By and large Halloween is a fun holiday, so as we continue our Halloween series here let’s have some fun with a classic poem of intimated horror — or rather a parody of same.
The man supplying our fun is Louis Untermeyer, an American 20th century poet, critic, and anthologist. And his subject? To stitch together a strange parodic monster using the nursery rhyme “Jack and Jill Went Up the Hill” with Del La Mare’s poem “The Listeners.”
Untermeyer figures that if De La Mare’s tactics can make a man on horseback knocking and getting no answer scary, then it just might work to make a children’s poem a thing of considered horror. Well, unanswered doors, if not things of terror, are a matter of disappointment for trick or treaters, so maybe “The Listeners” has a built-in advantage as a Halloween piece? Let’s see what Untermeyer can do with his mashup:
I made an unusual choice for musical variety: the instrument playing lines in the left channel, including the A# G# F# motif at the start of each verse is a Bass VI, not a conventional electric guitar..
I decided to play it straight on my performance of Untermeyer’s parody, as if it’s as bleak a tale as the old murder ballad “Pretty Polly” — only with a water-pail and a dreadful accident instead of homicide. If I was to have Alfred Hitchcock drolly appear at the end of my performance, as he would in his TV show of my youth,* he would explain that local search and rescue units found Jack and that he’s recovering — but during that event they tested the water in the hilltop well and found it subtly yet dangerously poisoned.
Before continuing with our count-down of the most liked and listened to pieces here this past autumn, let me remind newcomers what the Parlando Project does. We take words, mostly other people’s words, usually poetry, and combine them in different ways with original music.
“Oh, you mean you make them into songs?” Well, sometimes, yes. But not always. I don’t always sing the words, thus the project’s name.
“So, it’s spoken word with some music in the background.” You could say that about some pieces, but I want the words and the music to interact, comment on each other. The music isn’t just background.
“Music with chanted words. Are you a rapper?” I wish. Can you imagine the commercial potential of old guys chanting poetry, often to acoustic instruments? House-party! I’ll bring the Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, and Fenton Johnson! No, I’m not a rapper, but you could say that I’m more a separate branch growing off the roots of things that rap also grew from.
“Are you some kind of beatnik?” Wait, where’s my black turtleneck, I’m going to reverently listen to some cool jazz records now while trying to remember what was so important about being intoxicated first. Oh, what was the question again?
“The last few numbers on the Top Ten had those orchestral instruments. Are you setting poetry texts to music in the tradition of art song?” One limitation of this project is that neither Dave, nor certainly I, possess bel canto voices that can realize what most art song composers do. I’m conceptually doing what art song composers do, but the empirical results reflect my outlook, performance resources, and limitations. Also, like Yeats, I fear that elaborately sung melodies obscure the impact of the words.
OK, back to the countdown. If you’d like to read what I wrote when I first presented these pieces, the bold-faced titles are hyperlinks to that.
The first edition of Dickinson’s poems featured a picture of Indian Pipe flowers in bloom, but like all flowers, autumn, if nothing else, ends their term. Indian Pipe (also called Ghost Pipe) is a strange plant that doesn’t use photosynthesis, but rather gets its energy from fungus. The picture was chosen because avid botanist Emily liked this unusual plant.
3. As if the sea should part by Emily Dickinson. From Emily B. to her American admirer Emily D. we go. For all the mythos about Dickinson’s later years of not leaving her family home, does anyone ever ask if being cooped up in a house with a family half-heartedly uninterested in poetry was all that comforting to her? In her most vital writing years, Dickinson still roamed some physically—and mentally. I’ve had some fun over the years here suggesting musically and graphically that Emily Dickinson would rhyme with Sixties psychedelia. “As if the Sea should part” is certainly mental traveling of the purest sort. The player for this performance is below, or if you can’t see the player, you can use this hyperlink.
2. The Listeners by Walter de la Mare. When I started this project I thought I’d be rocking out more often than it’s turned out to be the case. Part of that result comes from being increasingly unable to record with Dave or others, and some from enjoying the novelty of being able to score and play orchestral instruments. My version of de la Mare’s weird minimalist ghost story isn’t crossing the hardcore boundary, but this is a rock band arrangement that sounds good turned up on your speakers. The player to test that claim should be below, or if not, this highlighted hyperlink will play it.
