Besides being the first day of National Poetry Month, it’s April Fools day, so maybe it’s a good day to present a poem that caused many readers to wonder if it’s a joke: William Carlos Williams “The Red Wheelbarrow.”
I’m not against a poem causing wonderment, are you? It’s fine to look at it and respond “You can’t be serious — is that really a poem?” but I urge you to follow that question with other ones, such as “What use is it?” “Is this just an artsy provocation?” or “What should poetry be then?”
I think Williams’ poem is a late but effective representation of the movement that launched Modernist poetry in English: Imagism. Fairly quickly, a great deal of English language Modernism soon moved on to more complex poetry, a poetry that was often hard to grasp due to intense but hermetic personal material or elaborate references to other works of art, but “The Red Wheelbarrow” is none of that. Instead it expresses, like a sub-two-minute punk song from the mid-1970s, a rejection and clarification of overly elaborate poetry.
and this place has chickens. Also a short 12 tone-row composition.
I think Williams genuinely thinks the rain-water makes the wheelbarrow beautiful, and he doesn’t even think he needs to say that word “beauty” or make some elaborate metaphor to seal the deal. To say that, and just that,* is a provocation against poetry that asks more, and to readers that expect the poet to give them more. But it’s not just the momentary rain-water glaze that makes it poetic: it’s useful, something to depend on. Now that’s a goal for poetry (or any art) to meet at least some of the time, don’t you think? Self-impressive poetry, trickster poetry, poetry that gathers and unites widespread allusions — all have their place as well, but sometimes it’s good to see what there is seen naked in the rain. When the cave dwellers put their hand or the hand of their child up against the wall of the cave and blew red ochre dust around it, that’s art — not of the artists showing us skills, but the art of our shared and transient experiences made fixed.
Musically here I decided to use another contemporary early Modernist tactic: the tone-row. If one knocks “The Red Wheelbarrow” for not having poetry’s elaborate or fanciful imagery, or some tight connection with the artist’s personal biography, perhaps this performance will show something traditional it retains: a lovely, largely iambic, word music. Yes, it’s music in miniature, but still that poetic element was there for me to express.
Let’s pickup the countdown of the pieces that drew the most listens and likes over this past winter. Each bold-faced listing is a link to the original post on the piece in case you’d like to read what I wrote back then, and those original posts will also contain links to the full text of the poems used.
7 Thursday by William Carlos Williams. Quite often when reading through early 20th century Modernist poetry, I repeat my surprise of how plainspoken and outwardly simple some of it seems. This poem by Williams is one of those. There’s not a single word in it that would be unfamiliar to a grade-schooler. One need know no complex allusions to anything other than ordinary life. Not all his contemporaries wrote like this. Wallace Stevens will pleasingly stump us with his love of obscure words, T. S. Eliot will ask us to consider how history rhymes its myths, and William Butler Yeats will make English sing with beautiful and metrical word-music. Against that sort of thing, this poem by Williams may seem ordinary. As ordinary as a Thursday.
There’s only one bit of word-trickery in it — and having no other in this short poem should invite us to ponder it: that unusual use of the common word “carelessly” in the context of “I remain now carelessly/with feet planted on the ground….” Carelessly? Huh? How many quick readers would slide over that and not notice anything out of place! In the opening of his poem Williams has told us his dream has come to nothing. Is this dream one of our ordinary nighttime hallucinations or a strong and potentially life-changing imagination for the course of things? He doesn’t say and may perhaps mean either. His stance on this? Back to observing the world standing simply and unmoved with both feet on the ground, “carelessly” in the sense of “without a care” regarding that; with the sense also that the overlords of guilt and ambition or the lure of more surreal and spectacular verse are saying he should care and he’s going to ignore them.
In place of that care, of that “tyranny of the shoulds,”* Williams offers us ordinary life, ordinary words, the meditation of breath. That resilience and carelessness, those two steady feet able to stand up to the sky, is this song. You can hear it with a player gadget that may appear below, or with this highlighted hyperlink that will also play it.
6 I wake and feel the fell of dark by Gerard Manley Hopkins. What a combination this makes with Williams’ poem that it happens to sit next to in our countdown! Hopkins’ poem has its speaker also awakening from a non-productive dream “Hours I mean years, mean life” — this dream is clearly both a nightly and a life’s dream. And he’s in the opposite of careless: roiled with distress and self-disgusted guilt over it.
