I saw this Whitman poem from the 1867 version of Leaves of Grass during National Poetry Month but was unable to find the time to compose the music and arrange a performance during that busy month. Still, I was so stunned by its expression that I made a note to myself to get to it after April.
This week I did just that.
The de profundis poem is a fairly common poetic trope, up there with the aubade and the elegy in examples. It takes its name from the opening words of the Latin version of the Hebrew psalm 130, but it’s not a mode we often associate with Whitman. Whitman, with all his talk of containing multitudes and nonchalantly harboring his contradictions has a personal poetic voice associated with an unashamed and near-boasting manner, a self-portrayal as an example of an unafraid and unbounded life-force.
Why would he write such a poem then? Well, he did want to portray everything human, which would include doubt and failure, it could just be that. But let’s consider something else about Whitman. When this poem was written he’d been working for more than a decade on creating a poetry that was unprecedented: not just free in its subject matter, but “free verse” without fixed meter and rhyme. There were next-to-no models for that form then. Yet, if one was to go this week to a good bookstore, move to its poetry section, and then open any volume of contemporary poetry to a random page, the odds are you’ll find an unrhymed poem, rhythmic perhaps, but not likely in strict meter with unvarying beat-count line-lengths. That poem may not sound like Whitman, but the path to make its own sound can be traced to him.
Back in the middle of the 19th century, in an America which was just getting its poetic feet planted, and still in the process of proving it could write as well as the Europeans in the way the European’s wrote, there wasn’t any call for this. Isn’t it remarkable then, that this carpenter’s son and peripatetic journalist in a place so far off the cultural centers of the western world went and did this!
When Whitman wrote this poem America had just emerged from a great civil war. I’ve said here that WWI, a similar trauma for Britain and Europe, made from its breaking of nations a plausible opening for Modernist poetry. But in post-Civil War America, Whitman’s break didn’t quite take, even though Whitman would include free-verse poems about that war in this edition of Leaves of Grass.
Ah, but there was one Civil War poem in Whitman’s 1867 edition that, for the first time caught the public’s fancy: “My Captain, Oh My Captain,” an elegy for the assassinated President Lincoln all strictly rhymed up and in regular meter. Oh me! Oh life!
No matter, eventually Whitman got his due. We no longer even need to particularly like his poetry (though I suspect many here do), so significant is his prime-mover role.
I’d forgotten that an abridged version of this poem appeared in the movie “Dead Poets Society.” A photo of Whitman is in front of the classroom, but most recall the “My Captain, Oh My Captain” scene over the one above.
The things that stand out for me in “Oh Me! Oh Life!” are Whitman’s acknowledgement that the failures of those around him, which drive him to despair, are a way in which he is like and “intertwined” to those “cities fill’d with the foolish” and “sordid crowds,” and then the answer he says he receives from out of the depths: the answer that we live to experience that connection, however sorrowful as well as comforting — and that each of us, in our own wisdom, paths, failure, and imperfections contains a self-consciousness, an individual identity, the lifely miracle that we experience life through our own minds creating themselves.
In working on how to perform “Oh Me! Oh Life!” I considered spoken word (a choice I often make here) — but I soon decided that I needed to sing it in an open and emotive style. Whitman was a fan of opera (a more popular form in his time), and his poem here is something of an aria. This decision seemed right, but it presented a problem: I’m not that good a singer. I pressed ahead anyway, as I think imperfection in the service of required expression was the better choice. My version of “Oh Me! Oh Life!” isn’t opera — I kept the accompaniment spare for my setting perhaps in the hope that the simplicity of the music will match the limited nature of my voice. I think that did work somewhat. The irregular nature of Whitman’s line-lengths also presented some challenges, and I “solved” them in my performance by elaborating and repeating some of his phrases.
You can hear my Whitman performance two ways. There’s a player gadget below for many, but some can’t see that, and so I also provide this highlighted link to play it.
I’m much enamored of this clip where Jack Kerouac appears on Steve Allen’s show on network television. This happened in 1959 when there was only triune TV culture in America —and less than that, there were often only two sides to things. Allen is going to open here by taking the side that Kerouac was an authentic writer of merit. The other side? Kerouac was a tiresome imposter best able to fool young people, who of course didn’t know any better.
Nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old. I think of Walt Whitman. I even think of old Walt Whitman the father we never found. I think of Walt. Whitman.
At around two and a half minutes into the clip, Allen and Kerouac have this interchange:
Allen starts it by asking “Who else writes poetic type prose, Thomas Wolfe I guess…”
“Walt Whitman” Kerouac quickly responds.
“Uh, huh.” Allen laughs, perhaps thinking Kerouac was making ironic reference to the criticism that free verse was really prose not deserving of being called poetry.
“His Specimen Days…” Kerouac then repeats this for emphasis. He really wants to get a plug in — not for his book, but for this lesser-known Whitman book.
“Oh, I thought you were putting me on there. All right, we’ll look into that.” Allen says.