I have one more audio piece for our Halloween celebration, this one using a mysterious poem by Walter de la Mare. The way it goes about being scary is unusual—weird even.
After you read or hear it today, how would you describe what’s frightening about it to someone else who doesn’t know this poem, “The Listeners?” Would you find that a hard task? Our previous two Halloween pieces have easy anchors to something describably frightening. Even though those two are short poems, you could point out their fright potential just as one could blurb a Stephen King novel or a horror genre film. Bronte’s “Spellbound” has its character held unable to move as cold night approaches. While it’s not “spelled out” (and there’s a jump scare for you: boo! language play!) it is implied that this immobile state has the character suspended in the air. And Housman’s “Her Strong Enchantments Failing” has poisons and weapons drawn and multiple deaths assured.
OK, now watch a movie in your mind of de la Mare’s “The Listeners” with the sound off. A man rides up to a somewhat elaborate house in a woods at night. Close up: you see his hand knocks on the door. And he knocks again. And one more time—oh the heavy suspense—he knocks a third time. No one comes to the door. Back to wide shot: he rides off. Gripping! I was on the edge of my seat! Goosebumps!
Now of course suspense, fright, that sense of out-of-joint weirdness are all subjective feelings inside an audience. Nothing is assured to be delivered by any artist or writer’s work, no more than all readers will find something sexy, delicious, or beautiful. But almost nothing happens here, and that little is not unusual, at least in the days when the horse was unremarkable transportation, back before we Zoomed or IM’ed our associates instead of riding over to them.
But if you listen to “The Listeners” (hey, is that title a clue?) you may get that ghost story jolt that de la Mare intended. After enjoying this as a poem (full text here) or in my song version, let’s look at some details of how de la Mare casts his spell.
First off, the poem is full of assertions of silence. For something that’s not a there, there—it won’t shut up about it. Helping us endure the author pointing and asking us to notice that, some of the descriptions of silence are quite nice I think, particularly the last one: “The silence surged softly backward.” And oddly, to enforce our sense of the silence, sound effects are used in a couple of places to richen the silence. We can hear the mouth of the horse grazing early in the poem as his rider goes to the door. And as the rider mounts up to leave, we can hear the sound of the leather stirrup strap stretching as his sole meets the stirrup and then the differing sound of the horse’s shoed hooves when they strike a rock in the forest trail away from the house. What we hear enforces the feeling of silence.
Dialog (strictly speaking, monologue) is used sparingly, but it finally tells with the rider’s final utterance. This is no chance encounter, though the rider is called “The Traveller” he’s not a curious passerby or a man looking for a cup of oats for his empty-tank horse. That this is an unexplained appointment is a wonderful choice! Like the silence it can let us fill it with detail.
I just got done exchanging new work this month with a small group of poets that have been doing this for decades. I’m sure many of my responses were suggestions to clear something up or to expand something the poem seems to start but doesn’t finish. And the same was likely said about my work. I thought my advice was valid when I gave it, if only from an example reader, but “The Listeners” points out there’s no law that a poem needs to answer every expectation—maybe instead there’s a statute that says that at least in a small yet significant way it needs to surprise or even confound expectation.
And yes, that title: “The Listeners” really helps here. The rider knows they’re there somehow, just not in the state or mood to answer. Like the silence, their nonappearance is silhouetted with outlines of absence.
I went with one of my favorite rock music sounds today, the 12-string electric guitar, an instrument made indispensable for a short time in my youth by The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. The 12-string electric is an unusual instrument today, as rare to see in a guitar store as a horseman is on the road now. I bought mine a couple of decades ago because I love the sound McGuinn and his engineers developed for it, which I exploit today. The player to hear my presentation of Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners” is below. if you don’t see the player, this highlighted hyperlink will also play it. Thanks for being one of the Parlando Project’s listeners.
I know nothing interesting about the life of Walter de la Mare—other than he was a successful writer in poetry and prose for roughly half of the 20th century*. There appear to be no interesting movements or manifestos to tie him to, and though his lifetime corresponds roughly to those 20th century Modernists I often like and present here, he’s not considered one of them.
20th century British authors who got trading cards in cigarette packs level fame.
