Arrival

Today’s words are from William Carlos Williams. Unlike our last post, I wouldn’t call this a love poem. Oh, I believe there’s an assignation between two people in the opening section of this poem, but affection seems missing and the desire, if present, seems to be questioned—no, that’s not quite right—the questioning of desire is silent, present in its absence.

William Carlos Williams 1

Poet and physician William Carlos Williams casts a cold, clinical eye on desire

 

This is another poem I came across at the Interesting Literature blog, where it was included in a round-up of seduction poems. We’ve visited a few of that type of poem here as well, with shepherds, nymphs, a merchant’s wife, and Williams’ fellow physician-poet Thomas Campion making invitations—but this isn’t really a proposition, any more than it’s a love poem.

Williams’ poem is not titled something like “Come Live with Me and Be My Love”,  it’s titled “Arrival.”  So yes, an assignation, but one with a schedule like a train or airplane flight, or as we’ll soon see, like a season. Is there desire in the unhooking of the dress? In modernist, Imagist style, that emotion is not stated, but the passive voice and sparsest of descriptions argues that it’s there and is not there.

After the poem finds itself, as many of us have or will find ourselves one day, in a “strange bedroom,” a sea change occurs. The woman in the dress has disappeared. In her place: an autumn tree, disrobing its leaves because the season is felt arriving. Again, desire is not mentioned—it wouldn’t be mentioned, this is an Imagist “show not tell” poem—but this image is also passive and rote.

I’ll let you feel and figure out the image of the final few lines yourself. The now naked woman as bare winter tree? Or is her presumably male companion’s body being synecdoched?

Merlin Dulcimer

“A dulcimer in a vision once I saw” The Seagull Merlin dulcimer I played on this.

 

What of the music today? The instrument that sounds something like a mandolin is an Appalachian dulcimer, a simple American instrument; but one, like the sitar used in the last post’s audio piece, that has drone strings. The music is modal too, based around D Dorian. On the percussion side I remain attracted lately to little instruments, so there are shakers, maracas, a cabasa, congas, a chime tree, even some finger snaps in this. I could say that this is a connection to William Carlos Williams’ Puerto Rican heritage, but really, it’s something that is pleasing me musically this month.

Here’s the piece, use the player gadget below to hear it.

 

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Want the audio pieces to listen to later? You can subscribe to the Parlando Project podcast on Itunes, Google Play Music, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

 

Oread

How did you spend your extra hour given to us by the Daylight Savings Time changeover? Some spent it snuggled with a loved one, or others for splendid dreams given time for extra chapters. I spent my night and hour wrestling with another poet’s poem and creating and performing music for it.

A few posts back we presented William Carlos Williams “The Red Wheelbarrow,” a widely anthologized and very short Imagist poem. My current feeling, shared in that post, was that Williams really was talking about a red wheelbarrow, a simple tool used for important tasks. Of course, he was also aware that the rain-glazed red paint of the wheelbarrow and the white chickens around it was a bold visual image, consistent with the modernist art he appreciated, and that he didn’t mind the provocation of calling attention to this without elaborate justification, any more than a classical painter or poet would think they would have been required to tell us why we should give a fig about Artemis.

Here’s another short Imagist poem, this time by Hilda Doolittle, who wrote as H. D.   H. D. knew William Carlos Williams from when Williams was a college student, but then H. D. knew or crossed paths with many of the principals of Modernism over her lifetime. Modernist poetry admitted more women creators than painting or music, or most other arts at the start of the 20th Century, but that’s a low bar to clear. H. D. cleared it however, and she continued to run her own race on her own course from the start of her career.

HD in Egypt

Another episode from HD’s remarkable life: she was present when King Tut’s tomb was opened in 1923

 

H. D.’s 26 word poem is much different from Williams’ 16 word one. It’s much stranger, and the internal state the external images present is more complex than even many longer poems reflect.

In some ways, the title “Oread”,  the effective 27th word, helps us. For those not up on Greek mythology, we can look it up, it’s a mountain nymph or spirit. Like many Greek nature spirits, an Oread is female.

So, from the title of the poem, we can say that it’s an Oread that’s speaking—but even if we grant that, this ain’t Tinkerbell. The supposed nymph is commanding nature, as a full-fledge god or goddess or a magician would. And the Oread is not asking it for protection, or forbearance, or even for it to put the hex on someone else, it’s asking it to do it’s best to overcome her. “Whirl” “pointed” “splash”, and “hurl” are some of those 26 words.

