My Poor Bagpipes

In search of words to combine with music here, I sometimes find it necessary to translate from other languages. Poetry translation involves following strange paths.

Here’s the path I followed to present today’s piece, Jules Laforgue’s “My Poor Bagpipes.”  Throughout this month I’ve been presenting parts of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  as part of my celebration of April as National Poetry Month. This causes me to look more at Eliot and where he derived his sense of modern poetry from. Eliot’s own testimony says that a late 19th Century French poet, Jules Laforgue was very important to his own poetics. That’s about all I knew about Laforgue: important to Eliot.

I search and find some Laforgue poems, though only a couple in English translation. Luckily, there’s a site, laforgue.org that has put a great deal of his work online in its original French. I pick out a handful that have interesting titles or first lines and see what rough machine translations will show me.

As I looked at the rough translations I was struck by déjà vu—only in English of course. “Hey, that sounds familiar! I’ve read something like this poem.” In French it was Poètes a Venir,” and of course it was Walt Whitman’s “Poets to Come.”  It appears that Laforgue may have been among the first to translate America’s Whitman to French in 1886, while Whitman was still alive. And from his work translating Whitman, Laforgue began to write “vers libre”—free verse, himself, helping to pioneer that idea in French poetry.

Chat Noir Poster2

“The very illustrious company of the black cat with his famous shadow plays, his poets his composers.” Remembered by its posters long after it closed, the Chat Noir cabaret was a place where music and poetry mixed in 19th Century Paris. A very Parlando Project thing, no?

 

I will not be translating Laforgue’s translations of Whitman back to English here. I picked his “Air de Biniou”  to try, primarily because I was intrigued by the first line “No, No, my poor bagpipes.” I’m attracted to incongruity and black humor, and I kept double-checking to make sure that line’s “cornemuse” in French must mean “bagpipes.” The poem’s first verse seemed to refer to the bagpipes’ famously raw timbre and pitch issues: “everything is a mistake, everything turns out bad” claims Laforgue’s first stanza.

Inserting gratuitous bagpipe joke:

Why do bagpipers walk while they play?

To get away from the sound.

As I worked on it, I had trouble with several words, two or three of which I’m still unsure I’ve translated correctly. This may be a general issue for anyone translating Laforgue, as he liked to play with language and meanings, sometimes using unusual words. But I soon had a more serious issue, after dealing with “occit” in the second stanza. A poet’s images are not his literal manifesto, and irony was part of Laforgue’s stance. In this second stanza he says Nature is a wife the artist will kill. I get his point: the artist thinks they can better the mundaness of nature and create something new and above it. And it’s nature—an inanimate concept, not a person. Yet and all, it’s still a too-casual image of a too-serious and widespread problem, domestic violence, for me to be happy with it. Looks like this is a general issue with Laforgue too. He consistently used images of women, sex and relations with women as a repository for his issues with our biologic nature. In a word: misogyny.

Clearly he’s not alone in this. It could be one of the things Eliot picked up from him too. Like Eliot, he’s not stinting on masculine failures, but this can reveal an attitude that men  fail because of their souls  while women  fail because of their gender.  I tried to mitigate that stanza by dealing with another problematic word in it: “carambole.” It’s a word usually used for a particular fruit, but it’s also a bumper pool game, and something like that later meaning I think was what Laforgue intended. I was going to use something like rebound or carom in my translation, but at the time I performed it, I went with a more archaic meaning of the word where it may refer to cannons. At least that put the poet and Nature in a running battle. I may have made a wrong choice there, but that’s one of the things you run into in translation, needing to convey the author’s outlook which may not be your own.

We have little space left to wander more in the twisted paths you find when translating. I think it can be tremendously helpful for poetry composition, because it puts you, hand in hand with another poet, trying to find the right word with the right sound and connotations.

Bretons' with Bagpipes

“Je suis bagpiper!” says the man in the center. “Daddy, can we talk about the patriarchy and your intonation issues.” says the girl on the right.