This is all prelude, what follows is Kerouac reading to a jazz combo backing with Allen apparently playing live on piano and meshing well. You may or may not like that sort of thing, but if you’ve stuck around here, you probably at least tolerate it. Me? It gets me, every time I view it, when Kerouac comes to the part where he reads “In Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out…” Kerouac, the East Coast guy who traveled back and forth to the West Coast, had some notice, some feelings of that state in-between* that was not either/or. It’s a coincidence, but Iowa is where I would have been in 1959, not necessarily crying — or not, for sure, not. I’d be looking then at those night stars from Iowa ground, the sky that Kerouac says he can see in New Jersey, remembering his Iowa nights.
So, as that filmed interchange left off promising to do in 1959, let’s look into Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days. Today’s piece is Whitman, looking at his ground, his water, his skies, on a hot summer day in a section of his book titled “A July Afternoon by the Pond.” Here’s a link to the full text on which I based my performance. One can easily see what Kerouac drew from Specimen Days. Whitman’s consciousness is free-flowing** and seems informal, off the cuff. Yet it takes care to catalog a lot of the moment it’s describing at length. There’s no legendary telegraph paper roll, but Whitman does roll on without pause or paragraph. Spontaneous Bop Prosody before its time? Close enough.
I’ll leave you with one more light by which you can read or listen to this piece. Whitman wrote and collected Specimen Days while he was dealing with the aftereffects of a stroke. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been working on a theme of infirmities recently. That infirmity is not indicated in “A July Afternoon by the Pond,” but Whitman, in his convalescence, prescribed for himself a heavy dosage of nature observation. A young person could have seen this pond, but the man who included this piece in his late-career book, was an older man. The eternity the Whitman here sees in the natural world is not the eternity of innumerable afternoons to come as it might be for a young person, but instead the observation of age and infirmity, that of an ongoing nature that will be there after he’s gone, mysterious and as yet unsolved. I love Whitman’s final two words here: “Who knows?” He doesn’t expect you to solve it either, only to share the mystery with him.
**More so than my performance includes, for reasons of length and production schedules. I had one musical track down when I recorded my performance of Whitman’s words, and found that I had to rush the text too much to get it all in. Rather than re-record the musical foundation or damage the groove of the words, I ended up editing Whitman’s text on the fly, leaving out some of the digressions.
***As it happens, in the end I didn’t use the musical track that caused me to trim back some of Whitman’s digressions. What you will hear is a two-part improvisation (based on the chord structure of the excluded track) that I recorded to respond to my reading of the words, much as Steve Allen needed to respond to Kerouac in the video clip above. The two instruments are a hollow-body electric guitar and the distinctive voice of my Fender Squier Bass VI, an electric bass that includes two higher pitched strings above the usual four for a bass, giving it access to a baritone guitar range here. Using that facility, there are some high F notes in this piece, played on this bass, that are not available (other than as harmonics) on a conventional bass.
Visits to this blog tend to go down on weekends, on holidays, and in the summer — so, congratulations if you’re reading this, you’ve managed to beat the crowds!
America is a young country, but after a bit of a slow start, we’ve been meeting our quota for poets, and by now the record shows a great variety and number of them. Who’s great? Who’s dispensable? Well, some days I wonder if any of that matters when poetry still has challenges getting traction on the slick surface of our nation. Still, one thing’s clear to me if I take stock of American poets, there’s no more American poet than Walt Whitman. That’s no accident: it was his life’s work to become the most American of poets. Few poets before and since have sincerely tried for that. Whitman did.
This Sunday is American Independence Day. Has he been right?
Our first piece today is one of Whitman’s best-known poems. In its litany of lines he shows us two things: that Americans love to sing and that America is the sum total of our varied labors.
Taking the last first. Whitman is going to concentrate on manual labor and trades in this poem. He could have written about other work and workers, even poets or professional musicians after all — but he says the songs he’s going to note are “those of the mechanics,” meaning the mechanical trades,* using the word in the same meaning that Shakespeare uses it when burlesquing the “rude mechanicals” and their ardently inept art in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But Whitman is not making fun. He says nothing about the quality of their songs or singing, but the very length of his list indicates he values something in their number and variety. Overall (or overalls?) there’s celebration of masculine traits in the poem, though some work associated with women — and specific, specified work, not just sentimental “remember the ladies” stuff — is included in his list.
It’s fitting that in this summer month, as a holiday weekend approaches, that he ends his poem with a party, a get-together, but throughout “I Hear America Singing” songs continue in work, in comradeship, in love. I would wish you too just as happy a July 4th.
It’s complicated to judge if American poetry disproportionately influences the world in our time, but one doesn’t have to go hard to make the case that American music has done so in the time since Whitman’s death. Whitman speaks of poetry as a bardic art, and so he uses “song” and “poetry” interchangeably when he speaks of his art, even if later most have come to see these as separate arts and that it’s important to distinguish between them.
Whitman asked that — more than that, promised that — there’d be many significant American poets to come. He got musicians. Close enough Walt.
Checking on the predictions of two American poet-prophets: Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes
Some decades later, one of the poets that Whitman prophesied wrote an “answer record” poem to “I Hear America Singing.” In “I, Too” Langston Hughes, an Afro-American poet, decided to add one more labor example to Whitman’s litany. Hughes’ poem is sung from the position of a servant.** In Whitman’s 19th century time, many/most of the jobs that Whitman cataloged would have been self-employed, and it’s clear that Hughes’ worker isn’t. Furthermore, as an Afro-American his segregation from the “company” is double-more with his class status. Make the food, serve the food, wash the dishes — but you won’t eat in the room with the guests.