What a combination this makes with Williams’ poem…
The language here is extra-ordinarily charged. Some of us have had such a self-castigating night, but few of us could express it in such a tight compressed form as a sonnet that moves musically and emotionally. Hopkins’ feet are not firmly on the ground at all — he’s rolling and tumbling as the great American floating Blues verse has it — and that’s the nature of Hopkins’ song.
This is the distress half of the engine of the Tao. We may more easily recognize it quickly as great poetry, and should, though without some balancing aspect it cannot long whirl.
My performance of this greatest of his “Terrible Sonnets” can be heard with this hyperlink, or in cases where it appears, the player gadget that may be below.
Collar styles of poetry, a retrospective. William Carlos Williams, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and William Shakespeare
Well, the jury’s still out on that one. It is always so with art, as art happens in the present when we look, read, listen, hear. That’s a large part of what this blog is about: encountering stuff written in various ways and times and seeing what we can make of it in the immediacy of a musical performance.
“Sonnet 97: How like a Winter hath my absence been” is neither the calm meditation after a dream’s failure nor the roiling disgust our first pair of poems had. Instead, this sonnet is all about the ambiguity. What kind of ambiguity? Shakespeare will pick several. One of the basest tests of mental state is “oriented to time and place.” This poem certainly isn’t — that’s its most pressing point. Is it winter, summer, fall, or spring? Can’t say for sure. The purportedly male authorial voice dons rhetorical drag and speaks of his sonnets as if they are birthed from a poetic womb as if the addressed “fair youth” is the only begetter in a very patriarchal metaphor for these sonnets. And what’s the true nature of the relationship between that authorial voice and the fair youth being addressed? Complicated. Author as vassal of the ruling class?** Lover? High-minded patronage? Some of all? Well, that’s Shakespeare’s song for us. This hyperlink will play my performance of it, or if you see it, you can use a player gadget that may appear below.
*The phrase is psychotherapist and author Karen Horney’s, whose mid-20th century work may still have something useful to say about us today.
**It was while dealing with this sonnet that this aspect of the “Fair Youth Sonnets” first occurred to me. I assume it’s occurred to others, but not being a Shakespeare scholar I can’t say who or where.
How many poems celebrate the poet’s dream, or dreams? This one doesn’t.
It’s fair to say that American poet William Carlos Williams had a curmudgeonly streak. In this poem from his 1921 collection Sour Grapes he holds the line for the style that early Modernists had championed to break free from the poetic fancies that preceded them. By the 1920s the Modernists were moving on to new things, and it’s safe to say that many of them had developed new fancies. Indeed, in three-years-time the first Surrealist Manifesto would be published. The Surrealists went further than our usual sentiments about the value of an individual’s personal dream presented in the context of following one’s dream with the idea that it would integrate into our plans for work or a place in society. The Surrealists didn’t want to domesticate one’s dreams to society, they wanted to bring the full wildness of dreams to the fore and let society make whatever of it.
But, here’s Williams’ poem “Thursday,” which you can find by following this link. First off, I see that he uses very plain language here, and there’s little trickery or poetic obscurity in his manner of speech either. There are no references to ancient myths, no quotes from Latin or Greek, or even Elizabethan English. He starts by noting the ubiquity of dreams, and at least for the purposes of this poem, he doubts their worth. I like the choice of words he uses here for why he’s going to skip the value of his dreams aspirational or Surrealist: “carelessly.” In other words: I don’t care about that all, at least in this poem’s now. Instead, he spends the body of the poem inhabiting the body of the poet — as we the reader may too if we come along with Williams.
WCW at the wheel. “Yeah, but I’m driving and we’ll have some good ol’Imagism and none of that pretentious stuff.”
This is part of what I found intriguing when, as part of this project, I revisited the original English-language Modernists early work. I loved Surrealism as a young poet. I liked Dada referencing nothing and T. S. Eliot referencing whole libraries. But before those evolutions existed, what Modernism first used in English to break free and “make it new” was very concrete and radically simple: the presentation of the experience of brief charged moments that could include the revolutionary act of taking notice of the mundane and unexalted.
Like just a “Thursday” in Williams’ life, in your life, in mine.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Williams’ “Thursday” should be below, but if your blog reading software doesn’t show it, this highlighted hyperlink will do the job too. More work with piano this time and a return of an orchestra section. I keep hoping to return to more fierce electric guitar soon here. We’ll see.