But one last thing, those surreal bagpipes in this French poem. Laforgue’s family was from Breton France. Bretons are a Celtic culture, and yes, they have bagpipes. As to my music here, while I enjoy composing string parts and breaking out the classical guitar, sometimes I don’t want to be careful, I just want to grab electric guitars and bash something out. “Everything is a mistake” says Laforgue. Nonetheless. Use the player below to hear it.

 

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When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

We’re about to begin April’s National Poetry Month in the U. S., but I’m going to begin celebrating #NPM2018 today with a piece that’s a good way to start things off, the opening two sections of Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

Large-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-Logo
We’re aiming to present even more audio pieces than usual this April
Use the Follow button to make sure you get a notice as they drop

 

National Poetry Month isn’t just for American poems or for American poets, but if it was, Whitman would be all the more inescapable. In the middle of the 19th Century, he and Emily Dickinson forged two original styles whose sounds and tactics can still be found in contemporary verse—Dickinson, with small lines in small poems that bind-up with puzzles immensities; Whitman with long lines and epic poems that offer a catalog of exultation. One sees a single, small thing and says it represents the universe, the other beholds the diversity of the world and says it’s really one thing. Complementary opposites.

Both were working at a prodigious pace during the 1860s, during America’s great Civil War. On April 14th of 1865 Abraham Lincoln, the US President during that war, was shot. The next day he died. Within weeks Whitman had produced the first published version of this poem along with other poems about Lincoln and the ending of the Civil War which he published as “Drum Taps.”  It would not be like Whitman to hold his thoughts on those great events inside. In contrast, Tennyson’s epic elegy on the death of a beloved friend, “In Memoriam”  took him more than 15 years before he published it.

At over 200 lines in its entirety, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,”  taken as a whole, would exceed my usual mode here. I prefer my audio pieces more the length of the 45 RPM single records of my youth. So today, I present only the first two sections of Whitman’s poem. Whitman’s voice changes over the course of this long poem, but in these opening sections Whitman (albeit in free verse) is sounding somewhat like the poets his modernism would break from. Save for the absence of rhyme, his language here would not sound out of place in Tennyson (or even the earlier Romantics, like the Shelley of “Adonais.”)

Whitman's Parent's House

Is this the dooryard? Whitman was visiting his mother’s house when he heard Lincoln had died.
He stepped outside and saw the spring lilacs in bloom.

 

I did the same thing, presenting only the intro section, last April for the poem I believe is most responsible for April being National Poetry Month, T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland,”  which begins memorably “April is the cruelest month…” Those that can finish that first sentence may recall it continues “Breeding lilacs out of the dead land.” So, Whitman’s elegy and Eliot’s poetic apotheosis of High-Modernism written over 50 years later, both begin in April, and with lilacs.

We’ll be revisiting territories in “The Wasteland”  later this April, but today you can start where Whitman started his poem, and from where Eliot got some of his inspiration for his. Musically, this one is fairly simple, but I hope effective: acoustic guitar and piano with a little low synthesizer groan eventually joining in. Use the player below to hear it.

 

Soul Selector Blues

Sometime around the end of the 19th Century, a century that had seen accelerating change in technology and social order, new artistic movements began to flower on either side of the Atlantic. In the UK the Arts and Crafts movement and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood looked backwards at things that had disappeared or were nearly gone, and revived them within a the new context of their present day. Interest in neglected folk-cultural traditions of nations began to arise. Others looked to new orders: utopianism and socialism. The seeds of what would be called Futurism began to take shape, a worship of the inherent art in technology.

Here’s a funny thing: all these things mashed-up in the ferment of the times. Some of the artists held to several or even all of these beliefs, participating in more than one of these seemingly different or even opposed movements. Call this brew “Modernism,” for the one thing that united it was a desire for something new, or at least new for the times, to be produced.

As the 20th Century got underway, American artists forged ahead in these movements. The reasons for that are multifold, but one is that they had a head start: Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and the Emersonian Transcendentalists had already pioneered distinctly American ways to be modern.