Another huge difference between Williams “Wheelbarrow”  and H. D.’s “Oread:”  the former is intensely visual, the later, just as intensely, tactile.

And who’s the Oread talking too? Three words in, it seems to make that clear: “sea.” Except the sea is described largely as a forest—a forest that can splash and form pools, but a forest at least as much as a sea. The sharpest readings of this is that the Oread is speaking of the sea with the images of the forested mountain (waves are like trees, water drops are like the needles of pines), but by saying it so, she is saying that the overcoming she commands is a merging of two like things.

I’m left with a conclusion that this is a spell of desire. Whether it is sensual, spiritual, or artistic desire makes no difference in the frenzied merger that is being called into being.

So, what did I do in writing music and performing “Oread?”  I repeat most of the lines at least twice, to emphasize the incantational aspect. Despite my recently expressed desire to re-explore artificial drum machine sounds, the percussion has lots of little instruments for a ceremonial air: shakers, maracas, cymbals, tambourine, even a chiming triangle. The main musical motif is a four-note synthesizer phrase that seems to be looping, but once again isn’t, as permutations occur throughout. The bass part rarely plays the same note as the synth motif, a musical effect that can be likened to “rubbing,” an apt metaphor for this sensuous poem.

To hear it, use the player below.

 

The Red Wheelbarrow

Obscurity in modernist poetry is a funny issue. What makes some writing hard to grasp, difficult to understand? Esoteric and little-known words like Wallace Stevens loved? Far-flung allusions to works in several languages like T. S. Eliot was prone to? Exploding normal written syntax and logical flow as Gertrude Stein did? Taking images into realms where direct one-to-one symbolic meaning is not only impossible, but more than likely, not the aim, as Tristan Tzara or Paul Éluard demonstrate? Presenting things “slant” in iconoclastic riddles as Emily Dickinson could? Writing works of epic length that few if any human minds can comprehend in their whole, like the Cantos of Ezra Pound?

And then there’s this poem, the basis of today’s piece, William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

The Red Wheelbarrow

The whole of it: 16 words, no punctuation, all lower-case

From empirical evidence you could say that it’s the very peak of the canon of modern American poetry. Remember that compiled count of the poems that appeared most often in poetry anthologies, most of which were explicitly focused on modern American poetry? “The Red Wheelbarrow”  is alone at the top of that list, included in over half of the anthologies counted.

Does that make it a “best loved poem”? Does it even assure that critics consider it great, much less the greatest? No, it does not. I think I first ran into it as a teenage student, in one of those anthologies used in some English literature class. Did my young teacher point it out as a poem of special merit? Did I view it as such? No. If I can trust my memory, if it was discussed at all, it was as if it was some kind of stunt, an intended provocation that so short and mundane a piece could be considered artful. “Now class, let’s get back to T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens.”

And how about critics? They largely part like the Red Sea on “The Red Wheelbarrow”.  If we look to one side, in among the mollusks and manta rays now behind the water curtain of the divided sea, we find those who care little for it. There’s nothing there demanding to be written about. No virtuosity is demonstrated to be noted and admired. And what important point is it making, other than, well, no point at all?

So, we turn to the other side, those swimming with bemused dolphins who wonder if they could leap across the band of Israelites walking on damp seabed, those critics hoping to demonstrate their microscopic perception of the hidden art in this terribly short and compressed poem. Carol Rumens is concise and representative of this when she says of Williams’ poem “This is his manifesto, surely–a poem quietly declaring how modern poetry works.” And she also warns “A naïve reading could take it as a comment about the great usefulness of wheelbarrows on small-holdings where chickens are kept.”

And then, here I am, now. No longer the teenage student who was sure someone had figured these things out, and I need only to find them. I can’t see far enough ahead where Moses and Aaron are, nor can I see far enough back how close Pharaoh and those charioteers are getting. I’ve got my hasty bread and a few grabbed things in my little cart, pushing it across the mud. I think I must be naïve. Yes, Williams is a modernist, as committed to the new way of writing as clearly as possible, a proclaimer of “No ideas except in things,” which means in retrograde, the things must be the ideas. If he had wanted to write a manifesto, he could, and did in the other poem that stated that dictum.

The obscurity in this poem is that there is no obscurity other than what we bring to it externally. There is no allusive, secret meaning, other than the secrets we’ve kept from ourselves, of our tools and our companion responsibilities.