Hughes too is going to prophesize a future America then from his 1925 present. Don’t speak too soon, the wheel’s still in spin he says in effect about that stay-in-the-kitchen status. He’s going to spin that wheel.
Nearly a hundred years later*** how have things worked out with Hughes’ prophecy? Poets have written. Songs have been sung. Work from American political mechanicals has gotten us partway there to equality of opportunity, to recognized accomplishments, to appreciation of Black beauty.****
Is this an unpatriotic thing to say on this holiday, that our workmanship on some important civic matters is slipshod? I’m no prophet, but if I was one, I might say that some day we could build the temple in time where we can see beauty presently while being ashamed in the past tense, just as Hughes promises.
What Americans could build this temple? If not us, who else?
*I note that in his catalog Whitman mentions specifically house carpenters, the job his father held. He also mentions wood-cutters. Ezra Pound’s family had connections to the lumber industry, and in Pound’s poem “A Pact” about Whitman, Pound calls out Whitman as a wood-cutter while patting himself on the back as the more developed “carver” of wood, a job further down the supply chain and further up the artistic hierarchy. Sick burn Ezra.
**Details of this aren’t completely clear, perhaps intentionally. Hughes poem’s speaker could be enslaved, or he could be a paid domestic servant. He could even be a restaurant worker, a job that Hughes himself held for a short time. Early in his life, his poetry career got a boost when he left some poems at the table of diner Vachel Lindsay when that Illinois poet visited the establishment where Hughes worked. Lindsay read them, thought they had value, and touted Hughes as a result.
***When the country was younger, July 4th was a day for speeches on our history. Now, for me, so strange to be so old, and how disappointing how slow citizenship equity is. In my youth, it was common to speak of racial justice and full rights as being an American goal a hundred years old, using the end of slavery as the starting line. And now we near 100 years from Langston Hughes’ poem. The famous “arc of history” is such a long archway that one should wonder why it hasn’t collapsed in the middle.
****Speaking of I hear America singing: disproportionally the reason that strains of American music are known worldwide is due to Africans taken to these American shores. American singing, American music, has many tributaries, many are important, even the many-ness itself is important — but as I’ve said here before: I am an American musician. Most of the notes are black.
Let me momentarily make this place act like a regular blog and remark on a few things I’ve run across trying to do — or avoid doing — new work. Warning: these are not necessarily mainstream things of interest to most people, even people who read blogs about various poetry combined with a variety of original music.
It starts off reviewing a book by the American writer Henry Miller that was already several years old. Or rather, it makes motions like it’s going to take on that task. Orwell tells you little specifically about what’s in Miller’s book, and he speaks of it and it’s outlook in alternatively dismissive and “it’s better than some” statements. Orwell concludes that, whatever the book’s failures and omissions, that Miller’s novel has stuck with him, and that its subjective effects on a reader might be worthwhile.
Then a full-fledged essay breaks out: a meditation on the changes he observes in the literary scene from the 20s to the 30s of his 20th century. In doing so, Orwell also is quite subjective, compressing the wide range of these two important decades with broad characterizations, summations that have the virtue of vigor. Orwell’s overall judgement is the 20s were an explosion of free expression and expansion of subject matter, and then the following 30s had taken a wrong turn into political statements and advocacy. Orwell’s historical summary is one that others have made as well, and as with all such “spirit of the age” high-level views, it can be contradicted by considerable examples of those who didn’t follow the big titles over their decades.
In my middle of the night reading, I found this wrong-turn judgment odd. Writers who avoided political stances or opinions? Orwell would never have been on such a list! He’s remembered specifically as a life-long critic writing on political ideas and operations. This verging-on-hypocrisy stance, similar to pundits and any odd people with Internet access criticizing actors, artists, and writers for expressing political opinions,* can be made rational if one extracts from his argument the more distinct point he’s making: that the expressed political stances and opinions opposed are wrong and based on falsity. But within this essay that point seems less clear, it’s more about the demonstrated failure of that art-for-political-change effort in the 30s leading Orwell to suggest that it’s likely/arguably the better of limited choices to simply write about ordinary life in a way that avoids any evidence of political thinking.**
I’m around twice Orwell’s age when he wrote this essay, and to the glowing 21st century screen I was reading him on, I talked back to him that he had just discovered a universal truth I’ve written here several times: All Artists Fail. Betting odds calculated from a past performance tout-sheet are not a singular reason to not attempt something in art — the odds are always against success in art, that’s partly why we revere it.
Two small things in Orwell’s long essay remain for me to note. There’s an anecdote of Miller meeting Orwell as Orwell was about to embark on his sojourn into the Spanish Civil War. Miller, Orwell says, told him he was crazy to put himself in harm’s way, and then gives Orwell a warmer jacket better than the meager suitcoat he was wearing. That act, that tiny scene, is Orwell demonstrating his point that ordinary life closely observed may illuminate more than many grander political statements. And the other, more poetry related, has Orwell go on this short aside about the American poet Walt Whitman:
It is not certain that if Whitman himself were alive at this moment he would write anything in the least degree resembling Leaves of Grass. For what he is saying, after all, is ‘I accept,’ and there is a radical difference between acceptance now and acceptance then. Whitman was writing in a time of unexampled prosperity, but more than that, he was writing in a country where freedom was something more than a word. The democracy, equality and comradeship that he is always talking about are not remote ideals, but something that existed in front of his eyes. In mid-nineteenth-century America men felt themselves free and equal, were free and equal, so far as that is possible outside a society of pure communism. There was poverty and there were even class-distinctions, but except for the negros there was no permanently submerged class.”