Let’s leave the salons and literary magazines now for a moment. Here’s something else that was happening at the same time, with only spotty distribution beyond its creators. Some African-Americans, presented with nominal freedom, economic serfdom, social repression, and what must honestly be called a sub-human classification by many learned men, continued to come to terms with European instruments and tempered scales, combining them with the already juicy stew of American music and the remembered modes of Africa. They produced their own Modernism, something that eventually got called “The Blues.”

Lyrically, this was an inherently skeptical art. As it percolated through commerce, the Blues got re-defined as a sad song of loss, and loss certainly is part of its subject matter, but the outlook of the original Blues writers was not simply that. A lot of it was satiric comment, and when the Blues dealt with the desire and farce of love and lust, as it often did, it wasn’t just about loss.

I could go on and on about the Blues, but for the moment, I’ll ask you to just absorb this: when William Butler Yeats was having a harp built to chant his poems to, as he believed the Celtic griots of old had done; and when Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, HD, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein or T.S. Eliot were inventing their strain of Modernist poetry, often abroad, some other Americans were back in the States retuning guitars and looking for the notes between the keys of the piano with their own poetry that sought to “make it new.”

Emily Dickinson is a special case in so many ways, but one of those ways is that although she wrote much of work during the Civil War in the middle of the 19th Century, she was only published much later in the century. Her poems, so stripped down, so skeptical of received notions, so vivid in fresh images that didn’t map easily to conventional meaning, fit right in with work being written 50 years later by the Modernists.

Emily Dickinson Uncrowned Queen of the Blues 2

Warning: time travel plots often are ridiculous.

 

Today’s episode “Soul Selector Blues”  takes this time travel one step further. What if Emily Dickinson was a serf on the Dockery Plantation in Mississippi early in the 20th Century? Maybe she’d tune a guitar to “Spanish” and grab a slide to get those in-between notes, and then what would have been “The Soul Selects Her Own Society”  would come out like this.

To hear the LYL Band cover “Delta Amherst” Emily D’s classic 78 r.p.m. side “Soul Selector Blues” use the player below.

 

To A Locomotive In Winter

A few years back there was a little Internet brouhaha about a woman who looked like she was talking on a cell phone as she was filmed walking down a street in 1928. “Proof of time travel?” asked the rhetorical askers “In 1928 there’d be no cell phones for 50 years, so she has to be from the future.”

time-traveler-cell-phone
About time we get cracking on Bluetooth don’t you think?

We’ve been talking here recently about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman, three 19th century Americans. As far as we know, none of them used cell phones, and their considerable accomplishments may have been easier insomuch as they didn’t have to worry about PokéStop locations. But maybe they were time-travelers none-the-less?

One of the remarkable things about Emily Dickinson was that she seemed to be writing 20th Century poetry in the middle of the 19th Century. Oh sure, skeptics will say, she was a genius, and through her genius became influential to later writers. Typical debunkers!

Walt Whitman too, often seems a prophet and precursor of a new age, but maybe he wasn’t a prophet? Maybe he was just reporting from the future, and he knew all his bets were sure things. How else can you explain Whitman’s podcast on gender equality streamed here?

Today’s piece, Whitman’s To a Locomotive In Winter, was written sometime between 1874 and 1876, but it reads like a “Futurist” poem written 40 years later. The early 20th Century Futurists embraced technology and sought to bring it into the arts. Poems, paintings, sculpture and musical works celebrating bicycles, airplanes, motor cars and trains were their stock in trade. Was Whitman a time traveler from 1914 who had read the Futurist Manifesto?

futurism_meccanica_pannaggi_speeding_train

Thee for my recitative!

Another American who paid attention to the Futurists (besides time-traveler Walt Whitman) was George Antheil, a composer, who by the 1920’s was trying to engineer machines to make music. He had this idea that he could realize a musical composition by syncing more than one player piano together so that an even greater mechanized noise could be exactly made. By the 1940s, perhaps after hearing Whitman’s podcast on women’s strength, he was in Hollywood and hooked up with actress Hedy Lamarr—no, that kind of hook up. You see Hedy had this idea for a radio-guided torpedo. One problem: if you used radio to guide it, you could use radio to jam it. What if the control signals could use random radio frequencies Lamarr wondered? How would the controller and torpedo stay in sync? Antheil had the solution, the same thing you used to control player pianos: a roll of punched tape. The tape would tell the radios to switch frequencies in perfect time with each other. You couldn’t jam that jam because the radio frequency could hop at some sick number of beats per minute.