Yes, there is art in these 16 words: the line breaks that ask us to hold our gaze, even in the middle of words, the “so much depends” warning that bids us look. The choice to look at just these simple common things, is a choice, is an idea. I think the dolphin side of the parted sea has smarter companions than the mollusks’ side; but I am looking down at my wheelbarrow, and Williams’ wheelbarrow, and saying naively, that it matters, even if I’m in the middle of the band, unable to see Pharaoh or Moses.

I’ve spent too long on the words again, but I feel I need to say a bit about the music I composed for my performance of “The Red Wheelbarrow.” I chose to use a twelve-tone row, a modernist musical idea from the same time as when Williams was writing the poem. It would be pretentious for me to say I got this from deep study of Schoenberg or Webern, though I’ve listened to a good deal of modernist music. However, “serialism” never stuck with me until I heard the prologue part of “This Town Is a Sealed Tuna Fish Sandwich” written by Frank Zappa. I’ve loved that piece from the first time I heard it.

Twelve-tone music subverts expectations of a tonal center or “important” scalar notes, so it can sound a little woozy or random, but, of course it has its pattern, by definition, which the mind’s ear can hear if you stop thinking in expectation of familiar patterns, which is the simple and profound thing it is asking you to do.

For those who’s blog readers can display it, you can click on the player to hear my performance of “The Red Wheelbarrow.”  No player visible? This highlighted hyperlink is another way to play it.

Millay’s Sonnet 43

Edna St. Vincent Millay was another poet who offered little to the “New Criticism” critics who largely set the canon for the 20th Century, even though her career, which covered the first half of the 20th Century, ran almost exactly through the same time as Eliot, Frost, Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens, and even though she achieved significant readership and a level of awards and accolades while living.

What was their problem with Edna St. Vincent Millay? Well her popularity would be a negative in some lights. In this regard, critics are often no different than the record store clerks of my own day, whose estimation of any indie band would inevitably drop as soon as they achieved a widely-played record. And there’s the “her” and “she” problem. The level of disbelief of the idea of a woman artist probably varied among these critics, but literature was still a very male world at that time and unconscious prejudices are a given. But even if we skip those two, frankly illegitimate, factors, there is the issue of Millay’s plainspokenness.

St Vincent

Annie Clark performs as “St. Vincent,” Edna St. Vincent Millay is on the right. Google carefully!
Clark has said the stage name came from a NYC hospital, but if that’s so, it’s a remarkable coincidence.

Odd isn’t that? This value that you might rate highly in friend was held as low regard by the New Critics, who likely thought it common and unremarkable. A Millay poem typically says exactly what it means, right out. There may be images, but they might not pass Imagist muster. They aren’t stark omens whose meaning is felt and then deciphered, they may be more like the illustrative images the Imagists wanted to leave behind. Millay’s all tell and too little show for them.

And Millay’s language often seems stuck in the 19th Century too. Some lyrical poets like Yeats and Frost adopted Modernist tropes and were able to make their rhymed and metrical poems sound more like contemporary speech. Millay sometimes seemed to be reading from a somewhat musty library book when composing her poems.

The most extended image in “Sonnet 43”  is a bare winter tree, which could be a borrowed image, or a homage, and I choose to manifest the later in this performance.

Can our modern (post-modern) age free up some respect for Edna St. Vincent Millay? I think so. With contemporary poets, we now sometimes value plainspokenness. And the cluster of things that Millay spoke plainly and honestly about include love, sex, and desire.

This sonnet was published in 1920, it’s nearing a century old. If we slide over some of the 19th Century “poetic diction” (something I found easy enough to do when performing this) it’s as honest and as nuanced report on the state of a heart as anything written then or now.

And if one must have ambiguities for art’s sake, honesty can contain that too. Some read this poem as bitter, or a lonely-hearts club statement, or as regret for a life that Millay’s time would’ve called promiscuous. That’s not how I understood it to perform it. I think the speaker is recalling an active love life they rather enjoyed. They reveal themselves (honestly) as something of a sensualist. As the Petrarchan sonnet wraps up its octet, the speaker allows a touch of regret about those lovers who turned to the speaker at midnight “with a cry.” What did the speaker offer them? I think the closing lines say some “summer,” a summer that “sang in me”—that is, that summer is not something the speaker intentionally gave or offered, and the speaker doubts that the muses of that summer offering will still speak through her. William Carlos Williams—unlike Millay, following all the Imagist rules—touches also on the caprices of summer and fulfilled desires in It Is a Small Plant,”  but some are more accustomed to a male author speaking ambiguously about the honest incursions and boundaries of desire.