Recently I mentioned I might return to the Modernists of 100 years ago who inspired a lot of the material I’ve used here over the years. And indeed, I read two early William Carlos Williams collections early this new year looking for material as I prepared to do that.
And then, as a novel from 1925 warned: “Somewhere back in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night….” and we’re borne ceaselessly into Make the Confederacy Great Again. Doomscrolling overcame me, and my concentration scattered without need for pepper spray. Unlike some others this week, I don’t want to play-act armed revolution — and despite the abundant wrongs and injustices of my government, I’m not even enthusiastic about the real thing. If I can’t bear up under the tedium of actual politics and its incremental proposed solutions, why then must it follow I would want the excitement of the barricades?
I had to sidestep new pieces for a while. Yesterday I was granted a few hours in which I might work on them, and so I felt compelled to return to what I had thought of using for the new year, and this poem from American Modernist poet William Carlos Williams was on the top of the stack. It’s called “January,” and it was published 100 years ago this year.
As to doomscrolling vs. poetry, Williams said: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
By some caprice of the muses, this century-old “January” seems to address my situation in this one. Williams speaks of the distractions outside himself as he continues to write, and to winter’s “derisive music” he replies he’s still “bound to my sentences.” I can’t be sure what specifically inspired this poem. Williams could simply be sick of winter, that season that litters itself all over the landscape and then freezes itself in place. Or it could be speaking of his place in the Modernist movement, which was gaining traction culturally while (in Williams’ judgement) it wasn’t recognizing his part in it sufficiently.*
For our own arts, that’s an indispensable act for us: to stay committed to our work. Beside the world’s events that tell me that what art does is not quick acting enough to serve as a vaccine for our society, beside doubts that I should be better at what I do before presenting it, beside my own particular guilts that I should spend less time doing these things and more at promoting it, there’s no work to fail or be ignored unless one does one’s work.
I had to work quickly on the music, relying on some things that have become stylistic standbys for me in this Project: bowed strings (contra-bass this time), electric piano, electric guitar, and drums. In his poem, Williams develops the idea that the distracting winter wind is playing music to interrupt his own word-music. He describes this music as featuring the chromatic scale interval of the fifth. Reading the silent poem, you might think he’s talking about a dissonant interval since he also says twice the winds’ music is “derisive.” But the fifth is instead a sweet interval, even if one plays minors or major scales against it or piles on fuzzy overtone-rich distortion. From a musical perspective, I’m thinking Williams is saying that even the winter winds are not as cutting, honest, and to-the-bone as he wants to write. They’re derisive because they are merely sweet.
*The collection this poem appeared in was titled Sour Grapes. Williams thought — and some later critics began to agree with him — that American cultural critics were more enamored of WASP writers and overly eager to establish their own Ivy League version of the Oxford-Cambridge hierarchy for poets and poetry. Williams’ father was raised in the Dominican Republic and his mother was from Puerto Rico. Now of course, both Williams and some guy named Trump both went to the University of Pennsylvania, which is officially in the Ivy League. While Williams did post-graduate travel and work in Europe too, unlike some other American Modernists he was committed to making his poetry speak in, and to, an American way.
Did you find yourself agreeing more with H.D. or William Carlos Williams in Thursday’s audio piece taken from Williams’ Kora in Hell? If I was to survey listeners, I’d be surprised if Williams wouldn’t win far more applause. Being that it’s his book, and he controls what H.D. presents before he responds, it wasn’t really a neutral-site debate.
That sort of exchange could remind you of our modern political ads, where candidate A is quoted or shown in some excerpt that appears outlandish, and then candidate B is cut to saying that they think that’s just as outlandish as you think it is, and I’d never take that position, so vote for me. Except, it’s in reverse. It’s Williams, candidate B, who’s taking the more extreme position. Still I think Williams will largely win the audience.
It’s also easy to see this as a male/female dynamic. H.D. makes a suggestion, plausibly insightful, asking only for self-reflection on W.C.W’s part. Williams responds to her, in much more forceful rhetoric, defending his freedom, saying in effect when you say “sacred” I hear “heretic.” I think a great many observers of gender roles would see this as a stereotypical exchange. I agree*, but I could imagine this same exchange with the genders switched—less common, but possible. And it certainly occurs in a same gender situation too.