George Antheil with machines

Maybe I should have just developed MIDI instead?

 

Antheil and Lamarr tried to interest the US War Department on this. Those square faces listened to this idea of randomization and said “No dice!”

hedy lamarr

Not interested in my remote-controlled, frequency hoping torpedo? Can I tell you I invented Fizzies too?

 

Antheil and Lamarr patented their idea, but after rejection no one cared. Then decades later folks are trying to setup CDMA, the core technology for cell phone transmission. The engineers dig up that patent in a pre-existing-art search—or were Lamarr and Antheil time travelers who had been reading the cell phone engineers’ PowerPoint decks? Maybe that woman in the 1928 street scene is the elderly Hedy talking on a cell phone with Walt Whitman?

So back to Whitman then, and To A Locomotive in Winter, and to time travel. In this piece, Whitman time travels forward to 1956, to Chess studios in Chicago. Earl Phillips kicks off the loping beat. Hubert Sumlin, Willie Dixon and Hosea Lee Kennard fall in. The band is playing a drone their bandleader had heard Charlie Patton play back around World War I, but the bandleader is letting this strange traveler, this gray bearded old white man who says he’s from the over-soul, from the Emersonian universal mind. The bandleader has had to deal with racism for almost half the 20th Century, has had to figure that out as a practical matter, he’s seen enough to not ever be surprised. Walt Whitman steps to the mic…

Walt-Whitman-001

No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine

 

You’ll need to click on the gadget below to hear the LYL Band portray that that event.

 

Eros

Time and the universe are designed to make us disappear. What makes us cry at that? What makes us laugh at that? What is the agreement we can reach with that?

The words in this piece are from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson is another of those 19th century New England worthies that we’ve touched on before. Many other writers were encouraged, promoted, and inspired by Emerson in their day.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson (Lake and Palmer not available)

If Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are the father and mother of modern American poetry, Emerson is their common grandfather.

For Dickinson, Emerson’s heterodox religious views seem to have buffered her from her family’s more conventional Christianity. Emerson’s ideas of individuality, of attention to inner voices and discernment, and on the book of nature illuminate Dickinson’s world-view. Some of what is obscure and puzzling in Dickinson (a poet whose music can grab us long before her meaning and vision can become clear) opens up when read in the light of Emerson and his circle.

Walt Whitman, that iconoclast who otherwise defies all authority, promoted his career on the back of an enthusiastic letter of praise from Emerson. He published that letter for PR effect, and then blurbed it prominently in subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass. Never shy, Whitman’s work often trumpets Emersonian ideas and concepts, sometimes taking them farther than Emerson would. Emerson may have written this poem and titled it  “Eros,” but Whitman’s poetic accounts of physical love caused Emerson to personally consul discretion to Whitman.

Dickinson’s personal library contained the Emerson poetry collection where this poem, Eros, appeared. When writing to Emerson’s colleague, Thomas Higginson, Dickinson said this of Higginson’s mention of Whitman:

You speak of Mr Whitman-I never read his Book-but was told that he was disgraceful

However, Emily Dickinson was quite capable of portraying herself to Higginson in misleading ways, so one never knows. Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Dickinson’s hometown. He even stayed next door during the visit. Biographers say she attended Emerson’s lecture but didn’t meet him.

Thomas higginson-cyclist

Thomas Higginson, Transcendentalist and long-tail cargo bike pioneer

So Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson. Each of the poets had seen Emerson, each read him, but the other side of the triangle probably never closed. Dickinson was not widely published in Whitman’s lifetime, preventing Whitman from reading her work, and Dickinson may not have read Whitman. So let’s leave it at Ralph Waldo Emerson, and put it shortly:

Emerson is the theory, and Dickinson and Whitman are the practice.