Taken in — as we might well in our age — as statement to be evaluated from a woke (or waking) political outlook, this has so many howlers and hold-my-artisanal-higher-hops-content beverage potential Tweet-takes! Start with the “Leaves of Grass are always greener on the other side” view of America in general. Thanks, I guess, for the “negros” exception that is altogether too large and horrible for a sub-clause. No mention of the state-side colonialism regarding indigenous peoples. And, wait a minute, women! Orwell’s “America men” freedom isn’t just accidental language-convention-gendering in historical context. I could go on, with anti-immigrant prejudices galore, and….
But. What Orwell is demonstrating here, intentionally or not, is that Whitman painted a plausible reality, containing vivid details of ordinary, mundane reality, of an America that supplanted those things, where open desire, freedom, and comradeship existed in plus and overplus. Did Whitman fool the wily Orwell into thinking that was actually, abundantly so in the years before and during an American bloodbath, or is Orwell suggesting, however inadvertently, what art can try to do, and while failing and retrying, help to accomplish?
I sometimes misread the “darling buds of May” as the “daring buds of May.” These seem so strange, so alien, as they emerge.
This is enough for a Part 1, but rest, and only later think about this: can your art spur on change — or rather, not just urge it on with the spur and the whip, but with the portrayal of where we must go in a hurry?
As to music, here’s another audio piece you may have missed, using a 1920 poem by German Anarchist writer Erich Mühsam that I translated into English. This post from last July tells what I learned about Mühsam’s life and that of his mentor who first published the poem, Gustav Landauer. In the post, there’s a Whitman connection. Player gadget below for some of you, or if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlinkwill play the audio piece.
*The hypocrisy of that is: the pundits most often have no more skin in the game in these matters than some artists; and that the ordinary Internet people, who often wish to self-proclaim their ordinariness, may have by definition no more expertise than another person whose job it is to observe and extract transmittable reality.
**Small, dear, peripheral, and personal aside here. Anaïs Nin was the writer specifically noted as existing inside the titular whale, Jonah-like, in the essay — and so, in Orwell’s judgement, then beneficially cut-off and protected from politically-charged writing. My late wife was once writing an article for a national “woman’s publication” on the cultural phenomenon of journaling, circa 1979. In a phone call discussing her sources for the article, her editor suggested she could setup an interview with Anaïs Nin. When the call ended, she and I had the writers vs. editors conspiratorial laugh over that unintentionally Ouija-level suggestion, as Nin was then two-years dead.
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.”
Perhaps today’s audio piece and what I came to write about it has an interesting path. In words it’s a medium-length journey—so I beg your patience—but the places it goes are vast. Eventually, we’ll answer a question you may not have asking: who’s buried in William Blake’s tomb?
It started with an illustration drawn by Sergio García Sánchez which I saw on Kenne Turner’s blog this month. Turner’s blog has a great deal of manipulated and beautiful nature photography, mixed in with things he notices in his desert region location and occasional poetry, so it was unusual to see a drawing at first, but his post correctly located the words in the drawing and let me recognize the white haired old man whose beard is a star’s journeywork in this cartoon. The man in the drawing, the words, was Walt Whitman.*
Perhaps because Whitman’s words were embedded inside a drawing, they seemed Blakean to me as I read of that grain of sand, a hinge in the hand across the starry dynamo machinery of night. The main effect was to grab my attention and bring thoughts of doing it for this project.
And so I composed a small orchestra piece of music to accompany my reading of this piece, taken from the 31st part of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” using the 1855 edition. I’d normally give you a link to the text, but the two links above to Turner’s blog or to Sánchez’s picture are the best way to see the 1855 text I used which includes a line that was dropped in later editions, the line with the farmer’s girl and her iron tea-kettle that reminds us back to earth and daily life. For many compositions I’d be done.
I know McClure best from a record album he made with ex-Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek and flautist Larry Kassen called The Piano Poems in 2012. This was nowhere near my introduction to the Beat-associated “jazz behind poetry reading” style, but it’s a very good one. Listening to that helped build my own convictions for this project back then.
One of the poems performed on this set is McClure’s “Action Philosophy.” Though he didn’t on Piano Poems as released, McClure would often introduce it by saying that his poem begins with words written by Henry David Thoreau. That led me to think about combining McClure’s incorporation of Thoreau with Whitman’s Blakean lines about the universe’s manifestation in everyday nature. After all, McClure extends Blake’s and Whitman’s vision, seeking to become the animals he sees, to inhabit them fully. That’s the animal meat of his poem, but it’s in a reality sandwich on this deli menu—those separated first and last lines present a vital dichotomy. Here’s the text of McClure’s “Action Philosophy.”
Fifteen jugglers, five believers, six angels in the same performance! Tell your mama not to worry, ‘cause they’re just my friends. Yes, learn to play the triangle and visionary poetic figures will flock to you.