Something else that came to mind as I read this was a division that was made in an influential essay at mid-century, something that was still current when I was in school. This month I re-read that essay after Kora in Hell and the telling exchange I took from its prologue. It’s by critic Philip Rahv, published in 1939, and its title “Paleface and Redskin”** sets out the framework of its thesis, something that professors still thought relevant when I was being taught. The title is a distinctive dichotomy Rahv had observed in American literature. This paragraph from Rahv’s essay summarized the two types:
…the redskin glories in his Americanism, to the paleface it is a source of endless ambiguities. Sociologically they can be distinguished as patrician vs. plebeian, and in their aesthetic ideals one is drawn to allegory and to the distillations of symbolism, whereas the other inclines to a gross, riotous naturalism. The paleface is a ‘highbrow,’ though his mentality…is often of the kind that excludes and repels general ideas; he is at the same time both something more and something less than an intellectual in the European sense. And the redskin deserves the epithet ‘lowbrow’ not because he is badly educated—which he might or might not be—but because his reactions are primarily emotional, spontaneous, and lacking in personal culture. The paleface continually hankers after religious norms and tends toward a refined estrangement from reality. The redskin, on the other hand, accepts his environment, at times to the degree of fusion with it, even when rebelling against one or another of its manifestations. At his highest level the paleface moves in an exquisite moral atmosphere; at his lowest he is genteel, snobbish, and pedantic. In giving expression to the vitality and to the aspirations of the people, the redskin is at his best; but at his worst he is a vulgar anti-intellectual, combining aggression with conformity and reverting to the crudest forms of frontier psychology.”
Rahv ostensibly doesn’t favor either side. His observation, made by a man who could claim to be an immigrant, outside observer, was that American Lit was binary and divided with authors on one side or the other and no synthesis, and that this was a bad thing. ***
Pale faces and redskins, or 3 artists and some spuds.
It’s easy to see that divide in the H.D. and William Carlos Williams exchange. H.D. in the moment captured in her letter to W.C.W. is paleface, and Williams is redskin. Rahv expends most of his examples on novelists, and Modernist novelists like Hemmingway and Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson he feels all fail to a significant degree due to redman tendencies. But Modernist poets weren’t really in either camp as Rahv defines them. Ezra Pound could be claimed as either, and even in the two early pre-Modernist poems I’ve just presented here he tries on each personae: in “Grace Before Song” a pious poet in service of art who will be personally forgotten and in “In Thus in Nineveh” as an unheralded poet who will be remembered because the people value the lively if imperfect vitality of his verse.
Feel free to consider Rahv’s classification system as silly, outdated, or even distasteful. I myself consider it an amusing parlor game kind of thing, more subjective than Rahv thinks it is, and as subject to superficial oversimplifications as taking a “Which Disney Princess are you” quiz. ****
I wasn’t going to include any audio with today’s post, but after spending a day avoiding completing this post so that I could play with orchestra scoring, I figured I could read a couple more sentences also from Rahv’s 1939 essay backed by a short example of what I was coming up with. The player’s below.
*Even though Williams and English language Modernism in general coincided with the rise of women’s independence and citizenship, and even if women were participants in this cultural revolution, that doesn’t mean that Modernist men were invariably feminist—far from it. There are things to admire about W.C.W. for sure, but even in my limited reading of his work I keep getting this weird vibe from him where women are concerned.
**Yup, Rahv went there with the casual use of the racial slur. As literary culture goes in this era, totally non-remarkable and non-controversial. The first college I attended, where I heard of Rahv’s essay, had named its sports teams The Redmen, a just more polite term. I had a tiny part in asking this name be changed. In Rahv’s defense I’ll say that he was a Jewish heritage immigrant from the Pale of Settlement. If life experience is knowledge, he likely “understood” ethnic slurs as deeply as any of us.
The kind of dichotomy Rahv lays out has analogues in modern discussions on just how street a rapper is, or debates on if performance poetry can be “real poetry.”
***From the luxurious wisdom of history, I found it fun reading the essay to see who of his contemporaries he thought was fatally damaged by this inability to join the strengths of both groups. He seems to give obvious paleface T. S. Eliot a passing grade, though noting that he had to leave America. Rahv says “Faulkner’s horror stories have long ago ceased to have any recognizable value.” History disputes Rahv there. Hemmingway is just a retread Natty Bumppo he says, an arguable case still today (even though I’ll take the other side on that one). Emily Dickinson gets an atta girl notice as a more or less successful paleface. No, additional reflection since 1939 has discovered that Dickinson is a redskin with paleface trappings.