Emerson also wrote poetry, though his considerable 19th century fame came from other things. As a popular lecturer and essayist, he was able to introduce his ideas widely into American culture. As a scene-maker, he declared American independence in cultural matters roughly 60 years after the political fact of independence, and his school of thought, Transcendentalism, was in America the 1960’s counter-culture of the 1840’s.

For such an influential person, particularly as an influence to poets, his poetry is not always rewarding.

To put it frankly, Eros is strangely worded. It’s rhymed and loosely metrical—but despite the casualness with structure, some lines read like someone trying to contort English syntax to fit a strict metrical form. The next-to-last line “And, how oft soe’er they’ve turned it,” is an abomination. It sort of echoes the meter of the first part of the couplet, but it just doesn’t sound good or make it’s point well. I’m also not clear on the image in that line. Are “men and gods,” or some other “they”, turning love on a lathe and not improving its natural form?

So, regarding that line, good Transcendentalists may well just respond: “OK, Ralph, whatever.”  The strong point in Eros, to put “To love and to be beloved” in the center of existence’s meaning is strong enough to overlook infelicities.

In creating this piece, I did some things to try to convey the poem’s strengths. I turned the separated rhyming lines “To love and be beloved” and “’Tis not to be improved” into repeating refrains to bring out that central thought. Musically I use a favorite tactic of mine: repeated motifs that seem at first to be repeating, but are actually changing. Sonically the guitar part has a modulated echo that adds a bit of microtonal warble, and I treated the vocal with a light “throat singing” effect. My sonic goal there was to tip my hat to Emerson and Transcendentalism’s introduction of Asian religious concepts to America.

To here my music and reading of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Eros, click on the gadget below.

Leaves of Grass

Alas, it’s been a busy week or so with family reasons, and I’ve had to leave Walt Whitman from the last post with his hymn to revolutionary violence hanging out there in one channel.

If you’ve heard the last post’s audio piece, The Blood Of Strangers, recall in that other channel was the tender and exact testimony of someone caught up in gunfire that believes it’s all for a cause. Whitman didn’t write that account, but he could and would speak like that as well. This is Whitman’s great value: he really wanted to write the all of the world. That means foolishness, evil, selfishness, loss as well as tenderness, steadfastness, love—and to write too of all those middle things that are neither: lust, mystery, liberty.
 
Whitman’s use of language is also all over the place. Every reader will find some of Whitman unbearable (as I find his France section I used in The Blood of Strangers) and some sublime.

Rather than write an essay about those qualities of Whitman I’ll offer instead a link to Randall Jarrell’s great discussion of Whitman, of whom he says:

“only a man with the most extraordinary feel for language, or none” (could write as Whitman does.)

The stance that Whitman takes of someone observing the world in its totality, not coldly, but with frank, almost corny at times, emotion, is one that continues to bear poetic fruits. I don’t know that Lou Reed ever pointed to Whitman, but there are times he echoes that outlook powerfully.
 
Earlier this month, as I recorded some new material, I found myself performing Mark Kozelek’s “The Greatest Conversation in the History of the Universe” in its rambling entirety. I like doing things like this. “The Greatest Conversation” is a very particular individual experience, and that work’s catalog of events and opinions I only halfway share—and that’s what I like. Mark Kozelek can embody Mark Kozelek, and it’s not exactly effortless, for being ourselves is not effortless; but none-the-less, Mark probably feels a familiarity as he finds those thoughts in himself. I, on the other hand, must figure those particulars out, find some common ground with them, translate them into performance. Kozelek’s work in “The Greatest Conversation,”  consciously or not, is also Whitmanesque. Essentially his tale of New York City is as close to Whitman’s experience of New York City in the 19th Century as it is to my experience of New York City in the 20th century. Which is to say: different and the same. As I recorded and spoke as Kozelek, I felt Whitmanesque.

young-whitmanLou ReedMark Kozelek (8)

Three blades. Of grass?

 
Because I do not know yet how to go about getting clearance for sharing work still in copyright to use with the Parlando project, you will not hear the LYL Band’s version of “The Greatest Conversation” today. However, you can hear the original Sun Kil Moon and Jesu version here. NSFW warning: “The Greatest Conversation” contains F bombs and a short account of a sexual encounter.