Perhaps this poem benefits with some listeners in being heard performed in a male voice? I can’t say for sure on that.

Among the 20th Century admirers of Millay’s verse were my father (who grew up on the 19th Century Longfellow and the like, so Millay’s 19th Century diction was no bar) and a distant cousinoid of mine, the modern American theater pioneer Susan Glaspell.

I rather like the musical accompaniment for this one. I worked quite a bit on the drum part trying to bring out different colors, and for the bass I was able to supplement the electric bass with some bowed contra-bass, which is one one of my favorite sounds in the world. Ironically, Millay started out wanting to be a concert pianist, and the top line here is one of my naïve piano parts. To hear me perform Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Sonnet 43”  aka “What lips my lips have kissed…”  use the player below.

It Is a Small Plant

September 17th is the birthday of the American Modernist poet and physician William Carlos Williams, and today’s piece uses the words from one of his poems “It Is a Small Plant,”  the best known selection from a sequence of poems Williams called “The Flowers of August.”

William_Carlos_Williams_passport_photograph_1921

Just because you have have a passport doesn’t mean you have to move overseas.

 

Unlike some other American Modernists—including two poets he met and befriended while a student at the University of Pennsylvania, H.D. and Ezra Pound—Williams spent most of his formative writing years in the United States, much of it in his native state of New Jersey where he practiced as a pediatrician. Like his fellow stay-at-home Modernist Carl Sandburg, Williams wrote poems the followed the new Imagist rules, at least at the start, finding them useful in breaking away from the old poetic styles.

One of those Imagist rules, the first one in fact, was “direct treatment of the ‘thing.” That doesn’t mean that you just directly state the message from your heart. Rather, it means that you honor and hone the image(s) that represent your meaning as palpable thing, not as mere poetic decoration for your words. “It Is a Small Plant” demonstrates that by spending nearly the entire poem presenting a description of a flowering plant.

In the series “The Flowers of August,”  each of Williams’ other poems are titled with the name of a particular meadow or pasture flower, but not this one. So, I suspect this is meaningful. The description of the flower here sounds a bit to me like the common bluebell, but it’s possible that he diverged from botany in service of one of the poem’s images, or that the omission of the flower name in the title for this poem made a point for him.

The other, more important, mystery is who the “her” that is inspecting the flower with the poet is, the her who regards the subject flower as “a little plant without leaves.” At first. I wondered if it was perhaps a young girl looking at the flowers, but I now believe that it’s the “her” featured at the poem’s close: summer. If that’s so, that is the reason the flower has no name, as the human name doesn’t exist for nature and for nature’s incarnation as summer. And in the course of the poem, summer then too cannot care about the anthropomorphic desires presented in Williams’ presentation of the image of the flower.

Violet

Unlike William Blake, William Carlos Williams didn’t see Heaven in a wildflower,
but he did see nature observing himself observing the flower.

I’m not a quick understander of poetry. In working on this piece, I read Williams’ poem, enjoying some lines in themselves. The ostensible subject seemed to fit with the season and coincidentally with some other pieces I’m working on—but I wasn’t sure what it meant. In the course of fitting it with music, recording the vocal, and then tweaking and mixing the music, I lived with this poem for a good part of the last couple of days, reading or hearing the words over and over.

If I had been too concerned with its meaning, I might have stuck with my initial supposition, that it was child apprehending the flower. I was pre-disposed to that on first reading, having briefly re-meeting Margot Kreil earlier this week, a poet who wrote an excellent poem called “Weeds”  which featured just such an image. But I was more concerned with getting the drums right, playing the bass, setting up delay divisions for the guitar lines, and marshalling my limited keyboard skills for the soft keyboard parts, and then making that all fit together.

Through you don’t have to go through those composition and production steps, this points out again one of the things that music can do to change the context for words when it’s combined with them. While music can emphasize some mood or presentation of the words, in the same way that suspense music makes a film clip of a character walking down an unremarkable hallway scary, it can also offer its art as a distraction from worrying about meaning too soon with a poem.

To hear my performance of William Carlos Williams’ “It Is a Small Plant,”  use the player below.

 

 

Heat

Just after the start of the 20th Century two teenagers met at the University of Pennsylvania. One was 16 years old, a smart and cocky boy without much in the way of money, who had somehow managed admission to the University at such a young age.  The other was 15 and the only daughter of an astronomer and professor at the college. So devoted was the girl’s father to his astronomy, that it’s told that his wife needed to come by during the colder months with a kettle of hot water to unfreeze his eyelashes from the eyepiece of his telescope. This professor was the enlightened sort of early 20th century father who believed in women’s intellectual equality. He dreamed that his daughter would become another Marie Curie.