William Carlos Williams Kora in Hell is an unusual book. Its subtitle: Improvisations promised me more than it delivered. Improvised or semi-improvised poetry, that true Jazz poetry where the author composes on the spot from themes or from spontaneous inspiration is something I admired and—to a degree—practiced in my youth. The improvisations of Williams’ book are usually classed as prose poems, but I don’t find much music in them nor a sense of surprise or discovery. They do reflect the influence of Dada and Cubism, and if I could hold my attention on them longer, they might still bring some pleasure and illumination to me—but so far I haven’t been able to do that. But nearly half the book as published is prologue and that was more rewarding to read.
One can get a real sense in the prologue to Kora in Hell of where Williams found himself a century ago when it was written. There’s a lot of self-assertion, a lot of names dropped, a lot of debates on poetry and art where Williams as the author of the piece gets to be not just a debate participant, but the moderator, editor, and director of the debate. Poets Ezra Pound, Mina Loy, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, H. D. and Alfred Kreymborg make their appearance. In visual arts Duchamp, Man Ray, and Charles Demuth are referenced. Earlier this year I also noted that a forgotten Modernist poet and editor Orrick Johns has one of his poems quoted in the prologue without attribution.*
The point Williams seems to be making over and over again in the prologue is that he is just as important, connected, valid and artistically insightful as any of these. One can easily view this assertion in a multi-valent way. Williams could easily have felt isolated and left out, now resident in New Jersey and earning his living with a bourgeois job** as a physician. And however genteelly it’s couched, most artists must engage in self-promotion—it’s unlikely that any ego-less man or woman ever set out to write a poem or paint a picture. And the point he’s making, that he, Williams, has something worth considering has since been validated by the canon-setters.
In the case of two poets, Pound and H.D., Williams has a personal history, having known them in his college years. And it’s an exchange of letters with H.D. excerpted by Williams in the prologue to Kora in Hell that I used for today’s audio piece. In her letter H.D. is offering gentle advice regarding something Williams has written. She’s noticed some stuff that seems derivative and that she feels doesn’t represent Williams’ individual inspiration. She sets that observation in the context of a writer’s calling and the sacredness (in her view) of the artistic enterprise.
Two initial American Modernist poets: H.D. and W.C.W.
Williams, the home team here, gets to respond in the bottom of the inning and he shrugs briefly before thundering. He doesn’t really address the substance of H. D.’s feedback so much as he jumps on the “sacred” sentiment it’s couched in. Sacred in Williams’ mind is associated with singular artistic criteria, the kind of thing that Eliot and the New Critics of High Modernism are starting to create in a revised standard version—and he’s again’ it. When Williams says “There is nothing sacred about literature, it is damned from one end to the other” it sounds as a ringing iconoclastic statement, but what does he mean? Is he saying “There’s so much crap around that folks think is great art, so who should care what little mistakes us Modernist innovators make.” Or is it something else? Is he perhaps saying something akin to a maxim I repeat here often, that “All artists fail.” Is Williams claiming that to attempt some impossible sacredness, forgetting that the artist will fail, will harm the work from that intention?
There is nothing sacred about literature, it is damned from one end to the other.
He then closes, in a sentence as musical as anything in the prose poems that follow, with a Dada litany. A half a century later, another Dada-influenced artist who influenced me, Frank Zappa, would phrase the same principles when he said his artistic rule was AAAFNRA, “Anything, anytime, anywhere for no reason at all.”
I’ll have more to say on this in a follow-up post, but this is long enough for one sitting and it’ll give me a little space to talk about the music in today’s piece. I got to use two new components in composing this. The opening section features a fine pipe organ virtual instrument from Garritan. In a vary real sense, the pipe organ was the first, wholly mechanical, embodiment of the synthesizer, and I personally can’t play or compose for it without thinking of Michael Barone and his long-running radio show “Pipe Dreams” featuring that instrument. The orchestra sounds are from Sonuscore’s The Orchestra which is a novel approach to orchestral virtual instruments. My initial encounter with using The Orchestra mirrors most other reviewers: it makes adding orchestra colors simpler than most while giving indications that it can be used deeply if one gets under the hood of the default ensembles.