Walt Whitman could have easily embodied Kozelek, he could have embodied Lou Reed or Laurie Anderson too. He would have tried to embody Muhammad Ali as well. This piece uses one of the best-known sections of Leaves of Grass. In it, Whitman stakes his claim to a universality, a universality so broad it transcends death. The music is from the LYL Band again. To hear, click on the gadget you will see just below.

The Blood of Strangers

As we go forward, following Leonard Cohen’s suggestion “Let Us Compare Mythologies,” I’m going to take you to another very dark place. If Siegfried Sassoon was hesitant to publish the last piece Christ and the Soldier, I too am somewhat hesitant to publish this piece, The Blood of Strangers. For The Blood of Strangers to work it must achieve its aim to be provocative. Let’s take that word seriously: it means to provoke you, it means to make you uncomfortable.

That’s one of the things art can choose to do, but it does not give me any lasting pleasure to do so. As an attempted artist I do not believe I must have any greater insight to things than you do, but the nature of art is to try convey things vividly, and in this case I’m going to convey two viewpoints on revolutionary violence.

A year ago, only hours after the terrorist attack on the rock concert at the Bataclan in Paris France, I was scheduled to record as part of the work of making this Parlando project combining spoken word and music. As a musician, I felt compelled to address this event simply and parochially because the attack intentionally targeted music. I chose to use two texts to examine that event: excerpts from a first-person account by Isobel Bowdery, a member of the audience attacked that night, and a section of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Bowdery’s account is to my mind extraordinary, even more so for having been composed so shortly after the attack. Whitman, in contrast, had much more time with his text, as he famously worked and reworked Leaves of Grass over his lifetime. The Whitman piece I used “France”  first appeared in Whitman’s 1860 third edition of Leaves of Grass and was retained in the final edition of 1891. Moreover, Whitman is particularly writing about the French Revolution, events already over 60 years old.

I believe I need say no more about Bowdery’s eloquent words. They are close enough to our time as to speak for themselves. Whitman’s are more problematic.

Modern American poetry has a father and a mother. Its mother is Emily Dickenson; its father is Walt Whitman. As a child, I can’t help but sometimes take after both parents. The Parlando project has already presented work of Dickenson, but this is the first piece we’ve published using Whitman—and this may be an unfortunate introduction, for Whitman’s France is a somewhat mythologized but unwavering appreciation of violence and revenge in the furtherance of a cause. Near the start I told you that I would not tell you what to think of this, but in the just-hours-past the Bataclan attack I was appalled at Whitman.
 
I suggest at this point, assuming you are prepared to visit a dark place, that you listen to The Blood of Strangers now and have your own experience of it. Musically this is another piece that takes after The Velvet Underground, a band I’ve talked about before this. My intent in speaking the two texts at the same time was not only a homage to a tactic the Velvets used, it was aimed at breaking up the flow of either text so that you will not experience them in isolation from each other, or as a logical “Point Counterpoint” debate, but rather a simultaneous experience in two different frames. The last half of the piece is an “instrumental” where The LYL Band gets to synthesize their feelings in the aftermath of that attack speaking only with music.

 

 

OK, if you’re still reading, what can I say in defense of Whitman?

Whitman Leaves of Grass Table

Whitman wanted Leaves of Grass to be all-inclusive. That was one of his core ideas. And this piece, France, was only one small part of this great, lifelong work. In his own copy of the 1860 edition that introduced this piece, he wrote down a table of the word counts of that edition of Leaves of Grass compared to other epic poetic works, proudly noting that he had already exceeded the word counts of the Bible, the Aeneid, Dante’s Inferno, and Paradise Lost. His radical inclusiveness wanted to take in all manner of despised and un-praised things in his great work. Although writing 60 years after the end of the French Revolution, he is writing on the eve of America’s great blood bath, the Civil War. So, as he continued to work on Leaves of Grass, where he kept and expanded the piece called France, he was intimately acquainted with the results of gunfire and bombs. I often thought of that Whitman, the wound-dresser, when I myself was applying bandages or tending to the ill and injured. Whitman famously declared:

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.