That first line: “That government is best which governs least” is taken from Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience,” an essay that soon became important to certain liberation movements. Thoreau himself was speaking about the Mexican-American War and slavery in his essay, oppressive evils that he felt he had to take action against. Gandhi and Martin Luther King made explicit reference to this work of Thoreau in their movements against colonialism and American racial subjugation. Lines from it had vital currency during the anti-Vietnam War movements of The Sixties.
But that’s not what I associated this line with from my life in the later 20th century, or where you may most likely hear it today. Now if you see this line quoted, (perhaps misattributed to Thomas Jefferson, not Thoreau) it may be used to buttress some form of conservatism, particularly conservatism that has a claim to libertarianism. Libertarianism is a complex subject, too long to explore here today, but on the other hand, elements at the foundation of the Beat literary movement were anarchists, an alignment that would have fitted Thoreau.
Now we take another side-step. Back in the 1990s I worked with Gary, a white database programmer from South Carolina. He aligned strongly (as do some technology people today) with libertarianism and the political right that was ascendant in parts of America at that time. He was a great fan of Thoreau’s line, though I think he’d attribute it to his fellow Southerner Jefferson, rather than the Yankee Thoreau. From talking with him I felt that his philosophical libertarianism might have protected him somewhat from the racism, acknowledged or unacknowledged, that can be found in a lot of American conservatism. When he would talk about his political opinions, I’d say “Well, that’s not me, but you know a lot of the folks I read are anarchists, and they sort of have the same feelings about the dangers of governments.”
Gary replied with a question that might take a long time to answer. “What’s the difference between libertarianism and anarchism?”
What an interesting question, and how long could that answer go on? I improvised my first thoughts, observational ones that day Gary asked it decades ago. “Well, some of it is just cultural associations. They dress differently, they listen to different music. And some of that is reflected from where they are moving from: Libertarians come largely from right-wing backgrounds and anarchists from left-wing ones, though each of them may be disenchanted with something from the Right or the Left respectively.”
McClure’s “Action Philosophy” takes what might be a book-length examination and instead put a distinction into his poem’s first and last lines. The world of the Randian side of libertarianism is perfectly fine with hierarchies and a thought that the unfortunate are the unworthy, or if not that, the unavoidable. Most anarchists—and from McClure’s final line spoken here today, McClure himself—were not. So the first and last lines today are a meaningful combination.
That was my process, a path of liberties and syndication, from within which the piece emerged as the Whitman Blakean section enclosed in McClure’s poem which seemed so Whitmanesque. My performance and recording was done, and yet I went to bed last night with a question in my mind. “What did Whitman know of William Blake? Those lines seemed so Blakean to me.”
How did they come to similar forms of poetic expression? The translated Hebrew poetry of The Bible influenced both strongly. And the same political philosophies informed both men, Blake knew Thomas Paine, Whitman was reading Thoreau and Emerson. And maybe the muses, the angels, the wake-waves of ghosts from the last movements of the dead moving in our air pressed similar things into each poets’ ear. Right after Ginsberg read “Howl” at the Gallery Six reading for the first time (and by some accounts it was the first public reading of any kind Ginsberg or McClure had ever given of any of their work), Lawrence Ferlinghetti contacted Ginsberg from out of the Gallery audience and said “I welcome you on the beginning of a great career.” Ferlinghetti no doubt knew he was echoing what Emerson had written to Whitman in response to that 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.
To hear a performance mixing in Thoreau, McClure, and Whitman with my music for a small orchestra, use the player below. Thanks for reading. Thanks for listening. Thanks for sharing these ghosts with me.
*Should I have used the more multitudinous verb “where” here?
**McClure didn’t even have to be there. In the summer of 1970, I was working frying hamburgers in Port Chester New York. Down the road was the Capitol Theater, one of those converted to rock concert venues of the age. At a bar in town Janis Joplin was drinking with Bob Neuwirth, and Joplin started riffing on a line from a McClure poem “Come on God, and buy me a Mercedes Benz.” Neuwirth scribbled the night’s journeywork on a paper napkin. Later that day she performed the resulting song at the Capitol Theater. Me? I just kept frying those burgers.
***True to their anarchist-hearts, the reading seems to have been blessed with several “organizers” but happened anyway. Kenneth Rexroth MC’d, Phillip Lamantia, Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen, Michael McClure, and Allen Ginsberg read. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, Ann Charters, and Jack Kerouac where in the audience. Since it was at this reading the Ginsberg premiered his long poem “Howl,” that seems to have become the summary of the event, but the edges of the blast broke more windows. The 22-year-old McClure read a poem about the death of whales, showing that his “Mammal Patriotism” was already forming.
It’s time to wrap up our National Poetry Month celebration, and once more I’m going to present a piece where I wrote the words as well as the music, a piece in celebration of the unpredictability of poetic genius. In the “Song of Myself” section I presented a few days back, Whitman proclaims that America contains multitudes, plain and profound things, contradictions—and furthermore that everyone of us can contain all and each of that.
And by Whitman’s time we had Emily Dickinson, born a free white woman in a prosperous household, yes, but not yet in a time when those of her gender could hold for the power of her own mind. Her grandfather, her father, her brother all made and read the law, but she fully became Shelley’s unacknowledged legislator of the world.