This may be a good time to explain how I use virtual instruments here, and particularly orchestral instruments. I’m thinking that many of our casual listeners when they hear Dave or myself chanting or singing away with everything from a string trio to larger ensembles that I’m just dropping in some loops or samples from a recording. There’s a good deal of that done on the Internet with poetry and I won’t knock it.*** After all, I subscribe to the maxim of Duke Ellington’s that Peter Schickele sustained “If it sounds good, it is good.” However, because I consider myself, despite my limitations, a quasi-musician and an intentional composer, I choose not to do that. Those string and orchestra parts are played, on little plastic keyboards or with a guitar MIDI interface. Sophisticated musicians probably already know that because even while using orchestral instruments my harmonic framework is either based on rock’n’roll/blues and their common “three-chord trick” or on older drone/modal folk music traditions.
So the opening H.D. section of today’s piece is a three-chord trick, something that any garage band or punk musician would understand. And the William Carlos Williams part that follows is simpler yet harmonically, based on just C to D major chords, though the color notes of the electric guitar solo extend that slightly. When someone asks what kind of music I write I’m at a loss for useful words. I’ve said extended folk music and I’ve said punk orchestral.
To hear me present the epistolary dialog between H. D. and W.C.W, use the player below.
**I have no idea of Williams’ intent in that “day job” choice—or even how good or bad he was as a physician—but given the latency and indirectness of writers and artists impact on their fellow human beings, such work may be a useful adjunct to the writing life. I myself spent nearly 20 years of my working life in the lower levels of nursing. As I told my wife recently in a moment of clarity, I figured that if I couldn’t help myself at least I could be some help to others. Young artists: consider this.
***I must also mention modern hip-hop production which has developed a class of composers who are very adept in using samples, bits of recordings, and timbral eclecticism in a way that if someone had described it in the mid-20th century it would have seemed the very essence of an elite and esoteric avant garde, and thanks to a blessed (as in The Beatitudes) audience, and a good dose of the ever-popular folk music elements: intoxicants, sex and violence, they’ve made widely-heard popular music with it. This strikes me, along with Bob Dylan completing the Modernist revolution in poetry, as the most significant and surprising artistic events of my cultural lifetime.
Continuing on with our countdown of the most liked and listened to audio pieces during this past summer here at the Parlando Project, today we’ll look at the pieces that came in 7 through 5 as we move up the list to the most popular piece.
7. The Hunter. Maybe, with Internet audiences, it’s the cats? I’ve playfully included pictures of William Carlos Williams with said cats in a few posts, and Williams, who sometimes thought he was overlooked as an American Modernist while he was alive, seems to be holding an audience, even though his poetry doesn’t present itself with open, easily accessible sentiments. His even more difficult “St. Francis Einstein of the Daffodils” almost gave Williams two appearances here this summer, falling just a couple of places back from the top ten. Or maybe it’s the informal American language that he uses? Other American Modernist contemporaries of Williams: T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or Wallace Stevens often liked to drop leaves from a Word of the Day calendar into their poems, while the New Jersey doctor generally didn’t. Maybe there’s something here with Williams like the cats: familiar and domestic, intriguing, but not seeking to please? After all he once said: “I didn’t ask you to understand anything, only to listen.”
6. The Apotheosis of Harlan Ellison. I’ve warned readers already that this summer’s top ten has too many pieces where I wrote the words, and that’s not representative of what this project is about—and so, here we have the second of three pieces in this summer’s top ten where I wrote the words I perform. Well, at least this one is about someone else, the long-time critic, writer and SciFi anthologist Harlan Ellison.
5. Beloved. My words again, although as I tried to explain in the original post here including it, I was inspired by a statement Bobby McFerrin once made about music, how it touches you inside on that sensitive flap of skin named the eardrum. Given that news this past week has included stories about unwelcome touches, that metaphor goes both ways.
Excuse me, while I kiss this baby. If cats and William Carlos Williams brings in readers, how about W.C.W. and babies?
Back soon with numbers 4 through 2 in our look back at Summer 2018’s most liked and listened to combinations of words and music.
It’s now 1916—well not really—but allow me immediate mode for the time being. Some early 20th Century Modernist characters we’ve already met are about to collaborate in New York City with a largely forgotten figure whose words we’ll meet today.
The Provincetown Playhouse, that CBGB’s of Modernist American theater, has moved its organization from the remote Cape Cod artist’s colony to New York’s Greenwich village, and they’re still looking for new types of plays by new playwrights. How about drama using Modernist poetry?
Verse drama, despite continuing productions of Shakespeare, is a thing that often generates rumors of revival while never really reviving. In 1916, the Provincetown group was open to trying this. Which poets can come up with something?
