numbered sections.
Frost, who I thought was entirely too conventional then, claimed that he never liked Stevens’ work “Because it purports to make me think.” Isn’t that line so Frost-ian? First you might high-five Frost and shout “burn!” And then, if you pause and think about it, in decrying Stevens Frost makes a good argument for why you might want to read him—indeed, why I wanted to read him.
Oddly, this poet who was attractive to this teenager, published his first collection Harmonium when he was 44 years old. Lewis Untermeyer, one of the canon-gatekeepers of Stevens’ time, reviewed it then:
“…lacking the spell of any emotion, Harmonium loses both itself and its audience. It has much for the eye, something for the ear, but nothing for that central hunger which is at the heart of all the senses.”
Untermeyer and Frost may have been right to some degree. I fell away from Stevens as I aged, not from any conscious choice, but because I had other poetic worlds to explore, ones that often had emotional and visionary aspects that weren’t overt in Stevens work.
Here is where the Parlando Project, which performs the poems with music, comes in. There is no inherent emotional content in any series of notes stronger than what the musician manifests when they perform it.
As I noted that Harmonium, as a work published in 1923. was now in the public domain as of the first of January 2019, I looked for a piece from it that wasn’t one of its “greatest hits,” a deep cut to represent the collection itself rather than an often anthologized and well-known poem. My attention fell on the last piece in the book, this one. As I did this, a connection emerged with a local poet and poetry-reading organizer, David Shove who I learned had died at the turn of the year. “To the Roaring Wind” is a call to two things: to the muse, that time-honored concept that what supplies us as artists isn’t from our individual merits, but from things outside us that we must serve, and then, to speaking poetry aloud.
I’m sure many readers here are enjoying spring or its imminent promise. In Minnesota, not so much. It was 4⁰ F. when I awoke this morning, and everyone is already flinching for another snow-storm due this weekend. So let’s have one more winter piece, this time by Wallace Stevens from his landmark collection Harmonium, “The Snow Man.”
Not the first sign of spring.
Over at the Interesting Literature blog, Oliver Tearle reminded me that Stevens was influenced by John Keats as a younger man, and in his reading of “The Snow Man” he has Stevens’ poem as a statement of his break from that youthful connection. Keats, and the romantics of his sort, were great fans of the pathetic fallacy and have no shame in ascribing to any landscape or natural object feelings and personality that the poet can address.
Even if we think that talking Keatsian nightingales bearing messages is an absurdly old-fashioned trope, we’ve never left the idea that weather or a landscape is supposed to mean something. Book, movie, poem, song video—if we’re given a bleak winter picture we’re usually led to understand that death, suffering, despair, scarcity, loss, or the like is what’s being conveyed.
In “The Snow Man” Stevens describes a winter scene. Snow-trimmed trees in an icy wind which is carrying refracting snow crystals. Stevens’ conclusion from this is ironically—well there’s no other way to put it—cold. We’re not supposed to draw any meaning from it, other than meaning-free is-ness.
It just so happens, that Keats wrote his own short lyric poem about winter “In the Drear Nighted December.” And yes, there’s immediately an emotion attributed to a bare-branched tree wind-whipped by sleet and then to a frozen brook in Keats’ poem.
What’s that emotion? Happy.
Woah—why happy? Because Keats has these landscape features also in a state of simple is-ness. They reckon no loss from summer, know no delay ‘till spring.
Keats Buddhist koan is “to feel and not to feel it.” Stevens, “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” These two poems approach in seeming opposition, but merge in agreement.
A Modernist sculpture of American poet Wallace Stevens
One other thing in “The Snow Man” to note: where’s the titular snow man? Perhaps including one in Stevens’ scene would add a connotation of jolly play, or the impermanence of artistic making—but if that’s so, why call the poem “The Snow Man?” Could it be a mind trick, the equivalent of instructing “Imagine a winter scene, but I don’t want you to see a snow man in your imagination. Make very sure you don’t even think a little bit about a jaunty snow man or an elaborately constructed one now melting…?” Tearle’s solution is that the snow man is the speaker of the poem, the “nothing that is” there, the cold observer that we don’t see because we’re looking from his cindered eyes.
Fifty years ago I picked up a copy of The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens in a college bookstore. It was a paperback edition, and looking at the price, I can see why I might have selected it. The cover says $1.45 if you can believe that. Cheaper than a record album, and chock full of more strange words and mysterious lyrics than any batch of LPs that might sit in a dorm room in 1969.
I’d probably run into a few Stevens poems before then, but my actual teenaged poetry bookshelf had no other entire volumes from Stevens early 20th century Modernist cohort yet. After reading it, I immediately set out to write poems that looked and sounded like Stevens for the next few months.
That edition started off by reprinting Stevens’ first collection, Harmonium, from 1923. And now after a pause of decades, works from that year are now in the public domain and available for presentation.*
So now 2019 is here, and 1923 is freed for reuse. By sad coincidence, I learned last night that David Shove who organized a long-running and well-loved monthly poetry reading series had died on New Years Eve. And so that evening I started reading Harmonium, until I finished it this morning, thinking of David Shove and his dry humored manner as he would introduce poet after poet to an audience, and how I’ll miss that. The obituary said that the monthly reading that would have happened tonight may still go on, but to my shame, I couldn’t face a crowd of people tonight.
I learned last night that David Shove who organized a long-running and well-loved monthly poetry reading series had died on New Years Eve.
Unlike crowds, with art you can allow your feelings to shake and settle into a form. It’s a smaller group, just yourself and sound. So I plugged in my Telecaster and started working on a droning riff to accompany the last poem in Stevens’ Harmonium, “To the Roaring Wind.” Supporting the guitar I played—well, why not—harmonium, double-tracked cleanly and through a fuzz-box. I then improvised the vocal tracks using Stevens’ words as best as my voice would allow today while thinking of David and those readings.
If souls hover around, David Shove and those that sound with him, this is for them. The rest of you with mice and screen-fingers can hear “The Roaring Wind” using the player below.
*A somewhat complicated story, but in the U.S. a law was enacted in 1998 that changed the term of copyright long after the works were created. For a few commercial properties this extended their revenue potential, but for a large portion of poetry and other non-commercial work it only helped make them largely unavailable for re-vitalization.