Certainly, his poetry doesn’t sound or look like Modernist verse. It’s frankly musical, and supple yet regular musical verse of his type is not that easy to write in English. Modernists took up with free verse for a number of reasons, partly because they were likewise enamored of the wider and more fanciful rhythms of Modernist music and visual arts, and because they wanted to explore new ways of relating reality, and the tight and formal clothing of metrical forms and rhyming seemed to restrict their range of movement.
There were folks with a Modernist sensibility who worked in rhyme and more regular metrical forms. Early Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay did. Frost in particular is often writing Imagist poetry with fresh, plain diction that rhymes in the era when his fellow Modernists were immerging.
Today I use a short poem of de la Mare’s, “Winter,” and the first thing that struck me about it is the word-music. Every line rhymes, and with perfect, not partial rhymes. Though de la Mare uses common rhyming words, the poem seems effortless, there are no lines that seem twisted to make the rhyme. But notice something else about “Winter:” the way it treats its matter, as opposed to its music—that’s close to the Imagists credo. It directly shows a winter scene. The opening lines “And the robin flew/Into the air, the air,/The white mist through;” are solidly in the Imagist mode. That opening “and” making sure we know this is an immediate experience. The entire second stanza too is Imagist through and through. Nothing is “like” anything. This is a real, immediate scene, and we stay there. The robin** flying through white mist is a bird flying through white mist, not a mere symbol, a counter for something else. Frozen bushes waver in the slight breeze casting varying reflections from the new rising moon or last sunlight. Yes, what we are apprehending through the poet has connotations, has feelings that will be invoked, but we aren’t told by the writer what they are, he assumes we’re capable of forming those ourselves.
Only in the ending stanza does de la Mare break the rules of pure Imagism. In his last two lines he personifies a speaking star or cardinal direction which speaks the final line. For me this works largely because this contrasts with the rest of the poem. If instead, de la Mare had started with talking stars giving us messages in so many words and continued in that vein through the poem with bushes and birds telling us what the poet wants them to say, the impact of the conclusion would be lessened, and the poem would be trying to work, not just sound, in the old way.
Musically, I unabashedly say I like what I did for this one. The piece began for me with the guitar part, which I was going to play on acoustic guitar, but my family came home early and there’d be no chance to record that with an open sensitive mic, but then many acoustic guitar parts translate well to the Telecaster which I substituted. The bass guitar part is unusual in that it’s played entirely on open strings, a sound that the instrument is rarely allowed to use. But it’s the orchestral parts which really pleased me. There’s a bunch of tracks here combining “real” strings played via a virtual instrument with a somewhat overdriven Mellotron violin mixed in there which brings the string section some grit***. I gave a top line part to an English horn. Use the player just below this to hear my performance of Walter de la Mare’s “Winter.”
English robin showing its all-weather operational capabilities
*I recall reading some of de la Mare’s ghost stories decades ago, but I hadn’t really considered his poetry until I was reminded of that by Toby Darling, who does a lovely job of writing and playing music to sing many de la Mare’s poems to.
**Residents such as I who live in the Northern parts of the U.S. may be surprised that de la Mare has a robin in his winter scene. The American robin is a different species, which migrates south for the winter, and as such the robin here has a strong symbolic association with spring. English robins stay put. The same name for different North American and European species could lead one to read some promise of spring that de la Mare didn’t intend in his poem, in the same way that Robert Frost’s American winter hemlock branch may not have been a Socratic hemlock branch. Anyway, both robins have a bright red-orange breast, which even though de la Mare doesn’t state it, adds a dot of color to the white mist flight.
**The Mellotron was an early, primitive attempt to do what modern “virtual instruments” do. Typically, if a virtual instrument wants to present a “real” violin it will sample a violin playing various notes, and the notes as well with a variety of articulations which are stored and organized as digital audio files to be played later. The 1960’s Mellotron had a simple tape strip of a violin playing a note in one legato articulation assigned to each key of an organ-style keyboard. The former can sound strikingly realistic if care is taken to make use of the various articulations (vibrato, marcato, pizzicato, etc.) while the later sounds artificial despite the tape strips being conceptionally the same. Of course, “artificial” is a state of mind, and the close-but-not-quite sound of a Mellotron instrument always reads as “England” to my ear due to it use on many 1960s and ‘70s recordings by English groups.