Alfred Kreymborg could. Kreymborg was a leading networker or influencer in the New York area for Modernist poetry. Ezra Pound, and then Amy Lowell, would publish anthology books of Imagist Poets. Harriet Monroe out of Chicago was also gathering new Modernist work for Poetry magazine. In 1916 Kreymborg would do the same in New York, with a magazine and anthology book series called “Others.” Kreymborg had also been writing poetry, short poems mostly, all of them free verse. Now a play.
The “Others” group: L to R in back: Jean Crotti, Marcel Duchamp, Walter Arensberg, Man Ray, R. A. Sanborn, Maxwell Bodenheim. In front: Alison Hartpence, Alfred Kreymborg (bowtie daddie), William Carlos Williams (w/ Internet click-bait cat) and Skip Cannell
The play he wrote is an odd thing to describe. Titled “Lima Beans,” it’s a two-character play about a couple. The husband loves lima beans, the wife decides he might also like string beans and surprises him with the new beans—but no, he loves lima beans. He stalks off, angry. She scrambles and gets some lima beans. He realizes he loves his wife, returns and she’s got lima beans for him. Kiss. Curtain.
I guess this could be a Seinfeld episode plot decades later, but that’s not how Kreymborg uses it. He writes his play with litanies of repeated words, hocketing between the two voices. After reading the play this month, I’m guessing a performance might sound like a cross between Dr. Suess’ Green Eggs and Ham and a late 20th Century Minimalist musical work by someone like Phillip Glass or Meredith Monk. Or as Preston Sturges’ Sullivan would have it, Waiting for Godot plus vegetables—but with a little sex in it. That musical comparison is particularly apt, because even though the play did not use musical accompaniment, Kreymborg saw it as a musical structure.
So here in 1916 we have the Provincetown group, putting on a play that pioneered a performance aesthetic that still seems audacious 50 or 60 years later. Who are you going to get as actors to realize this—words and a presentation of thought conveyed musically, without actual music?
Poets. In the role of the husband, William Carlos Williams. In the role of the wife, Mina Loy, who had just arrived in New York after getting away from those Italian Futurists. Neither poet had acted before, but Kreymborg rehearsed the two poets until they could present his free-verse vision.
Mina Loy and William Carlos Williams in Lima Beans. The set for the proudly independent Provincetown Playhouse production cost $2.50, and its set designer, William Zorach, also played the 3rd character whose hands are hanging, Soupy Sales-like, out the window.
I toyed with the idea of trying to realize Lima Beans here, although with music this time. But it really needs two voices, and I wasn’t sure that a short section could do justice to the structure of the piece.
In it’s place, I looked for a short poem of Kreymborg’s to use instead. This proved more difficult than I thought it would be. I read his two poetry collections from this era, but no poem grabbed my attention. As in the play, he’s looking for a new poetic language in these poems, but it’s hard to grab the emotional center of many of them for performance.
In the end I chose today’s piece: “To W.C.W. M.D.” It’s dedicated to William Carlos Williams. This might be more of Kreymborg’s log-rolling networking skills on display, but its subject also answered a desire I have to do a piece remembering my late wife Renee Robbins in some way today. As best as I can penetrate the emotional core of this poem, it speaks of the need to separate and not separate from those that have died.
Musically, the piece is based on one stacked chord, E minor7/11, but the notes are spread out between the instruments. Besides drums there are two bass guitars, piano, two viola parts, a violin part, and a clarinet in this. To hear it, use the player below.
Metaphor, that stuff that helps make the music of thought in poetry, is the linking or liking of things. This is like that. This stands for that. The sensation of this is like the sensation of that. This reminds us of something else. The way I say this recalls the way one says that. Metaphor recombines the stuff of our world even though it’s a combination that only exists in the imagination.
Metaphor can make something clearer to an audience. It’s so useful in that way that one can barely explain anything challenging to an audience, even in the most prosaic day-to-day business world, without falling into metaphor. In poetry however, the bounds of increased clarity can be stretched, broken, and abandoned. Depending on one’s mood as a reader, this can be frustrating or a pleasing play of the mind. With the Parlando Project we perform the poems with music. One hope from this is that you can relax and let the beauty or strangeness of the words carry you over gaps in meaning. Sometimes you can enjoy a poem before you understand it.