In all the oppressions and focused indifference of America and the world, humankind still has these poets. Let us wonder and rejoice in them—and also those living now—who, whatever their given lot in life, open themselves to a blessed consciousness and find someway to convey it to us.
Speaking now of my poem that makes up today’s text: I think I called it a Confucian ode not only because I tried to use whatever understanding I have of how Li Bai and Du Fu expressed themselves in 8th century China, but in the sense that the much older odes collected by the school of Confucius were intended to instruct society as a whole, not just serve as an anthology for other poets.
Here the text of today’s piece. Classical Chinese poems don’t use punctuation either.
The process of explaining poems can suffer from the explaining the joke or speaking about music dangers. But since I have a passing acquaintance with this poem’s author, let me say a few words about my intent this time. In the first stanza, I note the priors from which our three poets came: William Blake’s father was a hozier, a maker of socks,* Emily Dickinson, as we’ve already discussed was the daughter of a lawyer, and Walt Whitman’s father was a house carpenter.
If poetic accomplishment was a matter of instruction, none of them would have stood a chance. Of course, there are other poets with fine educations, and poets whose households were steeped in literary culture and expectations; but in the area of poetry, they historically stand side by side with these of more modest backgrounds.
Pound has a point. I too think Whitman could have used a good editor, though perhaps then he wouldn’t be Whitman, so capable of maddening us to contradiction with his excess. In this year’s portion of “The Waste Land,” “Death by Water,” editor Pound took the exceedingly well-educated Eliot’s lengthy tale of a shipwreck and drowning and carved out the sharpened epitaph we now know, that I could present this month. So, in the second stanza I make my bow to craft, and to those of us who help preserve and present the work and souls of poets. I speak of this craft and preservation as a container, much as the poets are containers for the blessed consciousness they open themselves up to receive.
In the third stanza, I make a new connection to the first two stanzas. I speak of those wealthy in this world, with fine socks and gloves, lawyers to take care of their contracts, and builders to make their towers. If you are an American these days, you may think I refer to a particular someone who puts his name on lots of tall buildings—but that name is writ in water. By such actions and pride they are saying the buildings are not the point, they—their selves—are what is contained in them.
If we’re labeling things, the top on the other side should say “noggin.”
I end the poem with another stanza and a final couplet, continuing to tie the preceding in. This is my attempt at the “music of thought” I speak about often when I speak of poetry: a power that finds harmonies in thoughts, images—rhymes in things not only in words. Why must we say and share our poetry? Because it’s not ours. In acts like the Parlando Project and histories of much, much more, humanity preserves and presents it, and celebrates it in National Poetry Month.
Yes, if we wrote it, we stayed still to write it down, practiced the discipline to convey what blessed consciousness may have conveyed to us, removed the words and other personal cruft that obscured it, cut the cord and buried the now shabby afterbirth. We share it, not because it is ours, but because it has worth.
Thank you for reading and listening, thank you for the kind words. Thanks to Dave, Heidi and Bert for helping make this project happen. April is ending, but May can be filled with poetry too, so follow this and spread the word. The player to hear my performance of “Confucian Ode on Blake, Dickinson, and Whitman” is below.
Is he joining me in celebrating National Poetry Month? Last week Bob Dylan released a new song called “I Contain Multitudes.” It’s pretty good, mixing the elegiac mood and the bittersweet blues. Like Dylan’s other new release, “Murder Most Foul” from earlier in the month, folks quickly swept through the lyrics to collect and note the allusions. They found that “I Contain Multitudes” has literary references mixed in with the musician and cultural touchstones. Poets William Blake and Edgar Allan Poe get name-checked.
But for some reason, the main poetic link Dylan seems to intend was missed in most of the early write-ups I read. The song’s refrain, which also supplies the title, is a line from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” We’re going to fix that today.
Over the years of this project I probably haven’t presented enough Whitman. He’s the indispensable ice-breaker of poetic Modernism, even for those that didn’t attempt to closely follow his style. By writing in free verse with no set line length, irregular meter, and no need to make the rhyming word, he freed poetry to be infinitely expansive and did for poetic music what Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane did for instrumental music. Once this idea of freedom was demonstrated, any number of other Modernist approaches eventually developed, some of which don’t directly bring Whitman to mind as a model, though that doesn’t mean that they didn’t benefit from his revolution.* And some subsequent writers did show the influence of Whitman’s characteristic word-music: Carl Sandburg, John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Allen Ginsburg. Stop for a minute: all three of those writers—all examples where one can trace the lineage of Whitman easily—are influences on the language and expression of Bob Dylan. Whitman, like Dylan, loves the wide-ranging catalog, the linking of things plain and exotic, the workman’s comment and the sage’s koan.
So maybe it was time for Bob to give a nod to Walt—and for me to do so too.
I’ve chosen today to present the last two numbered poems in Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Besides the “I contain multitudes” line, this selection also includes some other of Whitman’s most famous proclamations: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself,” “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” and “Look for me under your boot-soles.”
Barbaric Yawp in action: “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Well, maybe if you take off the hat and remove your shirt Walt.