However, the two teenagers soon fell in with each other, and science was not in their bond. Poetry and the arts were. A year or so later, a new freshman arrived at the University to study medicine. That freshman was William Carlos Williams, and he would complete his studies and become a pediatrician and family doctor who practiced for decades in Patterson New Jersey while writing purely modern poetry. The boy and the girl fell in love, and were secretly engaged, knowing that the boy’s lack of money and established career would prevent the girl’s father from giving permission of them to marry.

Real Genius Jordon or HD
The 1985 movie “Real Genius” is a documentary of this meeting between two teenagers in college.

 

The girl grew up and was sent to Bryn Mawr, a woman’s college that was known for having a tough “men’s curriculum,” following her father’s hope that she would become a scientist. There she met Marianne Moore, who also became a noted modernist American poet, but at Bryn Mawr she failed in her studies. The American oracle Barbie would later proclaim: “Math is hard!” and a career in science was out.

But wait. What of that cocky boy? Oh no, he’s gone to England! And double oh no, he now engaged to another woman there. After all this, we can now begin our story again.

This now young woman who had already met and befriended William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore, went to England to meet back up with the young man she had fallen in love with as a teenager. The young man was Ezra Pound, and the young woman was Hilda Doolittle—but she wouldn’t be much longer.

Young Ezra Pound2HD

Sorry, “Real Genius” its really about how Tears for Fears was uncool, but now is kinda cool.
And here are the real and young Ezra and Hilda.

 

Pound was in England trying to stir up a poetic revolution, something that would forge past the reformation of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites and give poetry a fully modern cast. Hilda showed Ezra some of her new poems, and Ezra did three things that he would do repeatedly for other poets in the next couple of decades.

He immediately recognized that Hilda was writing the kind of fresh, spare, honest poetry that he thought necessary to break the grip of the past. He would see to it being published.

After admiring it, it took his pencil to it, and slashed out parts of the already concise poems. I can hear some of you drawing a breath on that, considering the sexual politics, ready to cry “Asshat!”—but that’s Pound, even with poets of genius: cut it, pare it down, make it new, not one extra word. A few years later he’d do the same thing to T.S. Eliot, and the surviving variorum manuscripts show why Eliot called Pound “The Better Maker” of The Wasteland.”   Pound’s editing pencil seemed to teach like the sensei’s stick, and once shown, poets like Hilda Doolittle and Eliot understood how to do the same thing themselves.

And then he took that editing pencil and signed Hilda’s poems “H.D. Imagisite.”

That last move was another part of Pound’s talents. He was probably more successful in launching other poet’s careers than he was his own. He had a shrewd promoter’s eye. “Imagiste” or “Imagist” was the name Pound would give to the modernist poetic movement that would during the years of WWI as radically reshape English poetry as the war would reshape the maps of the world, and here he was saying, rightly, that H.D.’s poems would be the ne plus ultra of that movement. As a name, H.D. was as pared down as the new poetry would be. If he’d lived long enough to see video screens with 1024 lines, he could have said calling them HD for “High Definition” was a tribute to his call for seeing things truly. And H.D. masked Hilda’s gender, still important in a world where women were widely thought to be incapable of great art. The former Hilda Doolittle didn’t object. She’d never liked the family name (“Do-Little” she thought it scanned) and besides, her sexual identity and friendship affinities were at least HD.

Let me admit that this post is unfair to H.D., the writer of the words of today’s piece. We’ve gone past my customary length limits and we’ve only barely touched on H.D.’s talents and extraordinary life. I’ll need to revisit her work soon and give H.D. her due.

What can I say about today’s piece “Heat?”  Well it’s an appropriate July poem, and the titular heat, in true Imagist fashion is both a closely observed thing: actual summer heat, and an image that, without simile or extra framing, is imbued with complexity. Last episode we had Pound/Li Bai, two men, showing desire and longing in the “River Merchant’s Wife”  with only a few actual named emotions or feelings. H.D., the better Imagist, shows female desire with not a single named emotion. The poem’s final phrase:

that presses up and blunts

the points of pears

and rounds the grapes.

is sensuous beyond words—it’s only 13 words to be beyond after all—and with four p and s sounds it holds four kisses.

To hear my performance of H.D.’s “Heat,”  use the player below. And thanks again for the likes and the social media shares!