William Carlos Williams who wrote the words in today’s piece, gives us Spring weather with Spring flowers and fruit blossoms, gardens and orchards, and all under a title that combines a famous saint with his era’s most famous scientist. He gives us almost no help in combining that title with the poem, other than yoking them together. The linkage of metaphor is much strained here, even when he further explains his title by adding a sub-title: “On the first visit of Professor Einstein to the United States in the spring of 1921.”
How are we to make the connection that will construct the metaphor?
Just another hipster with his typewriter. William Carlos Williams throws off his covers.
My best understanding so far is that the connection is wonder and change. Recall our last post, where in his “Queen Mab” Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Romantic early-19th Century poet, gave us a vision of the wonder of an immense cosmos, which Shelley’s own notes tell us he could also sense through the poetic/mathematical meter of the speed of light. The theoretical scientist and the visionary poet each seek to grasp some new metaphor of the world. Einstein was changing physics in the time that Williams and his fellow Modernists were seeking to change the apparatus of art. Williams elaborates on this theme mostly by vivid descriptions of the change of Spring. In the only mention of Einstein in the body of the poem, Einstein is “tall as a violet.” He is the Spring’s new growth.
There are a couple of obscure literary references in one section, the sort of thing T. S. Eliot or his imitators would have used. Who is “Samos, dead and buried?” I’m not sure, but my guess is that it’s Pythagoras of Samos, the famous classical Greek philosopher for whom science and the arts were one. And Lesbia? Catullus’ Roman poetic beloved, who we’ve met here in Elizabethan guise. It may be enough that they have ancient sounding names, and of such ancient classical modes, Williams, who is in some ways the Anti-T. S. Eliot, says “Sing of it no longer.” He moves right back into a present day of Spring. Pythagoras is dead, Catullus’ Lesbia is dead, and so is a black cat buried in a newly planted garden. Awhile later in the poem we may get one more connection to that cat part of this buried trio. A chicken-raising man who puts out poisoned fish-heads to keep the cats from his chickens. That man becomes like the Modernists, needing to kill the ancients to protect the new flock he’s raising.
The poem closes with a sensuous image of Spring change, a night that grows warm as an orchard owner opens his windows and throws off the covers that were needed in the cold. In an earlier version of the poem, Williams had woven Einstein by name in and out of those Spring images explicitly, including this last one where Einstein was named as that man with the blossoming orchard, another grower of renewed things. In this later version, all these stated links to Einstein are removed (save for that one Einstein as a violet).
Not a violet, but the “Professor Einstein Narcissus.” Has “great curb appeal” and “deer won’t eat” says this garden center.
Was that a right choice? The resulting poem is shorter and more mysterious, but it also doesn’t make it easy to see what Williams is getting at. He’s using metaphor, but he’s removed all the connections. I decided to perform the later version. I think it performs slightly better, and perhaps the music makes the obscurities less taunting.
A simple musical arrangement this time, just acoustic guitar and subdued electric bass. To hear my performance of William Carlos Williams’ “St. Francis Einstein of the Daffodils,” use the player below.
A couple of mornings ago, I awoke after a night’s sleep, and as I took my bicycle out to the alley to ride off for breakfast, I was surprised to see the road dusted in torn blossoms and several small tree branches cast about on the wet ground.
While I had been still and sleeping, a storm must have come up.
That contrast, the stillness and the broken change is at the heart of today’s poem by William Carlos Williams, “The Hunter.” Williams opens his poem with an allusive image. “In the flashes and black shadows of July.” Is this the lightning of a summer storm? I thought so at first. But it might be just what one sees lying on summer grass and looking up through the boughs of a tree. The whims of a breeze or the caprices of squirrels and birds on the thin branches will flutter the leaves’ fan of shade revealing the sun in a flash.
Yet, summer “seems still.” The animals of summer appear “at ease.” But what if there is danger in the world, as in the unmet character in the poem’s title, the hunter?
In a last-ditch attempt to increase readership of his poetry, William Carlos Williams decided to try that Internet staple: cute kittens.
In Williams’ poem, the hunter does not appear, ready to shoot the game. The hunter is invisible, as the hunter is time, the hunter is change.
For today’s music I combined an orchestral ensemble and electric guitar with an appearance of a harpsichord. The player gadget to hear my performance of “The Hunter” is at the bottom of this post.
I’ve noted that there has been a steady listenership for the other William Carlos Williams poems posted in the archives lately, and that helped inspire me to look for more of his work to present. As we move into summer, I remind visitors that there are over 220 pieces available here. Use the search box or just wander through the monthly links on the right.