Although I approach Dylan’s age, yet somewhat in arrears, I’m not going for the old-man lope of Dylan’s recent songs today.** No. It’s time to rawk! My personal index-thought as I composed, arranged, and started to perform this was “Whitman as if done by Iggy*** and the Stooges.” As with many of my index-thoughts in this project, I missed the mark, but that’s OK, maybe I came close to the bulls-eye of another target nearby. Since I long for the sound of a loose and loud rock band in these days of social distance, I tried to make one myself for this piece, even attempting to duplicate the kind of thing my LYL Band partner Dave Moore might have played on piano when that was possible. My shelter in place partner Heidi Randen kicked in some backing vocals on the chorus. It took me to this morning to get a time when I could crank a guitar amp to get the feedback and speaker interaction for the Ron Ashton-style guitar solo, which I scheduled between my high-schooler’s interactive telelearning sessions.
As always, the next audio piece will likely be different than this one, so check back (or hit “follow”) to see what the Parlando Project does next during National Poetry Month.
Modernist American poetry has two parents, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, but it’s been awhile since we’ve presented any Whitman here. Dickinson is a subversive Modernist, ironically skewing the expected tropes. Whitman on the other hand is the provocateur, the poet who is proud to say right out front everything he wishes to change.
As Whitman prepared his 1860 edition of his evolving Leaves of Grass, he was about to cross a Rubicon of a sort. He had decided that erotic material needed to be added to his great collection. Since he wished to be all-inclusive and unabashed, starting with himself, that material would vary, but it would include expressions of male homosexual longing and relationships.
Walt Whitman as caricatured in 1860 in Harper’s Weekly
Once again, my knowledge of the historical context here is not extensive, but some brief reading this weekend indicates that to the mid-19th century American audience, the homosexual elements of what Whitman was to publish was little or no more disturbing than the erotic element generally. For a man who was already wishing to revolutionize English poetry with his free-verse and universalist message including what would surely be considered shockingly fleshy writing about desire, longing, and connection was certain to complicate his goals for a wide audience. His leading ally within American High Culture, the Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, counselled him to not include, or to greatly tone down that material.
Whitman didn’t take that council. The 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass included a section, Calamus, that was full of love and desire between men. Emerson was right, that would complicate Whitman’s task of revolutionizing American poetry.
When Transcendentalist Thomas Wentworth Higginson* asked Emily Dickinson if she had read Whitman shortly thereafter, Dickinson replied: “You speak of Mr. Whitman. I never read his book but was told that he was disgraceful.” If one is of a speculative mind, one can imagine Emily Dickinson getting a plain brown wrapper delivery of Leaves of Grass that she would never acknowledge.
This Monday is Veteran’s Day/Remembrance Day, and as he prepared the Calamus poems Whitman was not a veteran or a survivor with war memories, as the American Civil War that would add another tremendous shaping force on his poetry was still more than a year off. Still he would write this moving comparison that I present today.
Today’s poem as it appeared in the 1860 edition of “Leaves of Grass.”
“When I Peruse the Conquer’d Fame” is a comparison of two things: fame and envy. Perhaps the fame part will strike you first, along with the implications of worth and value. The fame in the title most often comes to prominent men: victorious generals, Presidents who bask in their election and men who put their names on large buildings. The U.S. Presidents that Whitman would have had in mind then were bumbling ineffectual men, totally incapable of coming to grips with the immense and deadly crisis they were careening toward, but famous none the less.** What generals would he have in mind? Napoleon or his adversaries perhaps, men who could shuffle the borders and crowned heads back and forth in tides.
And for comparison, Whitman sets out “the brotherhood of lovers.” Does he mean men who love men? As this is part of the homoerotic Calamus poems section I think we need to accept that is significantly so. He goes on to praise the lovers who are steadfast in their love as aging and fate and even the numbing of time is arrayed against them.
This task of enduring love is not something unique to same-sex lovers, and I suspect that Whitman, the universalist, recognizes that too. But in his particular, he’s saying that unfaltering love which would not then be socially acknowledged is all the more extraordinary, though unknown compared to the war-heroes and political potentates.
Did Whitman, and I suppose myself in my choice to present this poem at this time, just dis veterans? That objection would assume that the two groups are mutually exclusive, at odds. That isn’t so. And if Whitman was here to answer he’d point out he spoke of Generals, Presidents, and rich men, not the soldiers he later comforted and whose wounds he dressed in the upcoming war.
And of course, in the U. S. today it’s Veterans Day, set aside for those who after their service may well have continued as or became those ardent lovers whatever their sexual orientation. We honor them for their service in the one regard, Whitman asks that we consider the second as well.
What of the other comparison, the one you may not have noticed, the one concerning envy? Whitman has chosen not to weigh his comparison between the two sets of roles only by their levels of objective fame, but specifically in the example of his own state of envy. He says he doesn’t envy those powerful and rich men—but of the “long and long” lovers, there he says he is bitterly envious.
Let me suppose Whitman was sincerely speaking here (he has almost no other mode in his poetry than sincerity). But there is an element in Leaves of Grass where the poet speaking—“Walt Whitman” as the character in his great collection of poems—is meant to be an example, as his verse is an example, of an imperfect thing striving to find a different, better path to something new and not fully known. Whitman, like the best of Modernist art, like various America, like many veterans, ardent as a lover is running faithfully and with a heart open toward an affectionate and unknown future.
Once more I marshal the ranks of my marcato orchestral instruments for “When I Peruse the Conquer’d Fame” into another “punk orchestral” piece. Harmonically, I’m working a three-chord trick here, just as if the composer/conductor’s podium was stocked with Ramones. Other than the use of a rock’n’roll drum set, the other unusual textures are mixed subtly into the low-end where there’s a contrabassoon line and Fender electric piano bass (ala Ray Manzarek). You can hear it with the player below.
*It’s possible that a canny Dickinson might have been telling Higginson what Higginson would want to hear, since Higginson, though au fait with political and social radicalism, was also of the opinion that Whitman was disgusting.
**Coincidentally, the U. S. President when the Calamus poems including edition of Leaves of Grass was published was James Buchanan, who may have been gay himself. Though Donald Trump has already selected Andrew Jackson as his favorite President, Buchanan may also prove to be indispensable to his legacy in that Buchanan has long been the consensus choice among historians as the worst-ever President of the United States.
Here’s a piece using a fresh translation I made this month of a Spanish poem by Federico García Lorca. I’m sure there’s much to say about Lorca from those that know his work better than I do. That group of Lorca admirers includes many other artists whose work I respect, so it’s about time to present something by him here.
I’m told that a Gacela is a traditional Spanish form, but that Lorca’s poem follows the form only in spirit. Because Lorca was executed during the Spanish Civil War, not long after this poem was written, some view it as reflecting his experience of the war, but I get the impression that death elements were present in Lorca’s work even before the war. While encountering this poem in order to translate and perform it, I came to believe there’s a compound commentary on human mortality and more here.
Federico García Lorca, a poet with open heart dreams
The poem opens and closes with a refrain that ends with a strong, bloody, and yet ambiguous last line carrying the image of a boy wanting to cut his heart. I chose not to overdetermine that image because I believe its ambiguity should remain. It could be an image of desire, or of self-harm, or emotional outreach—so let it be any or all of those things.
The middle portion of the poem, which I chant rather than sing, has a tone in my reading that has humorous elements, even if that seems to go counter to other readings of the text I found. When this section starts with what sounds like folk aphorisms about the dead, I take them as dark humor. In the next line “No quiero enterarme de los martirios que da la hierba” I decided for the only time in my translation to intentionally make the image stronger to American readers, by making the hierba, the grass, “leaves of grass” to connect to Whitman and his great image forged in the American Civil War. I can’t be sure, but I spent a long time on that stanza’s moon with a snake’s mouth image, “la luna con boca de serpiente” and what with the punch line about that mouth always working before dawn got me asking the question if this was a vampire image, which I decide to refer to sideways by determining that fangs were what serpent’s mouth means. Consistently in this stanza Lorca is giving us death images, but he’s also saying he doesn’t want to hear them.
I think the next stanza is meant to be humorous too, starting off with the wanting to sleep (perchance to dream?) for a moment to maybe as long as a century—but “pero que todos sepan que no he muerto,” “let everybody know I’m not dead” as I translate it. Yes, like Hamlet he wants to compare sleep and death, but he’s playing with it. I’m at a loss if the “pequeño amigo del viento oeste,” “little friend of the west wind” is referencing something. It sounds almost like a children’s story or lullaby. I think this stanza’s concluding line is so wonderful that it transcends mood and attitude: “soy la sombra inmensa de mis lágrimas,” “I am the immense shadow of my tears.”
This stanza’s concluding line is so wonderful that it transcends mood and attitude: “soy la sombra inmensa de mis lágrimas,” “I am the immense shadow of my tears.”
The final chanted stanza before we return to the sung refrain also seems to me to be playing with death. Are we meant to take the insects here as accomplices of the grave’s earth? But this sounds like a boyish schoolyard dispute “He threw ants at me!” And what’s with the scorpion claw? As a northern North American I don’t deal with actual scorpions (hey, tropic readers, let me tell you about black flies…) but isn’t it the stinger that’s the weapon? I’m left wondering if there’s some idiom here that I just don’t know, even some kind of schoolboy pestering like unto a “noogie.”
And then the poem returns to a variation of the refrain, mysterious, beautiful, and I think serious. As to the intent of the poem, I felt I could perform the mystery and commit to the humor I found in the middle section without knowing the poem’s heart entirely. I think you can listen to it the same way. It is a darkly playful meditation on death? A comment on the outbreak and casualties of a civil war? Or is it a longing for childhood life and adventurous dreams? Or a love poem to a young man in Lorca’s life at the time the poem was written? Walt Whitman could sing all those things together, so why couldn’t Lorca?
I felt I could perform the mystery and commit to the humor I found in the middle section without knowing the poem’s heart entirely. I think you can listen to it the same way.
Musically, I sought to contrast the two refrain sections from the poem’s middle one. I was going to play my nylon string guitar for a Spanish flavor on this. Sadly, when I opened its case this week I found that its bridge had come completely off the top. Oh well, my battered Seagull Folk guitar had to stand in. My orchestration brings a bassoon part forward.
You can hear my performance of my English translation of Federico García Lorca’s “Gacela of the Dark Death” with the player gadget below.